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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21 January 2009.

3 pm

Prayers—read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Learning Disability: Bullying


Asked By Lord Morris of Manchester

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, we are currently working with Mencap and other disability groups to look at ways in which we can tackle more effectively the bullying of children with special educational needs and disabilities. In May 2008, we produced guidance for schools on tackling bullying involving children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s manifestly genuine concern. Is she, however, aware that Mencap has seen no reason to revise its findings on the prevalence of this appalling scourge? Is not bullying and brutality against such vulnerable disabled children on this scale deeply shaming both of its perpetrators and of the educational environments in which it thrives; and will she now ask Ofsted urgently to undertake a full review of its incidence, school by school, and name those still in default even of their legal duty to publish a disability equality scheme?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. He has decades of experience of raising awareness of disability concerns, and this issue in particular. I reassure him that we take this matter extremely seriously and appreciate that Mencap does not feel ready to revise its findings. We will work with Mencap and others, and, as my noble friend suggested, are already talking to Ofsted about the potential to extend its review of SEN, which was committed to in the Children’s Plan, to include precisely this issue.

Lord Rix: My Lords, as president of Mencap, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for asking that Question—entirely unsolicited, I assure the House. When do the Government plan to publish their proposals for a duty on schools to record incidents of bullying?

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, because of the noble Lord’s intimate involvement with Mencap over many years and his personal knowledge of this subject, I take his concerns very seriously. In September 2008, we made a commitment to put a statutory duty on schools to record incidents of bullying. Of course, the noble Lord is suggesting that the records of those incidents should reflect the cause. We will consult very shortly on the nature of that guideline and, in particular, will consult organisations such as Mencap and other members of the disability lobby.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, does the Minister now accept that the wholesale closure of SEN schools was wrong and that young people needing specialist support have been failed by the Government? Will she now call for a moratorium on further closures of SEN schools?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s analysis. I have taken the trouble to look at the closure of these special schools. Such closures are a matter for local consideration, and the interests of children in a locality must be taken into account. Therefore, I am afraid that the answer must clearly be no.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, reports from young offender institutions indicate that young people in prison with a physical or mental disability suffer considerably greater degrees of bullying than other young people. What training is given to prison officers in regard to levels of bullying, in managing the behaviour of both the perpetrators and the victims, and in how they can best support disabled young prisoners?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, as I said last week, when we were discussing the training of staff in the juvenile secure estate, the Government are overhauling that training and, of course, the management of behaviour. Looking at how incidents involving bullying can be defused is all part of that issue. The noble Baroness raises a very important concern.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that bullying is also a cause of large numbers of Gypsy and Traveller children dropping out of secondary school? Will she ensure that that too receives attention?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I shall certainly ask my officials to look into the data that we have. I shall come back to my noble friend or discuss this with her further. I am sure my noble friend shares my concern that all children should be able to learn in an environment where they are free from any form of bullying, whatever the strange rationale for it might be.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, the Mencap figures are indeed horrendous. It sounds as though the Government are now pursuing a positive policy of encouraging all children to offer help and support rather than indulge in bullying. Can the Minister reassure us that that really is happening across schools and that there are very good examples, such as that provided by the Nurture Group Network, of schemes encouraging pupils, from nursery onwards?

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, from our experience with London Challenge, we know that it has been possible, through intensive work with schools, to transform performance. I can reassure the noble Baroness that we shall be working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance and national challenges to ensure that the guidance that we have produced on bullying in relation to SEN and disability is embedded locally. Part of that is ensuring that schools understand where good practice works.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords—

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I think we should hear the noble Baroness.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, can the Minister give me an assurance that when the equality Bill is published later this year, it will guarantee the retention of the specific duty on schools to produce disability equality schemes to reduce bullying?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I must be clear: we are absolutely committed to the disability equality scheme in schools and to ensuring that that is a really good device for embedding change in schools. My honourable friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry will shortly be writing to schools to remind them of their responsibilities under the equality scheme. That is an indication of exactly how committed we are to ensuring that the scheme works in schools.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, what is being done to improve access to speech and language therapists? Many of these children have difficulty expressing the fact that they have been bullied or are bullied because they cannot communicate easily.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, recently there has been a review of access to speech and language services. There is enormous concern about a whole range of disadvantage, whether it be the bullying of disabled children or of Gypsy and Traveller children. We are committed to tackling every strand of that.



3.08 pm

Asked By Lord Roberts of Conwy

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, in the quarter to November 2008, 1,923,000 people were ILO unemployed. In December 2008, 1,157,200 people were claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

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Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, we would all agree that those are quite alarming figures. As I understand it, they are likely to increase. What steps are the Government taking to reduce those numbers and when will we be in a position to see whether those measures are working? In parenthesis, I listened to the Prime Minister at Question Time this morning. Although he showed a proper degree of regard for the welfare of the unemployed, he had very little, if anything, to say about actual measures to reduce the numbers of unemployed.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am rather surprised at the nature of that supplementary question. Of course, these figures are disappointing and, of course, the Government take them very seriously. We know there has been an intensification of the global financial crisis—the latest data, in particular from the US, demonstrate that—which impacts on economies around the world, including in the UK, but as a Government we have a choice; to do nothing, sit back, wring our hands and wait for the market to address it, or to be active. That is what we have been. I take noble Lords back through October in terms of what we have done in banking recapitalisations, support for the banking industry, the DIUS redundancy support package, the extra support for small firms, the Pre-Budget Report and the fiscal stimulus, the homeowner mortgage support scheme, changes to the credit guarantee scheme, new apprentices, the job summit announcement and more. We have active labour market policies.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, may have heard what the Prime Minister said at Question Time today, but that he clearly did not understand it? The Prime Minister contrasted the measures that the Government have put in place to tackle unemployment with an Opposition who so far have said no to almost everything.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. We are faced with an Opposition who are basically a do-nothing Government on this issue. Let us contrast it with the historical position. The employment level at its worst in 1992-93 under the noble Lord’s Government was 25 million; it is now 4 million higher, despite recent reductions. The unemployment level at that time was more than 3 million, and we are now 1.1 million below that. Our record is strong, but there is much still to do.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, if we could just break away for a moment from yah-boo politics—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, do the Government realise that Britain is already in deep recession? Deflation has arrived, with retail prices falling by 2.5 per cent over the past three months. After these dire unemployment figures, when are the Government going to do something to get money into the pockets of people who really need it, and who will spend it, starting with a good rise in the basic state pension?

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we have already announced the increase in the basic state pension for next year using the mechanism of the Christmas bonus effectively to accelerate its payment. In relation to the banking sector, we started by recapitalising it to make sure it had a strong capital base, and other measures have flowed since, in particular those announced on 19 January, to try to get liquidity flowing through the banks. It is important that we do that. Noble Lords on this side, my noble friend Lord Myners in particular, have been heavily engaged in doing just that.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, not in a spirit of yah-boo politics, may I gently remind the noble Lord opposite that in the 1980s the figures were frequently three times what they are now? For Wales, where the noble Lord was a distinguished Minister, the figure was not 60,000 as now, but frequently well in excess of 150,000. I cannot recall any Minister today saying that unemployment is a price well worth paying.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s input on those statistics. The final point he made is right. We believe in proactive labour-market policies. We are going to come through this difficult time at some stage, and when we do, we need to make sure that people are in a position to be able to take advantage of the upturn when it can be achieved. That is the clear difference between the approach we are now taking and the approach the previous Government took.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, the Minister said that the trouble with the Opposition is that they would do nothing and the Government would do something. When is the “do something” going to have an effect? Last October, they gave £38 billion to the banks; this week they have given £500 billion to the banks. When is that £538 billion likely to lead to a reduction in unemployment? Will it be this year? Are the Government really facing up to the reality? I remind the Minister that George Orwell said that the trouble with all left-wing politicians is that they cannot tell the truth about the immediate future.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government are not in the business of projecting rates of unemployment for any time in the future. I outlined a progressive series of measures, but, of course, they will take some time to come through into the system. As I said earlier, what has happened in the past two months has been an intensification of the global financial crisis. Some data coming out of the US are frightening. The measures that we have adopted are the right ones, but they will take time to work through the system.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, has the Minister’s department made any estimate of what the impact would be on levels of unemployment if substantial cuts were made in public expenditure?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, not directly because we hope that we will never have to face that situation. However, that is something that the department would have to deal with should there be a change of Government. That would be frightening, because

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contemplating reductions in public expenditure at the current time would be going in exactly the wrong direction. We have been pulling forward capital expenditure, and accelerating capital projects, to help stem the rise in unemployment and to increase employment.

Children: Fostering

Question 3

3.16 pm

Asked By The Earl of Listowel

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, we welcome and support BAAF’s campaign and will be providing a further grant of £123,000 for a two-year follow-up programme of awareness-raising activity on the obligation to notify local authorities of private fostering arrangements. We are also working to promote good practice and have established an advisory group to advise on this work and to assess the effectiveness of the current notification scheme and options for strengthening it.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful and encouraging reply, and applaud the Government for investing in this campaign. While most children consulted about their experience of private foster care say they enjoy the experience, some do not. Does the Minister recall the experience of Victoria Climbié, who was in a private foster care arrangement, and whose carer tortured and then killed her? Will the Minister say what members of the public should do if they are concerned that a child may be in a private foster arrangement that is undeclared? How should they act, and why should they act?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, we all remember the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, whose experience has been brought into sharp focus in recent times. That is why the Government believe that safeguarding children is one of our highest priorities. It is also why we also believe that helping children to stay safe is the responsibility of all of us. I would advise anyone who has a concern about the safety of a child, whether or not they may be privately fostered, to contact their local authority and, in the case of private fostering, to make sure that they report their concerns to the private fostering unit.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, the Minister says that she is very concerned about children in private arrangements, but will she tell the House why those on the government Benches are ignoring the private fostering registration scheme being recommended by this side of the House?

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, we are not ignoring the idea, which has been carefully scrutinised in debates on a couple of Bills. There is now a consensus on the need to let the current system bed in, and then review it. That is why we are working with BAAF to raise awareness of the need for private fostering arrangements to be legal, and why BAAF itself has supported the need to carefully review the current system. It shares our reservations about the introduction of a registration scheme at this point.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, is it not the case that some privately fostered children are trafficked? How can these children be protected?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an extremely important concern. The Government are very concerned about human trafficking. On 17 December, we ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. As part of that wider strategy we set out a UK action plan on tackling human trafficking which specifically involves additional measures designed to safeguard the child victims of trafficking. We are working with others to ensure that we can make the most of the opportunity that the visa process represents to protect these children.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I am sure that we all agree that the interest of the child is paramount. However, if we are encouraging neighbours and the general public to inform on people who may be fostering a child, how will we prevent intrusion into family life and offence caused to, say, grandparents who may have taken over care of their grandchildren for a short while? What penalties will be put in place if those grandparents do not declare the fostering arrangement?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the noble Baroness’s question gives me an opportunity to talk about the work being done to raise awareness among ethnic minority communities, such as west African communities, that have a particular history of private fostering. It is important to build trust and to help these communities to understand that notifying the local authority is about protecting the interests of the child and they need not feel fearful about it. It is part of the work that we are doing, and will continue to do, to raise awareness of the need legally to notify the local authority.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, will the Minister update the House on the Government’s plans to recruit and train an adequate number of social workers so that these arrangements can be properly monitored?

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