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Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2006

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

1. What steps the Government are taking to promote best practice in the targeting of support to socially excluded people. (108604)

The social exclusion taskforce is working on identifying and promoting best practice in targeting support at socially excluded people. That will include developing a common rating system for high-quality evaluations and examining the case for a centre for excellence in children’s and family services. The Government will also be undertaking a review of how well services aimed at at-risk families are working together on the ground.

I know that the Minister is fully aware that there are no easy answers to tackling social exclusion and that we need to build up an evidence base of good practice to inform future policy. Will she assure me that such projects will be based in not only England, but Wales?

I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous throughout her career at trying to play her part in tackling social exclusion. She is absolutely right. To turn lives round, we have to use interventions that we know really work. We must make sure that programmes with a proven track record are adopted more widely. I am happy to assure her that Wales has been doing very well. The Welsh Government are seeking to roll out throughout Sure Start centres in Wales a parenting programme called the incredible years. That significant programme has been well tested and has very good outcomes. Indeed, Judy, who runs the programme, has been very helpful and an inspiration to me since I was appointed. The evidence gained from such programmes is crucial to drawing up social exclusion policy.

Does the Minister agree that among those who are most excluded in society are the elderly, disabled and parents of young families, who do not have a car and live in rural communities without access to many services? One in four or five families in rural areas have no access to a car. In such circumstances, has she used her influence to try to persuade her colleagues not to announce the closure of thousands of sub-post offices in those communities, which provide services to precisely those excluded groups?

The hon. Gentleman has worked extremely hard to cover as many subjects as possible. In the social exclusion taskforce, we are looking carefully at those who have been most excluded—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—and considering what we can do to support them as effectively as possible. We know that all too often even if a service exists, the most excluded do not access it properly. We want to tackle that too, which is why we are concentrating on early intervention.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that socially excluded people can also be financially excluded. I hope that she welcomes the report “Cash machines: meeting consumer needs”, which was produced this morning under my chairmanship. Some 600 free cash machines will be put in low-income areas. Will she ensure that we work with local authorities so that they can identify sites and free up the planning process to allow us to make inroads into the problem and ensure that socially excluded people become financially included?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under his chairmanship, the Treasury Committee has begun to examine much more closely how the way in which financial services work affects people who have not had the sort of access that they should have had. I am very pleased that he has examined that matter. I look forward to working with him to ensure that we can make financial services much more accessible. Indeed, as part of some projects, such as the new deal for communities, we have been considering how we can achieve that in imaginative and creative ways. My right hon. Friend’s work will help us with that.

Does the Minister agree that some of the most excluded people in our society are those who sleep rough on our streets? Sadly, the number of such people is on the rise again at the moment. Will she take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to many voluntary and charitable organisations, such as Shekinah Mission in Plymouth, that will open their doors this Christmas and provide much-needed warmth and support to a vulnerable and at-risk group?

Of course, those who sleep rough on our streets are among the most excluded. When I was Minister with responsibility for housing, I was responsible for reducing the number of people sleeping rough on our streets by more than two thirds, so I know that the Government are absolutely determined to get the most vulnerable people off the streets and inside. That will not cure all their problems, but it will mean that the Government and those who work with them, including many exceptionally good voluntary organisations, can begin to help those people to put their lives back together. Next year, the social exclusion taskforce will take a lead in pilots in which we will consider how we can more effectively help many people who end up with chaotic lifestyles that may well include rough sleeping.

Sex Education

2. What steps the social exclusion taskforce is taking to ensure that sex education addressing teenage pregnancy rates takes into account the emotional context. (108605)

Rates of teenage pregnancy have fallen in recent years, but across Government, we are working to bring them down further. As part of that effort, the Government’s recently published teenage pregnancy strategy sets out a strong focus on personal, social and health education. Good quality PSHE can make an important contribution to young people’s emotional development. Young people value sex education that is set in the context of discussions about relationships and the responsibilities involved, and that is what the Government aim to provide.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I am still concerned about the fact that if we are really to tackle the high levels of teenage pregnancy in this country, we can do so only by radically changing the way in which we teach children at school about sex. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that unless we teach them about the emotional side, and about self-esteem and self-confidence, at a much earlier stage than secondary education, nothing will have an impact on the country’s high levels of teenage pregnancy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that education should prepare young people for life, and that the emotional aspects of sex education are important. In addition to providing PSHE, we are putting an emphasis on sex and relationship education. A programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning, known as the SEAL programme, is already in place in one third of schools, and another third are expected to introduce it by mid-2007. All that is part of the effort to increase confidence and maturity, and to help to prepare young people for coping with making important decisions later in life.

Although I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), may I point out to the Minister that there will be no success on the subject unless parents are involved? Will he note that the only time that teenage pregnancies and abortion rates really fell was during the Victoria Gillick case? Hon. Members will remember that she tried to ensure that parents were informed if their under-age children were given either abortions or contraception. After all, parents have to give permission if a child is to have a tooth extracted, but not if he or she is to be provided with sexual education.

It is absolutely right to say that parental involvement and a parental role is important. It is important, both for parents and schools, that we have a full and frank discussion about the issues. We should discuss them openly and not try to sweep them under the carpet, and in that way, we can prepare young people for the important decisions that they have to make in life, and ensure that they delay making important decisions about pregnancy until they are fully equipped to do so.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on teenage pregnancy advice, but that advice is desperately needed for people with severe learning difficulties, too. Although some attempt has been made to address that target group, provision has been immensely limited. Will he extend that advice and support to carers of people with severe learning difficulties, who want to be better advised so that they can assist the person for whom they are caring?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it illustrates that if a strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy rates is to be successful, it has to involve a wide variety of people. Where it has been successful, it is because parents and the people involved in education, in local authorities and in local health care have all contributed to the strategy. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that when people work together, we can have an impact on the issue.

Funding Agreements

3. What estimate she has made of the proportion of funding agreements between central Government Departments and the voluntary sector which are based on full cost recovery. (108606)

4. What estimate she has made of the proportion of funding agreements between central Government Departments and the voluntary sector which are for three years or more. (108607)

Preliminary findings from the state of the sector panel survey for 2004-05 indicate that 57 per cent. of all public funding was awarded on the basis of full cost recovery, and 53 per cent. for three years or more. We recognise that we need to make further progress, so the pre-Budget report announced that a norm for the spending review would be three-year funding, and training for commissioners and standard contracts will further promote full cost recovery. Overall, central Government funding for the voluntary sector has increased by 96 per cent. in real terms since 1997.

Why is it then that seven out of 10 financial directors do not believe that they will achieve full cost recovery this year?

We have made progress on the issue, but we have further to go, as I said in my answer. If I may so, the difference between the Opposition and the Government is that they talk about it, but we have a plan to make it happen.

The Minister knows how important the issue is for voluntary organisations. He will know that in 2002, the Treasury recommended certainty for three-year funding, and the Chancellor has recently made a statement. Last year, however, the National Audit Office said that little progress had been made, so will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and tell the House what guarantee there is that voluntary organisations will have some certainty?

I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up for voluntary organisations in his constituency, but his party does not like targets. We think that the target is right, which is why the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report last week is important. My right hon. Friend said that the norm for the spending review is three-year funding, and I might add that such funding was not even dreamt of when the previous Government were in office. The Government introduced three-year funding for central Government, and it is soon to be introduced for local government and for the voluntary sector as well.