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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 24 May 2007

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Looked-after Children

The “Care Matters” Green Paper set out for consultation a proposed package of reforms to transform the lives of children in care. Following a comprehensive consultation process, my Department published a summary of the responses that we received on 17 April. Those documents are available on the Government's “Every Child Matters” website. The Government will set out their firm proposals for transforming services for children in care in a White Paper this summer.

The Green Paper proposes the appointment of a body of specialist foster carers for children with complex needs. Given that there is a national shortage of approximately 10,000 foster carers, what resources does the Secretary of State propose to make available for the recruitment, training and retention of those specialist carers?

As was pointed out by Martin Narey, chair of Barnardo’s, the issue of children in care is—curiously for a political issue—not about resources. Plenty of resources are going in—the problem is that children slip into care too quickly, are moved around too often and are pushed out too early at the age of 16. If we include the proposals that were in our consultation document in the White Paper and subsequently in legislation, we shall need to make more resources available. We recognise that if we are to have a more professional, better-trained body of foster carers, additional resources will be needed.

I am a former chair of a local authority scrutiny panel that produced a report on the services available to young people in care. We found that co-opting young people in the care system was useful. What opportunities are there for young people who are currently in care to contribute to the direction and shaping of policy?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about how we can involve children who are in care, as well as children who have been in care. Twenty-seven per cent. of the prison population were in care as children. As part of our consultation exercise, we have spoken to those people. I think it essential for the final proposals to be drawn up on the basis of the widest possible consultation not just with the public, but with children in care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) mentioned the chronic shortage of foster carers. Will the Secretary of State study kinship care programmes, such as the one run by Hampshire county council, to try to find ways of increasing the number of people who will offer loving homes to children in this position?

That is precisely the sort of scheme that we want to examine. The Hampshire scheme provides a very good service, and there are other schemes around the country whose services are excellent. We should learn from them and ensure that such services are spread more widely. We are taking a comprehensive, root-and-branch look at how we can transform the life chances of children in care, and we are obliged to take account of the very best practice.

The Secretary of State may be aware that the level of care provided by some companies, such as Green Corns in my constituency, have given cause for concern. What steps will he take to ensure that young people in care receive the level of care to which they are entitled?

I do not think we would have been able to embark on this stage of such a radical transformation for children in care without “Every Child Matters”. That was the essential building block, and it is working very well in every part of the country. Local authorities, social services departments and others have done a tremendous job. We are not 100 per cent. there yet, but “Every Child Matters” is the foundation stone when it comes to tackling the problems that the hon. Gentleman has described.

Graduate Debt

2. What the most recent figure is for the average level of graduate debt on leaving university. (138953)

For students graduating in 2005, the average post-graduate repayment is estimated to be just under £8,000. Under the new system of student support introduced this year there are no up-front fees, and loans are repaid only when the graduate is in employment and earning at least £15,000 a year. We have restored non-repayable grants and introduced new bursaries paid by universities. Under that fairer and more progressive system of student financial support, applications for next year are up by 6 per cent.

Last summer, the Secretary of State told the Education and Skills Committee that the 2009 review of the tuition fees policy

“could lead to us abandoning this policy altogether.”

Can the Minister confirm that the impact of graduate debt will be a major factor in the review? If it is found to be damaging, might the Department reject the policy altogether?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is essential that we undertake the review. Our position on the issue has been consistent from the beginning and we will not pre-empt that review. We have to see the first full three years of operation. However, we need some consistency on the issue from all politicians from all political parties. The Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland have been supporting a system of postgraduate repayment that is no different in principle whatever from the system that we have in England.

Given the high level of student debt and the stiff competition for graduate jobs, what are the Government doing to promote and encourage modern apprenticeships as an alternative career path for young people?

The Government have tripled apprenticeships in the past 10 years, in stark contrast to the position in the 1980s and early 1990s, when apprenticeships almost disappeared. We are talking up apprenticeships and increasing the numbers, not talking them down, as Opposition Front Benchers consistently do.

The university admissions body, speaking of debt, reports a large increase in suspected student loan fraud. There were 1,500 cases in 2006 and a BBC investigation uncovered fraud involving 200 stolen birth certificates, resulting in the loss of an estimated £1.2 million. The Minister knows that he has failed to respond to my call for a full investigation. I know that he is busy and that he has an excuse—he is calculating the deadweight cost of the train-to-gain scheme; working out how many apprenticeships do not have any workplace element, and making up excuses in case diplomas go horribly wrong. However, it should not be up to the media to investigate such systematic criminal activity. Will he bring to the House details of his internal inquiry, for there must have been one? How much does he expect fraud to be reduced as a result of tighter new rules? I cannot keep making excuses for him.

We have undertaken an internal inquiry. The estimate is that the level of fraud is 0.6 per cent. of the total. That level is unacceptable, but it is significantly better than in other areas of the benefit system. We have also tightened up the system. If the hon. Gentleman wants to give the impression that he is opposed to the current system of student financing and the system of postgraduate repayment, he may want to talk to his colleague, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who said recently:

“We have junked the old Tory opposition to the variable fee. We have jettisoned our sour mealy mouthed and intellectually incoherent programme for government.”

I do not think that that message has quite been translated across the Opposition Front Bench yet.

Child Asylum Seekers

3. If he will take steps to ensure that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are eligible for free state education until they reach 18 years of age. (138954)

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and there are 3,000 of them most years, will not complete their full-time education if the Home Office reduces their discretionary leave from 18 to 17½ before they are deported. What will happen with their exams if they are pushed out six months early?

As I am sure you will understand, Mr. Speaker, I cannot answer questions on behalf of the Home Office on immigration policy, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing all that we can to support those children within the education system. That means, as I said earlier, ensuring that they have free entitlement throughout their time in schooling, up to the age of 18, including Learning and Skills Council-funded courses at levels 2 and 3, as would be the case for any other child in this country.

The Secretary of State referred to the “Every Child Matters” programme in connection with looked-after children. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his excellent campaign? This is a very large category of looked-after children, yet it seems to be dealt with by the Home Office. What assurances can the Minister give the House that that category of looked-after children are having the best possible outcomes, along with every other looked-after child and, indeed, every other child in this country?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point about the attainment of that group of looked-after children. While 56 per cent. of children typically manage to attain five good GCSEs, as she will be aware, that figure is about 11 per cent. for looked-after children and just 4 per cent. for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, so there is more that we can do, and we are determined to do that. There is the ethnic minority achievement grant, for example, which is worth £178 million and will be targeted particularly at bilingual children. There are things that can be done at local level, too. Devon county council, in which the constituency of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is located, is producing local literature targeting support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Department for Education and Skills has provided guidance. We are also working closely with the Home Office to look at the interface between the unaccompanied asylum seekers grant and the care leavers grant. Work is ongoing between us and the Home Office.

“Youth Matters”

4. How the Government plan to improve the participation of young people in decisions about local facilities following the Green Paper “Youth Matters”. (138955)

Legislation introduced in section 6 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 places new responsibilities on local authorities to secure young people’s access to positive activities. The legislation also requires that, in securing access to positive activities, local authorities involve young people in local decisions about what those activities should be. In addition, extra resources of £115 million have been made available through the youth opportunity and youth capital funds, and it is a condition that those funds are spent directly by young people on schemes run for young people.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. Does she share my admiration for the fact that Lancashire county council meets on a quarterly basis with the youth council to discuss all issues of policy relating to young people in the county? Is that something that she would like to see replicated in other parts of the country—and, indeed, nationally?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her general support for schemes for young people and their participation in them. A number of local authorities are establishing youth councils, as well as young mayors and youth cabinets, which is certainly one important way to involve young people in learning about the democratic process and decision making—and the limits on it—while also acquiring valuable and important experience around team work, co-operation, reliability and representation. Although this is not the only way of doing that, it is an important way, and I would certainly like local authorities to consider doing it more.

Is not the best way of improving the participation of young people in decisions about local facilities to encourage them to vote in and stand for local elections? Will she therefore commend Phil North in my constituency who, at the age of 21, stood for Test Valley borough council, defeated the leader of the Liberal Democrat group and is now ensuring that there is a strong voice for young people in the council chamber?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be great to see more young people of that age as proper representatives in our local democracies. I am sure that, whatever party they represent, they will provide a strong voice for young people.

The hardest to reach young people are not involved in youth or other formal organisations, but they are the very young people who we need to involve. We need to encourage them off the streets and into more positive activities. I am very concerned that they will not reap the full benefit of the youth opportunity funds, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that when she is assessing projects in Greater Manchester, she will take any action necessary to ensure that the funds are used in the way that they were intended to be used?

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great interest in these issues in her local area. I made it a condition on both the youth opportunity and capital funds that local authorities should work very hard to seek out the most disadvantaged young people, who can gain so much from the sort of positive activities that those funds will stimulate as well as from the process of decision making. We are just about to collate the data on the first year of operation of both those funds and I have asked for evidence of the extent to which disadvantaged children and young people have been involved. I will look at that very closely and will be happy to share the data with my hon. Friend.

What discussions have the Minister and the Department had with the Department for Communities and Local Government about the Sustainable Communities Bill, supported by the Government, which will ensure that young people have a much greater say not only on facilities provided for them, but on all the services provided at the local level?

The whole question of sustainability and the role of local authorities in promoting it opens up, for me, yet another set of opportunities for children and young people that we are only just beginning to realise and appreciate. It is the question of the importance of place, green spaces and opportunities created around those developments for young people. We need to explore them much more fully and my officials are talking to officials in the DCLG precisely to that end. I welcome the point that the hon. Lady has made. It is important and we should look further into it.

This is an interesting question. Will the Minister tell the House what sort of facilities young people would like to see made available to them in the local authority areas in which they live? Her response should be interesting; I hope that it will be. Will she also tell us whether the provision of such facilities will attract any central Government financial resource?

What I do not want to do is speak for young people, because adults tend to do that too often. I want local authorities and their local partners to have not just a one-off dialogue with young people about these funds, but an ongoing dialogue to enable them really to explore the local issues and find out what young people want in their area. The projects that have already sought and secured funds from the two pots of money that we have given out have been many and varied. They have ranged from young people setting up their own voluntarily run youth centre to getting experience in hairdressing and beauty—those are examples from the Burnley projects that we have funded. There has also been a great deal of interest in media opportunities, art and animation. I urge any Member to go to their local area, ask about these projects and visit some of them. They will see the huge variety of things going on and the difference that they are making to many young people.

City Academies

5. When he next expects to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss the city academy programme. (138957)

I have no immediate plans to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss academies. However, I am aware of the two academy projects under development in Norfolk. The schools commissioner has recently visited Norfolk and Suffolk to discuss secondary education provision in those areas.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Park high school in my constituency is now planning to relocate to a new site as a city academy? That move has the overwhelming support of the community, the governors and the teachers. The mood is very optimistic, particularly as the Royal Society of Arts has now come forward as a potential sponsor. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the proposal his full support? Will he also make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government are as committed as ever to the city academy programme in spite of some of the cautious comments that have been made by some of his colleagues over the past few weeks?

We are as committed as ever to the city academy programme. I would like to help the Conservatives, while they are transforming their education policy to match ours, by explaining that the ambition to build more academies has to be matched by funding. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will give great consideration to the school in his area. Establishing 400 academies—one in every area of deprivation in the country—will also require funding. The problem with the Conservatives is that they will not be able to match that funding with their third fiscal rule and their commitment to tax cuts. The best way for the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he gets his academy is to keep Labour in government. Conservative Members have been trying hard to do that over the past couple of weeks, and we are very grateful to them.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that 90 per cent. of the academies and specialist schools in East Anglia are members of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust? The Education and Skills Committee took evidence yesterday from Sir Cyril Taylor, and what he and the trust are asking for is a full, healthy discussion about what we are doing in secondary education—not just in academies but in grammar schools. We are also grateful to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for starting a very good discussion about the future of existing and intended grammar schools.

My hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to this area. The evidence submitted by Sir Cyril Taylor to yesterday’s hearing was interesting, because he identified a need for academies to co-operate and co-ordinate their activities with other schools in their area. That was the one element of criticism in the National Audit Office report last year. Of course, academies have to take these things a step at a time. Sir Cyril also mentioned the importance of the 164 existing grammar schools forging links with failing schools nearby and making a contribution to lifting standards of education in the entire community. That is an important contribution to the debate.

The provision of books to the academies is important in the delivery of education, but does the Minister accept that the role played by grammar schools in East Anglia and across the UK is important in providing choice and good education opportunities? The party to my right has now embraced the Government’s policy on city academies—doing a not-so-elegant somersault on grammar schools and using rhetoric with which the Sinn Fein Minister in Northern Ireland would be quite pleased—but will the Minister assure us that he will not use that change of heart as a smokescreen for launching further attacks on grammar schools?

The Conservatives are indeed a party to the hon. Gentleman’s right; that was an accurate description. During the 10 years that we have been in government, we have given the assurance that we have no plans to get rid of any of the 164 grammar schools. We will not allow any new academic selection, and our admissions code made that absolutely clear. We have put in arrangements for parental ballots if local communities feel that they ought to move to a non-selective system. That is the way to ensure that local communities are happy with their education system and that we make progress in the 21st century. I do not believe that that involves the extension of grammar schools.

Will the Secretary of State not only do everything that he can to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has his city academy, but will he invite the Leader of the Opposition to open it?

It depends on how the Leader of the Opposition takes this forward now. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has made his mark and passages from his interesting speech resonated from “The Future of Socialism” by Tony Crosland in the 1950s. However, with all the knives out behind him, I am worried that he will not manage to make progress. If he does, he will be the Leader—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] He might be the Leader of the Opposition. If he does, he will be the shadow Secretary of State for Education for a long time to come. I very much hope that that will involve him in helping us to open 400 new city academies.

Of course we strongly support existing grammar schools and it is an excellent idea that they should co-operate more with schools that should benefit from their academic expertise. The Secretary of State is right; we have been focusing on how, in East Anglia and across the country, we can use education to improve social mobility in the large parts of the country where grammar schools do not exist. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is rightly concerned because last week, for the first time, the Secretary of State said that there would be “a limit” on the number of academies. The very same week, the BBC reported that the Prime Minister said:

“In a few years time when all schools will be academies, we’ll see a transformed education system.”

So why is it that when the Prime Minister is leaving office, the Secretary of State is taking his foot off the accelerator and going cool on academies, when we on this side strongly support academies and do not see why there should be any limit on their number?

We are hardly taking our foot off the accelerator. There are 47 academies now. We have a manifesto commitment to have 200 academies by 2010 and we have just announced that we are to go on to build 400 academies. [Hon. Members: “Higher, higher.”] I will come to that in a second. Given that the specific intention of academies is to build them predominantly in areas where education has failed generations of children—in areas of deprivation—400 fits that bill. When we get to 400—it will take many years of a Labour Government with the right finance to get there—obviously we can look at where we can go further.

The hon. Member for Havant raised this important issue of social exclusion in a thoughtful speech and mentioned it in his question. He said that

“academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

That is absolutely our view, but I have to tell him that it is not the view of his colleagues and it is not the view of the leader of his party. Here is what the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said specifically in response—

Order. I call Rob Wilson. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a supplementary; I saw him standing.

I will ask a supplementary, which, as the question is about East Anglia, had better be about East Anglia. When the Secretary of State finally gets around to meeting the local authorities in East Anglia, will he explain to them in great detail why he has put the limit at 400? I simply do not believe that it is a question of funding. The Secretary of State has been so committed to the academy programme from the very start. Will he please explain to those local authorities and mine why we cannot have more academies?

Let me repeat: we have 47 academies. In 18 years of Tory rule the Conservatives managed to establish only 15 city technology colleges. That was a good idea, but the Tories could not match it with the funding—a pathetic performance. We now have 47 academies; we will have 200 by 2010, and we have announced that we will move to having 400. It is not our intention that every school should be an academy. Academies are an important part of local education provision, but there are many splendid schools that have turned things around. Stockwell park high school is not far from here; 70 per cent. of its children are on free school meals and more than 50 per cent. speak languages other than English. When we came into government, 11 per cent. of its children got five good GCSEs; it has now achieved a rise to 57 per cent. with a 41 per cent. pass rate in English and maths and 85 per cent. in science. Therefore, not every school needs to be an academy. Academies are needed in places where education has traditionally failed and where there is an input of children from deprived areas. They act as bastions around cities and have the effect of lifting education throughout the area. An announcement that we will go 200 beyond our manifesto commitment is hardly taking our foot off the accelerator.

Universities (Key Subjects)

6. What recent steps the Government have taken to ensure the maintenance of capacity in key subjects following the closure of departments in universities; and if he will make a statement. (138958)

We are allocating an extra £25 million a year through the Higher Education Funding Council for England to maintain capacity in key subjects, but the best long-term way of achieving that is to raise and stimulate demand and we are making genuine progress on that. The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application figures show increases of more than 10 per cent. in many strategically important subjects, and last week I announced that we will launch a national campaign to promote careers in science and other key subjects to young people, parents and teachers.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but is not the real problem that children are not being enthused to study these subjects? What is he doing to ensure that children throughout the country—especially those in the maintained sector—are being encouraged to study languages and sciences at school in sufficient numbers to make university departments viable?

With regard to modern foreign languages, the most important change that we can make is the commitment that we have made to roll out a modern foreign language in every primary school by the end of the decade; that can transform the situation. With regard to science subjects, we are making changes to the science curriculum to make it more stimulating and engaging. We are introducing a statutory entitlement to a course of study leading to two science GCSEs and we are making triple science more accessible and available from 2008. Backed up by the significant investment that this Government have introduced, we have a way forward on this issue.

While I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the Government’s current plans, is it not time to introduce a high degree of central planning in the provision of university courses so that we make sure that we have sufficient engineers and scientists in particular for our long-term economic needs and we do not leave things to the vagaries of short-term market forces?

The key is not the number of science departments but the number of science students, and the fact is that we have 130,000 more science students today than we had 10 years ago. I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I think it would be wrong for central Government to dictate what subjects are taught in which universities. That would run counter to the policy of allowing universities to play to their strengths, which has led to us having one of the best higher education systems in the world. However, we do not stand back. We have invested an extra £25 million to promote the strategic subjects, and we expect institutions to work with the funding council when considering a closure to ensure that the numbers are rolled out elsewhere regionally and there is not a drop in capacity. As I have said, we are doing an immense amount to stimulate demand from students, which is the key to this issue.

The closure of university science departments is likely to have an impact on the recruitment of science graduates for teaching. With that in mind, how are the Government progressing in meeting the Chancellor’s pledge in last year’s Budget to recruit an additional 3,000 new science graduates for teaching?

As I said earlier, applications for science subjects next year are up by more than 10 per cent. That demonstrates that we are fulfilling that demand. Driven by the extra support—including bursaries and golden hellos—delivered by the Government, we have seen a 30 per cent. increase in applicants for teacher training in science subjects over the past 10 years. We are genuinely making real progress on the issue and I wish that, just for once, the Liberal Democrats would recognise that fact.

But one in three physics departments at universities have closed or merged in the last five years. Is not one of Britain’s greatest post-war scientists, Sir Harry Kroto, the winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996, right when he says that he holds the vice-chancellors responsible, in that they bleat about freedom but divert money earmarked for the sciences into soft courses, thereby eliminating science departments in favour of trendy cheap courses that train students for non-existent jobs. Is he not right?

I respect my hon. Friend’s views on many issues, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this point. The key to the issue is the number of science places and we have increased the number of places for physics—the issue he raises—in the past 10 years and applications are going up. If he honestly believes that sitting in Whitehall dictating to university departments what subjects and areas they should teach is the way forward, I do not agree.

Surely the problem has to be attacked at both ends. It is strange that media studies are so popular, while science and language courses are removed from universities. The Minister is right that we need to enthuse youngsters to study science and languages. Last Friday, I visited the excellent Clitheroe royal grammar school in my constituency and saw the new language block that has just been completed. I do not care who opens it—the Secretary of State, who would be delighted to do so, or the shadow Secretary of State—[Interruption.]—but it will open in September. Even better, the school will open the facility to the community so that members of the public can learn foreign languages.

I think that every hon. Member will have heard the implicit rebuke of the Leader of the Opposition’s position on grammar schools. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do more to set out the opportunities that exist when young people engage in science subjects. We need to get across much more clearly the substantial additional graduate earnings premium that goes with undertaking the study of science. The really radical change in the study of modern languages that we are making is ensuring that by 2010 every child in every primary school can study a modern language.

I agree with much of what the Minister says about not dictating to universities, but does he agree that a fundamental problem is that the league tables posit a false equivalence between crunchy subjects, such as maths, physics, chemistry and modern languages, and other subjects in which it may be easier to get an A, with the result that the former are increasingly ghettoised in the independent sector? The result is that at Bristol university, some 48 per cent. of students doing modern languages are from the independent sector. Is it not time for the Minister to join us and stimulate the uptake of those subjects in all schools, boost applications to universities and help to keep university departments open by giving core academic subjects proper weighting in the league tables?

It is the hon. Gentleman catching up with us, rather than the other way round. The change that we are making in the league table to demonstrate the proportion of youngsters taking a GCSE in a science subject will be a significant step in the right direction. However, an area in which we agree is that the problem is fundamentally about stimulating student demand. The changes that we are making to the curriculum, the guarantee of two science GCSEs, the increased accessibility to triple science and the 250 after-school science clubs that we are rolling out are all part of the way forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in taking that programme forward.

Extended Schools

Since 2003, the Government have invested £840 million to support the development of extended schools. The Government are determined to sustain that investment to enable all children to access extended services. More funding will be available over the next spending period, including an additional £217 million in 2010-11, to enable the most disadvantaged children and young people to access at least two hours a week of free after-school activities and activities during the school holidays.

Extended schools can be of genuine benefit to children, parents and communities, but is it not true that the implied offer of wrap-around services, before and after school, with a range of activities, cannot be provided in schools such as those in my constituency for £10 per pupil per year? Some 1,000-pupil secondaries with very high levels of deprivation have received a derisory £6,000 for the whole year to provide extended school services. Will my hon. Friend investigate the way in which local authorities top-slice the Government grant for extended schools, and will he look again at how we fund extended schools in deprived areas that cannot sustain a charging policy so that they can provide a meaningful extended schools offer?

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for extended schools and her acknowledgement of their effectiveness. She has been assiduous in her representations to the Minister for Children and Families and myself on the ability of children from deprived backgrounds to access extended services. We take seriously what she said about top-slicing, and it is something that we are happy to investigate. Of the nearly £180 million made available to local authorities in the last financial year, Westminster received £545,000, which includes capital funding and funding to a specific school as a full-service extended school. Of the £346,000 remaining, £263,000 was devolved to schools and £111,000 retained by the local authority. If my hon. Friend thinks that that is too much top-slicing, I am very happy to work with her on that.

Activities that take place in extended schools include homework clubs and remedial lessons in reading. Such remedial lessons would not be necessary if we got the teaching of reading right in the reception class in the first year of primary school. The Minister will be aware of research that shows the effectiveness of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading. Following the Rose review and the changes to the national curriculum, what plans does the Minister have to assess synthetic phonics teaching in our primary schools? Will he ask Ofsted to assess the training given to teachers in the use of synthetic phonics and their teaching methods?

A thorough assessment was carried out by Jim Rose, and only reported in March 2006. It follows significant improvements in key stage 2 in English over the past 10 years, and the number achieving the national standard has increased from 63 per cent. to 79 per cent., which means that 95,000 pupils a year have improved their reading. We commissioned the Rose review because we need to do better. We are in the process of undertaking the sort of training that the hon. Gentleman raised, and we will certainly make sure that that is effective, alongside the national reading campaign, “Every child a reader”, and initiatives that I shall discuss when I respond to the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham).

I greatly welcome the rolling-out of the extended schools programme, which has made a genuine difference, particularly in the disadvantaged areas of my community, where some children live in overcrowded accommodation and do not have access to computers at home. However, head teachers have expressed concern that some parents view the programme as a glorified babysitting service. What more can be done to engage parents so that they take an interest in what their children do during those extra hours at school?

The wrap-around child care from 8 am to 6 pm is just one part of the extended schools programme. There are five different aspects to the programme, including catch up and stretch and parental support. That component is something that needs to be developed to achieve exactly what my hon. Friend rightly raised.

Personal, Social and Health Education

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently reviewing the secondary curriculum, including personal, social and health education, and we expect to receive its final advice on 5 June.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the Government’s reluctance to make personal, social and health education compulsory, will he indicate how his Department will actually evaluate attempts to drive up quality? Obviously, content is important but I am sure he agrees that the quality of delivery is variable. What time will he set for improving the quality of that most important subject?

The hon. Lady is right; quality is important. We are asking the QCA to report to us on that and we look forward to its recommendations. In the context of whether the subject is compulsory, it is important for the hon. Lady to understand that all five of the “Every Child Matters” outcomes are inspected by Ofsted. Part of that reporting includes how the school is doing on economic and personal well-being, so if schools are choosing not to teach PHSE, or not at a high enough quality, that will be identified by Ofsted. We want to make sure that PSHE is working well; we are investing in it and improving the amount of training in it. We are embedding SEAL—the social and emotional aspects of learning—in PSHE, which is proving successful in primary schools and will be rolling out to secondary schools, as well.

Given that a recent online survey of no fewer than 2,200 university students undertaken by the Terrence Higgins Trust, in conjunction with the National Union of Students, found that 10 per cent. of those university students did not know how to put on a condom correctly, 16 per cent. mistakenly supposed that putting on two was safer than putting on only one and that fully 25 per cent. wrongly imagined that other forms of contraception could equally well protect them from sexually transmitted diseases, does the Minister agree that we need to work harder and do more to bolster sex education, and that there is an increasingly compelling case in the national interest for making it compulsory?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case, but sex education is already compulsory in schools as part of the national curriculum, and in most cases it is delivered through PSHE. An increasing number of schools are deciding to provide on-site health advice as part of the extended services they offer, which we were talking about earlier, and we are certainly keen to see that develop.

Vulnerable Children

9. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of children’s funds in supporting vulnerable children. (138962)

The national evaluation of the children’s fund reported in March 2006 and produced separate reports on five distinct groups of vulnerable children. Those groups of children were disabled, refugee and asylum seeker, black and minority ethnic, Gypsy Traveller and those at risk of committing crime and antisocial behaviour. The report showed that the children’s fund was facilitating good progress in addressing the considerable scale and complexity of the needs faced by children in those most vulnerable groups.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. The children’s fund in Northamptonshire is little known, but it has done outstanding work, particularly in tackling truancy and meeting the needs of minority children. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether that funding stream will be continued, and whether it will continue to be ring-fenced for early intervention so that it can maintain the good work it is doing already?

I understand why my hon. Friend asks that question. As she knows, the children’s fund goes to children’s fund partnerships in about 100 local authorities. In the remaining 50 authorities, the fund is already pooled in the local area agreement of local authorities and their partners. Although the funding will continue, from 2008 it will be pooled in local area agreements in all local authorities, but I reassure my hon. Friend that I want to ensure that it remains identifiable as a distinct funding stream so that expenditure on important preventive services, in which the voluntary and community sectors have a particular role to play, will still be transparent. If people are concerned about the way the money is being spent locally, they can challenge it.

Further Education Funding

10. If he will make a statement on extending further education funding to support 17 to 19 year olds. (138963)

Further education funding is available in England to support all young people aged 16 to 18 to undertake learning free of charge. Financial support is also available for those learners in the form of the education maintenance allowance. We are also extending free study to young adults aged 19 to 25 to study for their first full level 3 qualification from this September, supported by an expanded adult learning grant for those learners.

What plans do the Government have to extend the modern-day apprenticeship scheme for people in that age group and beyond it? Congratulations to the Government are in order for introducing it. I remember, Mr. Speaker, that when I was first elected to this place, I got some bad advice from a junior Whip, and you gave me a row when I made a contribution. I came over and apologised, and asked what I had done wrong. You said to me, “You took advice from the apprentice, not from the journeyman.” That has stuck with me. The modern apprenticeship scheme represents a good working class principle, and credit for that worthy scheme should be given to the future deputy leader of the Labour party.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the modern apprenticeship scheme has been remarkably successful. As an apprentice to the Secretary of State, I learn a great deal. We have trebled the number of those apprentices which, as my right hon. Friend suggested earlier, was dealt a devastating blow by the Conservatives. We want to provide better alternative pathways for young people—as well as an academic pathway, there is a pathway through an apprenticeship and through the new diplomas that we will introduce, which will ensure that more 16 to 19-year-olds stay in full-time training and education.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Legal Advice (Publication)

19. Whether he has discussed with the Minister of State for Justice the constitutional implications of publishing legal advice from Law Officers to the Cabinet. (138944)

Yes. It is a long-standing view of Governments that Law Officers’ advice is privileged and confidential, like other legal advice. A disclosure is made only in exceptional circumstances.

Since we last discussed the matter in February, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), turns out to be a front runner in the deputy leadership contest for the Labour party, which may mean that she could become Deputy Prime Minister. That raises some important constitutional issues. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, she believes that the Law Officer’s advice on Iraq should be published. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Lady has said it in public. We know that she has said that she believes that the Attorney-General’s advice on Iraq should be published. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that full well. What is the stand on collective responsibility? What is the Government’s policy on the matter, and does he think it will change at the end of June?

The position of the Government is very clear. It has been stated repeatedly. It is that confidential legal advice is important because it allows candour between the lawyer and the client—in this case, Ministers. Without it, the lawyer may be tempted to temper his advice, when frankness is required. It is in the public interest that there should be good, frank legal advice. That is why there is a long-standing convention. However, collective responsibility is not a gag on all public discussion or debate by Ministers. It requires acceptance of Government policy. My right hon. and learned Friend accepts Government policy but has generated some ideas about the future. We will see how they evolve.

The Solicitor-General knows that I broadly share his views about the difficulties of publishing Law Officers’ advice, but he cannot escape the Government’s collective responsibility on the issue as he has tried to do. If it is under discussion whether Law Officers’ advice should be published in future and a Government Minister is stating that publicly, ought not the House to have an opportunity of understanding the direction in which the Government are moving and to debate an extremely important issue, otherwise collective responsibility collapses, the House is left at sea as to the Government’s intentions, and the public begin to wonder whether there is any coherent and cohesive government taking place?

Hyperbole ill becomes the hon. Gentleman, who is not often given to it, but I fear he has ventured into that area on this occasion. It is clear what the Government’s policy is. It has been set out repeatedly, not least by myself from the Dispatch Box, and Government policy remains as it was under previous Governments. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate, the Opposition have the right to nominate various debates. If he wants a debate on this topic, let him have one. It can take place in Opposition time. As far as the Government are concerned, we are clear what our position is. It is that we will stand by these conventions. It is right and proper that the Prime Minister indicated a few months ago that Ministers would have a wide ranging look at policy to review it and to generate discussion and ideas. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham has merely generated a few ideas. The hon. Gentleman should not get so wound up and anxious about it.

The Solicitor-General knows that it is obviously right that confidentiality should be the presumption on advice from Law Officers to Ministers, but will he accept that when Ministers come to Parliament and pray in aid that advice in support of a case that they are seeking to win—for example, to justify intervention in Iraq—that changes the game, which is an argument for opening up that advice? Will he accept that when the Constitutional Affairs Committee produces its report on Law Officers, we should debate how Law Officers are appointed, how they are accountable and how public the advice is that they give either to Parliament or to Ministers?

It is obviously a matter for the business managers when and where we have debates. The Constitutional Affairs Committee is examining the issues, including the role of Law Officers, and we await its report with interest. The Government view remains the same on advice, and I can do no better than quote Lord Kingsland, who said this in the other place:

“It would not, of course, be appropriate for Parliament to see the advice that the Attorney-General gave to the Government. Inevitably, any responsible Attorney-General is bound to have to assess all the arguments, some of which might be contrary to the final position that he takes. If that document should become public, it is as sure as night follows day that there would be a very big dispute about its merits. Nothing could be more damaging to the confidence of the soldier who is about to fight.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 1026.]

That summarises the Government view. Setting out the basis on which the Attorney-General has reached a view is fine, which is what we have done in the past, but we need to consider giving all the legal advice with a great deal more caution.

Antisocial Behaviour (Prosecutions)

20. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to improve prosecution rates in cases of antisocial behaviour by young people; and if he will make a statement. (138945)

No full data are available in relation to the various different offences of antisocial behaviour, as distinct from other offences alleged to have been committed by young people. Overall last year, 121,648 cases were prosecuted against young people. Subject to the gravity of the offending, the CPS usually prosecutes a youth after he or she has had a reprimand or warning.

Whether it is the leafy lanes of Lichfield or the back streets of Glasgow, Mr. Speaker, there is no question but that antisocial behaviour is very disturbing to neighbourhoods. The Solicitor-General will know that only half of those who breach antisocial behaviour orders are prosecuted with custodial sentences. What can the Solicitor-General do to ensure that there is a real deterrent to prevent ASBOs from being breached in order to maintain calm and pleasant neighbourhoods?

The issue is important, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government view on tackling antisocial behaviour. He has rightly said that it is important that those orders should be complied with, and magistrates have powers to deal with young people, and indeed others, who breach ASBOs. Some breaches are serious and merit a serious remedy, but others are less serious. It is important that such matters are dealt with, but it is also important that the response of the courts is proportionate. The CPS takes proportionality into account when it decides how to respond to a breach in a particular case.

Has the Solicitor-General looked at north Liverpool, where Judge Fletcher in the community justice centre is providing a model that should be followed elsewhere in order to tackle the prosecution of antisocial behaviour cases?

I have not only looked at the data on that but have been up there and spoken to Judge Fletcher, who appears to be doing an excellent job. The community court system in north Liverpool, which brings all the agencies together at considerable expense, is difficult to remodel elsewhere. However, the pilot seems to be working very effectively, so we must look at it with a great deal of care to see whether there are lessons that we can learn for the future.

We have already heard about the breach rates for antisocial behaviour orders. Community sentencing is particularly important for young people because two thirds of them will receive such a sentence if successfully prosecuted. Fifty per cent. of intensive supervision and surveillance programmes, which many young people get put on to when they are prosecuted, are also breached, but all that happens is that those 50 per cent. get put back on to the programme. Are not the Government successfully teaching young offenders that they can flout the law and nothing will happen to them, and is not that part of the problem as regards the growing numbers of young people who are being prosecuted?

The hon. Lady is entirely wrong. She should have listened to what I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—that the courts have the powers to deal with these issues, but they need to do so proportionately. Some breaches are very serious and need to be dealt with as such; others are not so serious and need to be dealt with as such. It depends on the circumstances. Trotting out such statistics obscures rather than clarifies the real issues that face the courts on a day-to-day basis. Instead of criticising the way in which the courts deal with these issues, she should bear in mind that they have a very difficult job to do and some very difficult judgments to make. Criticisms of the sort that she makes are not worthy.

Prosecution Policy

21. What assessment he has made of consistency of prosecution policy between the Army Prosecuting Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service. (138946)

Both the CPS and the armed service prosecutors will apply the same evidential test—namely, whether there is enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction—and then decide whether there is a public interest in prosecuting. In the case of the armed service prosecutors, that includes the service interest.

The Army Prosecuting Authority dropped a case against British soldiers, despite lots of evidence having been on worldwide TV, saying that it had happened more than six months before. It claimed in its press release that the same applied to the civil authorities. Can the Solicitor-General confirm that if a thug beats someone up and lies low for six months, he will not be prosecuted despite the evidence? Is that the law, or has the Army Prosecuting Authority got it wrong?

The Army Prosecuting Authority has to look at the evidence before it and decide whether a prosecution is able to take place with witnesses who can give effective evidence to secure that prosecution. If the evidential test is not passed, the prosecutors will not take the case forward; if it is passed, they can take it forward. They will then have to consider public interest issues. My hon. Friend appears to be talking about the evidential test. I am happy to discuss the issues with him further, but it seems from what he says that the evidential test was not passed.