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Commons Chamber

Volume 469: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Trusts (Leicestershire)

1. What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the creation of probation trusts on the provision of probation services in Leicestershire. (172657)

Leicestershire and Rutland has been in the top three performing probation areas for a number of years. It applied to be in the first wave of probation trusts starting on 1 April 2008 and was accepted. The emphasis on local delivery and local commissioning will give Leicestershire and Rutland greater flexibility to meet local needs and will enable it to strengthen its performance further.

“Contestability”—as two words—is a prerequisite for prominent pugilists and synchronised swimmers, but as one word, it is an unnecessary framework for the delivery of offender supervision on the evidence of its application within probation so far. Will the Minister confirm that she still opposes outsourcing by dogma and explain how imposing on probation trusts a competitive market, with its attendant secretive contract culture, will not crush the co-operation that is so vital in ensuring the success of this public service in Leicestershire and elsewhere? Is this not just a privatisation that dare not speak its name?

My hon. Friend has been consistent in his opposition throughout the passage of national offender management legislation, and he continues his reputation in the House for asking witty questions—a tough thing to do with Question 1—but I disagree with him. This is not privatisation; it is about local autonomy and flexibility within a best value setting. I can tell my hon. Friend that, as we said during the passage of the legislation, there will be no compulsion to outsource. Ministers have given guarantees about work remaining with probation trusts. I expect Leicestershire and Rutland to go from strength to strength in providing even better quality services than they have thus far.

Adult Reoffending

The Government are committed to reducing adult reoffending and the latest figures show that it is down by 5.8 per cent. since 2000. We are now consulting on a new strategic plan to build on our success in reducing reoffending.

This is a good time of year to be talking about the power of redemption and the Minister’s words on the progress being made are extremely encouraging. I particularly welcome some of the imaginative schemes that emerged from the preceding and the current Department—work done with young offenders via HMP Kirkham near Blackpool, and the good work done in local communities. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that when offenders get out of custody and into the outside world, access to jobs and skills will be crucial in preventing reoffending? Does he also welcome, with me—[Interruption.]

My hon. Friend is exactly right that employment is one of the keys to the prevention of reoffending. He will know that, in two test-bed regions in the west midlands and the eastern region, we are trying to link employers outside in the community with work undertaken by offenders serving sentences in prisons. It is key that we look at the skills that people need when they leave prison and try to work with employers outside to prevent reoffending. The corporate alliance is doing some sterling work to link employers with offenders and ensure rising levels of employment.

Seventy per cent. of the defendants whom I have to sentence are addicted to crack cocaine or heroin. They go to prison, take more drugs, come out and reoffend. Does the Minister accept that drug residential rehab beds are a much better form of treatment than prison and are, in fact, cheaper?

The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that a very strong drug problem is linked to offending. One of the key pathways that we need to work on is how to reduce reoffending through work on drug abuse. I am happy to look further into his suggestions. We have put many resources into the prison system, and he will know that this year some 24,500 drug users are benefiting from clinical services in prison. I want to see more done, because stopping the drug problem and helping to prevent people from going back to the drug culture when they leave prison is one of the key ways in which we can reduce reoffending.

One of the most successful intervention projects in my own area has taken young people with a track record of multiple car thefts and involved them instead with work on building and racing stock cars. The wheelbase motor project, at a fraction of the cost involved in keeping such young people in prison, has been able to keep them out of prison and out of reoffending. The problem it has faced, however, is access to long-term secure funding. Has the Minister been able to look at how we can take the most successful interventionist projects and give them the security of funding that the voluntary sector often lacks?

I know that the scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is very important. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has visited the scheme and supports its objectives. I am keen to look at any imaginative scheme that can help to prevent reoffending. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said in answer to Question 1, we are now looking into how we can involve the voluntary sector, the private sector, local government and other agencies in working with the Prison Service and the probation service to add value to our attempts to prevent reoffending. I am particularly interested to look further into the schemes that work. If possible, I will gladly visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) to see that scheme in operation next time I am in Nottingham.

According to the Government’s report “Re-offending of adults”, of those who spend up to a year in prison 70 per cent. reoffend, of those who spend up to two years in prison 49 per cent. reoffend, and of those who spend more than four years in prison only 35 per cent. reoffend. Does the Minister accept that that means that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend, and if he does, why does he keep letting them out early?

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should increase the length of prison sentences for some crimes of a lower order. What we need to do is what the Government are trying to do—tackle persistent offenders, and consider how to deal with issues relating to drugs, numeracy, literacy and employment.

One of the reasons why lower-level sentences are not working is that people go through a revolving door, but that does not lead me to conclude that we should increase the length of sentences for those serving under 12 months. I take the view that we should consider what we can do to prevent the causes of crime by tackling drug problems, placing people in employment and trying to introduce some order to what are often chaotic lives.

Does the Minister accept that the factors that contribute to reoffending among women are rather different from those that contribute to reoffending among men? One of the most significant factors for women is contact with their children. Does the Minister share my disappointment that the Department’s spending plans for new prisons do not include substantial investment in small units of the kind envisaged in the Corston report, enabling women to stay closer to their children and maintain contact with their families, thus making them less likely to reoffend?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. I am pleased to tell her that we have accepted in principle my noble Friend Lady Corston’s recommendation on small units, and that I have asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), together with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), to take work forward over the next six months dealing with how we can make Lady Corston’s wish for small custodial units a reality. We also wish to consider—this is important—what we can do to remove women from custody altogether through community-based sentences for those who commit the low-level crimes referred to by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

Donations (Political Parties)

3. What guidance his Department has published on compliance with the law governing donations to political parties. (172660)

4. If he will issue guidance to hon. Members and other members of political parties on the law on donations to political parties. (172661)

The law relating to donations to political parties is principally set out in part IV and schedules 6 and 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Under that Act, it is for the Electoral Commission to issue guidance on the operation of the law. That guidance is available on the commission’s website, I have a copy here which I should be happy to pass to the right hon. Gentleman.

Would it help if, rather than contemplating more legislation, the Labour party started to observe the law that it passed itself? Can the Secretary of State explain how it is that some trade unions pay the Labour party individual affiliation fees for more than 100 per cent. of their members, and will he advise the trade unions to stop that particular abuse before the police do so?

The right hon. Gentleman answered the end of his own question towards the end of his comments. Let me make it clear that there is absolutely no evidence that the trade unions have failed to observe the law, and the requirements made of them under both trade union and electoral law legislation. There was none up to 1998, when the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life reported. At that stage the Conservatives, in full possession of all the evidence about levels of compliance, said that they had no plans whatsoever to change the law governing trade unions, and the Neill committee said the same. During the Hayden Phillips inquiries, however, we have accepted that changes are necessary, and I accepted that when I spoke in the House last Tuesday.

The test is really for the Conservative party, however. The Conservatives said that they welcomed the publication of Hayden Phillips’s report and accepted his main recommendations: exactly those words were used by the right hon. Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Horsham (Mr. Maude). The question now is whether they will match their promise with undertakings to meet what Hayden Phillips set out.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Is the Secretary of State seriously condoning the Soviet-style practices of trade unions, which are affiliating more members to the Labour party than they themselves have as members? Many of those members do not have the opportunity to direct where affiliation fees are paid, and many of them vote Conservative.

What I can do is congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being able to read an article by Matthew Parris in The Times last Saturday that contained the ridiculous reference to Soviet-style operations. I admire his mimicry, if nothing else. I also say to him, yet again, that when we asked the Electoral Commission whether it had any evidence of a failure to comply with the spirit and the letter of the law in respect of trade union contributions, it said that it had none. The certification officer has reported that over the past 10 years three complaints have been made, only one of which has been upheld. We accept that the law in this area needs to be brought up to date—that has come out through the inquiries by Hayden Phillips in which we have participated—but the question for the Conservative party is whether, having accepted the full gamut of what he proposed, including spending limits at local and national level, it will back fine words with support for this policy.

We are talking about smoke and mirrors, and funding of political parties. Does my right hon. Friend think that we could be told how Conrad Black got his peerage? Can we be reassured that the reason was nothing so grubby as to involve money? There is no logic as to why even the Conservative party would have asked that man. He does not attend the House of Lords—he soon will not be able to do so—and was not a national of this country, so I want to know why he was preferred over and above the many thousands of Conservative party activists.

I am afraid that the Conservative party moves in a mysterious way, and it is not for me to speculate as to those reasons. In our White Paper on House of Lords reform, we committed ourselves clearly to ensuring that the same disqualification rules apply when peers have been convicted of a criminal offence as apply to Members of this House—and the sooner, the better.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, after the Tories introduced legislation enforcing requirements for the trade unions to hold ballots every so many years in order to take part in political donations, that money was clean at the time when Asil Nadir gave £400,000-odd to the Tory party, which never came back? Does he also agree that that trade union money was clean in 1998 when the drug baron in China gave $1 million to the Tory party for a printing press in Reading—money that was never given back? In other words, throughout this period the trade union money has been clean and the bosses’ money to the Tory party has been dirty all the time.

My hon. Friend, as ever, is entirely accurate. The simple truth is that whatever smokescreen the Conservative party now wishes to erect around the issue of trade union money, it was the Conservative party, as he, I and others in this House recall, that sought time after time during the 1980s to change those laws to make it more difficult for trade unions to make contributions to the Labour party. The Conservatives thought that the ballot system would result in trade unions eschewing association with the Labour party, but through democratic voting, it turned out that they were wrong.

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that when these important laws on political donations are broken, ignorance of the law can never be an excuse? Does he further agree that it is even more ridiculous to claim that no intentional wrongdoing has taken place, as some of his party have claimed?

What I say to the hon. Gentleman, because I am a generous fellow, is that on this occasion I agree with the Leader of the Opposition. In his press conference on 3 December, he made an important reference, saying that all parties make mistakes and that all of us have done this over the years. So we know that innocent mistakes and mistakes of compliance can be made.

It is utterly astounding that the Lord Chancellor talks about the Conservative party when what is in question this afternoon is, as the Prime Minister himself has said at the Dispatch Box, that the Labour party has broken the law. I wonder what the Lord Chancellor is afraid of, because it is he who is hiding behind a smokescreen. The Government make the law and then try to find every possible way to get around it or indeed to break it. Does he accept that it is the Government’s very integrity and trustworthiness that are now at stake? It is his party that has broken the law and brought our democratic process itself into disrepute. It is his party that is in power, so the question is not what we are going to do, but what he is going to do to restore the faith of the British public in our democratic system.

I like the hon. Lady and she is held in great affection by the House, but synthetic ranting will not do her much good. It was this Government who established a full-scale inquiry into party funding in 1997 when the Conservatives had refused it for years. We introduced the laws on transparency that have ensured that, when they are transgressed, those failings are exposed. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), spelled out when she wound up last Tuesday’s debate, no one on the Labour Benches excuses for a second things that have happened inside the Labour party that we greatly regret. We have made that absolutely clear, but my responsibilities are as a member of the Government, and we are proud of the legislation that we have introduced. I hope that there will be backing for what Hayden Phillips proposes, including for changes to the present lack of transparency in respect of unincorporated associations, which include not only the Midlands Industrial Council, which funded the campaign of the shadow Minister of Justice when his constituency of Arundel is miles away from the midlands, but Marginal Magic, which funded the Conservative campaign in Ludlow at the last election.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that what is required is speedy legislation in the new year in order to stop the sort of abuse by which Lord Ashcroft is trying to buy up marginal constituencies? Is not that the sort of practice that should have stopped in the 19th century and can my right hon. Friend promise us that we will not have to wait too long for such a change in the law?

There is certainly an important case for changing the law—if it is possible, although it may not prove so—as Sir Hayden Phillips recommended. I hope that we can gain all-party agreement on that, but it may not be possible. Meanwhile, there are some important questions for the Conservative party to answer in respect of the tax status of some of its major donors. All of us remember last Tuesday when, time and again, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) gave a carefully crafted but indirect answer to clear questions that were posed to him.

Carter Review

I set out the Government’s plans to implement the Carter review in my statement to this House on 5 December. I announced an additional 10,500 prison places to come on stream by 2014, including up to three very large “titan” prisons, as recommended by Lord Carter, and funding towards that programme of £1.2 billion capital and resource. I will also establish a judicially led working group to consider the advantages, disadvantages and feasibility of a permanent sentencing commission.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given the Home Secretary’s short-sighted and damaging decision this week not to implement in full the findings of the police pay review, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the Prison Service’s ability to manage prisoners in police cells, if police officers work to rule?

I am afraid that I do not accept my hon. Friend’s description of the decisions that the Government as a whole made on public sector pay, including pay for police officers. We have great admiration for the police. We have worked very hard—I did when I was Home Secretary, and all my successors have done so—to ensure that the police are properly rewarded, and they are. That is shown in high levels of retention and very high levels of interest in recruitment to the police service. On the so-called Operation Safeguard, which concerns the use of police cells, I have had no information whatever to say that it is likely to be affected by any suggestions of the kind that my hon. Friend mentions.

While additional prison places are clearly long overdue—I am delighted that the Government have announced that a substantial number will be constructed in the coming years—does the Lord Chancellor not accept that what the Prison Service requires is more vocational training facilities and more genuine educational facilities, so that when people come out of prison, they have been rehabilitated and are given the opportunity to apply for jobs in the real world outside, and do not resort to criminality?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes my announcement on Carter. It builds on the 20,000 places that have been provided in the past 10 years—that is twice the rate under our predecessors. The figures include 1,400 places this calendar year and 2,300 next year. I accept what he says about the importance of expanding education and training in our Prison Service. They have improved dramatically in the past decade. More than 23,500 offenders were engaged in learning in the Prison Service this June, and spending on offender learning has almost trebled since 2001, but we can still do more, and I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman’s support on that.

We must also address the quality of the existing provision of prison places. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend’s Department has drawn his attention to the inquest results on Martin Green, my constituent who died in Blakenhurst prison in the summer of 2002. It is perhaps revealing that the inquest took so long to arrive at a conclusion. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet relatives of Mr. Green to discuss the appalling lack of care that the inquest revealed? I have seen the post-mortem results, and the case has the nearest resemblance of any that I have seen to that of someone from a concentration camp—a victim of the Nazis.

I do not want to comment on that individual case, except to say to my hon. Friend that of course I will make arrangements to see the bereaved relatives. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of any prisoner who dies in such circumstances, and indeed to the staff concerned. The Prison Service has worked extremely hard better to identify prisoners who are at risk of self-harm, although it cannot be a perfect science, and to reduce considerably the number of deaths in custody.

May I bring the Secretary of State back to the issue of the titan prisons that he announced? Will he tell the House on what Lord Carter bases his conclusion that such gigantic prisons will be more effective than smaller, local prisons? That seems to go against the evidence that the inspectorate has gained over many years. On the face of it, Lord Carter appears to suggest very large, low-staffed, panopticon-style prisons of the sort that have brought the Californian prison system to its knees.

There is absolutely no comparison between anything that happens, or will happen, in the Prison Service in England and Wales and the appalling situation faced by the Californian prison system, where hundreds of prisoners are currently packed into gymnasiums. The Californian state now spends more on the prison service than on education. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman in that respect. Lord Carter bases his proposals on cost-effectiveness, and on his view on the effectiveness of such large prisons. As to whether the prisons will be local, yes, they can be. For example, there is an urgent need for more prison accommodation in London and the south-east, particularly to the east of the great conurbation. I see no reason why a local prison cannot be provided within a very large establishment, as with three smaller ones. Finally, it is perfectly possible within the perimeters of a large establishment to operate different regimes, so that one has the benefits of scale as well as the benefits of smaller prisons and better regimes.

Despite the fact that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), offered supportive words to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) about drug addiction in prisons, why did drug treatment and rehabilitation barely get a mention in Lord Carter’s review or the Secretary of State’s response last week? How will the Secretary of State ensure that prisons have a purpose other than warehousing addiction to drugs and a propensity to reoffend?

The purpose of prisons has improved dramatically, as has the reality in the past decade. We do not have warehousing of prisoners. That is an easy thing for the hon. Gentleman to say, but he should go back to the situation that existed 10, 20 or 30 years ago. He should look at the riots that took place in prisons and the continual inquiries that had to take place. He should take note, too, of the fact that there has been a 997 per cent. increase in drug treatment in prisons since 1996-97, with record numbers engaged in such treatment. If he supports that, fine, but he must recognise the great work that has taken place over the past 10 years.

If we cut reoffending we would not need to build so many prisons. May I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) about prison education? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that per capita spending on education for young people in the secure estate will be, and will remain, at least at the level of per capita spending on secondary school pupils?

My hon. Friend asked me a very specific question, so I shall write to him. However, a great effort has been put into education in secure establishments for young people as well as in establishments for adults. Ultimately, the responsibility for cutting offending rests with criminals, but we can provide facilities and support, as we have done for young offenders and their families. However, offenders must make a decision—it is their responsibility, as it was their decision to get involved in crime—to get out of crime. We will help them, but they have to make that decision.

Data Protection

The Ministry of Justice has procedures and guidance governing security, information security and data protection, designed to identify and control the risk of the unauthorised release of personal data. They include ensuring that our sites are physically secure and protected from unauthorised access; ensuring that our employees are reliable through checks on their background; providing guidance to staff on general security, with separate guidance on IT security and data protection issues; and procedures for assessing IT systems. We also have systems for monitoring and checking compliance, and those policies and procedures extend to our contracted IT suppliers.

Of course, there can never be a cast-iron guarantee that human errors will not occur or that there will never be any unauthorised releases of information, so we must remain vigilant. Even before the deeply regrettable incident at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Prime Minister commissioned the Walport-Thomas review under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice into the way in which personal data are used and protected in the public and private sector. In addition, we previously announced that we would amend the Data Protection Act 1998 to increase the penalty for knowingly and recklessly misusing personal data, so that those found guilty of that offence could be imprisoned for up to two years.

The Information Commissioner has said that he should have powers to carry out spot checks in Government Departments and other bodies to ensure that they comply with data protection legislation. Does the Minister agree with Richard Thomas?

Yes, we do. We are implementing that, and giving Richard Thomas the powers.

Will my hon. Friend give us an assurance on personal data and confirm that prisoners’ medical records are securely contained but can be regularly accessed by GPs?

The data protection rules must apply to everybody but, where necessary and with proper protections, access will be given to the appropriate people.

Will the Minister of State confirm that C-NOMIS, the computer programme for the National Offender Management Service, is designed to track data on individual offenders from court into prison and thence when they are released back into the community? Is it true that Roger Hill, the Director of Probation, has announced that C-NOMIS is to be put on hold and scaled back for use in prisons alone, thus undermining its whole purpose? Is this not a case of £155 million down the drain, and yet another example of Government incompetence?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in managing to ask that question during a question about data protection. The answer to his question is no, it is not true.

European Court of Human Rights

7. How many cases brought by prisoners under human rights legislation went to the European Court of Human Rights in the last five years. (172664)

The Government are not routinely informed by the court of all applications containing complaints against the United Kingdom. Therefore, no statistics are held centrally on the number of applications against the UK made by prisoners in the past five years. However, since 1 January 2003 judgments or admissibility decisions in at least 41 ECHR cases in which the applicant was a prisoner have been communicated to the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the ruling in the House of Lords at the end of October that the 12-month rule on applications under human rights law did not apply in Scotland. Thus, £70 million in compensation may be paid to prisoners. With the recent case of a prisoner who was denied IVF treatment getting a €5,000 award from the court through the convention, does my hon. Friend think that the convention is tipped the wrong way, and that it is time we started thinking of victims and put an end to this ludicrous state of affairs?[Official Report, 18 December 2007, Vol. 469, c. 1MC.]

My hon. Friend refers to the judgment in Somerville and others v. Scottish Ministers. The Government are disappointed by the Grand Chamber’s judgment and are studying it with great care. As he says, it has an effect on time scales for bringing actions, but clarifies the legal structure of the Scotland Act 1998. Careful consideration is required across Government here in Westminster and by Scottish Ministers.

On my hon. Friend’s general point, allegations of breaches of convention rights are dealt with by the courts, which weigh the evidence and decide the outcome according to law. If, at the end of that legal process, the outcome is such that the Government believe that a change in the law is necessary, the appropriate legislative arrangements must be made.

There are 11,211 foreign national prisoners in prisons in England and Wales, making up 14 per cent. of the prison population. Is it the Human Rights Act that prevents those people from being returned to secure detention in their own countries? My understanding is that their consent is required before they are returned to their country of origin. Most people in this country would like to see them sent back, even if they did not consent.

The hon. Gentleman needs to be brought up to date with some of the facts and figures. The Government have managed to get 100 agreements with other countries in order to have foreign national prisoners returned. The 14 per cent. that the hon. Gentleman mentions is the second lowest percentage in the whole of western Europe. If he really wants to find where problems lie, he needs to look elsewhere.

In these cases, has there been any dialogue about the barbaric practice of handcuffing women to beds when they are in labour and giving birth?

My hon. Friend refers to a disgraceful practice during the last Conservative Administration. I can assure her that this Government will make sure that such practices do not occur under our watch, or ever again.

Can the hon. Lady advise the House of the position under the human rights legislation of a householder or a property owner who defends their property, family or possessions from a burglary and is subsequently accused of assault? Can they be given the full protection of the law?

I know that the hon. Lady takes a considerable interest in this matter, and I believe that she introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject some time ago. I understand her concerns, and she is quite right that such a person is entitled to full protection under the law, and would get it.

Prison Service (Lancashire)

8. What assessment he has made of trends in levels of recruitment into the Prison Service in Lancashire; and if he will make a statement. (172665)

Since 2000, the average recruitment of prison officers in the north-west, including Lancashire prisons, has been 200 a year. Taking account of turnover and the provision of increased capacity, the Prison Service expects to recruit 340 new officers in the north-west by March 2009, and a new national recruitment campaign will be launched in January 2008.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, retention is a key issue, and the way to achieve that is through morale within the Prison Service. He may or may not be aware—I have mentioned it once before—of morale at Wymott. What can he do to ensure that morale is lifted and that the Prison Officers Association and the governor get on better working terms, so that retention is key to the prison’s future?

As I said in last week’s debate, I shall be happy to receive any representations that my hon. Friend wishes to make so that I and the management team can address specific issues. The resignation rate among officers in Lancashire this year is just 1.3 per cent. against the national figure of 2 per cent. I shall certainly consider the issues that he raises, but there is strong stability in the Prison Service staff in Lancashire at the moment.

Youth Reoffending

Between 2000 and 2005, youth reoffending reduced by 2.5 per cent. The Youth Justice Board has worked with partners to improve practice to ensure that the right performance frameworks and indicators are in place, and to put in place a delivery plan to reduce reoffending still further.

Given what my right hon. Friend says and the real achievements of the youth offending team, the Prison Service and probation officers in Tameside and Stockport, what more can the Government do to ensure that once young people have served their punishment, they receive the support, help and intervention necessary to keep them on the straight and narrow, particularly in relation to housing and access to the employment market?

My hon. Friend raises important points. We need to ensure that we reduce reoffending among under-18s in custody, which stands at approximately 76 per cent. We need to consider what help we can give with accommodation, and pilot projects are operational. We also need to ensure that we invest in skill development and learning, which is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s establishment of the joint unit between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and my Department to work together to manage the Youth Justice Board so that we can consider education and skill development, which are key to the prevention of further reoffending.

Does the Minister agree that one way to stop young people from reoffending is to have fairness in the justice system? My constituent, Mr. Shalish Patel has been charged with a serious offence and is correctly remanded in prison, but in Birmingham, not at the local remand prisons of Bedford or Woodhill, and his family is particularly concerned—

Order. The person concerned has been charged, so the matter is sub judice and it would be best to move on.

I welcome the drop in youth offending rates, but what is being done to spread examples of best practice in different parts of the country to ensure that we have a unified approach so that levels can drop still further?

The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), and I are looking carefully, through the inter-ministerial group on the prevention of reoffending, at what works, and with the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), through the joint management of the Youth Justice Board, we are considering good practice. The YOTs do a tremendous job. I have seen examples at first hand throughout the country of where they have made real interventions in reducing crime, and I am sure that that is true in Portsmouth, where my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in preventing youth crime. I shall certainly be considering whatever good examples hon. Members can produce with a view to putting them into practice throughout the country.

One of the difficulties of preparing people in prison for life outside is the constant movement of prisoners, which prevents them from completing education and drug treatment courses. Is the situation any better for young offenders than it is for the rest of prison population?

We need to do better on the whole question of drug use and drug treatment for young people. As the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, one of the key drivers of youth crime is involvement with drugs, both before entry to prison or youth offending institutions and sometimes, sadly, afterwards. We need to do intensive work on the issue, and I am keen to see how we can build on that. At the moment we are examining drugs policy in young offender institutions.

Donations (Political Parties)

10. What recent representations he has received on compliance with the law on donations to political parties. (172668)

As far as I am aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has received no representations on compliance with the law on donations in his capacity as Secretary of State for Justice.

The Minister is a wise lady. Why does she not accept that the law must be upheld even when those breaking it claim ignorance and say that there was no intentional wrongdoing? When will she treat union donors on a par with other donors and get on with the cross-party talks?

We have already been over that ground in some detail, both last week and earlier today. We certainly believe that the law must be upheld. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has already set in train arrangements to meet the other political parties so that cross-party talks can begin again. I hope that the Conservative party will take a more positive attitude than it has during the past couple of months.

Topical Questions

My principal responsibilities are to help protect victims and the public, to help secure a reduction in offending and reoffending better to support the delivery of justice, to promote a vigorous democracy and to create a culture of rights and responsibilities.

Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that half those who received indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection in 2005 for sexual assault or paedophile offences received a tariff of two years or less? Will he also confirm that under his proposed reform those dangerous offenders would no longer be eligible for an IPP and would be released, regardless of the risks that they posed?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), Home Secretary at the time, has confirmed and as I have noted from Hansard reports of debates in Committee, the House and the other place, when the proposals for indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection went before the House, there was never any suggestion that the IPPs would be used for very short sentences. When the amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill are discussed, we will be able to debate the detail of the issue. I am determined that IPPs should remain available for serious, persistent and dangerous offenders.

I should also say that it is very rare for courts to sentence such offenders for tariffs of less than two years. It must be a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House, as it is to sentencers and the Parole Board, that inadequacy in the drafting of the legislation has meant that in one case a tariff of 28 days was issued. That is unsatisfactory in terms of public protection. In many other cases, there have been very short tariffs as well.

T2. Since June, more than 160 offenders, including those convicted for sexual and violent crimes, have been released early from prisons in Norfolk. Why are the Government letting prison capacity rather than the crime dictate the length of sentences? (172648)

We discussed that issue last Wednesday during the debate on the Carter report. The truth is that all parties have always accepted, albeit implicitly, that prison capacity determines to a degree the overall level of sentences. That is why even the Conservative party, in rather atavistic mood, has eschewed the idea of the Americans, who now sentence people to five times the level of imprisonment in this country.

We are seeking a more rational approach—and I thought that we had the support of the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench—so that when proposals for changes in sentencing are made in advance, the effect on prison capacity and resources can be properly taken into account. The House and the Government can then make a good judgment about whether to provide the capacity. I should also say that we have already increased the prison population twice as fast as the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. An extra 20,000 places will be provided in the period to 2014.

T3. Has this splendidly attentive team of Ministers spotted the petition placed on the No. 10 website by my constituent, Richard Ellison, protesting that he and other magistrates must retire from service at the age of 70, irrespective of their capability in continuing to serve their constituents? Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench agree that in this day and age, with an EU directive on age discrimination, UK regulations on age discrimination, and the demographic changes that have taken place, it is outdated to rely on an age bar alone? (172649)

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is, yes, we have spotted the petition that his constituent has placed on the No. 10 website. He is right that the recent age regulations could be applied to judicial office-holders, including magistrates. We have no plans at present to raise the retirement age, despite the protestations of some of the more venerable Members behind me, but we obviously keep the matter under review.

T4. Is the Department aware of any prisoners who have been released early in the west country and who have offended again? If the Department or the Prison Service has released any such dangerous prisoners early, what steps are being taken to alert the local police to that possible eventuality? (172650)

The local police are routinely informed of releases of prisoners, including those released under the end of custody licence scheme. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with details of those who have been released in his own area of the west country. The end of custody licence scheme simply releases prisoners 18 days earlier than they would otherwise have been released, and they remain on licence during that period. Quite a number have been recalled because of the strength and efficacy of our recall arrangements.

T6. A couple of weeks ago, a report by Mind entitled “Another assault” revealed that people with mental health problems suffer shockingly high levels of crime and victimisation but are reluctant to report incidents, not least because when they do, in an overwhelming number of cases, they receive a poor service from the criminal justice system. What is being done to increase confidence in the criminal justice system on the part of those who have mental ill-health problems? (172652)

My hon. Friend is right that there are certain vulnerable groups who find it hard to deal with the criminal justice system when they come into contact with it. He will be aware that we have taken a lot of steps in the past few years to try to support victims of crime and to ensure that we can take them through the criminal justice system in a much more supportive environment than has necessarily been the case in the past. Certainly, victims of crime who have mental ill health would benefit from the work that is being done, but I would be the first to admit that we need to continue to work hard and do more to ensure that victims of crime who are vulnerable for whatever reason, including those who have mental ill health, are properly supported through the system, and we are determined to do that.

In June, Andrew Mournian was jailed for 20 weeks for battery after attacking his partner, Amanda Murphy. He had previous convictions for violence and assault. On 18 August, having been released from jail, Mr. Mournian again attacked Mrs. Murphy, but this time he brutally murdered her. He was convicted last week. It now transpires that Mr. Mournian had been released early from prison under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, and he killed Mrs. Murphy five days later, when he should have been behind bars. What does the Secretary of State have to say to Mrs. Murphy’s relatives about the Government’s decision to release such offenders early?

This was a shameful murder, and as with any murder, our heart goes out to the relatives and friends of the victim. But I hope, since the hon. Gentleman wishes to make something of this terrible incident, that he will take note of what the learned judge—a senior High Court judge, Mrs. Justice Swift—said in her sentencing remarks. When sentencing Mournian to life imprisonment and ordering that he serve a minimum tariff of 14 years, she said that she did not believe that the defendant’s early release had led to Miss Murphy’s death. She went on to say that the defendant would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

It is a huge matter of regret that this happened at all, but it is extremely difficult, given what the learned judge who heard the details of the case said—and neither the hon. Gentleman nor I have done so—to say that his early release was a contributory factor to this murder.

The Secretary of State just told the House that one of his principal duties was to ensure public safety. It will be of no consolation at all to the relatives of Mrs. Murphy to be told by anybody that she might have been murdered at some future point. The fact is that her murderer should have been behind bars at that point. He was not because the Government had failed to provide enough prison places and had released that offender on to the streets, along with, it must be said, 11,000 other offenders, including violent offenders released early—before the end of their sentence and without risk assessment. Lord Carter’s report last week said that end of custody licence—

Order. I am always reluctant to stop a Front Bencher, but topical questions are meant to be sharp and brief. If a Front Bencher is going to come in during topical questions, there cannot be long supplementaries. A Front Bencher is the same as everybody else; it is one supplementary, and the hon. Gentleman has gone on to another matter.

On the substantive point, I have already answered the hon. Gentleman. We regret the fact that the early custody licence was necessary. On the whole, it has worked to ensure the safety of the public. Of the 11,000 offenders released on to ECL, we have been notified of only 1 per cent. having committed a further offence. That is a much lower rate of reoffending than is found among prisoners normally released.

The second thing that the hon. Gentleman has to appreciate is that these are offenders, whatever crimes they have committed, who would have been released 18 days—two and a half weeks—later. [Interruption.] It is not an excuse. Whatever points he wants to make, he has to take account of the remarks made by the learned judge in this case. She was convinced that this man would have carried out the attack whenever he was released.

T5. The Justice Secretary will be aware that more than 2,000 of the 11,000 prisoners released early were serving time for violent offences. Should he not be reviewing the criteria so that absolutely no violent offenders at least are released early from prison? (172651)

If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We keep the criteria under continuous review. At the moment, we judge that there are sufficient places. We shall certainly, as a first step, remove any offenders of violence from the list, and my aim is to abandon ECL altogether, once we see that there is space to abandon it safely.

T7. May I ask my right hon. Friend what the reoffending rates were for Coventry and the west midlands in 1997? (172653)

Off the top of my head—[Laughter.] I keep many figures in my head, but I am afraid to say that the reoffending rates for Coventry and the west midlands are not among them. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that reconviction rates have improved considerably and for prisoners serving over four years—[Interruption.] I do not know what the difference between reconviction and reoffending is according to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), unless he has a way by which people can be convicted without going to court. The reconviction rate has shown a 13.4 per cent. improvement for those serving sentences of four years or more.

T8. Does not the Minister realise that there is real concern nationally about the early release scheme? He has confirmed that more than 25,000 offenders will be released every year under this scheme. How many more people are going to be subject to brutal murder or attack unless he acts on this matter? (172654)

I have answered the burden of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are talking about a release 18 days before those offenders would have been released in any case. My constituents may be different from his, but ours are a good cross-section of the British people. My constituents are pleased about the fact that crime has gone down by 30 per cent. in the past 10 years, which includes violent crime, while burglary has gone down by 50 per cent. That compares with the terrible record of the Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported, under whom crime did not go down, even by 1 per cent., but doubled over 18 years.

T9. Given that the Solicitor-General has said that rape is an incredibly difficult crime to prosecute, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that all parts of the criminal justice system work together to support victims and secure better rates of conviction? (172655)

We are working hard better to improve convictions for rape. The number of offenders who have been convicted of rape has increased significantly. The proportion of those who are brought to court has gone down, however, because of the even bigger increase in the numbers being prosecuted. We are currently running a consultation on “Convicting Rapists”, which was published in the spring, which is looking at all sorts of detail in the process, including whether to allow adult victims of rape to give video-recorded evidence at trial, whether to define in law a rape complainant’s capacity to give consent to sex where drink or drugs are involved and many other matters, because we are all of the same view: we have to improve the conviction rate for this terrible crime.

T10. According to the Government’s own research, 40 older people in this country are the victims of elder abuse every hour of every day, whether that be theft or violence against the person in their own home. When will the Government act on the recommendations that the Law Commission made more than 10 years ago and put in place the necessary protections for such vulnerable adults in our society? (172656)

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), is working closely on that, better to ensure that the reports and recommendations of the Law Commission, where they enjoy a consensus throughout the Chamber and in the other place, can be more swiftly enacted than in the past. Since the Law Commission was established in the 1960s, it has done important work, but there is no question but that we need to do better at implementing its recommendations.

Children’s Plan

The first ever children’s plan, which we are publishing today, follows months of consultation with parents, teachers, professionals and children and young people up and down the country.

Over the past 10 years, the lives of children have improved. School standards are up, child poverty is down, and we have many more outstanding schools and many fewer failing schools. However, following our detailed consultations, the results of which I have laid before the House, I have concluded that we need further reforms to deliver a world-class education for every child and that we must do more to prevent children from falling behind or failing to fulfil their potential because of learning difficulties, poverty or disadvantage. I have also concluded that, although there are many more opportunities for young people today than ever before, families want more help to manage the new pressures that they face: balancing work and family life; dealing with the internet and modern commercialism; and letting children play while staying safe. The children’s plan is our response.

Let me deal first with the new measures to support the learning of every child. The early years are critical; so as we raise the entitlement to free nursery care for all three and four-year-olds from 12 to 15 hours, we will allocate more than £200 million over the next three years, to ensure that young children receive the highest quality care in their early years, with at least two graduates in nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas, and to extend the offer of free nursery places to 20,000 two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged communities.

School standards are rising, but I want to accelerate the improvement. I have therefore asked Sir Jim Rose to undertake a root and branch review of the primary curriculum to create more space for teaching the basics—English and maths, and a foreign language—in all primary schools, and also to ensure all children start secondary school with the personal skills to succeed. If our making good progress trials are successful, we will implement age not stage testing nationally, which will represent the biggest reform to national curriculum assessment since its creation. To back our teachers, I am today allocating £44 million over the next three years so that all new teachers will be able to study for a masters-level qualification and to establish a new future leaders programme to bring even more talented people into teaching.

Supporting parents is central to this children’s plan. In future, every parent will have a record of their child’s development and education through the early years and into primary school. The Minister for Schools and Learners will consult parents and schools over the next few months—and legislate, if necessary—to ensure that every child has a personal tutor who stays with them as they progress through secondary school; that every parent receives up-to-date information about their child’s progress, attendance and behaviour, using real-time reporting and new technologies such as mobile phones or the internet; and that every secondary school has a parents’ council, so that parents know what they can expect, how they will be consulted and how they can express concerns and complaints.

Parents also want earlier intervention if their child falls behind. Alongside one-to-one support for reading and maths at primary school and our new every child a writer programme, I am allocating £18 million over the next three years to improve initial teacher training about special educational needs and to find new ways to identify dyslexia earlier. Following the Bercow review, Ofsted will lead a review into our special educational needs provision in 2009.

In our consultation, head teachers told us that schools needed more support from other services to tackle all barriers to learning. Today, one in 10 children have a diagnosed mental health problem, but schools repeatedly say how hard it is to get the child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—to engage with them early enough. So I have agreed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health that we will launch a review of CAMHS, to investigate how it can work better with schools and to identify where early support is most needed. Our two Departments will also produce the first ever child health strategy in the spring.

We will also enhance inspection across schools and children’s services, and examine whether children’s trust arrangements need to be strengthened, including through further legislation if necessary. To improve services for parents further, and to enable better early intervention, we will publish new guidance for the building schools for the future programme, to ensure that where possible schools are designed to be co-located with other services—health, police, social care, advice and welfare services. Furthermore, because schools must be sustainable for our children, and their children, we will set a new ambition that all new schools be zero carbon by 2016.

With the reforms that I have already announced to the House to tackle failing and coasting schools, to expand the academies and trusts programme, to raise the education leaving age to 18 and to introduce new diplomas, this children’s plan will set us on course to deliver ambitious long-term goals for a world-class education for every child.

Discipline in schools is essential for raising standards. We have given teachers new powers to tackle bad behaviour, and 97 per cent. of schools are now in behaviour partnerships, co-ordinating behaviour and exclusions policy, which Sir Alan Steer recommended should include all schools by 2008. I am minded to implement that recommendation in 2008, and I am asking Sir Alan to assess progress on all his proposals and to make recommendations in the spring.

We will also strengthen the regulation of pupil referral units, improve the quality of provision and pilot a range of alternatives; that could be one role for studio schools. To break cycles of reoffending among young people, the Home Secretary and I are together allocating £66 million over the next three years to target support at the young people most at risk of getting into crime. As we prepare our youth crime action plan, we will reform the education and resettlement of young offenders and pilot the use of restorative justice from April 2008.

Our consultation reports that, while parents are clear that it is their job to bring up their families, they want more information and support to help them keep their children safe and healthy. Our children’s plan includes the provision of £167 million over the next three years to fund two new expert parenting advisers in every local authority area, expand family learning, support young carers and deliver new support for families with disabled children.

Dr. Tanya Byron is investigating the potential risks to children from harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games, and will report next March. We will make proposals on young people and alcohol in the spring and investigate how the huge increase in commercial activity, advertising and marketing aimed specifically at children and young people is affecting their well-being.

I have two further announcements. In our consultation, children and young people told us that they wanted more places to play, interesting things to do outside school and recognition for their achievements. Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families set out our 10-year strategy for young people, with an ambition to have new youth facilities and places for young people to go to in every constituency of the country. It will be funded by proceeds from unclaimed assets and new investment from my Department.

I want us to start to transform youth services now, so, before the unclaimed assets legislation takes effect we will invest an additional £160 million over the next two years to develop high-quality youth facilities for young people, shaped by young people. That could mean 50 new state-of-the-art youth centres, 500 refurbished youth centres or more than 2,000 smaller centres, including mobile units. The funding will be available for every part of the country, and that will start in April. I urge all hon. Members to start working with young people, the voluntary sector and their local community to draw up local plans and prepare to bid for that money.

Finally, to help parents to keep their children safe while playing outside, I can also announce that we will launch a new national play strategy early next year. To make that a reality, from next April we will build 30 safe and supervised adventure play parks in disadvantaged areas. With a total investment of £225 million over the next three years we will also be able to build or upgrade more than 3,500 play areas across the country. There will be an average of 23 per local authority area and seven per constituency. That will be the largest Government investment in children’s play in our history.

With schools, children’s services, the voluntary sector and Government all playing their part and meeting their responsibilities, and with the £1 billion over the next three years we are allocating today to meet our children’s plan commitments, we can unlock the talents and promote the health and happiness of all children, and not just some; back parents as they meet their responsibilities to bring up their children; and intervene early so that no child or young person is left to fall behind. We will make our country the best place in the world for children to grow up. That is the mission of this Government and the children’s plan, which I commend to the House.

May I first welcome those aspects of the children’s plan that provide focused help for the most vulnerable in our society? We support the extension of a child care entitlement to the parents of two-year-old children in the most disadvantaged circumstances. I also commend the Secretary of State for his work on special needs and his plans to improve the provision of respite care for the families of children who are living with disabilities—a cause that is close to his heart, which he has consistently championed. It does him credit.

The Secretary of State is right that our children face a world that is full of greater opportunities and greater risks than ever before. However, the background to the children’s plan, sadly, is a world in which our children are falling behind those of other nations. Last week, we discovered that we have fallen from fourth to 14th in the international league tables for science, from seventh to 17th for reading, and from eighth to 24th for maths. How does the Secretary of State explain why we were in the top 10 for all those subjects when the children sitting the tests had the majority of their education under a Conservative Government, whereas we plummeted down the rankings, relegated to the second division, when those sitting the tests had all their education under a Labour Government? Is not every external audit of our education system a story of Labour failure? Is not it time to acknowledge the limitations of the top-down micro-management and political interference of the old Labour approach and embrace genuine reform?

Today, the Secretary of State announces a review of the primary curriculum to clear away the clutter. It sounds attractive. However, at the same time, the Department is pressing ahead with a pre-primary school curriculum, with 576 different targets for professionals, which prescribes exactly how toddlers should

“rub a rusk around the tray of a feeding chair… show delight by kicking and waving… use gloop”,

which is helpfully defined as,

“(cornflower and water in small trays) so babies can enjoy putting fingers into it and then lifting them out”.

How can the Secretary of State credibly say that he is clearing away the clutter and empowering professionals when he is sticking his fingers into everything and generating gloop on an industrial scale?

The Secretary of State says that he wants parents to be more involved in their children’s education. Does not he realise that that involves trusting, not lecturing parents? Only last week, Ministers blamed parents for our slide in the literacy league tables. Parents should read more to their children, the Department dictated. However, did not the report that showed us falling behind contain no survey of how often English parents read to their children? Ministers criticised mums and dads on the basis of no hard evidence. When it comes to delivering on reading, do not Ministers bear the primary responsibility for ensuring that every child who can is reading by the age of six? Should not we ensure a more concerted drive to hold accountable those schools that do not use tried and tested methods by holding a simple test after two years to ensure that our children are being taught properly?

The Secretary of State accepts that there are flaws in the current test regime, but will his plans for a changed regime, with children taking tests at several different stages in primary school, mean that new tests are shorter than the current key stage 2 tests? If so, how can we ensure that they are not made less rigorous? With independent research from Durham university showing that literacy levels have scarcely improved in a decade, surely we cannot afford any less rigour.

I fear that today will be remembered as a great missed opportunity for the Government. Instead of a clear picture for our children’s future, we have an underwhelming collage, with items stuck on any old how and no underlying vision. Why are there no proposals to give parents the right to take their children from a failing school and place them in a good new school? Why is there no determination to give teachers the power to impose effective discipline by excluding disruptive pupils without having teachers second-guessed by those outside the school? Why, instead of giving more schools academy-style freedoms to innovate and drive up standards, is the Secretary of State still restricting the freedoms of existing academies?

Is not it the case that, ultimately, instead of a broad and deep vision, we have a disappointingly hesitant and patchy programme, which betrays an itch to intervene but no grasp of the genuine problems? Is not it clear that, unless we learn from abroad and reform our education system to meet the challenge of global competition, we will fall further behind and the Government will fail future generations?

I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman was not as funny as normal. However, to be fair to him, behind the usual scripted gags and froth, there were some serious questions, which I shall tackle. I thank him for his support for the Bercow review and our work to strengthen the provision of SEN support for parents and children. I agree that that is a priority.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s reading of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—report, which made it clear that there was a responsibility on Government, teachers and parents to ensure that all our children are reading. If he reads the report, he will realise that it is clear that the brightest children are reading less at home. We all—that includes us, as parents—bear a responsibility for getting our children to read more.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we are plummeting down league tables and that standards are falling. I remind him that, in 1997, when the Conservatives left power, 63 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved the key level in English and that that has now increased to 80 per cent. The figure for maths was 62 per cent. and it is now up to 77 per cent. For English and maths, the figure was 53 per cent. and it is now up to 71 per cent. The number of failing schools has fallen from above 600 to fewer than 30. This Government have delivered rising standards year on year through our reforms—reforms that we take forward and strengthen in this report, so that we can be world class.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about our new making progress assessment. Yes, the tests will be shorter; and no, despite his accusations, there will not be dumbing down, because we are introducing the reform of an independent standards regulator to give parents, teachers and schools the confidence that standards will not fall. As for his charge that we are going backwards on reform and academies, I am accelerating the academies programme, as I say to him every time he makes that accusation. The reform of the primary curriculum in this report is a good reform that will drive up standards in our schools.

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a children’s plan. He mentioned SEN, but he made no reference at all to children’s play, youth services, investing in the early years work force, parent support advisers, our CAMHS review, our changing of the guidance for the building schools for the future programme, the children’s trust, reoffending, prevention or the Byron review. He made no mention of any of those things, which was baffling. I remember, however, him writing a very important article in The Times, in which he said that

“the Conservatives are left embarrassingly mute when parents ask them just what they would do to ease the pressures of family life.”

Those were his words, and he has eloquently proved his point this afternoon.

I have received representations for other reforms. I have had a representation that we should re-impose tests, externally marked, on six-year-olds. I reject that proposal, as do parents and schools, as it would be the wrong thing to do. I have also received a representation that we should hold back for a further year children who do not make the grade in primary schools, but that was rejected in our consultation by teachers, head teachers and parents, because we do not want larger class sizes at 11. We do not want those children who do not make the grade to be held back in primary school; we want them to be helped as they move into secondary school.

I have also received representations that we should abolish appeals on exclusions as that would somehow reduce legalism, but the head teachers tell us that they want to keep the appeals as that would prevent them from being mired in the courts. I have also received representations that we should not go ahead with increasing the education leaving age to 18; I reject those representations. I have had a proposal that we should not introduce new diplomas; I reject that representation. I have also had a proposal that we should cut £4.5 billion from the building schools for the future programme, and therefore put thousands of schools at risk in 76 authorities. Once again, in my consultation on the children’s plan, I reject that representation.

In the end, Government are about three things: vision, policy and judgment. We set out our vision here; I reject the vision of a two-tier education system. I am setting out clear policies here; I reject those wheezes that fall apart under scrutiny. As for judgment, in my view, over the past six months the judgment of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has increasingly come into question.

Does my right hon. Friend agree—or does he know—that the Children, Schools and Families Committee is investigating testing and assessment, and we will be keen to look in detail at his proposals for stage not age tests? Is he also aware that our Committee, as it did in its former incarnation, has consistently pushed for us to do something about the quality of the work force in early years, in terms of both how much they are paid and how they are trained? Much of what my right hon. Friend says today is welcome, but will he give a guarantee not only that the Select Committee will be able to track the progress of the building of the new edifice of a children’s plan, but that a monitoring of staged successes is built into it?

I reassure my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his leadership of the Select Committee. I look forward to appearing before it in early January to answer detailed questions on the children’s plan. I can confirm that we will report back on the children’s plan in a year’s time. In the meantime, our three expert groups will continue their work of monitoring our implementation. We will also involve parents in monitoring our progress.

The issues my hon. Friend raises on the work force are critical. The document sets out a strategy for the children’s work force and, within that, important reforms of the early years work force to increase their standing and enhance even further their professionalism so that it matches their dedication. We want more graduates coming into early years education and these proposals will take that ambition forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.

I know that it is traditional on these occasions for Opposition spokesmen to be disappointed by the contents of statements, whatever they contain, but may I genuinely say that many people inside and outside the House will be tremendously disappointed with the plan that he has put forward? After all, if we set it alongside the conclusions of the UNICEF report published earlier this year, which put Britain bottom of the league table of 21 developed countries in respect of child poverty and child well-being, today’s plan emerges as a mouse of a plan to deal with what is, frankly, a mountain of a problem. Even where new policies have been announced, they are tiny in their effect: 20,000 places for two-year-olds set against 650,000 youngsters in that cohort. What we have heard today is not, by anybody’s independent judgment, a serious 10-year plan for children, but a hotch-potch of reviews, recycled announcements from earlier Secretaries of State, one or two gimmicks and a unifying theme that is a belief only in top-down big government solutions.

Why was there no mention in the statement of what is supposed to be the biggest ambition of the entire Government—dealing with child poverty? Is it not absolutely astonishing for a Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to give a statement to this House in which the only mention of child poverty is backward-looking, describing what has happened up to today with nothing at all about policy for the future? Does not that indicate that Martin Narey of Barnardo’s was correct to say yesterday that the Government now seem to be managing the failure to meet the 2010 target? Does it not also underline this Government’s foolishness in deciding in the pre-Budget report to allocate £3.7 billion towards the reduction of inheritance tax, set alongside the £120 million—an almost trivial amount—found for child poverty? Why has the Secretary of State with responsibility for children failed to mention anything forward looking about what used to be one of this Government’s great ambitions? Why do we continue to find that 1.5 million children—almost of half of whom are living in relative poverty—live in households that pay full council tax when the Government have been reviewing and reviewing that unfair tax for years and doing precisely nothing about it?

On the schools agenda, why on earth do we need yet another primary curriculum review? I thought that primary education was supposed to be something that the Government had fixed in their first term in office. We now find that apparently it has not been fixed and that we need another review. What is the review designed to achieve? According to the Secretary of State, it is to allow more time for literacy and numeracy studies, but we already know that 51 per cent. of time in primary schools is spent on those two subjects. Rather than have another pointless review of primary education, why does not the Secretary of State just devolve powers to schools to make those decisions? Is it really necessary for the Whitehall screwdriver to reach into every school in the country, directing schools on how to communicate with parents and even fixing the number of graduates in early years settings? How on earth can it be right for central Government to fix those policies? Why is there nothing in the statement to target extra money on pupils through a pupil premium that would target deprivation? Why is there nothing about more freedom for schools to innovate?

On the children’s services agenda, will the Secretary of State tell us whether his desire to tie in children’s services more closely with schools is going to mean a relocation of responsibility for those services—from primary care trusts and social services, which are not usually very good at interacting with schools, to the schools themselves?

This was supposed to be one of the centrepieces of the Government and their aspirations, yet it has given us an indication of why they are so far adrift, because we have had a 10-year plan for the future of children that is entirely top down, entirely unconvincing and that will not deliver the aspirations that the Government have themselves set.

I believe that when parents, teachers and young people hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, they will find the idea that a £400 million investment in 3,500 play areas and youth clubs around the country is a gimmick very surprising. I think the suggestion that transformation of the life chances of 20,000 children aged two in disadvantaged areas is trivial says more about the hon. Gentleman’s values than it does about our policy. As for the idea that a curriculum review designed to introduce study of a foreign language for every child in primary school, as well as social and emotional aspects of learning—SEAL—teaching through the primary curriculum, is pointless, that too is a reflection on the hon. Gentleman’s politics rather than on our children’s plan.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the child poverty goal. I made a speech about child poverty yesterday. I will not take the time to read it out to the hon. Gentleman today, but the children’s plan makes very clear our goal that child poverty will be halved by 2010 and eradicated by 2020. I will tell the hon. Gentleman how we will do that. We will do it through the national minimum wage that his party opposed, and through the expansion of the tax credit system which he personally has persistently opposed. I will take no lectures from him on the subject of child poverty, given the way in which he has attempted to undermine a consensus in the country about progress in that regard.

As for the idea that we say nothing in the plan about freedom to innovate, the plan is all about schools’ innovating and working with children’s services to tackle all the barriers to learning. As for the idea that we say nothing about tie-in, we say that children’s trusts will take forward that agenda with help at the centre of them. As for the idea that we say nothing about extra money to deal with disadvantage, in his announcement on schools funding a few weeks ago my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learning allocated more money to tackling deprivation, and we are doing the same today.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments told me more about his political positioning in the Liberal Democratic party than it did about the children’s plan. He may wish to reconsider some of those comments in the coming months.

Parents and children all over the country will welcome the new emphasis that my right hon. Friend is placing on the importance of children’s play. Play is important to children’s social development, and to their mental and physical health. What we need now is a further commitment to helping parents to feel secure when their children are out playing. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if we are to achieve that, he will have to work with other Departments to ensure that local, regional and national planners always bear in mind the need for somewhere for children to play safely, and for transport planners to remember that the principal cause of death among child pedestrians is being run over in the road? We need that emphasis too, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will achieve it.

I thank my right hon. Friend, and praise him for the leadership that he has provided in this regard. It was his 2004 review “Getting Serious About Play” that paved the way for today’s announcements.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of provision for children’s play, and that of the creation of spaces in which children can play safely. In our report and in response to the views expressed to us by parents, we have encouraged local authorities to go further in introducing 20 mph speed limits in areas where children play. We have also encouraged them to think about the way in which they design housing, not just to tackle overcrowding but to ensure that there are proper places in which children can play.

In my view we need children to be seen and heard, and we need to move away from the old-style “no ball games” culture to a world in which there are spaces for them to play. We are funding that today, but it will require leadership at local level. It will also require leadership from Members of Parliament in building coalitions in every constituency to implement the plan’s proposals.

Does the Secretary of State agree that ever since the reforms that introduced the principle of testing particular age groups to national standards and then reporting the results to the public, there has been a consistent campaign against both practices by teachers’ trade unions and large parts of the educational establishment? Labour spokesmen and Ministers, however, have in principle always defended that approach.

Will the Secretary of State explain how his latest announcement of stage not age testing is not yet another serious step back in the face of all the campaigning? Surely it will make it much more difficult for parents to know whether their children have reached the standards expected of their age level, much more difficult for people to have confidence in the quality of the standards being described, and almost impossible for parents and the public to make meaningful comparisons between the performances of different schools.

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes these issues seriously and studies such matters closely. He will be reassured when he studies the detail of the proposals. I have listened to people, including those from the teaching profession, who have put it to me that we should move away from collecting information that allows school-by-school comparisons of performance to be made. I reject that approach—it does not reflect the consensus in this country, including the consensus among parents. That information is essential in order to drive up standards in our schools and to ensure that we tackle schools that are coasting.

That is fully consistent with what we are talking about now—a move towards a more stage-based approach to testing. Such an approach allows children to be tested according to their ability and the level that they have reached. It allows schools to stretch the best pupils further, while ensuring that children who are falling behind are still tested at a level appropriate to them. The information can then be used to make proper comparisons.

I shall give an example in order to explain the approach. If we were to say that all children who are learning a musical instrument, the violin for example, should be tested at 11, in year 6, it would be ridiculous to say that every child would have to take the grade 5 music exam regardless of whether they had started to learn a few years before and were at grade 1 or they were a good musician and at grade 8. It makes much more sense for the music test—the tests will build on this principle—to be based on the progress that the child has made. That in no way makes it difficult for us to compare schools in terms of the attainment levels that children reach. We will ensure that, under our pilots, we test carefully so that we provide information that allows comparisons to be made both between schools and with the past. Our independent standards regulator will ensure that we do that properly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome statement, which contains some good news for children and families. May I remind him that he has received the report and recommendations of the parliamentary hearings to safeguard the 100,000 children who run away and go missing every year? Will he respond positively to those recommendations by supporting measures to reduce radically the number of children who run away in the first place and to provide immediate safety for children who go missing?

I commend my hon. Friend on the leadership that she has given on this issue. As she knows, we are working closely with the Children’s Society on these matters. In fact, we are implementing some of her proposals by including a national indicator on young runaways in the local government indicator set. That information will be important in enabling us to improve our policy delivery across the country. We are carefully studying her report, which followed her consultations. We shall discuss the details with her, and make a further announcement in due course.

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he believes his approach to child health services is the first strategy, he ought to ask for a copy of the Court health report, which I believe was published when he was 10, in 1977? He might also read with some advantage the Plowden report on primary schools, especially the research report published in 1967, the year that he was born.

I support what the Secretary of State said about stages rather than just ages—it is perfectly possible to produce age profiles from stage reports. I strongly support the idea that people can reach standards not only in music, athletics and swimming, but in maths, spelling, arithmetic and other forms of mathematics. The sooner we start saying to people that they can soak up information and knowledge, the faster we will undo the damage that I fear was done in most educational reforms made between 1955 and 1985. He should not believe that he is the first person to think that we can get standards back, and put arms around all our children.

I think that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments and I thank him for reminding me of my date of birth. I cannot admit to having read the Court report at the age of 10. Opposition Members may have been reading such reports at the age of 10, but I think that I was playing. My point was that we will produce the first ever joint report between the health service and the Department responsible for schools and children’s services on child health. That is important because it will mean that we can integrate health into our parenting and schools policy. That is welcome and, as I understand it, new, and a consequence of the innovation of our new Department.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments on progression, I entirely agree with his sentiments. We are seeking to implement those sentiments in the reforms that we set out today. Perhaps the importance of today for that issue is not that it is a new departure, but the commitment from Government to make it happen. That is my commitment today.

I urge my right hon. Friend to reward those schools that take on the most challenging pupils, because otherwise we will not improve standards in the way that we want to in constituencies such as mine. I welcome his statement on communities becoming involved in providing facilities for local young people. Can he say how those local communities will be able to engage with that, and will he ensure that those voluntary organisations that are already engaged in such work, but are struggling to find core funding, are not overlooked when it comes to the funding that he is making available?

Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I visited the excellent Cardwell primary school in Woolwich, close to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The school is in a disadvantaged community and it is implementing now the vision that we set out for schools in the plan, including ensuring that all barriers to learning, in and out of school, are addressed by the school, the parents and the local community; engaging health services and parents from the earliest years; and working closely with the voluntary sector. In our work on children’s trusts, we want to ensure that the voluntary sector is included with schools and wider services, and that we have a consistent approach across the country to tackling those issues in the way that my hon. Friend sets out. I commend the local authorities in that part of south-east London on the leadership that they are providing on this matter.

I welcome the mention of support for young carers in the Secretary of State’s statement. Young carers underachieve in education because of the enormous burdens put on them in caring for their parents, siblings or both. What is not so welcome is that that group will have to compete for the £56 million a year that has been allocated with parenting advisers for each local authority, undefined family learning and new support for families with disabled children. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit to making young carers a priority for his Department, so that that neglected group of children is given much more support to achieve their full potential?

I can give the hon. Gentleman more details of the plan. If he studies those details, he will see that the plan will build on the £13 million that we have already allocated to young carers, many of whom face huge burdens and difficulties, through the family pathfinders programme. In addition, I will make available through the plan a further £3 million over the next three years so that we can do more to support young carers and ensure that their needs are properly taken into account in our wider carers strategy. We have a detailed plan, supported by specific money, and I hope that he will be reassured when he examines the details.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the plan. I would like him to say a little more about work force reform, because it is important that the very best quality staff work with young children in the early years. It is important that we set an ambition to recruit teachers from the top 10 per cent. of graduates. We have already done a great deal to improve the teaching work force, but we have more to do. We also need a better quality work force looking after children in care, and in youth services. The most difficult problem, in constituencies around the country, is the recruitment of youth workers, because full employment means that many of the people who before would have been prepared to do sessional youth work are now not able to do so, and I want to see—

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that in the plan we are taking forward and enhancing the teach first programme. We are also introducing a teach next programme, which will encourage more excellent people from our wider community to come into teaching. As I have said, in the next three years we are investing more than £100 million in the early years work force. Our commitment is to make teaching a masters-level profession by ensuring that every new teacher studies for a masters qualification, but we will also encourage more teachers who are already in schools to study for a masters qualification. We will make that part of our continuing professional development work and will work closely with unions and heads to make it happen. I hope that when she sees the detail, she will be reassured that we are taking forward the work force agenda, so that we have more excellent people in our schools and in our early years settings.

May I commend the Secretary of State for his commitment to families with profoundly disabled children? Does the children’s plan contain extra capital funding for respite care for such families, and will he say a little more on the subject? Is the money to be ring-fenced for local authorities, and will it be distributed alongside the extra and very welcome revenue funding that he announced earlier in the year?

Within the children’s plan, and on top of the £280 million that we have allocated to pay for an expansion of respite care for families with children with a disability over the next three years, we are now able to allocate £45 million in the next three years to support capital investment in new respite care facilities. That will make sure that the premises where respite care is provided are modernised and get the extra and special equipment that often makes the difference between a family being able to access respite care and them finding that—because of the absence of the right kind of hoist, for example—it is just not possible for them to take advantage of those respite care facilities. The money will not necessarily mean new facilities, but there will be investment in the extra help that those facilities need. We are also expanding the Family Fund to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds qualify for grants. We think that 16,000 more grants could be made as a result of the announcements.

Through his work last year, the hon. Gentleman rightly put the Government on our mettle on the issue of whether we will deliver for families with disabled children. I hope that we will show him, families with disabled children, and disabled children themselves, that we are on their side. We are investing in extra support for them. When we on the Labour Benches talk about the every child matters initiative, we are talking about every disabled child, too.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his commitment to improving the quality of life of all children? I also welcome the introduction of the Children and Young Persons Bill to improve outcomes for looked-after children. Most homes for looked-after children provide very good standards of care, but I am concerned that some reach a barely adequate standard. That is evidenced by the number of children who run away. Does he agree that if we are to drive up standards in the small number of homes concerned, a strong message must be given to failing homes? It should be exactly same message that is given to failing schools: improve or face closure.

The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes, absolutely. We expect Ofsted to be as rigorous in its inspections of children’s care homes as in its inspections of schools. We must ensure that where Ofsted highlights failures in provision, we act. One of the more general themes of the children’s plan is that we need Ofsted to inspect across schools and children’s services, in relation to the range of every child matters objectives and all the measures of well-being, including the way in which schools and children’s services work together. That includes looked-after children.

Why would it be more attractive to parents if a new primary school shares a site with a police station with cells?

I have read the children’s plan, but I do not remember a proposal for police stations with cells. However, the plan does include a proposal for safer schools partnerships, which involve community safety officers and police working in schools to help children be safe in their local communities. We will take that forward, and I hope that every school will belong to one of those partnerships in which the police work with schools. If the right hon. Gentleman shows me where the proposal for police cells in schools is in the plan, I will explain it to him.

Given my right hon. Friend’s response to the every disabled child matters campaign, does he agree that the funding that he outlined should indeed be spent on the services relevant to the problems that exist, if only as an example to other parts of the United Kingdom?

When we conducted our review of the life chances of disabled children and their families, and allocated extra money for respite care and other services, we consulted across the country. Welsh and Scottish MPs were active in those consultations. In fact, my right hon. Friend led our parliamentary consultation with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). There was widespread expectation that the money would be spent not only in England but elsewhere, and that the Barnett consequentials would be spent on disabled children in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is happening in Wales but, to my knowledge, it has not happened in Scotland, where the funds have been diverted to cut council tax. I am very disappointed indeed that the needs of disabled children and their families are not a priority for the Scottish Executive.

Does the Secretary of State really believe that a nursery school is incapable of delivering the highest quality care unless it employs two graduates? Does he accept that if the English are to become less bad linguists, they must learn the grammar of the English language if they are to have a hope of learning a foreign language? Will he ensure that that comes first in primary schools?

My answer to both questions is yes. Teaching grammar is an important part of literacy in primary schools, and we have allocated money for graduates in the early years setting to make sure that language and communication are an important part of early years learning. If I misunderstood the question, I apologise, but I agreed with that excellent intervention.

In reference to his birth date, may I remind my right hon. Friend that two weeks before he was born, his father and I journeyed up from Norwich to watch Norwich City FC beat Manchester United—a match full of star-studded players—and I think that that had a big effect on his formative years? To be serious, may I ask him about special needs? I welcome the fact that he mentioned dyslexia, but what about autism and Asperger’s? Although those reviews are under way, there are problems now. Every MP has constituents who are struggling to make ends meet and deal with those problems. We cannot wait until 2010, as there is a problem now. We need more schools and teachers, and more help for struggling families.

I thought that my hon. Friend was about to raise the issue of excessive drinking by young adults, which may have occurred on that train on 18 February 1967, after Norwich’s surprise victory as a member of division 3 south against Manchester United in the FA cup—one of the highlights of my pre-life, given that I was born seven days later. Why my father was at the game, rather than at home has always been a mystery to me. [Interruption.] He was with my hon. Friend.

To answer my hon. Friend, we have put substantial amounts of extra money into supporting special needs in this year’s settlement and for the next three years. I have announced reforms to try to improve the way in which we spot dyslexia in the early years of primary school, but following the Bercow review into some of those matters, the Ofsted review will give us an important opportunity to assess whether we are getting that right and whether we need to do even more in future.

Is my right hon. Friend aware how grateful my constituents are that the Government went into listening mode before publishing the children’s plan, by way of reading the written submissions that a large number of my constituents made or through meetings with him and with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who also had meetings with Islington constituents? Of the many suggestions in the children’s plan, they will be particularly pleased to hear that there will be free nursery school education for two-year-olds.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s role in our consultation. I know that a number of Members had consultation meetings with local parents, schools and children and made submissions to the plan. I hope that that work will carry on over the next year, because we need to do more in our local communities to put in place the play facilities and the youth facilities that are needed and to involve parents more in schools. We will ensure that we provide the materials for hon. Members to keep consulting in future.

On nursery care for two-year-olds, I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a major part of our agenda to reduce child poverty and the causes of child poverty, by making sure that from the earliest years children in disadvantaged communities get the support and learning that they need. For those 20,000 children, this will not be a gimmick, but a life-transforming experience.

Given that one in 10 three and four-year-olds are not accessing their free entitlement to nursery places, and that a number of evaluations of Sure Start and children’s centres have shown that the most disadvantaged families are not necessarily being reached, alongside the 20,000 extra places that the Secretary of State announced today, what further measures will he take to make sure that the most disadvantaged are benefiting from these policies?

We are addressing that issue in two ways—first, through the extra work that we are doing through Sure Start to reach out to the families that the hon. Lady describes to ensure that they take advantage of the services on offer. Sure Start has a continual obligation to keep reaching out further into those communities to find parents who need help and are not getting it. The second way is through the investment that we are making in the early years work force. More quality and more graduates in the early years is the best way to persuade parents to take up their entitlement and to do the best by their children. I hope that the measures on quality will encourage many more parents to take up the opportunities available.

I welcome the plan, which is a step in the right direction, but I am worried. In my home town, where we have the brand-new Blyth community college, the go-ahead has just been given for a brand-new academy right next door. I wonder how the college will fare, seeing that academies always get more money per pupil.

To reassure my hon. Friend, academies do not get more funding per pupil compared with other schools. Academies are being taken forward as part of the building schools for the future programme. I have had a number of discussions with him on these matters, as have members of my Department, and I am happy to keep discussing these matters with him to ensure that what we do together is in the best interests of all young people in his constituency.

Order. There are a large number of Members standing. I have allowed up till an hour, and I can go over the hour, provided that the supplementaries are sharp and that we talk not about football matches, but about education.

May I welcome the inclusion of young carers in the plan. A group of young carers from the national young carers forum attended the House last week and told the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), about all the issues that affect their education and their lives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the expert parent advisers, plus the social care reforms announced by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, will help those young people start to enjoy and be free to enjoy their childhood?

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving us more time. That is a reflection of the importance of the plan. I will keep my answers short. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on her leadership. It was her intervention last week and her persuading of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that ensured that the money was in the plan to support young carers over the next three years.

The House will welcome the recognition in the Secretary of State’s statement of the problems with pupil referral units. If ever there was an example of where, unfortunately, in the past 10 years the most vulnerable people have been let down, it is there. The number in those units has doubled from over 7,000 to over 15,000, yet the number getting a good GCSE is 0.4 per cent. Will the Secretary of State give us some detail about what he will do to ensure that standards rise in those units, and perhaps a little more about the pilots that he would like to see to obtain a proper replacement for them after 10 years of failure for those very vulnerable pupils?

I am going to strengthen regulation; I am going to put £26 million aside over the next three years to pilot alternative forms of provision, including one to see whether studio schools can play a role in this; and, subject to Sir Alan’s further recommendation, I am going to implement the Steer recommendation next year that we should go ahead and make exclusion partnerships compulsory for all schools. That is the best way to ensure that we do right by the education of pupils who are excluded—we need to continue to support them so that they can do well in the future.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s plan, but does he accept that healthy eating is a major contributor to the well-being of our children? Will he support my private Member’s Bill to help tackle obesity, and his ministerial colleague, the noble Baroness Royall, who said in the other place on 27 November that we need a ban on advertising high-fat, salty and sugary foods before the 9 o’clock watershed?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his leadership in highlighting the importance of healthy eating among children, and I can reassure him that, although I will need to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and cannot give an indication today of the Government’s view on my hon. Friend’s Bill, we will ensure that the wider issues that he raises are taken forward in our child health strategy in the spring.

The Secretary of State knows that one of the most serious shortcomings in our schools at the moment lies in the unacceptably high number of children who move backwards between the ages of 11 and 14. Is it not the case that under his new testing proposals it will be impossible to know whether that situation is improving or getting worse in particular schools?

The exact opposite is the case. Our proposals to test child by child on the basis of level, but also to expect them to move level by level, year by year, will enable us accurately to measure for each child and for the school whether children are making progress and to measure the level that they reach at any point in time. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that on that point he is wrong. Also, I apologise for the fact that there is nothing on grammar schools in the plan.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s proposal for a safe place for every child to play, but is he aware that Slough borough council, when challenged to produce a play strategy, planned to close local play areas rather than repair the dangerous and crumbling equipment in them? Will he place a duty on every local authority to ensure that there are safe play areas in every neighbourhood, and penalise those local authorities that take this opportunity to cut their local play areas?

Given that this is a matter for local decision, if in the end councils of whatever political colour choose not to prioritise children, it is hard for me to intervene directly. If Slough borough council has heard the Opposition’s contribution to this, it may be rather encouraged in its view that children’s play areas are gimmicks and wheezes rather than serious policy. However, we will ensure that Ofsted inspects across all every child matters outcomes, across schools and children’s services, and I encourage my hon. Friend to lead her own campaign with local people to ensure that, through the Big Lottery Fund, she gets new centres and also that play centres are available in her constituency. I fear that she may have to rely on her own leadership if it is not forthcoming from her Liberal Democrat council.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition that CAMHS has a capacity problem. Following the comments of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), may I ask the Secretary of State to recognise that there is a substantial segment of services that CAMHS cannot offer children and young people with mental health problems? I am thinking particularly of those who have experienced traumatic situations, for example. Will he ensure that the review will give adequate consideration to the funding that voluntary sector organisations need to provide the services that CAMHS will be unable to provide, even post-review?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the important contribution that voluntary organisations make in providing support for such children. I guarantee that such issues will be considered in the review. The review is not about whether we should improve CAMHS, but about how we can do so. In my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, the issue is not only about capacity, but about how we use the money to serve children’s needs best. We will ensure that the review is done well and then seek to implement its recommendations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement on the children’s plan. He will not be surprised that I wholeheartedly welcome his announcement of the £18 million over three years for teacher training specifically for special educational needs.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that my private Member’s Bill is about special educational needs; I hope that it will get a fair wind through the House. Will he consider allocating part of the £44 million, which he announced for the next three years to enable teachers to study for master-level qualifications, to teachers wishing to gain specialist qualifications in special educational needs such as dyslexia?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership. We have spoken about dyslexia issues. As she will know, the money that we announced last week will not only go towards considering how we can spot dyslexia early through the every child a reader programme, but establish whether dyslexic children’s needs are best met through ECAR or specialist dyslexic help.

We are studying the detail of my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is important and I am very hopeful that we will be able to support it.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that young people in inner-city areas such as mine will welcome his announcement on youth service provision. However, does he recognise that one of the things that has bedevilled youth service provision—historically, a non-statutory structure—is that it has always been easy to cut? Although I welcome the fact that big capital schemes are coming on board, it will be necessary to make sure that the revenue consequences are guaranteed and locked in for the long term.

Incidentally, it would be churlish of me to mention that Manchester United has got over the defeat in 1967.

It was the highlight of Norwich City’s 100 years of history.

In taking forward our commitment to 30 adventure playgrounds for eight to 13-year-olds in disadvantaged communities, we are allocating not only capital but £5 million a year in revenue to make sure that there is money for supervision, which is important for such facilities. I agree more generally that it is important to make sure that youth services are properly funded not only in capital but in revenue terms. We are giving a lead, although a lot of the responsibility also falls to local authorities.

My right hon. Friend saw first hand the success of the building schools for the future programme when he visited Bristol Brunel academy—the first BSF school in the country—with the Prime Minister in September. I welcome today’s announcement that there will be new guidance for BSF schools to ensure that, when possible, other services will be co-located with them. Will that apply only to schools currently in negotiations about BSF?

We will do that where possible. I understand, from discussions that I and the Minister for Schools and Learners have had with Partnerships for Schools, that a lot more flexibility exists than local schools and authorities are aware of. We will seek to be clearer in guidance about what can be done. When it is necessary, we will do more on guidance and flexibility to allow co-location to occur. The Minister and I will be happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the detail of any scheme, although the flexibility may already be there.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the children’s plan, which is a progressive plan for young people and children. Five days ago, Richard Angell, Stephanie Peacock and I welcomed 60 young people from all over the country to talk about the new £1 rate to join the Labour party and how the Labour party could employ it to engage more with young people. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that councils will have some accountability to ensure that they consult young people on the delivery and progression of the children’s plan?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the £160 million spent on youth services through our Department and the Big Lottery Fund will be conditional not only on consultation with but on the active engagement of young people in drawing up proposals and their future management. Through her leadership in the all-party group on youth affairs, my hon. Friend has highlighted the importance of engaging young people in the design and implementation of policy, and this is a good example of an area where we will ensure that that happens case by case across the country.

This is an excellent plan. I particularly welcome the youth service proposals and the adventure playgrounds. Will my right hon. Friend say something about the eight-to- 13 age group, who are often neglected in this respect? What will be in it for them?

I mentioned the 30 adventure playgrounds, which will be particularly for that age group. However, the more general point is that many parents are concerned about the transition from primary to secondary school, and many teachers are concerned that some children are not making as much progress as they should in the first and second years of secondary school. We aim for parental engagement in that transition and in the early years of secondary school, and we will be able to address both those issues through these proposals, plus age not stage—[Hon. Members: “Stage not age”]—thank you—stage not age testing and the making good progress pilots. That will help to support the age group that my hon. Friend mentions.

In children’s first years of life, their main educators are usually their parents, not school teachers, and the professionals to whom those parents usually turn for support are not teachers but health visitors. Does my right hon. Friend envisage a central role for health visitors in co-ordinating those other supports for this group of parents?

Health visitors and midwives are playing a central role in many areas, and we envisage their doing so in future in the implementation of this plan. It is very important to bring together education, schools, children’s services and health policy in local areas. We are expanding the family fund to support parents in supporting their children’s learning at home, including in the earliest years. We also want to ensure that co-location of services includes health services in the earliest years. When I was at Cardwell school yesterday, I met people from the PCT and midwives who were doing that for children and families in that part of south-east London. We can make this happen across the country.

European Affairs

[Relevant documents: Thirty-fifth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 1014, on the European Union Intergovernmental Conference; and Third Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 16-iii, European Union Intergovernmental Conference.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of European affairs.

I am pleased to open this traditional debate on European policy held before each meeting of the European Council. Before I do so, the whole House will expect me to express our shared horror at the two bomb blasts in Algeria today. The latest information is that there were two targets—a student bus and a United Nations mission. Sixty-two people are known to be dead and 13 people, whom we presume to be UN staff, are currently unaccounted for. No one has yet claimed responsibility for this terrible atrocity, but I know that the whole House will want to send deepest condolences to all those concerned and to ensure that we offer to the Government of Algeria any possible help that we can give them, both in pursuing the perpetrators of this terrible crime and in helping them to strengthen any security that they need to strengthen or to develop any security co-operation to prevent this sort of terrible outrage in future.

The meeting of the European Council this week will address some of the most pressing issues facing the European Union. It will set out a globalisation declaration and establish a reflection group on the long-term global context for European action. Leaders will also no doubt bask in the acclamation among the peoples of Europe for the benefits of the Lisbon reform treaty—[Laughter.] I was just checking that hon. Members opposite were listening.

As the Foreign Secretary is adamant in refusing the British people a vote, why does he not give this House a vote before he signs away our birthright by signing the treaty?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, no birthrights are being signed away, and I look forward to many debates and many votes in this House in the course of the new year, when we can debate such issues at great length.

I am happy to have my right hon. Friend’s assurance that no birthright is being signed away. However, one or two rather fundamental points are being agreed in this treaty. Despite the fact that objection to the treaty may be regarded as a purely political ploy on the part of some Members, it might be helpful if we in the House of Commons were to register in some way that there is a great deal in it that causes great worries to many people of all parties.

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that all the details of the treaty will be carefully scrutinised. Time will be given for all opinions to be registered and for the detail to be exposed and debated. She will know, as will hon. Members opposite, that the treaty will come into force only when it has been passed by this Parliament and every other country that is party to the treaty.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm for the record that, however lengthy the debate in the House may be, it is not a question of amending even a single comma but of accepting the whole treaty or nothing? Therefore, the whole concept of the House being involved in the drafting and drawing up of the treaty was not realised. We are being given a rather black-and-white choice rather late in the day.

My hon. Friend will know from the exchanges we had in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that there are good grounds for looking again at the way in which the period between 19 and 21 June brought into sharp relief the choice faced by the Government and subsequently the House. That is the point at which the bilateral discussions that had been happening were consolidated into a single text. We have had exchanges about that in the Committee. She is right to say that the House will face the question of whether it should pass the treaty in the new year. If the House does not do so, or if the treaty is rejected elsewhere in Europe, it would not come into force.

Just to clarify exactly what the Foreign Secretary said, will he tell me what would happen if a particular amendment tabled by the House went through to amend one part of the treaty? Is he basically saying that we are going to spend months and months discussing it, but that it quite honestly makes no difference whether or not anyone turns anything down because the treaty will go through?

My hon. Friend is right to say that in the end the House has to decide whether to pass the Bill. The Bill will implement the treaty, and the House certainly can amend the Bill. For example, we will have a long debate about a referendum on the treaty. An amendment on that can succeed or fail; if it succeeds, the treaty would go in front of the people for passage or not. The Bill is amendable in the same way as any other—

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the procedures being adopted by the Government in relation to the treaty are exactly the same as those adopted in the past when dealing with the important Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties, which were supported by Conservative Front Benchers? Will he comment on the fact that if amendments were made to the treaty in the 27 countries of the European Union, we would end up with complete anarchy when trying to achieve anything in Europe?

My hon. Friend’s intervention is telling, and so is the response from Opposition Members, because what they want is anarchy in the European Union. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The procedure that the Government will follow will be just as with previous treaties. Previous amending treaties have tried—

With due respect to hon. Members, I said that I would go through the issues being discussed at the European Council and then move on to the European reform treaty. If they will permit me to do so, we can return to their questions about the treaty at the appropriate moment.

For obvious reasons, the situation in Kosovo will be at the forefront of discussion this Friday in Brussels. The responsibilities of the EU, which I discussed with Foreign Ministers in Brussels yesterday, are critical to stability in the western Balkans, and I say the whole of the western Balkans advisedly—Kosovo, Serbia and the other parts of the region together. The written ministerial statement that I laid before the House this morning sets out the Government’s approach. The origins of the problem are ancient. They date right back to the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. However, the immediate context is set by the terrible experience of the people of Bosnia in the mid-1990s and of Kosovo at the end of the 1990s. Then, ethnic nationalism overwhelmed the forces of moderation and humanity. This time it needs to be different. Kosovo Albanians and Serbs need to know that restraint and due process will be honoured, and extremism and violence confronted.

There has been an extensive process of mediation over the past two years, first under UN auspices, led by former President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, and then under an EU-Russia-US umbrella for the past four months. These efforts have been unstinting. I want especially to recognise the efforts of Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the UK and the European troika representative over the past four months. I met Ambassador Ischinger again yesterday to hear his latest views. The basic fact is that despite the effort at mediation, there remains a wide gulf between the sides which further mediation will not close; so they have to choose and so do we.

The Kosovars have to choose how they go about pressing their claims for independence, recognising that the status process provided for in UN Security Council resolution 1244 resulted in the Ahtisaari proposal for supervised independence. The signals from Pristina yesterday were encouraging. The Government there said that they would first, stay in step with the international community; secondly, work to minimise violence in Kosovo; and thirdly, honour the undertakings of the Ahtisaari plan, including for minorities.

I presume that the Foreign Secretary has met the Serbian Foreign Minister to discuss this difficult issue. Like many other young people, the current Serbian Foreign Minister fought against Milosevic and put his life at risk opposing the despot, but his position in his own country is being made extremely difficult by the great rush by the United States for an immediate solution. What assurances can the Foreign Secretary give me that the process will not be rushed?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I have met the Serbian Foreign Minister three times, most recently yesterday. It is important to recognise that there needs to be outreach both to the Kosovars and to the Serbs—the Serbs within Kosovo and the Serbian Government. The political situation is obviously delicate, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are seeking to strengthen the forces of moderation on both sides. He talked about a rush to independence, but the fact that the Kosovan Government are talking about working with the international community and about a period of months, not days, speaks at least in part to the sort of care that he knows is important.

The right hon. Gentleman has indicated on the radio that he is now in favour of independence for Kosovo. He will know that that is very much at variance with the Government’s policy at the time of the bombing of Belgrade, when his predecessor Robin Cook said:

“we do not support independence for Kosovo…we believe that its present status must be enhanced through meaningful autonomy.”

If the Foreign Secretary is arguing that circumstances have changed over the past few years, requiring the Government to adopt a new position, will he at least acknowledge that further changes are required to the current proposals? If the borders of Serbia are not to be seen as sacrosanct, is there any reason why the current borders of Kosovo should be seen as sacrosanct? Will he give further consideration to whether the northern part of Kosovo around Mitrovica, which is dominated by a Serb population, might be left with Serbia as part of a concession that might enable moderates in Belgrade to accept the inevitable?

I should like to address the three or four points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised. First, the French Foreign Minister and I said in September that if the mediation process could not close the gap between the sides, the Ahtisaari plan for supervised independence was on the table and should represent the basis on which to move forward. To answer the third point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman hinted at, we also said that the Ahtisaari plan should be seen as a basis. If there is a way we can add to the guarantees that are offered—to the Serbs in northern Kosovo, for example—we should look to do so within a new constitutional settlement, recognising that Serbs are to be found not only in northern Kosovo but in other parts of Kosovo as well.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me directly about partition, and I want to address that point directly. We do not support the partition of Kosovo. The mediation team has been talking to both sides over the past four months, and that suggestion has been floated. Both sides have addressed the question, but we have been clear that partition is not the way to create a viable, stable constitutional settlement in Kosovo. We do not support that proposal.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that self-determination is key in Kosovo, but there cannot be self-determination while we reject any possible partition of Kosovo in favour of the self-determination of the Serb minority in the north. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, what are his plans for the Serb enclaves further south? Secondly, what access can he guarantee for Serbs trying to reach the cultural sites, such as monasteries, that are extremely important for the Serb position?

The situation in Kosovo is unique, as I think the official Opposition have recognised all along. It is unique because Kosovo is the subject of the terrible tragedies of the 1990s; because it has been a UN protectorate within a country for the past eight years, since the 1999 UN Security Council resolution; and because it has been the subject of a political process that emanates directly from a UN Security Council resolution with the attributes that I have described. This unique situation circumscribes the boundaries of a new Kosovo in a very clear way. Any state needs to be viable, to be able to fend for itself and to organise itself, and I do not believe that partition would meet those criteria.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about protection for Serb minorities outside the north, I would say they need precisely the kind of security presence that the NATO KFOR force provides. There are 16,000 NATO troops there at the moment. That is in start contrast to the situation when the terrible events took place in the 1990s. He also asked a reasonable question about access to religious sites. The precise purpose of a supervised independence—I emphasise the word “supervised”—is to ensure that there is proper respect for minority rights, and that the kind of access he has described is properly organised and policed.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is considerable unhappiness on the Kosovar side, not least because of the long-standing obduracy by Serbians over the handing over of indicted war criminals? There are four still remaining, and Carla del Ponte—the United Nations war crimes prosecutor, who retires in a week’s time—has made it absolutely clear that she is certain that the Government in Belgrade knew exactly where two of them were two years ago. Is it not time that Belgrade did its business in this regard?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Carla del Ponte made a presentation to the European Foreign Ministers in October. Of the 36—I think—indictees, 32 have been returned, and it is very important that the last four should be returned as well. It is also important to recognise that the Serbian Government have now put up $1 million as a reward. It is perhaps a little late in the day, but the reward is now there, and we now need to see 100 per cent. conclusion to the process, with all the indictees being returned.

Let me briefly rehearse the position that the UK Government will take over the months ahead. First, resolution 1244 provides a legal base for international activity, and the decision by NATO Foreign Ministers on Friday to confirm the presence of KFOR is vital in that regard. Secondly, the Ahtisaari proposal for supervised independence continues to provide the best basis for moving forward in the absence of agreement between the parties. Thirdly, the EU needs to take responsibility for the problem in its own backyard. Inaction means something worse than continued limbo; it means a festering problem that will become dangerous if there is no way forward. Fourthly, there needs to be a European security and defence policy mission working in close co-ordination with NATO forces. Fifthly, there needs to be the significant outreach that I have described, to the Serbs in Kosovo, to guarantee their rights, and to Serbia. That position can command consensus in the EU in the months ahead.

The second major foreign policy issue for discussion on Friday will be Iran. I hope that there is consensus across the House on that issue. Iran has every right to be a proud, respected member of the international community; it does not have a right to set off a nuclear weapons race in the middle east. Last week’s US national intelligence estimate—the NIE—judged that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme up until 2003, when it halted one aspect of it. If true, that is good.

However, the report does not answer the questions of the international community, which have been expressed in successive UN Security Council resolutions, about Iran’s activities and intentions. That is why it is so important for Iran to come clean on its past activities, including on the nature of any weaponisation programme, past or present, that would be a serious breach of the non-proliferation treaty.

The facts remain stark. Despite demands from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council, Iran is still pursuing an enrichment programme that has no apparent civilian application, but which could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Iran is still denying the IAEA inspectors sufficient access to enable them to verify whether the nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. The head of the IAEA, Dr. el-Baradei, whom I shall meet on 7 January, has said that the IAEA’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear programme is actually diminishing. Dr. Solana has reported on behalf of the E3 plus 3 that his talks with Iran’s nuclear negotiator failed to produce a positive outcome. As a result, we will be pressing for further action in the UN Security Council.

At the same time it is vital that the European Council should send a clear and unambiguous message to the regime in Tehran that it has a choice. Either it can co-operate with the IAEA and comply with the demands of the UN Security Council, paving the way for a genuine transformation of its relationship with the whole international community, including the US, or it can continue on its path of confrontation, resulting in further sanctions and isolation.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether, in the UK Government’s assessment, Iran already has the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons? Is it only Iran’s ability to produce them that is the problem, or do we doubt whether it has the ability to deliver, as well as whether it possesses such weapons?

I know that my hon. Friend has recently visited Iran, and I look forward to discussing the visit made by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs with the Committee. As my hon. Friend suggests, there are three aspects to any nuclear weapons programme: the weaponisation—which was addressed by the NIE—the enrichment and the missile. We know that missile tests are being carried out, and I would not want to say more about our judgments on the Iranian programme in respect of its missiles.

We all know that the action that the European Council could take to which the Foreign Secretary refers is the imposition of sanctions to match the American sanctions. He is signing a treaty that elevates the prospect of a European common foreign policy yet further in the EU, but what is the possibility of getting agreement on this vital issue among the member states of the EU—least of all Germany, which seems extremely reluctant to sign up to any sanctions against Iran?

The prospects are reasonably good. The leaders of the EU countries will send a clear message on Friday. Of course, existing EU sanctions involve Germany. I think I am right—and if I am not, I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to correct myself—to say that EU trade with Iran in the year up until May 2007 fell by 34 per cent. That is one consequence of the sanctions regime, in which Germany is playing a part. I am happy to try to find a breakdown of countries’ contributions to that 34 per cent. reduction. I had a conversation with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor, at last week’s meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers, which also took place in Brussels. From that conversation, I know that there is a strong German commitment to being part of a sanctions package.

The third important issue for the Council concerns international development, about which there is now helpful agreement across the House. Since the UN millennium summit in 2000, the world has repeatedly promised to “spare no effort” to free men, women and children from extreme poverty, but we are not moving fast enough.

The EU is the world’s biggest aid donor. If the millennium development goal targets are to be met, it needs to act as a driving force. Following his call for action in July, the Prime Minister is determined to use this and future Councils to push forward EU action to achieve the millennium development goals. We want the Commission to produce a full account of progress so far, and to make recommendations on how the EU can accelerate its efforts. If that work begins now, the EU will be able to lead the rest of the world by example.

Any strategy will be incomplete without trade and trade deals. The EU-Africa summit agreed an action plan with trade at its heart. We are working hard for a conclusion to the Doha trade round, and economic partnership agreements have an important role to play. A significant number of African countries have signed EPAs, and I hope others will follow before the end of the year, providing better access to EU markets and helping Africa trade its way out of poverty.

Would the Foreign Secretary agree that much of the poverty in Africa is caused by EU trade barriers? He talks about setting an example, but would not this country be able to set a much better example if we had control over our trade policy? We could set an example to the other European countries if we had that, whereas at present we have Peter Mandelson determining our trade policy for us.

We know that the hon. Gentleman speaks with passion as a member of the “Better Off Out” campaign, but we would not be better off out of the EU. Indeed, we would be worse off—as would African countries, since it is Britain’s liberalising instincts in the EU that make sure that we have a progressive trade policy.

The Council will also address key issues where European and wider global issues come together.