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Coram’s Charter for Children

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Coram’s Charter for Children, and what steps they plan to take to implement its recommendations to create better chances for children.

My Lords, we welcome the publication of Coram’s Charter for Children and are grateful for its work in supporting children, young people and families. All children need love and stability to be happy and to grow up capable of fulfilling their potential. The Government are committed to prioritising the needs of children, ensuring that their best interests are at the centre of policy- and decision-making.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. The charter outlines a social contract between society and children which seeks to ensure that they get a fair share, a secure future and an equal chance. It states clearly that, at the moment, life is not getting better for children and young people in our country. Will His Majesty’s Government ensure that children’s best interests are always preserved by having child impact assessments and finally appointing a Cabinet- level Minister for children?

The Government absolutely accept that Covid in particular had a marked effect on our children, but we already have a Cabinet-level Minister for children—the Secretary of State for Education, who represents the interests of children in Cabinet. We also have a child rights impact assessment that government departments can use.

My Lords, this morning a coalition of leading health bodies, with the support of the Children’s Commissioner, launched a report in the River Room aimed at improving children’s nutritional health. Like the Coram charter, it calls for the extension of free school meals, starting with all primary school children, and auto-enrolment. Will the Government finally listen to and act on the growing calls for the extension of free school meals, which the evidence shows will improve children’s health and educational performance?

I remind the noble Baroness that this Government have extended school meal eligibility more than any other, including through universal infant free school meals and for families with no recourse to public funds. Our strategy has been to support families in a major way, with £104 billion of support between 2022 and 2025 and, rightly, giving parents discretion on its use.

My Lords, the Minister well understands that in recent years there has been a steady run-down of family support services, at considerable cost to some children who would normally have been able to depend on this kind of help and support at a critical stage in their lives. Sadly, those children from the poorest homes who are affected in this way are also likely to be persistently absent from schools, thereby limiting their development. Will there be opportunities in future to increase family support services?

I would slightly reframe the noble Lord’s first assertion. There has been a redirection of resources to increasingly complex cases in child protection and a displacement of resources from some of the earlier help services. The House is aware of the Government’s commitment to rolling out family hubs and providing really comprehensive, targeted support to families who need it the most. I share the noble Lord’s deep concerns about attendance. All Ministers across the department have this as a primary focus.

My Lords, the Coram Charter for Children makes for disturbing reading. Some 4.2 million children in this country are in poverty—4.2 million children in a wealthy country. This figure is rising. The Minister will agree that this has devastating consequences for children’s health, security and opportunities. Can the Minister tell the House what action the Government plan to take to stop the cuts in children’s services?

We understand that local authorities are under significant financial pressure. That is why we have committed to major reform in relation to children’s social care, focusing increasingly on earlier intervention. Over the last three spending reviews, local government has seen real increases in its core spending power, with a major cash injection of £5.1 billion last year, of which £3.1 billion was provided through a central government grant.

My Lords, the Coram charter calls for the reform of childcare, enabling all children to have access to high-quality early years provision. I very much welcome the announcement last year of free provision for two year-olds from 1 April, with further extension later on. However, in the year that has just ended, there were 216 nursery closures in England, compared with 144 in the previous year. What steps are the Government taking to encourage early years providers to increase capacity to meet this new demand?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Of course, he is right about the number of closures, but overall, the workforce has increased by 4% in the last year. My noble friend asks about action now: we have announced an increase in the hourly rates paid to providers, to £5.88 for three to four year-olds, and up to £11.22 for the under twos. We are allowing parents to register their interest early in the new free childcare provision, allowing nurseries to expand. We have increased the flexibility for childminders to deliver their services outside the home.

Improving children’s lives should centre on ensuring that we deliver high standards for all children in all schools. According to an IFS report released last month, schools serving more disadvantaged pupils have seen larger spending cuts since 2010. How do the Government justify this gap in pupil spending?

I do not fully recognise the figures that the noble Baroness refers to. As she knows, we have been adjusting school funding to try to move towards a national funding formula. We have also invested increasingly in the pupil premium to support precisely the children whom she and the Government are most concerned about.

My Lords, looking at the other end of childhood—teenagers—will the Government do something better about youth clubs, which might have some effect on gangs?

There are multiple things that will have effects on gangs, but clearly the engagement of young people is very important, as the noble and learned Baroness suggests. That is why we made the national youth guarantee commitments in 2022.

My Lords, I acknowledge the Minister’s personal commitment to support children’s services and children themselves, but that is not necessarily the outcome delivered by other Ministers and her government department, as has been stated across the House. Will the Minister look at the practice in Tower Hamlets, which has been providing not only educational support but free meals from age three to senior school years? Will she undertake at least to explore why one authority can make it while others cannot?

The department is of course happy not only to look at the ability to provide meals in the way that the noble Baroness set out but to see their impact. A core principle of this Government is to give as much autonomy as possible to schools. They know their children and how to use their budgets; we trust them and back their judgment.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of Coram, the country’s first and longest-serving children’s charity. Our Charter for Children makes several important recommendations, from early years education to school leavers and mental health, which should not be ignored because of financial constraints, as they will benefit society in the long term. We need to show that every child across the nation is valued and that no child is left behind, because, as I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from Coram to discuss this important report?

I would be delighted to meet the noble Baroness and the team from Coram. I put on record our thanks to them for all the work that they do.