Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill debate

John Bercow welcomes proposals to give statutory recognition to children's trusts which bring together local organisations responsible for the commissioning and provision of services for children, young people and their families.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), to whose thoughtful contribution I listened with respect. I declare an interest as an adviser to the Priory Group, which owns a number of special schools around the country.

I start by offering strong support to the proposal in the Bill to give statutory recognition to children’s trusts by mandating the creation of children’s trusts boards in every part of the country. It is important in this context to underline that the children’s trust is not some abstract, esoteric philosophical construct divorced from the reality of public service delivery and children and young people’s opportunity. On the contrary, the children’s trust is or should be the embodiment of the local partnership between the commissioners of services for children, young people and their families, and the providers of those services.

As such, the children’s trust has a responsibility to spearhead the process of integrated commissioning across education, social care and health services. Necessarily in the process if it undertakes that work, it will bring together and work with local authorities, primary care trusts and social services departments, but it does not end there. Very likely, if the work is done properly, it will involve the children’s trust’s interaction with and learning from a range of other organisations—for example, the Connexions service, youth offending teams, Sure Start children’s centres, the police service, housing services, leisure services and voluntary organisations.

I am not sure that there is adequate recognition of the significance of the children’s trust. The difficulty is that five years ago, for entirely understandable reasons, the Government did not want to invest those trusts with too much formal responsibility. They were susceptible to the criticism if they did so that local discretion would be unduly fettered or constrained. The result is that on the ground there may be a children’s trust, but in many cases there are what are amorphously known as children’s trust arrangements, and they are not as specific or explicit as a children’s trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said in his contribution that the track record of the children’s trusts so far has been chequered at best and subject to ferocious criticism. There is no denying that last year’s Audit Commission report is very critical of the work of the trusts so far. It says, among other things, that the trusts are guilty of a failure to distinguish between strategic, executive and operational issues.

The report laments the fact that many of the representatives on those children’s trusts boards that exist lack a mandate from their sponsoring organisations to offer a view about policy or, more particularly, to commit resources. It rues the reality, too, that there is often among the members of the trusts little or no experience whatever of the process of joint commissioning, which the Government believe to be integral to the future successful delivery of services to children, young people and their families.

When I undertook a review of speech, language and communication services for children from 0 to 19 for the Government between 2007 and 2008, it was also my sense, regrettably, that in respect of health and education services, all too often there was a tendency to commission separately, based on different understandings, different priorities and different processes. The Audit Commission is justified in saying that so far, over the five years, there is little evidence that the trusts have made a substantial difference to outcomes for children, young people and their families, but the burden of my contention is that that is not of itself an indictment of the notion that there should be children’s trusts or joint commissioning arrangements. Rather, it is a reflection of the reality that all too often those trusts are themselves intangible.

Going round the country, I wanted to see the trust, to hear the trust, to smell the trust, to recognise the trust in action, and I would often ask besuited individuals of great seniority in the commissioning or delivery of local services whether there was a trust in that area, of what it consisted, and what it was doing. I have to say that I was greeted, in a multiplicity of places around the country, with answers of quite the most stupendous and unsurpassable eloquence, at the end of which I was absolutely none the wiser as to whether anything was being done on that front. That leads me to say that at least on the surface there would appear to be a good Government case for changing the arrangement and offering a degree of a lead from the top in saying that there should be statutory recognition.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for making some of the points that he is making. Does he agree that those varied and nebulous organisations are difficult to scrutinise, and that it is difficult for a parent, for example, to challenge a decision that might go back to the children’s trust?

John Bercow: I certainly do agree with that. If there is no obvious point of accountability, it is not clear where people can get answers or services or, in the absence of answers or services, recompense for themselves, their children or their loved ones. The absence of a robust structure is something of a problem.

In the Government’s consultation on the subject, there was substantial—around two thirds—support for the idea of giving statutory recognition to the children’s trusts. If we look at organisations that are daily involved in the provision of children’s services or that are concerned with the well-being of children, we see that there is support for the proposal from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for example, and from the Children’s Society. I suppose that what I am really saying is that although day-to-day intervention in the minutiae of the local operation of a trust is entirely inappropriate, there is a world of difference between such fussy interference on the one hand and on the other the establishment of a clear structure, for which I am calling and which it seems the Government now propose to introduce. If anything, so far and with good intentions, the Government have been too permissive on the subject; there is something to be said for an element of prescription.

I say that because when we are talking about children’s services, and in particular about the commissioning and delivery of services to children and young people with special educational needs, simply leaving a complex mosaic of disparate and unrelated local organisations, each with its own important agenda, to go about the process of pulling together, is a triumph of optimism over reality. When there is such a laissez-faire approach, the interests and needs of the most vulnerable and potentially marginalised children and young people are often relegated or ignored. That is why I suggest that the process needs to be driven. The joint commissioning that we want will not just happen; there has to be leadership, teamwork and a set of processes that will translate aspiration to fact.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way during what is, as usual, an eloquent and perceptive speech.

One of the great concerns in my constituency is the number of young people who, despite all the good work so far, are still progressing through primary and secondary education without their needs being identified; sometimes quite profound underlying difficulties and problems are not picked up. Does the hon. Gentleman see a role for the children’s trust boards to be much more proactive? They could, for example, go to the GP sector or the schools themselves, say that such children are slipping through the net in large numbers and ask what is being done about it.

John Bercow: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. The children’s trust should have the responsibility to assess need, decide on the appropriate mix of services, secure the appropriate resources, commission the services and facilitate their delivery, and judge the quality of the services. There should then be the potential to refine or significantly alter the provision.

I say to the Government and the House that we have had a panoply of important Government statements on commissioning. We now need to move on from those statements to a framework for improvement. We have had the joint commissioning framework, the commissioning framework for health and well-being, world-class commissioning, the operating framework for the national health service and the children’s plan. Each and every one of those important documents bangs on about the need for, and potential benefits to be derived from, joint commissioning. Yet in many cases—most, I fear—such commissioning has stalled on the ground. The Government are right to take the step that they are taking. Children’s trusts can be the vehicle for the very improvement that we all want.

Mr. Willis: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Five years ago, I suspect that I would not have agreed with him; I would have thought that the local authorities could do most of the work themselves. I now totally agree that there needs to be an umbrella organisation to bring the organisations together.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the drive to pass this legislation and set up the new Young People’s Learning Agency will result in a whole set of transfers of functions to local authorities, particularly in respect of 16 to 19-year-olds and of 19 to 24-year-olds with special educational needs? The need for the trust to be able to develop the young people’s plans is so crucial. In some ways, organisations should be put on hold so that we do not get flawed plans and that there is independent scrutiny to make the plans worth while.

John Bercow: I confess that I am uncertain about whether the overall effect of the organisational changes will be beneficial; I think that the jury is out on the subject. I accept that to some extent I am ducking the hon. Gentleman’s challenge, but I have focused my remarks and thinking very much on the younger end of the spectrum. As far as services for those people are concerned, and given the primacy of making a reality of early intervention, it seems that the statutory recognition route is the right one to follow.

I should also say something in support of the proposal to give statutory recognition to the children’s centres and to require local authorities to establish and maintain sufficient such centres in every part of the country. Although those centres are by no means perfect, it is fair to say that they have made a real, positive and lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of people—if not more than 1 million by now—right across the United Kingdom. That is not something at which we should sniff or cavil. The centres are also responsible for securing or advising on the availability of education, health, social care and employment services.

The assessment would be that, in the round, the centres have done pretty well so far, although there is scope for improvement. There are no longitudinal studies on the subject, because the children’s centres have not been in place for long enough to allow such. However, if we reflect for a moment on the reports that have been produced, we realise that they have not been insignificant by any means. There is the national evaluation of Sure Start, and there are reports by the National Audit Office, Ofsted and the Public Accounts Committee. They looked at different aspects of the services and provision of the children’s centres and drew important conclusions.

First, the reports were pretty clear that, on the whole, the centres’ services had led to an improvement in the quality of parenting and in the experiences of children—their social development and capacity for self-restraint. We should welcome that significant development. On the negative side, the thrust of the criticism has been that although the children’s centres have had some success—they have done well in providing services to ethnic minorities in areas where there are large concentrations of ethnic minorities, for example—they have done less well in other respects. In areas without large ethnic minority populations, they have struggled to reach those small, vulnerable and needy minorities. That has been a significant challenge.

There has also been the problem of centres being unable to reach out to fathers in local communities, and that also needs to be addressed. The Public Accounts Committee felt that the centres needed to be clearer about the services, or the signposts to organisations that could help, that are offered to children and families with disabilities. There is scope for improvement.

What will result from, or be the benefit of, statutory recognition? The feeling in the consultation, in which 97 per cent. of respondents supported the case for statutory recognition, was that it would confer a greater legitimacy on the centres and that there might be a greater urgency about the consolidation and extension of the services of the centres around the country. A sense of security and a degree of permanence that would otherwise be lacking would be invested in the centres, and that would be conducive to long-term planning, efficiency and effectiveness. We should look seriously at the argument for statutory recognition; having done so, I come down in support of it.

The subject of funding was touched on in an abrasive exchange between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. If memory serves me, when these centres were established there was annual funding of £721 million; this year, it is £1.573 billion; and in 2010 it will be £1.941 billion. That is a lot of money and a very concentrated resource. It was music to my ears when my hon. Friend affirmed, in terms which I fear brook no contradiction and avoid any doubt, that the Conservative party, when it comes into government next year, will continue precisely that commitment. That is of the essence, because warm words, empathetic gestures and isolated initiatives will not suffice to meet the needs of this case. If we are serious about securing early intervention, tackling social exclusion, furthering opportunity, extending life chances and facilitating social justice, this is a programme the merits of which we have to recognise and upon which we should build.

Mr. Laws: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that what I heard from his Front Bench was a commitment to the total departmental budget, not to any allocation within it.

John Bercow: My impression was that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State had made a commitment to the centres. However, the hon. Gentleman need not doubt for a moment that I will crawl over the minutiae—every word—of what my hon. Friend said. I hope that he made a commitment. If he did, I congratulate him; if he did not, he needs to make it. These centres are doing excellent work; they need to develop that work and require the financial support to do so.

I want to conclude with an unrelated observation concerning clause 84 on the election for apprenticeship scheme. I can see merit in what the Government are proposing, but I have a sneaking dissatisfaction with the terms of the clause as currently drafted. The requirement that to be successful in securing such an apprenticeship applicants should have to have level 2 or level 3 qualifications seems excessively arbitrary and draconian. I ask the Minister to reconsider that, for one simple reason: there will be young people around this country, perhaps on the autistic spectrum—I know of several examples—or with other special educational needs who are not academically equipped to succeed in examinations or whose school careers have been blighted by late intervention, a denial of opportunity and poor treatment, and who therefore have not gained qualifications but would be well suited to such an apprenticeship. They often have a particular interest in a given set of things and a fascination for how they work, as well as a sense of the priorities of the project and an ability to concentrate on it and make a real success of it. I simply say to Ministers that, in the understandable quest to guarantee that certain standards are set and maintained, they should not be arbitrary and give up the opportunity of some very vulnerable children and young people gaining access to qualifications from which they would benefit.

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why I hope that his hon. Friends on the Front Bench will withdraw their continued opposition to programme-led apprenticeships that prepare young people in college so that they can make those steps towards work-based apprenticeships. There is some confusion about what we are seeking to do in this respect. He will know that many organisations, such as the Prince’s Trust, work very well with these young people.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman credits me with a level of detailed knowledge of the precise thought processes and current policy positions of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I do not possess. On that basis, I am inclined to resile from that particular challenge.

I have calculatedly focused on those aspects of the Bill that I especially welcome, and I make no apology for that. I would like to think that in certain aspects of children’s and young people’s policy we could start to develop a genuine consensus that will endure irrespective of which party happens to be in office at the time. We all talk about trying to do the right thing in the national interest irrespective of party politics, but that is the approach that I am taking. Important parts of this Bill are extremely welcome. I wish them success and hope that they achieve what I believe they can and I know Ministers want to see.

6.54 pm

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JOHN'S OTHER INTERVENTIONS IN THE SAME DEBATE

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Clause 47 concerns the provision of education for persons subject to youth detention. Given that, as the Secretary of State knows, upwards of 60 per cent. of the 11,000 people in our young offender institutions suffer from speech, language and communication problems of an intensity that prevents them from accessing conventional education and training courses, can he say something more than the Bill does about how the Government intend to ratchet up provision for those people?

Ed Balls: I wanted to make some progress and look at the individual reforms in order, but I am happy to answer that particular point. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech later on, and I hope that, if possible, he might be permitted to serve on the Committee. The reforms that we are introducing in the Bill, which build on the work that he has done for the Government in speech, language and communication, are very clear that we must strengthen our responsibility to young people going into custody and coming out of custody—in particular, through new responsibilities for local authorities in taking forward those young people’s education and ensuring continuity of education afterwards.

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John Bercow: If the Bill were not to do what it certainly should do—and what has just been advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—would not the Government fall foul of their own forthcoming Equality Bill? I am sure that they would not want to do that.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, in his usual erudite way. These are the kind of issues on which the Public Bill Committee can get assurances from the Minister when it examines the Bill in detail. This is why the Committee needs sufficient time to do that, and I am sure that the Minister will be only too delighted to give such assurances.

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John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman’s important point underlines the danger of an excessive and insistent localism that specifies that in every case it is just up to the local authority to do its best. Sometimes there are people who have complex and overlapping needs, but of whom there is not a sufficient critical mass to trigger provision. It is for that reason that we need the protective coating of some elements of central regulation or, indeed, funding to ensure that those people are not overlooked, but get the help that they need.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, that was precisely the point that I was trying, rather ham-fistedly, to make earlier. Between us, we have probably got there, and I hope that the Minister will respond.

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John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is dealing with an important issue. Is he aware that in respect of autism, about the causes of which relatively little is known, there has been a great opportunity for possibly unscrupulous companies to come onstream, putting forward a variety of quack therapies for which there is no evidence base but which can offer—wholly inappropriately—a lifeline of hope to very anxious parents who will dole out large sums of money that many can ill afford to spend in pursuit of courses that, in the end, prove to be hopeless?

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. I was not aware of that, but it underlines the need for appropriate regulation of the private training sector. We all remember the fiasco of individual learning accounts some years ago, when it was easy for companies to come in and abuse the system. I am a little concerned about the possibility that the impact of the economic slowdown and the increase in the number of new training opportunities for those who have lost their jobs will once again give rise to a less than satisfactory private training sector.

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John Bercow: Operating in separate silos produces misunderstandings, causes division and is invariably bewildering and infuriating to parents to whose children services are delayed or denied as a result. May I at least put it to my hon. Friend that although there is no guarantee of success, if there is a formal structure, a performance framework through local area agreements, and a responsibility to submit to comprehensive area assessments from 2009, we will have a slightly better chance of getting somewhere than if there was an entirely loose and permissive structure with no formal responsibility?

Mr. Stuart: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I remain unconvinced. Children’s trusts need a budget if they are to be accountable as organisations. Parents might think it was the children’s trust that was taking decisions locally, but when they came to question things, they might hear that it was part of the health service, the education service or the probation service that had chosen, for its own reasons, not to deliver something that the parent wanted. I remain unconvinced, but if the proposals go ahead, I hope that something positive comes out of them.

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John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that if support for Sure Start children’s centres was important and beneficial during relatively favourable economic weather, a premium is now placed on the subject whichever party wins the election, because we are going to go through turbulent economic times, and the need for that early intervention in support of some of the most vulnerable people will be greater in the future even than it is at present?

Mr. Stuart: I entirely agree. There are rare occasions of consensus across the House, and I am sure we can all agree on that.