Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Labour, North West Durham 6:08 pm, 11th January 2010

I support that, as my hon. Friend knows, and I have suggested those ideas to the Department over a number of years. An embryo organisation exists for that task, but I do not think that it yet has the power or authority effectively to implement such a process throughout local government. I would like to see that happen.

My second point concerns partnerships with schools. I want to see more examples of the voluntary sector and the outside world working in partnership with schools. If PSHE is being considered as part of the curriculum, the teacher needs to be part of that but including the work of outside bodies, and making relationships with them, is also critical. I want schools and academies to use their commissioning powers to work more effectively with community organisations that have a good track record so that they can be used to improve the educational opportunities of the children in the school.

I am sorry that I am moving from issue to issue without much of a common thread, but I want to pick out particular issues in the Bill. The implementation of the youth crime action plan, a matter on which the Front Benchers did not disagree, is very important. Last week, the Department produced an evaluation of the work so far and it raised some important questions and identified problems with what has been done so far. When anything is implemented in a local area it is critical that the local community should know what is going on-I hope that the Committee will bear that in mind.

I have seen the youth court operating in Washington, and it is incredibly effective. I have also seen the community court operating in Red Hook in Washington. The key thing is that although they set down non-custodial activity, the community knows and understands the action that is being taken and therefore has confidence in it. We do not get all the stories along the lines of, "This one was out painting a wall when they should have been inside," and so on. The approach of those courts has been far more effective in tackling youth crime than many of the things that we have done elsewhere.

I spent much of my life before I came to this place working with young people and trying to divert them from criminal behaviour, but it is critical that if they have engaged in such behaviour we should try not only to divert them from it in the future but to ensure that there is a structure of punishment. There must be a structure whereby they know that they have done wrong and work out with somebody what to do about it. I cannot understand people who see these two things as being on opposite benches, as it were. They are part and parcel of the same policy and we have to ensure that that is how we proceed in the future. Far too often, the youth offending teams have mixed that up, which has been a problem in local areas.

More than anything else, many of these young people need some structure in their lives. They are growing up in families where they have no sense of right and wrong and no sense of what is acceptable and what is not. An important part of being an adolescent is testing boundaries, but that means that there need to be boundaries that can be tested and that the adolescent needs to understand that there are such boundaries. The way in which we develop the youth offending programme is becoming more and more important in this country because in many communities such offending drains the life and ambition out of the community, meaning that people feel that there is no point in getting together to do anything because of the level of antisocial behaviour and so on. There are things that we can do that will encourage young people but also help them to set those boundaries much more effectively. We have to include the local community in that, although we have been fearful of such an approach in this country, for reasons that I understand. If we are to change the experience of young people, we need to involve the community in a much more effective way.

That brings me to the final point that I want to tackle today, which is another issue about which there was no division between the two Front-Bench spokesmen, although there is a lot of anxiety about how it will be implemented, and it concerns the family proceedings. Everyone accepts that there should be more transparency and openness, but the Bill also affects the level of reporting. In being more open and transparent, we must maintain caution about what is reported and how it is reported. I have worked with far too many families and have been present at far too many cases in which there have been problems despite the Children Act 1989, which put the primacy of children at the forefront. I did not want to intervene on this point earlier, but that primacy remains through all legislation unless it is changed, so it does not need to be restated in this Bill. The primacy of the interests of children is critical but because of the irresponsible way in which some of our newspapers are prepared to report family proceedings, we must continue to exercise caution.

This House has established proceedings whereby Public Bill Committees can talk to outside bodies before they consider legislation in detail. I hope that the Committee will consider doing so, particularly as regards family proceedings. Although, in principle, many organisations want such proceedings to be opened up and reported, they are very anxious about the detail. We should respect that.

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