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Clause 2

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 4:30 pm, 5th February 2008

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing his constituency experience and I am sure that he is right that there is already a lot of good practice around the country. Although we do not agree with the approach of compulsion in the Bill, accepting, for the sake of the argument, that that approach is being taken by the Government, we want to make sure that the approach to carers acknowledges that what many of them will be looking for is not a waiver, but support to allow them to engage with education, training and other services that might be useful to them. I hope that Ministers and others involved will be able to learn from the type of project that the hon. Gentleman refers to.

There will of course, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, be a group of carers in special circumstances, such as when a terminal or very serious illness is involved. In those circumstances I imagine that the Minister would want to be flexible, sensible and pragmatic. I believe that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was trying to tempt the Minister in to giving us a bit more clarity and guidance about how that group of young people will be approached, particularly as that is not a group where there are likely to be problems of abuse of rules if they are too public. This ought to be an area where Ministers can be relatively straightforward about what some of the guidance will be.

Amendment No. 6, however, deals with a group of young people—young parents—whose interest might not simply be to be accommodated within the compulsion under the age of 18; instead, there could legitimately be expectations of their not having to be in education or training but potentially taking up some of those opportunities at a later age. The hon. Gentleman cited some evidence about the number of mothers under the age of 18, of whom there were about 10,000 in England in 2005. He mentioned some of the issues that are relevant to them, such as post-natal depression, which is three times higher in teenage mothers than in older mothers, high child care costs, and so on.

I remember not so long ago being a lone voice in arguing that the existing responsibilities on parents in relation to the benefits systems and their obligation to be in work were too light touch. I said that the present system, where the parents can remain out of the labour market until their children reach the age of 16, was too generous, did not recognise the responsibilities that people have in society and was way out of line with international practice. I seem to remember that the spokesmen on both other Front Benches at that time—this was only a couple of years ago—argued for the existing benefit rules to be maintained. Now, both sides have changed their views and have entered into something of a competition to encourage parents to go  back into the labour market as early as possible. However, even I draw the line at forcing people back out—either into the labour market, or into education and training—when they have very young children. That is exactly the type of area where the Government could be doing a gross disservice to a group of young people—and their children—by trying to force them into education, training or employment at too early an age. I therefore hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance today that he will not take an excessively draconian approach.

The evidence in the UNICEF report indicated that one of the multiplicity of reasons why we have a lot of problems with young people’s well-being in this country relates to the very high rates of teenage pregnancy. UNICEF linked that to low educational aspirations and to young people regarding having children at a very early age as reasonable way of proceeding in life. It then made the obvious point that the higher people’s educational and employment aspirations are, the more likely it is that they will delay child bearing to a later age, after they have achieved education and training qualifications and when that may be easier to accommodate in their life.

Becoming a parent at age 16 or 17 is not something that I would strongly recommend, but whether I recommend it or not, there are likely to be 16 or 17-year-old parents and I cannot think that there will not be a lot of cases where they will be far better off at home with their child than if they are pushed into education, training or into the labour market.