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Clause 2

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 5:00 pm, 5th February 2008

My concern is that we are still looking to the panels to exercise discretion, and there is a presumption that the right way forward is for parents of very young children to be in education, training or employment. I am suggesting, at this stage in legislating, that that is the wrong presumption, that it is too draconian, and that the hon. Member for Upminster may have been correct—if this is what she was getting at—that it is possible that, in the interests of certain parents and certain children, it may be useful for the parent to be in the home environment for a longer period. I am not sure that that judgment can very easily be made by the panels, since it seems clear to me that the Government’s presumption in the legislation is that all 16 or 17-year-olds ought to be in education, training or employment.

I assume that when the Minister talks about safeguards, he is largely thinking of the mechanisms that would enable the young parent to return to education, training or employment. In other words, he is asking us to believe that there would be flexibility if there is not child care and other provision. I accept that there probably would be in that the panels would be able to consider whether there were child care and other elements of support, but the panels would still be deprived, through legislation, of making the overall judgment about whether the right setting for a parent with a young child in this particular age group is at home with the child or in the setting that the Minister wants. Ministers do not have a monopoly on wisdom with regard to whether it is better for a parent to be in the home environment or in education, training or employment. He is assuming too much for the panels to be able to exercise that element of discretion.

I also still have concerns about the degree to which it will be possible to exercise discretion in respect of carers. I hope that it will be exercised sensibly. I accept that we want to offer the vast majority of carers the support they probably need to be in education, training or employment, but we can all think of examples where it would be very difficult indeed for panels to make judgments. They might make different judgments in different parts of the country. We would all probably agree that it would be easy to decide that the carer of a terminally ill person should be allowed to stay in the home environment and focus on their caring responsibilities, but what about someone who was very seriously ill, had been for some time and was likely to remain so, where there was no certainty about how long that person would have to live?

One could have an environment in which there were two children of the same age, one of whom might decide to go into the armed forces—exercising a freedom they will still have—while the other might wish to remain as a carer rather than going into education, training or employment. I have no idea whether, with the Bill, the guidance and the panels, that option would be open to them. I fear that there is still a  great deal of uncertainty about how the panels will be handled for those special cases, which comes back to many of our concerns about the compulsion route, because that route means fitting people around legislation and around Government presumptions about what is best for them, rather than allowing people’s lives to be framed and determined by what is in their own best interests.