An exclusive interview with Maria Eagle, the junior minister for children, young people and families at the Department for Education and Skills:
Lauren Revans (LR), 0-19 Editor: There is concern in some areas of the youth work sector that the youth green paper has placed undue emphasis on recreation at the expense of core youth work values? What is your response to this? And how will you ensure local authorities spend their money on youth work services as well as leisure activities?
Maria Eagle (ME), junior minister for children, young people and families: I think if you can get the local authorities to understand the importance of this kind of work that you’ll have a virtuous spiral upwards in that respect. If you talk to young people and ask them what’s missing, they’ll say it’s things to do and places to go. So I’m not as concerned as you seem to be about the fact some of this money might be spent on that. It’s actually what young people want.
I think it’s also important that we’ve been able to emphasise, quite rightly, that young people need to have more of an involvement in the choice of what’s available in their area. I think it’s been too easy in the past to not take the views of young people seriously. So I think to engage young people in these processes will be a good thing, both for young people at a local level to get involved in making decisions and having an input, but also for local government to see how constructive and positive young people can be. So I’m hoping it will be good all round in connecting young people with their local authorities and with what goes on locally and what is provided locally.”
LR: How do you see the opportunity cards contributing to that process, particularly given the various concerns around the whole carrot and stick approach?
ME: What is starting to come through in the consultation replies – of which we have got between 400 or 500 from young people already and the consultation doesn’t finish until early November so there’s lot more opportunity for people to write in and tell us what they think – is they like the idea of cards. They like the idea of incentives. And they understand the idea of withdrawing some of the privileges of the card in respect of bad behaviour. It’s a mechanism that is both a carrot and a stick that is easily understood by young people.
I think young people appreciate the idea of discounts and a way of enabling them and their friends to try something out that they might not otherwise try because of cost. In our consumer society, people do understand the idea of cards and points.
So I hope it will be very positive. And I think, from the point of view of the local authority – and they of course are going to have to decide whether they are going to partake in opportunity cards because we’re not making them, we are saying that they can…
LR: So you’re not going to force them?
ME: They won’t have to. They will be able to. And we hope that they will, and that they will see the positive contribution that they can make to promoting good behaviour and rewarding good behaviour. But we are not saying they have got to.
But I think local authorities, in going through the decision making process of whether they are going to take the opportunity up of running a youth opportunity card, will have to engage with some of these arguments themselves with young people. It puts the parties together – young people on the one side and the local authority on the other.
I hope all local authorities will take the opportunity to develop a card. Many are looking at cards and electronic means of doing things anyway. I think the whole idea fits in quite well with some of the developments we’re starting to see in any event. And I think it’s good to put young people and young people’s services in there, in the forefront of some of these developments.
It’s another element that local authorities can have – another string to their bow if you like – of their electronic services. And I think this kind of technology young people are less suspicious of and feel a lot more comfortable with than perhaps older generations who worry about how it works or what happens if they lose it. I would be surprised if we got lots of contributions through the consultation from young people worrying about if they lose the card and that kind of thing. They embrace this kind of new technology much more readily. So I think that’s a good thing because it will put young people right at the forefront of exciting developments in the way in which services are provided, and accounted for and paid for, and dealt with in their local areas.
LR: The youth green paper signalled the end of Connexions as a discreet national service. While some partnerships will survive, with their work being commissioned from children’s trusts, what chance do you see of the national brand surviving? And is it right to try to preserve a national brand anyway when it is likely to mean different things in different places?
ME: The brand is very well recognised. I like to think to think of this much more as Connexions – which predated the children’s trust infrastructure remember – integrating with that infrastructure. So where it is working and doing well there’s no reason why it can’t become a part of the children’s trust and that infrastructure and continue the work that it is doing.
The key thing is that it’s important Connexions is properly integrated into it because otherwise it will be set apart from it and you won’t get the kind of integrated decision-making that children’s trusts are there to facilitate. It’s more a question of making sure the best of Connexions fits into the new infrastructure. I see no reason why that shouldn’t happen. I think there’s a lot of good will out there to make sure that it does happen.
So I don’t see it so much as the end of Connexions as the integration of Connexions into these better arrangements locally for running children’s services.
LR: Is there a danger of a two-tier service developing for Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) if schools and colleges are allowed to opt-out of children’s trust-commissioned provision? Will this ultimately disadvantage children not in education, employment or training (Neets)?
ME: There’s going to be a big transition between where we are now and where we end up. There won’t be any opting out initially while all this goes on. I don’t see why any school would particularly want to opt out if the service that’s being provided is good.
LR: Perhaps if it’s in their own interest – such as having their own sixth form to advise young people to go on to?
ME: Well I suppose you can always come up with scenarios in which some vein of self interest will muck up good. I hope that what we will see is good integrated arrangements that suit young people whether they are at school or they’re Neet young people who perhaps need more services provided in a different way.
We’ve got some work going on looking at how the Connexions Partnerships and Connexions are going to integrate into the new children’s trust arrangements and I’m sure lessons will come out of that work that are going to inform the transition from where we are to where we are hoping to get. We’ve got a little period of time in which to get that right. We just need to make sure that the best of what is there is preserved.
I don’t think schools are going to want to opt out for the sake. I think that if they think that what’s there is good quality they’ll be glad to partake in it. Because otherwise they’re going to have to be involved in a lot more work themselves to set something up that’s good.
So I hope that there will be a lot of good sense prevailing. I see no reason why there shouldn’t be. I don’t think schools should be initially looking to opt out because it’s a possibility that they can. And I think most schools will look at what the services on offer are, what the IAG services they can get through existing mechanisms are, and, if that’s good enough, then I’m sure they’ll use it. And if it isn’t good enough, then there are some questions to be asked about why not.
Youth Green Paper
LR: Is the youth green paper strong enough to counterbalance the Children Act to ensure young people as well as children get the priority they deserve?
ME: I think you can certainly look at Youth Matters as Every Child Matters for teenagers. I think this is a natural follow up to Every Child Matters but for the older age groups.
I think it’s quite a strong document. It’s certainly got potential to make a big difference to the way in which young people’s services operate locally in a very positive way. It will be interesting to see through the consultation whether the belief we have in government that that’s the case is widely held out there by young people and by professionals and others involved in this work. We’ll have to wait until November to be sure.
This is a green paper. The way in which we implement it will be informed by the consultation. We will be wanting to have a close look at what comes back. And if anybody has got suggestions out there that are better than what’s in the green paper, we’ll be looking at changing what we do. This is a genuine consultation.
LR: Do you see it being followed by an Act?
ME: There will need to be some legislative changes if we implement it as it is currently set out. All of it doesn’t require legislation, but there’ll need to be reorganisation and there’ll need to be guidance therefore and administrative changes. But there will need to be some legislative change as well.
LR: And what about funding?
ME: Well, there is a re-jigging of some existing funding. But there is also some new money in there.
Obviously we operate on three-yearly budgets with the spending review, so new money that is there has been flagged up in the green paper for this period. And it will be up to us and others to argue at the relevant time – which has just been put back slightly – for further resources in the next spending review.
LR: If you end up implementing something similar to what is outlined in the youth green paper, are you confident you will be successful in securing the resources required to do that?
ME: I’m confident the resources flagged up in the green paper are sufficient to do what we want to do.
I think it’s always difficult to ask a minister to predict what the outcome of the next spending review will be. Any minister who does predict that is a brave person because, in the end, it’s not technically down to you, it’s down to the Treasury. But we all argue our corner, there’s no doubt about that. And I think you’re in a stronger position to argue for resources if you’ve got a proper, good structure and organisation to show that you can actually deliver the change on the ground.
And I think that the implementation of these proposals will leave local government in a stronger position to provide children’s and young people’s services in a more comprehensive and coherent manner which is much more child-centred, which provides each individual child with what they need, which improves outcomes for children generally but focuses particularly on those who have more difficulties, in making sure that they come through childhood into adulthood in the best possible way that they can.
LR: Moving on to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the letter its chief executive sent you recently asking for an additional £2m to fund a pay rise for staff, without which unions would be likely to ballot for industrial action. Cafcass is now talking of a realistic pay offer – does this mean you have agreed some sort of emergency package?
ME: We are always talking to Cafcass, who I think by the way over the last couple of years have improved as an organisation, coming out of what was quite a dark period for them. So anything I say about Cafcass has to be prefaced by the fact they’re to be congratulated for that. It hasn’t been easy for them. They are an organsiation that had a lot to overcome and I think they have done very well.
We obviously have on-going discussions with all of our non-departmental public bodies, including Cafcass, about money. Funnily enough, we always spend a lot of time talking about money. And that’s true with Cafcass.
They have seen over the last couple of years a big increase, much over inflation, in their funding. We are discussing with them, as ever, how best to make use of that. I can’t really say any more to you than that, except to say they’ve got further big challenges ahead in terms of both the Children and Adoption Bill and some of the envisaged change in the role, which I think is actually very positive and will be a much better use of their time and skills if we could change from them just being report-writers to being much more proactive in keeping families away from the crisis that court proceedings usually imply. The more people we can keep out of court the better, frankly. So I think there are a lot more challenges ahead and no doubt we will continue talking about all aspects of their work, but they’ve done well over the last couple of years.
LR: You mention the Children and Adoption Bill, under which Cafcass officers would be expected to spend less time writing lengthy reports and more time helping parents reach and stick to child contact agreements. Yet at the same time, a letter sent out by the Cafcass chief executive to staff last month told them to spend less time on “low priority” cases due to pressures on the service. How do you square those two things?
ME: What we are proposing to do through the bill and then through the review of legal aid that’s looking at public law cases is make the whole system much more proactive rather than just wait for people to come to court and then have these reports on how awful it is. If we changed the law so that it’s much more proactive, then the whole role of Cafcass will be completely different.
LR: So it’s not right to compare what they do now with what could happen if the proposals become law?
ME: No. I think the changes will be profound in their role. I actually think that, once we’ve got where we’re going, the work they do will be much more satisfying than just producing written reports on individual cases. As ever, it’s about getting from where we are to where we want to be.
LR: Tony Blair’s recent announcement about the much wider use of parenting orders, and possibly allowing schools to apply for them as well as housing agencies, is going to lead to a massive increase in the number of parents made subject to them. How do you think Cafcass, which is already struggling, will cope if it is to have some part to play in all of these cases?
ME: Well, we will have to have a look at the implications of all of these changes. And we will do that in conjunction with Cafcass. And there’s not really an awful lot more I can say on that at the moment.
LR: Another area I wanted to talk about is section 9 of the Asylum & Immigration Act 2004. We have seen the first cases of asylum-seeking families with dependent children being evicted under section 9 pilots. The section has been universally condemned by the sector, which has expressed grave concerns about the welfare of destitute children, the fact that councils could be forced to separate families and take children into care, and the large costs involved in either doing this or continuing to supporting families despite the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) withdrawing accommodation funding. What pressure, if any, is the DfES applying to the Home Office to review the section 9 pilots?
ME: We do have a role in all of this as custodians of the Children Act 2004. Of course we have an interest in this, but it is led by the Home Office. What’s happening is a pilot, which is there to look at whether section 9, and how section 9, can be applied and lessons will undoubtedly be learnt from it. That’s what pilots are for. It would have just been introduced without piloting if there wasn’t an intention to look at how these things worked.
Clearly this is one of the most difficult areas of public policy. There’s no doubt about that. And of course the DfES has a role with the Home Office in dealing with this. But you’ve got to recall that the families who are in these pilots are asylum-seeking families who have not only exhausted their applications, but all appeals have been looked at and rejected. They have had support and legal representation throughout. And they have come to a stage where the end of the legal process has been reached, their asylum claims have been rejected, they have no legal right to stay in Britain and ought to prepare to leave. These are the families we are looking at here. It’s not every asylum-seeking family. Now once you’ve got to that stage, there is no more right to stay, there is no more right to appeal. The right thing to do is to return, and to prepare to go, and to go. This is the very difficult area that section 9 is looking at.
Of course the DfES has a watching brief because we are custodians of the Children Act and we do make a contribution to the whole government’s look at these pilots. We are all looking very closely at how this works.
LR: In Rochdale, a woman and her child were evicted after Nass stopped reimbursing her accommodation costs following a section 9 ruling. But elsewhere when the same thing has happened, councils have chosen to continue to pay families’ accommodation costs rather than have to separate them. What would you advise councils to do in that situation?
ME: I can’t comment on individual cases and I can’t start making comparisons between one case and another in what is a pilot.
Pilots are there to look at what the outcomes are in these circumstances. And all I can say is that, from our point of view here, we do have our input over to the Home Office in the way this is working. We are all looking very closely at this. And, as I said, this is a very difficult area of public policy. There’s no doubt about that. And there’s really not much else I can say except that we do take our responsibility here very seriously.
Children with disabilities
LR: You have a good reputation in the disability sector thanks to your work at the Department of Work and Pensions. The most recent joint inspectors’ report on safeguarding children highlighted disabled children as one of the key groups that remained a cause for concern. What do you plan to do to improve the lot of disabled children now that you have moved to the DfES?
ME: I’ve got a lot of ideas about doing a little more for not just disabled children but extremely disadvantaged children. For example, looked after children is an area that I have a particular interest in trying to develop some interventions that give their life chances a boost. We’ve done a lot in the last few years but there’s still a long way to go. And of course a lot of looked after children are disabled children.
You look at disadvantage and you will often find an element of disability there. So I think one of the insights that I can bring from my previous job is to look at what are sometimes hidden causes. Perhaps somebody else might not spot the link between disability and disadvantage that I might. So I think there’s a lot that we can do in many of these areas.
In respect of the joint inspectors’ report, this is an issue that society itself has: communication with disabled people. We’ve been really bad at it over the years. And that is partly because, until relatively recently, disabled people were hidden away and excluded from society. So it’s not surprising that, as they are emerging into their rightful place in society, we suddenly find that actually we are not very good at communicating with certain types of disabled people, at overcoming the barriers that they face in communication. And I think that very much what you saw in the joint inspectors’ report was a reflection of a wider problem in society. You talk to a deaf person, you talk to somebody who has communication difficulties, and they won’t tell you it’s just those who have an obligation to safeguard who find it difficult to communicate, it’s the rest of us as well.
So I believe we need to focus on the public authorities highlighted in particular in that report. We need to focus on improving our communication with disabled people, and with disabled children it’s that much harder. But it’s a problem that society in general has. And I think we will see improvements because of the requirements in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which was my last act as minister for disabled people to get that through.
That has a public sector duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people in it. And that means that public authorities – all of us: local, national, government – are going to have to start designing out the barriers that so far have kept disabled people less able to access our services and provision.
We’ll make mistakes and we’ll get it wrong, all of us will. But, over the medium term, we’re going to see that addressed in a major way, and I think disabled people are going to have an opportunity to move forward in a way that they haven’t ever had before in our society. And about time.
But it will need a lot of concentration on the specifics. And perhaps I know more what some of those are rather more than some others might. So I continue in this department to highlight these issues – not that there’s resistance, it’s institutional and historical disadvantage that we’re tackling here. And actually, if we can get it right for disabled people and disabled children, you’ll see a lot of disadvantage disappear because a lot of disadvantaged people are disabled people.
So I think we are concentrating on one of the key groups for making the sorts of improvements: eradicating poverty, giving everybody the opportunity to develop to their full potential. Do that for disabled kids and disabled adults, and a lot of other disadvantage will be gone because it was the disabled people and disabled kids who were at the rough end. Get it right for them, and you’ve got it right for everybody.
Children in care
LR: You mentioned that looked after children were another group you were focusing in on. Can I ask you about the Commission for Social Care Inspection measuring councils’ performance on keeping looked-after children placed near to home when many in the sector have warned that the 20-mile measure could act as a “perverse incentive” to move children out of stable placements?
ME: Remember, it’s not a target it’s an indicator.
LR: But most councils place a lot of emphasis on indicators, given the pressure on them to perform well in the Performance Assessment Framework and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment.
ME: Obviously some placements far away from home are absolutely appropriate and right for the individual child. You’ve not got to see any indicators as something that should undermine good sense. Certainly, I wouldn’t like to see stable, sensible, good placements being broken up just to meet an indicator in that way. To the extent that that kind of thing starts happening you need to change the indicator.
LR: Is that something you are considering at this stage?
ME: I don’t have any evidence of this happening. I hear that you say there are fears about this. Let’s wait and see what happens. To the extent that those fears become real, then obviously something does need to be done. But I’m not convinced that councils are that daft.
LR: Another group of looked after children are those in foster care. Baaf Adoption and Fostering and the Fostering Network claim that an extra £750m a year is needed to bring fostering services up to scratch and that there’s a national shortage of 10,000 foster carers. What’s your strategy for tackling that?
ME: You are assuming that I agree with their figures. They have provided a report and I have met with them about it and my officials are looking closely at what they’ve had to say. But I’m certainly not in a position to say that I agree with that.
We have seen some great advances over the last few years in the field of fostering and adoption. I think there’s an awful lot to celebrate that’s going right: there have been some great advances; a lot more effort and money has gone into it over the last few years.
But we do need to see what more can be done. And of course I take on board Baaf’s views in respect of this.
But that isn’t to say I agree completely with their numbers.