Wednesday 6th December 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
15:08
Asked by
Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what further consideration they have given to the appointment of a Children’s Minister at Cabinet level to coordinate cross-departmental Government programmes concerning the welfare of children.

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are committed to placing the best interests of children at the centre of policy and decision-making. The Secretary of State for Education has a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children in England. The needs of children are generally best met through services, with one area of focus overseen by the relevant department. For those with multiple, overlapping needs, systems and programmes are put in place to enable join-up.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. The welfare of children, from formal education to special needs, diet, care and protection, is covered by many different government and non-ministerial departments and agencies. We have to assume that much of this necessary work exists in silos, with few genuine joined-up initiatives. Children’s needs can and do fall into the gaps, and no one department might have the clout to fund and implement broad cross-cutting programmes. There is therefore an urgent need to insist on child welfare in all policy development, and a cross-departmental child health and welfare strategy. This is why a Cabinet Minister solely there to champion the cause of children at all levels and in many different ways is vital. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for once again raising this issue of welfare and the support of children in this country. I recognise that she may not agree with what I have to say, but I ask respectfully that she bear with me on this. Although the Secretary of State for Education has a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children in England, the Secretary of State is not the only person with an interest. Speaking from my own personal experience, the support of children and crucially the network around a child goes far beyond any one person and department. Every department has a role to play in the welfare of a child and in supporting families to provide an environment where children can thrive. That is why, for example, the Government introduced the family test, to think about how policy can impact on family life and relationships. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government take the welfare and support of young people as a priority. Just quickly, there are a number of examples I can give. The £2 million—

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Oh!

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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Fine, I will give way.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Portrait Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)
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My Lords, I know the Minister is new, so he does not understand that we have asked Questions similar to this one time and again but end up getting the same waffle. The reality is that thousands of children are now seeing their welfare at risk. In his department, we read about a primary school where 80% of the children are in families that are homeless. Does he think that that is acceptable this Christmas?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for the point that she makes but, with respect, I absolutely disagree on the point that she is trying to get at. The Government have continued to work towards our target of building new homes. We have increased the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile of market rents from April. We introduced an amendment to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill that requires the Secretary of State to ensure that it addresses hazards such as damp in social houses.

I never got the chance to finish the point that I wanted to make. Describing the general support that the Government are giving is not waffle, as the noble Baroness said. We spend around £276 billion through the welfare system; we will spend £8 billion on free hours in early education by 2027-28; and we are introducing family hubs in 87 local authorities, bringing services and support together. There are a number of other examples that I look forward to giving during this Question.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that of course we want to see the best for children irrespective of our political parties, but the Cabinet table is rather small and that the balkanisation of responsibilities does not necessarily lend itself to the best interests of children? Does he accept that, as well as central government, there are people in this House who have served with distinction in regional government, like himself at City Hall, where we cared for children, and—dare I say it?—in the municipal setting as well? Let us recognise that creating a Minister for Children is not the only answer.

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for the point that he is making, and I fundamentally agree. Although some do not seem to be agreeing with the points I am trying to make, the fundamental point is that there is cross-government work including the child protection ministerial group, there is support with work between local authorities and DLUHC, DHSC and the NHS, and mental health support and family hubs are being provided. As I said, there are many other examples that I would love to talk through.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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My Lords, the UNICEF report that has been published shows that the UK is the only country that has seen a 20% increase in child poverty. We need someone in government who actually cares about children and protects their interests. Yes, we have a Children’s Commissioner, but their powers are often limited and the Government do not respond to what they say.

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I am afraid I have to disagree with the noble Lord because the Government have done a huge amount. Yet again, I am able to give many examples, one of which is £276 billion through the welfare system by 2023. We have raised the living wage and the local housing allowance, and in 2021 there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty, including 400,000 fewer children.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
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My Lords, the recent PISA results show that more UK children feel scared or hungry or unhappy in school than their international counterparts. With persistent absence levels continuing to rise, what more will the Government do to ensure that they are promoting the well-being of children and young people in schools?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness’s point to also get a chance to highlight that the PISA statistics show that England has risen—but it may not necessarily be the case in other parts of the country. In terms of general support for the education system, again I think it is important to talk about the support given in the early years. There is general childcare support but, I understand, early years foundation stage profile results published last week show an increase in the proportion of five year-olds achieving a good level, even during the Covid years.

Baroness Butler-Sloss Portrait Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB)
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My Lords, as the Minister will know from yesterday’s questions on children in hotels, 5,000 children have not had safeguarding while they have been in hotels. Is that not a very good example of whichever government department not caring for a large number of unaccompanied children? Is it not time to have a Children’s Minister at whatever level?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her point. Forgive me that I did not get the chance to address her question yesterday, but it is worth making the point that there were safeguarding steps in place for children in hotels and we could not detain those unaccompanied asylum seekers. In terms of general support, as I say, I am more than happy to ream through some of the statistics that have already been debated.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I am delighted to see my noble friend on the Front Bench and I know he cares deeply about the welfare of children, as do we all on these Benches. This is not an easy area. I apologise to the House that I will not be able to speak in the debate tomorrow, which is really important to so many of us. What cross-departmental measures are in place for safeguarding children? I think we all recognise in this House that it is one of the most important areas for the welfare of children.

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that question and the interest in this very challenging and distressing area. She is absolutely right that the cross-government child protection ministerial group is already in existence which brings government departments together. It is important that we tackle issues including exploitation, serious violence, sexual abuse and domestic abuse, among other things.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, despite the Minister’s attempt at soothing reassurances, five of the largest children’s charities recently argued that

“It is unacceptable that … too many children are not safe, healthy, happy and do not have equal access to opportunities”.


What is the Government’s response to their call for a new, serious cross-government approach to decision-making

“that places children’s interests, wishes and outcomes at its heart, involving children and young people every step of the way”?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I appreciate that earlier I may have been accused by some noble Lords of repeating myself, but I feel that I may have to repeat myself because I think it is worth making a point. We have provided funding to 2 million pupils for free school meals, which is an almost 10% increase in cash terms for core spending power for local authorities. She asked about examples of cross-government working. There are cross-government examples already, not to mention the child protection ministerial group. We work with DHSC and many other departments to tackle this very important issue.