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ConneXions Service

10. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): If she will make a statement on the Connexions service for young people. [6696]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): ConneXions is already helping young people in 15 areas of the country. It will be available across England by 2003. Early surveys of young people helped by personal advisers show that they feel ConneXions has made a real difference to their prospects.

Valerie Davey: Previous organisations that have set out to help this age group have only been good in part; that is to say, it depended on which part of the country young

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people lived in. Can the Minister assure the House that, as ConneXions is extended through the country, the quality of the advisers, who are key to improving opportunities for young people, will be maintained at the highest standard?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The success of ConneXions will depend ultimately on the quality and training of the front-line staff. That is why we have introduced the diploma specifically for ConneXions advisers and why, in all the guidance and support we give to partnerships as they roll out, we emphasise the importance of high-quality training. We will build on the expertise and the specialisms that some of the advisers will bring from their existing professions, whether those are social work, youth work or the careers service. We will build on that expertise and develop those skills to ensure that young people have access to a new and high-quality range of support that makes a difference to their participation and attainment within the education system.

Specialist Schools

12. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What impact she expects the expansion of the specialist school scheme to have on the standards of those schools that remain outside the scheme. [6700]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Specialist schools represent resources for other secondary schools and, through sharing equipment and expertise and drawing on the community element of the additional funding they receive, they will help to enhance standards of teaching and learning in the schools with which they work. Over time we want all those schools that wish to and are ready to become specialist schools.

David Taylor: This month's Ofsted report on specialist schools found that half of the non-sports colleges were not fulfilling the requirement to share resources, good practice and expertise with local schools. Does not that give sustenance to those who consider that specialist schools create a two-tier system that is divisive, incoherent and unfair? By 2006, 50 per cent. of secondary schools will be non-specialist, with lower status, fewer resources and poorer prospects. Will my hon. Friend say how on earth they will be able to drive up standards in the way that he hopes?

Mr. Timms: I commend the Ofsted report to my hon. Friend. It states:

The report explains how schools are extending opportunities and introducing imaginative strategies to raise standards. It explains how attainment is improving faster and how those schools are taking pride in their status. It is a very positive assessment of the benefits of the specialist schools programme.

However, the Government want more secondary schools to benefit from specialist status. My hon. Friend made the point that nearly half of secondary schools will have done so by 2005, but other schools will be able to work towards achieving specialists status. The Department will set a clear

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direction and provide support to help them achieve that ambition. The specialist school programme is a powerful lever for raising standards across the whole secondary system, and I encourage my hon. Friend to work with schools in his constituency to move in that direction.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Youth Justice Pledge

31. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What assessment she has made of the success of the efforts of the CPS in implementing the youth justice pledge. [6719]

33. Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): What progress has been made towards the Government's target of bringing persistent young offenders before court more speedily. [6721]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): The Crown Prosecution Service has cut down the time taken in prosecuting persistent young offenders. It has done that by recruiting more lawyers and case workers, by tracking and chasing up cases through its own system, and by working closely with the police and the courts.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. She will know that Devon was one of the first areas to cut significantly the amount of time taken to bring young offenders to court. Will she join me in congratulating the staff in Plymouth and across Devon who have achieved that? Will she also thank them on behalf of my constituents, whose communities it is hoped will have fewer hardened criminals in future as a result of the Government's determination to deal with young offenders?

The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. Friend for her generous remarks about the CPS in Devon and Cornwall. I spoke this week to the chief Crown prosecutor in that area, Andrew Cresswell, about the situation in the county, and the service has made a great deal of progress. In 1997, it took 109 days to bring a young offender to justice in Devon and Cornwall. That has been reduced substantially, as my hon. Friend has said, to somewhere between 59 and 60 days. However, there is no complacency about what is still a major problem. We must get young offenders before the courts quickly, to ensure that they take matters seriously. It is demoralising for police, magistrates and victims if justice is not done swiftly.

Ms Oona King: I welcome the Government's efforts and their success in reducing the overall amount of time that it takes to get young offenders before the court, but will my right hon. and learned Friend say what will be done about the problem in London? My constituents want me to impress on the Government very strongly how much plague and misery has been heaped on Tower

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Hamlets, for example, because it is taking too long to get young offenders before the courts. What measures will she take to deal with that?

The Solicitor-General: I understand very well the issues that my hon. Friend raises. They are very much the same in my own constituency of Camberwell and Peckham. I was talking recently to a magistrate, who described how demoralising it was to find that an offence could sometimes be more than a year old by the time that it came to court. We must sort that out.

There have been particular problems in London, although the London prosecuting service has made substantial progress. The average time has been cut from 175 days to 92, but more work remains to be done. More resources have been put in, and there has been a substantial and justifiable pay increase for lawyers, case workers and others in the London service.

We know what a problem youth crime is. We want the young people themselves to understand that society takes the matter seriously. There is no let-up on the problem.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Surely the success in implementing the youth justice pledge depends on the CPS having adequate resources, personnel and morale to cope with the task. On morale, will the Solicitor-General give the House her views on the Denman report, which was published during the summer recess? What is her opinion of the impact of that report on the CPS? Which of the recommendations in that report will the Government implement?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of morale in ensuring that we have an effective prosecution system. The Denman report found that there was not equality of opportunity for ethnic minority staff in the CPS, and that there was institutional racism. The report has been accepted by the Director of Public Prosecutions, by the Attorney-General, and by me. Sylvia Denman made various recommendations to ensure equality in the service, that targets are set and positive action is taken to achieve them, and that grievances are dealt with promptly, and steps are being taken to put them into effect. It is important for any public sector employer to be an equal opportunity employer, but that is especially important in the criminal justice system. If the CPS is to command the confidence of the multicultural communities that it serves, it must abide by fairness. We will continue to keep a very close eye on the matter.

Victims of Crime

32. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): When she expects to introduce legislation to allow courts to take account of the views of the victims of crime. [6720]

The Solicitor-General: The courts do now take into account the views of the victims of a crime of the effect of the crime on them. Victim personal statements have been introduced in a scheme that started on 1 October. The personal statement will stay with the case file throughout the prosecution, and will be taken into account in sentencing. A practice direction was issued by the Lord Chief Justice to that effect.

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It is important that victims are clear that the effect of the crime on them is very much in the minds of judges when sentencing

Andrew Mackinlay: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will she introduce legislation at an early opportunity that will place a duty on the police and the CPS to ensure that victims are kept abreast of the progress being made in regard to the crime perpetrated against them? I know that that is good practice, but the approach is not adopted consistently by the police or the CPS across the country. It is time for the problem to be addressed. People have a right to know whether progress is being made and, if not, why not.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right. It is important that victims of crime know what is happening with their cases, and that they are not just left in the dark. It is especially important that victims are told and given an explanation if charges are to be downgraded or dropped. We have introduced a new scheme, which is being rolled out now, under which different ways are being piloted to ensure the very best of communication with victims throughout the prosecution process. I am glad that my hon. Friend is concerned about victims and know that he will remain so, but we should see how the new schemes—the victim personal statements and the new ways of communicating with victims—work out. By changing custom and practice, we may not need legislation. However, if that does not work, we should legislate.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Will the Solicitor-General tell the House what has happened to the enforceable Bill of Rights announced a few months ago by the present Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary? It was intended to provide for victims of crime, and was going to establish an ombudsman to deal with matters relating to complaints about the CPS and the probation service. What has happened to that proposed legislation?

The Solicitor-General: First, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and welcome him to his position on the Front Bench? I genuinely look forward to working with him on the many issues that are my responsibility that do not have party political or, I hope, European implications.

As for the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised, it is very important that all the bits of the machinery are working together. He made particular mention of complaints. The CPS does issue a complaints leaflet, and—without the service knowing—I have personally telephoned the complaints line to see whether the telephone was answered and whether there was someone there ready to help with complaints. I am sure that more can be done.

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The hon. Gentleman raised some other matters, and I shall look into them in detail.

Mr. Cash rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot have two bites today.

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