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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The social exclusion unit is investigating what more might be done to raise the educational attainment of children in care. It is currently gathering evidence and undertaking an intensive programme of visits to schools and children's homes. It is also consulting widely with professionals and with children in care.
Mr. Shaw: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The work of the social exclusion unit has been critical in sending a message to all local government departments that the record of educational attainment of looked-after children has been woeful. It is something for which we all have responsibility, particularly since we gather that 75 per cent. of young people leaving care do so without educational qualifications.
However, there is some good news. In the Medway towns in my constituency, two such young people have been the first to receive bursaries from the local authority to go to university, and there is one more to follow. That is the sort of thing that we want to seeyoung people who have been in care getting the same as other young people, rather than anything special. I hope that my hon. Friend's Department will continue to monitor carefully the attainment of such young people, so that they get what they deserve, which is nothing less than others get.
Mrs. Roche: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The record of attainment of educational qualifications among young children in care is woeful, and we all need to take that very seriously. Looked-after children need our absolute commitment, which is why I am delighted that the social exclusion unit is pursuing the matter. I welcome my hon. Friend's news.
Some good practice is on the way. For example, I recently visited Brighton and Hove council to talk to teachers, foster parents and looked-after children. The council's track record of designated teachers is very good.
Mrs. Roche: The social exclusion unit takes on projects at the direction of the Prime Minister and under the direction of the Deputy Prime Minister. So far, it has had a tremendous success rate. A good example is the meeting of targets on reducing rough sleeping and on reducing teenage pregnancy. Those are extremely good developments. Of course, there are more projects on the way, such as that on transport which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has already mentioned.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): No Cabinet Minister made submissions to Sir Donald Curry's commission, as it was established by the Government in the first place.
Mr. Leslie: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recognition of the importance of the commission's findings on the future of farming. The report is full and comprehensive, and aims to make the farming industry more sustainable and profitable. Clearly, many of those issues rest with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Although the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Macdonald, is in another place, I shall certainly ensure that he is made aware of the right hon. Gentleman's questions and comments.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comments. Is it not important that central and local government take a lead in ensuring that Curry's proposals are advanced? Anything that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friends can do must only be to our advantage.
Mr. Leslie: Rural affairs cut across all Departments. As Ministers, we all must be aware of rural as well as urban dimensions. The Royal Society study by Sir Brian Follett will provoke discussion on a number of important issues that need to be considered, but I shall ensure that I pass on my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): As recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Select Committee on Public Administration, a code of conduct for special advisers is now in place, with duties and responsibilities also set out in a model contract of employment.
Dr. Lewis: We all know what Jo Moore said on 11 September about burying bad news, but since then she has tried unsuccessfully to have a crony appointed as her Department's head of media and, more recently, has succeeded in damaging the Prime Minister by suggesting, heaven forfend, that he regards the trade union movement as wreckers. Is she setting a good example for special advisers in other Departments to follow?
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): May I repeat my oft expressed view that the way to see off the Opposition's absurd fixation with special advisers is to move ahead, building on the code that we have already established; introduce the civil service legislation that we promised; set a cap on the number of special advisers; and define their relations with civil servants? That would put a stop to the nonsense that the Opposition keep bringing up.
Mr. Leslie: As I said to the Select Committee on Public Administration last week, we need to make sure that we enshrine certain principles in a code of conduct for special advisers. That code is a new initiative from this Administration and will create more transparency in those areas. We can look at a cap on numbers and we shall want to consult on those matters when any future civil service legislation is introduced.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Minister recognise that it is important that a clear boundary between political advisers and civil servants, who must be politically impartial, is maintained? What action has the First Secretary of State taken to ensure rigorous enforcement of that code in the light of what has happened, and when will the civil service Bill to which the Minister referred be published?
Mr. Leslie: The code of conduct makes plain, as does the ministerial code of conduct, the parameters of special advisers' work and operations. We are working on civil service legislation and will publish it when we are ready to do so. The code of conduct should be welcomed all round; indeed, the Public Administration Committee noted that it was both a welcome step forward and progress that should be acknowledged.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): In the light of the excellent fourth report of the Public Administration Committee, which was published last February, does my hon. Friend intend to take any further action in that respect? In particular, he should take note of the fact that the report says that the official Opposition
Mr. Leslie: That is an interesting question. Not many people realise that the Opposition benefited from a threefold increase in the Short money, which goes to support their workit is purely for parliamentary business, of course, and I am sure that it is true that central office is not propped up by that £3.4 million. I tried to do a bit of research the other day and it seems that in their
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Since the Minister is on the subject of threefold increases, can I point to the threefold increase, from roughly £50 million to just under £150 million, in the Government's spending on advertising through the Central Office of Information? Since the most senior special adviser of them all is Alastair Campbell, how does the Minister justify this morning's reports that Mr. Campbell will get his sticky fingers on taxpayers' money and have direct control over Government advertising?
Mr. Leslie: Another conspiracy theory from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Central Office of Information undertakes extremely important marketing campaignsfor example, on public health and protection or on recruiting extra doctors and nurses. If he feels that that is money poorly spent, I shall start to worry for him.
Mr. Collins: The Minister is renowned for being a man of his word, so will he give the House a categorical assurance that Mr. Alastair Campbell will not be in any position to give orders to the Central Office of Information as a result of the restructuring, and that any official of the Central Office of Information will be entitled to decline to follow any instruction given by Mr. Alastair Campbellyes or no?
Mr. Leslie: The Central Office of Information has recently undergone its quinquennial review and the results were published yesterday. Those involved closer working with the Government information and communications services, as well as the strategic communication unit. We must have coherent government, which has a strong corporate strategic management. We must make sure that those recruitment exercises and public health campaigns are undertaken as effectively as possible.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government have already announced changes to the pay system for special advisers based on civil service job evaluation. The process of evaluation is not yet finished, so the salary costs for the next financial year will be provided once the exercise is completed.
Mr. Blunt: There's a surprisethat the figures are not available. Will the Minister confirm that part of those salaries is paid to Alastair Campbell? From the hon. Gentleman's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), he made it clear
Mr. Leslie: Is it not amazing that the hon. Gentleman forgot to mention that he is a former special adviser? That level of masochistic self-loathing in the Conservative party is deeply distressing. The hon. Gentleman should realise that we believe that the Government must be led strongly from the centre, and that we must make sure that we have effective and successful communications campaigns for the benefit of the recipients of public services across the country.