Examination of Witness (Questions 60 -
WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001
60. Are you saying that Yvette Cooper is really
the Minister that we should have here because she chairs the committee?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I think she would be
able to give you a more detailed analysis of it than I am able
to. As I say, it falls within my remit because I have that as
part of the DfES and the Cabinet Minister responsible is the Secretary
of State but, in terms of the day to day work that Sure Start
does, Yvette Cooper chairs the group, so I think you could go
into more detail with her than you would be able to with me.
61. The Government's ambition is that the Sure
Start programme will only reach one-third of the children living
in poverty by 2004. What about the 66 per cent that you want to
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and this is
my point about having a Sure Start model that you can roll out
in that most deprived children do not necessarily live in deprived
areas, they live in leafy suburb land in areas of one or two streets
and it is very important that we have models that can be worked
through for them. When we look at the cross-cutting review, one
of the ambitions I have is that we begin to designate and develop
the way in which schools can play a role in both Sure Start and
Early Years to be developing family based services. Schools seem
to me to be the obvious community resource and are often an underutilised
community resource and I do not mean, I hasten to add, that teachers
should do more than they currently do nor that heads should take
responsibility, but we have good private and voluntary sector
partners who could be brought in. We have good links with health
and I would like to see those extended and expanded: the role
of child and adolescent mental health services, the role of school
nurses and so one where we have good examples of them being involved
in schools on a more outreach basis and I see that as being potentially
a model where you could integrate the kind of Sure Start childcare/Early
Years developments alongside some of the work we are trying to
do on behaviour management, working with families who are deprived
and working with adult literacy too around a school provision
because school provision is pretty much universal.
62. What commitment is there for financial resources
to back that up? There is a good record of governance over the
last 20 years of some excellent initiatives which are well funded
and really work and then they say to the schools, "Right,
now you can do that as well because you have seen the example",
but there are no resources that follow through to do that.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The purpose of the
review is to be putting forward proposals to the comprehensive
spending review, so resources are clearly key to all this. One
of the issues of our resources in terms of the childcare role
is that there are over 40 different funding streams and that has
been necessary in order to get money from the European Union and
so on, so I do not make any apologies for that. In fact, I am
delighted that my predecessor Margaret Hodge was able to do that,
but we managed to look at making it easier and more accessible
and perhaps reducing the number of streams, but that is all about
how to mainstream and how to integrate the services together.
63. Moving on to a different area but with some
of the same themes, namely money, the particular area that I wanted
to raise was around the schools building programme and the capital.
Firstly, I would just like to say that I welcome this enormously.
One of the things that I did when I was a candidate in the Election
was that I went to the school at which I started well over 35
years ago. The toilets which I used when I was four years old
were still there and the concern that that school had around the
decay that had gone on with the lack of investment was palpable,
so I welcome the programme. My question is, £8.5 billion
sounds like a lot of money, but how confident are you that you
are going to be able to continue this level of investment? Presumably
the asset management plans which the local authorities are doing
should be identifying how much overall is needed to get the schools
up to the standard that we want them to be.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed. The position
is that we used to have a position where there was just about
enough money in the budget to deal with the need to expand schools
because of children moving into the area but there was not enough
to think about genuine renewal and we are trying to now develop,
through the fund mechanisms, the opportunities to do that and
I do not make any apologies for using PFI in that either because
it is a very important tool to do that. What we want to do with
the asset management plan is first of all to get local authorities
to understand exactly what they have and to have a programme developed
so that it is not so much a case of, if the thing fails sufficiently,
in that I can think of schools where you let things decay to the
point where they have to renew them because, if we keep patching
them, they never work well, and it was a great day when I got
the money for our school toilets, I remember it well. So, we are
trying to look beyond that to having a coherent programme for
the future. We are committed to doing that. Again, this is all
part of where we go on the spending review and it will be for
the Secretary of State to pull together the whole of the department's
programme. I do not think anyone is any doubt as to the importance
of getting school buildings not only repaired but prepared in
a way that will allow for the technology of the future. School
buildings will have different uses in 10 years time to what they
do now, so we need a more flexible approach and I am also very
keen that we are looking carefully at design and we are looking
carefully at environmental issues.
64. If I could link in with the earlier discussion
because I too would be very keen to see schools really as a family
centre for the community. A number of schools in my constituency
are being renewed and we are getting new schools, but there is
a real concern in the community that there is no space being put
in there for community use. The local authorities say that is
because there are not sufficient resources and it comes back again
to the forward thinking which you are talking about, but also
this sense that we have to think across the issues and are we
making sure that when schools are built, we are putting in place
in order that we can do the things which Paul was talking about?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed, it is a very
good point and it is something that, with the purpose of looking
at the whole review, building in terms of childcare and building
that into what we are doing like extended schools and so on, these
are relatively new ideas that, in a sense have been around for
a long time, I did not claim any credit for them and certainly
I have been thinking schools as a community resource for at least
ten years, but beginning to see what that might look like does
have an impact on how we design the build and I have no doubts
about that, we will have to consider it.
65. Before we leave the question of capital,
Minister, you mentioned that PFI would be used where it meant
better value for money. Can you tell us what the criteria are?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I can to some extent.
The basis upon which we look at PFI is to see what we are able
to achieve within that PFI project that would not be achieved
simply left to the resources available and that is a combination
of factors, not least of course the actual money that you would
have to invest at that particular time but also what the outcomes
would be. One of the things that I think is important about PFI
is because at the end of whatever timescale is decided, let us
for argument's sake say 20 years or 25 years, the buildings have
to be handed over in good condition. That means that you are building
in the maintenance and upkeep of those buildings throughout that
time and that is a hugely important factor, so it is combination
of what is the investment being made, what is the gain at the
end, what will be the amount in terms of the support for maintenance
and the support for the school building, removing from head teachers
those responsibilities as well which I think would be welcome,
and to develop that as part of the long term plan.
66. That is not a set of criteria, is it? That
is a basis of a general judgment, it is not a precise set of criteria.
What I am interested in finding out is whether there is an agreed,
accepted methodology that is applied to each PFI project.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I cannot reel those
off for you but I can certainly get them for you.
They do exist and the reason that I cannot reel them off is because
they exist both in terms of the department's officials who work
on the PFI projects but also in terms of their relationships with
the LEAs, so that, as they develop them, they take the criteria
but they also look at the particular circumstances of the LEAs.
I would be very happy to supply those for you.
67. Who has the overall control in terms of
the quality and design? So many of us are sickened by the awful
educational buildings that have been built over the years and
the buck passes between architects, local education authorities
and the government. We are spending all this money, what control
do we have on the quality of the buildings as we enter the feeling
of the beauty of the environment?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and it is a
very interesting and pertinent question because I was speaking
at a conference on design at the PFI two weeks ago. There is an
ongoing debate about whether the departments should play a more
significant role in the design. I have my doubts about government
departments becoming design gurus. What I am very clear about
is that, on the ground, there are people who are pretty clear
about what they are trying to achieve and I do want to see school
governors, if it is a school, and the head teacher and the local
community involved in some way, shape or form in that design.
What I have said is that I want us to move closer to thinking
about design in terms of the environmental issue: how much does
it cost to heat it, light it and so on, in terms of the flexibility
of the building: this building is used for school purposes but
school purposes are changing so how much effort has been given
and is thinking of being given? And to have designs that are practical
as well and affordable, but that the people who are going to live
in the building, the children, have some say in what their school
should look like. In my own school partly for an anti-bullying
project, the kids were asked to take a plan of the school each
and to draw which parts they like best and which parts they did
not, and it was astonishing to see the unanimity of people, which
parts they felt were dingy and which parts they would like to
have differently done. If you can expand that and of course include
the teachers as well because the teachers have to feel that the
plugs are in the right places, all of those things that, when
you build a house, you take into account.
Chairman: Minister, that is good news but all
of us sitting round this table have been looking ruefully at schools
and educational buildings. My own area is one of the wettest parts
of the world and we have schools with flat roofs. How many of
us are involved with leaking schools because the roofs were designed
not for the climate that we actually live in.
68. One matter on PFI, please, Minister. One
of the criteria, looking at the costs of putting the PFI deal
together, are the lawyers' and the accountants' fees. There is
one case of a hospital in Kent where the accountants' and lawyers'
fees were £2 million and the capital programme was £10
million and it collapsed, but you will be looking at that because
that is part of the criteria and there is guidance about how much
you should spend on lawyers and accountants before you actually
get to putting the deal together.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed, Mr Shaw; you
raise again a very, very pertinent point. What I have asked for
and what officials are working for is to get the system to be
much less time consuming because it seems to take a huge amount
of time to get the schemes put together.
69. Bills keep coming in.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed. We are developing
guidanceI think it will be out by Christmassaying
this is what we expect to do in terms of what the mechanism should
be. It should of course decrease the cost because you actually
have a rigorous approach to it.
70. If you are saying this is the guidance,
if it passes a period of time, will you be saying, "That
is it, that is enough, we are not going to allow to continue year
upon year. Not only does it cost a lot of money but is also frustrates
the community. When is this hospital going to be built? When is
the school going to be built? It is a PFI deal, it is some way
down the line." Will there be a cut-off point?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I am not sure whether
we are planning a cut-off in the guidance because I have not seen
the draft guidance yet. What I have said in terms of the steer
is that we have to make sure that people understand what the process
is, that it is timely and that it deals with the issues that need
to be dealt with, but the officials who do work closely with local
education authorities when they are getting in trouble, our track
record is fairly good
71. We do not want them getting into trouble
in the first place.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) What I mean by "getting
into trouble" is when they are not sure what to do next.
It is long before "getting into trouble" in terms of
the project collapsing. The department has very good officials
who go and talk and work with local education authorities at the
first sign that they have a difficulty and the problems that we
have had in terms of timescale I think are about people getting
to grips and learning about the scheme but, now that we have done
that, we want to be more creative with it, but I fully accept
your point, it has to be within measured timescales and it has
to be within a reasonable cast and precisely those objectives
we have in the guidance.
72. I think you will be looking at a very firm
set of criteria and a very firm case in order that you give that
PFI the green light in order that the local councils or the schools
consortium can go out and find the finance and they will need
to employ their own accountants and lawyers, but I think you should
be looking for some sort of timescale because another month and
another month goes by and it goes on and on and, if there is not
that sort of timescale, it seems to me a model where the department
says, "You should be able to put together a deal, this is
the model of good practice and, if you are not going to do that,
we will intervene." Your department is quite happy to intervene
and remove the education authority but perhaps a few plugs should
be pulled on the PFI.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) What you have asked
me about is another point and I would be reluctant to say, "If
you do not do it in six weeks and two days, you are off"
because that is different. I think what you are saying about a
clear-cut set of guidelines and a clear-cut time-frame and a clear
understanding that this project is going to work properly I agree
73. I have three concerns on PFI and I will
be interested to see the criteria that Education are using on
PFI. At a Court case, we saw criteria on London Underground where
the Government said that any public bid would automatically be
penalised on the grounds that they bound to be behind schedule
and inefficient whereas the private sector were bound to be efficient
and always build on time, rather like Railtrack. I hope there
will not be any artificial criteria in the criteria that Education
are using to look at PFI but there are other concerns about PFI
and one is accountability. In some of the early schools, governors
were asked to sign gagging orders on grounds of commercial confidentiality
and the company which built the school argued commercial confidentiality
in terms of running the buildings etc, so you have accountability.
Then there are questions that PFI can work against the community
involvement that we were talking about early in that, for example,
one school in Derbyshire has had the suggestion that, when they
have an event in the evening, the company say they will charge
a parking fee because they want to maximise the financial return.
So, there are very factors here that are very worrying and actually
work against schools being community involved in a commercial
company which is keen to maximise return.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I will be as brief
as I can. In terms of the public/private cross-benefit, I know
that the issue of delay and overspend is an issue and it is taken
into account. I do not know about specific examples; I would not
anticipate that that was something we would want to do at all,
we need to be realistic about what the differences are. The second
in terms of governors and gagging orders and so on, I am very
keen that governors run schools and that means that they run schools
and I would not wish to see what you might call a gagging order.
There will be issues of commercial confidentiality but of course,
as responsible grown-ups, governors would be quite clear about
their responsibilities. I do not want the companies to feel that
people can just wander up and say, "This is a dreadful scheme"
and so on, but that is about a negotiated position and I want
governors to be in the driving seat. One of the issues about PFI
is that I do not think governors understand the systemand
I do not blame them, it is difficultand therefore we will
have to do quite a lot moreand I am talking to colleagues
about how we do thatto help governors understand what it
is they are entering into so that they make a proper and genuine
decision. In terms of the evenings, yes, I am very, very alive
to the issue about who controls the school building outside the
school hours because again it fits very much into what I have
been saying about community resource and I have already asked
officials to go away and make sure that we are not in a position
where the governing body could not dictate what exactly is going
to happen. So, thank you for raising that.
Paul Holmes: If all those criteria are there,
that will be excellent.
Mr Pollard: Chairman, you mentioned accessibility
of the Minister and I can categorically tell you that the Minister
is exceptionally accessible. It may help of course that she is
a constituent of mine!
74. Who cannot vote!
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I have three other
voters in my household!
75. I want to move onto Early Excellence Centres.
Minister, I am delighted that, in my constituency, I have an Early
Excellence Centre but I have to say that it was there before you
were in post, so there is no undue influence there. What are the
criteria for where Early Excellence Centres are? You know my constituency
as well as I do and it would be hard to describe it as a very
needy and run-down area, in fact it is about one of the wealthiest
towns in the land, so I wonder if you could take us generally
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Because I know your
area, I can say that it may be one of the wealthiest areas in
the land but it has real pockets of deprivation as you well know.
It has a number of children who are living in, I think, real poverty
and we do have in all our schools in the area issues of children
with low literacy levels, with family backgrounds that lead them
to have lower education attainment and so on, so I think that
in our communities, however affluent they appear, there are always
areas that are deprived and I would not want our programmes to
be purely for those areas that measure high on the indicators,
important though they are. The point about the Early Excellence
Centres is that it gives the opportunity for people to come together
and it is very much driven by those areas who feel they can provide
that. We want to have 100 of them, we have 49. We plan to let
them develop themselves so that you bring in together the different
services and therefore it is driven by areas where we can address
a genuine need and what that need is, where we can bring together
the services to support that and we can develop and grow and bring
in other areas around it and that is really the criteria.
76. Why have the Government not planned to have
an Early Excellence Centre in every Early Years development and
childcare partnership? There are 100 that you are planning and
there are 150 of the other, so there is a gap of 50.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Can I leave that to
77. There is a case in principle. What is guiding
the department? Do you want to put these in areas of higher social
deprivation? Your opening remarks showed that you were concerned
about reaching through to that bottom third who are the most difficult
people to get into any form of education and is that not the priority?
Should that not be the priority of the department? If we get to
the situation where you are going to have one in every local government
area, yes, St Albans will get its share, but is it right that
those areas get their share when real deprivation is clustered
in other regions of our country?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and inherited
targets are always more difficult to work back and see precisely
why we did it. I am a great fan of targets because it keeps everybody
on our toes not least myself because you can ask me about them.
I think what is important is that we developed a range of different
approaches to how we tackle deprivation with the clear view that
this is a real focal point for us. The point that I was really
making is that I recognise that deprivation exists across our
communities and therefore the models we develop have to be appropriate
and I think that the investment in financial terms is largely
going into those areas of high deprivation and rightly so and
it will be the area on which we will focus. The child care review
will be the area in which we focus in terms of developing our
partnerships but it is also relevant to say that, if you want
to make sure that you address all children's needs ultimately,
that you develop models which you can move across the community
and use resources in that way too.
78. How far do you think your department joined
up in these things? When this Committee looked at a whole range
of good innovative ideas to tackle this deprivation, lack of education
and poverty, one of them was Sure Start, there were Early Excellence
Centres and later on there was educational maintenance allowance
(EMA), so there is a whole range of packages, and then there are
mechanisms that this Government are suggesting and we have asked
them to go further in terms of identifying children from more
deprived backgrounds to get into higher education. How is the
department stitching this altogether or is there one group of
ministers scattering Sure Start here, bit of EMA here? How is
it stitching together? Should they not all be concentrating in
the same areas of deprivation in a more focussed way?
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Yes, we are stitching
it together and one of the reasons why I can say that is because
one of the issues that I am looking at in my childcare review
is the need for 50 per cent of the population by the age of 30
to be accessing higher education and I would argue that you start
really at the beginning because you have to approach children
and young people wherever they are. If you look at where a number
of the problems are, they are trying to focus on the same areas,
but there is a lot to do and a number of areas and, if you are
going to work with local partners on the ground, they have to
be able to work with you. So, sometimes when you are developing
a programme, and Sure Start is a good example, you are reliant
upon the local people being able to come together and develop
that service. It is not about us driving with hoards of people
from the centre saying, "Here we are, we have come to do
79. No, it is not but it is also the case that
even if you look at the awards from the Lottery, the fact is that
the most deprived communities which have less able people, less
middle-class professional people, less people able to put a competent
bid through, so time and time again, even with the Lottery, you
will see that Jeff Ennis's area probably gets less Lottery money
than any other part of the country yet it is one of the most deprived.
If you wait for an articulate group of people to get together
and organise it, then you are going to have a long wait in some
of those deprived parts of the country.
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I do not think I said
that. I think what I said was that you have to be sure that you
can put the partners together. I would have said that you bring
together the sort of `top down bottom up approach', the kind of
thing that we have to meet in the middle. So, it is not about
people from the centre and it is not about waiting for people
who clearly could not do that, so I would argue with you that,
in my experience of working in economic development deprivation
for 20 years, some of the most able and articulate people willing
to do things live in the most deprived communities. They simply
do not get access to the resources but, my goodness, they are
there and I think that is something that we should not forget,
that these people are begging poverty but we should not give them
any other attributes that we perhaps would not want to. They are
quite capable of coming together and working together, they just
need support to do it and that is what we have to do.
Chairman: Support to do it is crucial.
4 Ev. p. 33. Back
Ev. p. 33. Back