Interview: Baroness Beverley Hughes, Labour peer


Beverley Hughes, the former children's minister who was awarded a peerage in May, is preparing to get stuck into her new role in the House of Lords, in which she says her old brief will be her top priority.

"It's quite worrying what's happening," she explains. "I'm not clear whether (the Education Secretary) Michael Gove sees anything beyond what goes on in the classroom. The whole emphasis on families, parents, fathers, and on young people particularly, is under great threat in the Department for Education (DfE)."

For Hughes, the future of families policy is personal. She was instrumental in driving through the Every Child Matters (ECM) reforms under the previous government and stepped down from her role as children's minister last year to spend more time with her own family.

Soon, she will start looking after her granddaughter one day a week, making her part of the growing legion of grandparent childcarers.

"We broadened the remit of the department because we understand that what happens out of school is just as important as what goes on in the classroom," she says. "I will support things that the government does if they are good, but I'm going to be really vocal about anything that could harm children, young people and families."

One thing she believes will harm young people is the coalition's decision to make youth justice the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

"That was a big mistake," she warns. "You've got to be mindful of the two dimensions when a young person offends. Yes they have to be punished, but they're also still children with a chance to change. To take away the joint responsibility across the DfE, MoJ and Home Office is making a point for the sake of it. It's a retrograde step."

Hughes is also concerned about the coalition's approach to children's health, welfare reforms, and the general lack of youth policy. But she believes the Labour Party needs to start thinking about the future.

"I don't want us to simply oppose what the coalition is doing," she explains. "I want us to have some positive, forward-looking ideas for children and families, building on what we've done before with ECM."

She claims that keeping children at the centre of government policy will be vital if the party is to rejuvenate itself.

"We've got to think: what is the next stage in terms of children, young people and families policy?" she says. "I am sure (Labour Party leader) Ed Miliband will want to ask that question too. We've got some interesting and creative thinking to do."

One way that Hughes has been preparing for work in the Lords is by talking to directors of children's services about the challenges they are facing.

"It's a very varied picture," she explains. "There are people saying that cuts are an opportunity to think outside the box. On the other hand, some directors are concerned because the approach taken by the council is simply to give every department the same percentage decrease to achieve, which doesn't protect children's services at all."

But even with spending cuts and the new policy landscape, Hughes is "cautiously optimistic" that the ethos of ECM will live on.

"In terms of people delivering services in localities, I think ECM will stand," she says. "Not because of the good job we did particularly, but because there was such a strong consensus from people across the professions that this was the right thing to do."

She is however, concerned that "ECM could get raggedy round the edges", since the commitment to the agenda from some schools and health services "was developing but still fragile".

Hughes urges children's minister Sarah Teather and her junior, Tim Loughton, to make sure that wider children's services stay on the agenda in a department dominated by academies and free schools.

"They will need to push really strongly to keep that flame alive," she says. "And I hope they are."

 

POLITICAL CAREER FROM PROBATION TO THE LORDS

  • Beverley Hughes started her career as a probation officer in 1972, which led to her eventually becoming head of the department of social work at Manchester University in 1994
  • She was elected to Trafford council in 1986 and led it from 1995, before becoming MP for Stretford and Urmston in 1997
  • Hughes replaced Margaret Hodge as children's minister in May 2005 and was given the power to sit in on Cabinet meetings when the Department for Children, Schools and Families was created in June 2007
  • She stepped down from the post in June 2009 for family reasons and was awarded a peerage in May 2010.

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