Teather: “Free schools must not make profit”

Children's minister highlights "dividing line" in New Statesman interview.

When I enter Sarah Teather's office, the minister for children and families is celebrating a victory over the forces of bureaucracy. The windows in her top-floor office, overlooking Great Smith Street in Westminster, open wide enough that a careless person might feasibly plummet to certain doom below. So they are kept locked. Even ministers do not have the key. But on this bright spring afternoon, Teather has, after a nine-month campaign, secured access to fresh air.

This triumph aside, the atmosphere around the Liberal Democrats' role in government is gloomy. The weekend before our interview, delegates at the party's spring conference have both supported and opposed government plans to reform the NHS in rival motions. That does not, I suggest, indicate a happy party. "It is clear that people are still uneasy," Teather concedes. "We need to work harder to make sure that they understand exactly what's been achieved."

We're supposed to be talking about education, not health, but I'm intrigued by parallels between the two agendas. The academies and free schools programme is also predicated on the belief that competition from new providers will drive up the quality of service. Lib Dem grassroots hostility to this mechanism in the NHS is well-advertised; I pick up similar suspicion regarding schools. Has Teather detected the same?

"At a Lib Dem conference you'll find people saying 'well, that doesn't feel very Lib Dem' - of course it doesn't, this isn't a Lib Dem government, it's a coalition." Does she personally believe that competition from the private sector is the best way to drive up standards in public services? "I don't have any ideological objections to the use of the private sector. The Liberal Democrats have never had any ideological objections to the use of the private sector, that's the same in health and in education." What about the prospect of companies making a profit from running schools? "That's different. That was one of the key dividing lines that Nick Clegg made clear. Free schools will not be making a profit during the life of this coalition."

Teather's main ministerial focus is on what happens to children before they reach school and one of the policies that Lib Dems are keen to promote as one of their contributions to government is a substantial increase in free nursery places - providing 15 hours of care per week to 260,000 more two, three and four-year-olds from families on low incomes. I wonder if this message has been obscured by cuts elsewhere, to Sure Start children's centres, for example. Teather insists reports of Sure Start butchery are exaggerated. "There's a lot of talk about local authorities scrapping children's centres but the evidence doesn't stack up. We still have 3,500 across the whole of England." Departmental figures, last collated in September, claim 124 centres have closed so far.

Meanwhile, proposals will shortly be announced to get parents more involved in running children's centres, borrowing perhaps from the model of school governing boards. The idea is meant to form part of a theme of parent-driven accountability. The same motive is behind new rules, due in September, that will force schools to publish how they are spending their "pupil premium" - a signature Lib Dem policy that allocates extra money for children entitled to free school meals. The idea is that greater transparency will put pressure on schools to narrow the gap in attainment between children from poorest backgrounds and the rest. "Historically they under-perform on their potential and at the moment schools aren't adequately getting to grips with those issues," says Teather. "A school can't claim to be performing well if it's leaving behind some of those children at the bottom."

The obvious danger is that any ambition to help children from poor backgrounds is sabotaged by welfare and tax credit cuts, which are due to make life substantially harder for low income families. Teather was a critic of government plans for a cap on the level of benefit any household can receive. In February, she missed a crucial parliamentary vote on the measure - a highly irregular ministerial abstention. It prompted calls from some Tories that she resign. So does she now support the policy? "I am on record as having concerns about the benefits cap, but I am also pleased to see the changes that were brought in on the back of those concerns, my job is sometimes to take points and suggestions about things that other departments are doing that affect children and families. That's the job that the prime minister asked me to do and I take it seriously."

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.