Coffee House

Children and families ‘not a priority’ for Michael Gove, former children’s minister argues

16 January 2013

Of all the sackings in September’s reshuffle, two of the most surprising came from the Education department. So it was fascinating to hear those two victims of the purge, Tim Loughton and Nick Gibb, give their verdict on the department and their boss at the Education Select Committee this morning. Lib Dem Sarah Teather, who departed to fight to retain her constituency, also had her say, but the most striking comments came from Loughton.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Loughton was not happy to have lost his job. He apparently stayed silent for almost the entire duration of his reshuffle meeting with the Prime Minister, and has become a vocal backbencher since returning from his departmental office. So his contributions could, to a certain extent, have been coloured by his dismay at being asked to leave a position he was enjoying, and where he was popular.

Nonetheless, the former children’s minister made a clear and deliberate attack on the priorities of the department, arguing to the committee that his brief ‘was a declining priority within the department’ and that ‘the children and families agenda has been greatly downgraded since the reshuffle’, adding that while he understood the need for Michael Gove to focus on radical schools reform, ‘my fear is it needn’t have been mutually exclusive and there has been some neglect with children and families’. The new minister responsible for this area had a huge portfolio and a declining number of officials to help him, Loughton claimed.


The government’s adoption adviser Sir Martin Narey has since argued that Gove was ‘committed to adoption and care reforms’ and that it was a ‘No 10 top priority’.

The Education department is often lauded as an example of efficient and effective leadership, but Loughton wasn’t quite so glowing in his assessment of the way the ministerial team functioned. He argued that a ministerial meeting scheduled regularly for lunchtimes was ‘frequently cancelled’, and that when meetings did take place, there was a paucity of strategic discussion:

‘This was one of my big bugbears. The last time ministers met together without civil servants as far as I can remember… was Christmas dinner at the Secretary of State’s house last year and it was a real weakness. We had a supposedly a ministerial meeting every monday lunchtime supposedly for an hour, frequently cancelled.

‘Rarely did children, we had the opportunity for children and families matters to come on the agenda. It was a cast of… including special advisers, some of whom I never knew who they were anyway, and much of it was soliloquy.

‘That was not an opportunity for a strategic discussion of what the department’s priorities should be, of how they should be handling the agenda, and how the department should be integrated, and it was a real weakness, and despite the constant by several of us that actually ministers just need to sit down, with a cup of coffee, whatever it might be and toss some ideas around as to a strategic overview.’

He said this led to a ‘feeling of frustration’ of certain ministers and their officials. On further questioning about these soliloquies, Loughton said:

‘Well, the Secretary of State is very good at soliloquies. He’s very good at entertaining…’

But Teather argued in her evidence that she had enjoyed good access to Gove, and that in her experience, all meetings suffered from soliloquies.

There weren’t just problems with the way the ministerial team organised itself, though. Loughton also attacked the way officials tried to be as evasive as possible when compiling written answers, and also claimed that some of his civil servants working on social services ‘had never met a social worker before’ he took them out on visits to councils. This is just another sack of fuel for the ongoing row about how effective the civil service is.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • Daniel Maris

    An interesting criticism from a Tory, even if it does smack of the usual ex-Minister resentment.

    Personally I think the Tories do underestimate the important of child development issues in improving educational performance and I would have hoped they could have got a lot more benefit for pounds spent compared with Brown who just sprayed money at the problem with little reflection or evidence-based thinking.

  • Steve Patriarca

    Indeed and very much my experience as I was involved in an academy project which became a “free schools”project in a totally dysfunctional department. The scholls minister Nick Gibb who had been happy to have discussion when in opposition suddenly became totally incommunicado and refused to answer calls. He visibly snubbed me at an official opening. Meanwhile the Secretary of State took the academies portfolio from the Minister and proceeded to develop more and more bureaucracy and less and less progress. Why did he dismantle the perfectly effective academies route before he knew what to do with his free schools route? The DFE is run by ideologues and professional advisers who have not been in schools. the E-bac for example is a fraud. It uses the term “Bacc” implying it has Baccalaureate values (such as breadth and enquiry-based learning) in reality it is more like a 1940s School Leaving Certificate. It is the project of a research assistant and an ideologue.

  • 2trueblue

    Obviously sour grapes.

  • DWWolds

    If, from around 10 months down the line, we limited child benefits to the first two children some, if not a good many, of the problems with children would be less acute.

  • UlyssesReturns

    So a junior minister who is sacked complains about his boss and the way the department was run? In 30 years of senior management roles I have heard this more times than I can remember. Invariably the person sacked knew more about how to run things than the person in charge, except we all know that isn’t true don’t we? The media are always doing this; interviewing a nurse or a doctor as to what’s wrong in the health service and this becomes the accepted fact, as if the professionals in charge of a £100 billion operation were completely useless (I may have to rethink that analogy). Or, asking the receptionist at the Spectator offices what was wrong with the magazine and using that as a basis for criticising Ms Hardman, or Mr Nelson (oops I did it again). This article is, I am afraid to say, complete bollocks.

    • Sheumais

      “Invariably the person sacked knew more about how to run things than the person in charge, except we all know that isn’t true don’t we?”

      No, we don’t all know this and if you have been told this often, as a senior manager, you should pay some heed to it. I have known senior managers who could have been more than adequately replaced by the office cleaner. I met a senior manager who told me, with considerable pride, he had never held one position for longer than 18 months. I told him his CV would go straight in the bin if he applied to my department for a job. I met a senior manager who was entirely incapable of achieving the minimum professional qualifications to do his job and survived on bluster and many other people’s hard work. I met a senior manager who increased the annual turnover of senior and very experienced staff from virtually zero to 30%, eventually running a sound business into the ground. I have also spent a considerable amount of my time filling in forms to justify the existence of senior management which would have been far better spent doing the job my clients paid for. So, no, you know nothing of the sort, you just think you do.

  • Magnolia

    Policy is too masculine.
    The family and children are subjects which lean themselves towards both sexes with equal emphasis on women and men as well as their children.
    The new single tier pension system was advertised as being women friendly but it’s so obviously a scheme that’s designed by a man or men who think they know what women would like rather than by women or a group of people of both sexes who actually know what women would want.
    Many of our male ministers are youngish and married to clever career professionals with the kids farmed and their everyday reality and life experience leads them to dismiss or simply blank other more ‘normal/traditional’ forms of family.
    It’s part of their arrogant persona but perhaps stems from downright ignorance.
    Mr Loughton seems to have picked this up.

  • John_Page

    You keep praising Loughton. In my experience he was captured by the system. Maybe you should ask Booker what he thought of him.

    • Dimoto

      A minister who wanted “more meetings” and was “popular” ?
      Less than convincing praise.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Too much emphasis on children as it is. The latest NSPCC TV advert is positively sinister, encouraging eavesdropping on children’s playtime conversations in case they reveal clues about inappropriate behaviour by their parents including drinking too much vodka and having arguments – or possibly just being members of UKIP. “It’s better to be certain” so report everything, after all “if you have nothing to hide…”. The advert is presumably aimed at neighbours and teachers who are expected to report this “intelligence” through channels or to the armed wing of the Social Services (SS).

    The sad thing is this horror was actually dreamed up by people with the best intentions. But we’ve been there before.

    • 2trueblue

      I agree with you about the new ad. Whilst all this suggestion is thrown about, the obvious has proven to be invisible, and ignored, and children still die unnecessarily.

    • telemachus

      It is perfectly legitimate to check out parents for infection of young minds by the Ukip virus
      Our kids deserve a bright future in a dynamic Europe
      They need to be protected from the fringe

      In these times of economic crisis, and political uncertainty voters who are dissatisfied with the mainstream parties turn to those on the fringes. David Cameron, struggling with the economy and unpopularity is bleeding votes to UKIP. They have now overtaken the Lib Dems place to third in the polls. Even my own father, to my horror, declared to me the other day that having voted Conservative in 2010, he intends to vote for UKIP in 2015. For the Tories it is a huge problem. Their votes are being leached away by the party, and to keep them they will be forced to shift further to the right on the issue of Europe.

      If UKIP got their way and we ever left the European Union, it would be a great shame. The move would send completely the wrong message to our allies in Europe. To solve the Eurozone crisis, we need greater levels of cooperation and interdependence. What rises and falls in the German and French economies effectively determines the fate of ours; so we really are all in this together whether we like it or not.

      • Magnolia

        When your leader? Ed Mili appeared on Mr Marr’s programme last Sunday, wearing his navy blue tie and shoving his clenched fist (raised fist?) repeatedly at Mr Langdale, he said that it was wrong to give the electorate a referendem on the EU and not in the national interest.
        He said that it was incredibly dangerous what the PM was doing.
        He doesn’t believe in listening to the people and giving them a say.
        I think that he believes, as do you, that our allies are the socialists of the EU, rather than our true allies who are the peoples of Europe.
        That’s why both he and Mr Clegg and you talk about being at the centre of Europe, your “greater levels of co-operation and interdependence”.
        The German and French economies will only affect ours while we are dependent on them and that can be changed in future.

  • In2minds

    On the 11th of this month Fraser Nelson suggested that Honda job losses
    should be put in perspective, I agree. So why are we bothered about
    Tim Loughton and Nick Gibb?

Can't find your Web ID? Click here