I am very proud to answer the first question on behalf of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families—the “Every Child Matters” Department, including children in care.
The White Paper “Care Matters: Time for Change” proposed a wide range of measures to improve outcomes for children in care, and additional funding of £305 million over four years. We will introduce legislation in the next Session to support implementation; provide a £500 allowance for each child in care falling behind at school; improve stability through parenting support for foster carers and better use of family carers; and improve support for those leaving care.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his position, and I also welcome that comprehensive answer. Is he aware that for some time Blackpool council has been developing an advocacy service for children in care in the looked-after system, and is currently developing a looked-after children’s council? Will my hon. Friend ensure that as the “Care Matters” agenda is developed, the voice of the child is heard? It is through listening to those young people that appropriate services can be set up, and their outcomes improved.
Yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work as president of Blackpool Advocacy, and on all her work down the years on behalf of children in care. It is central to the White Paper and the legislation that the Government will introduce in the new Session that the voice of the child should inform all we do, in local systems as well as individually in their day-to-day experience.
I applaud the Government’s efforts to improve outcomes for children in care, who are badly served by state services at present. Some time ago the Government floated the idea—in fact, I think they intended to introduce it—of sending some of those children to boarding school, either state or private. That idea offers an interesting opportunity. It would give children continuity of care and enable them to make friends, and also offers the prospect for their foster carers in summer to have less time responsibility. Can the Minister update us on the prospects for such placements for some children?
Yes, I can. The principle that will always inform everything we do for children in care is that what is done should be in the best interests of the child. I am sure Members are familiar with that paramount principle. We are piloting some of the ideas to which the hon. Lady referred, and obviously, we shall keep the House informed of progress.
I welcome not only the new team but also the much greater emphasis on children right across the piece. Does my hon. Friend agree that with children in care, as with children throughout the education system, our real problem is that the poorest children have the least spent on their education and care? That is the real challenge that we and his team face over the coming years.
Yes. It is absolutely the mission of the Department to ensure that all children reach their potential, particularly children from the poorest backgrounds. Children in care sometimes do not achieve the outcome that accords with their potential. The principles we shall follow in bringing in the new legislation and implementing the proposals in the White Paper are based on the fact that we have high ambitions for children in care and for the poorest children in the country.
The Government have caused a number of problems by conflating section 31 and section 20, but will they commit to listening to the voices of children who say that they want to leave care and return to their parents? I know of cases where children have run away from care to go back to their parents, only to be returned time and again. Will the Government start listening to the voices of children who want to return to their parents?
It is the principle the Government follow that wherever possible children should remain with their birth family. It is absolutely legitimate to make criticisms and to look into the issues raised by children in care and adoption, but what is not legitimate is—sometimes in pursuit of a headline in a popular newspaper—to accuse the Government, professionals in the social care sector, local authorities, and indeed the courts, of not trying to act in the best interests of children, which is what the system is designed to do.
Local authorities act in loco parentis for children in care. Will the Minister tell me how he is working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the local area agreements that local authorities are about to develop will have at their heart services and outcomes for our children in care?
Yes, and as I said earlier, when it becomes the responsibility of the state, particularly at local level, to act in loco parentis or to act as a parent in lieu, we should be aiming to act as a parent to the same standard that we would expect from good parents if a child was able to remain with their birth parents. Naturally it is possible for local authorities, where they believe that they need to stretch their performance, to negotiate local area agreements, and obviously that will be a matter for them to decide.
The Government’s target has been to narrow the gap in achievement between looked-after children and their peers. Is it not therefore a cause for deep concern that just 12 per cent. of looked-after children pass five GCSEs at grade A to C, and that the gap in attainment between children in the care of the state and all other children has widened every year since 2001? The Government have for 10 years failed to get it right for 61,000 looked-after children in this country. With such a record of failure, can the Minister explain why there should be any confidence that he will get it right now, and tackle what has become a deteriorating educational poverty gap for these children?
I thank the hon. Lady—although I was hoping that we might be able to develop a relationship based on consensus around trying to help children in care. Perhaps it is unfortunate that she started off talking about a record of failure, when in fact there has been significant improvement in the educational performance of children in care. For example, between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of children in care obtaining a GCSE has increased from 49 per cent. to 63 per cent., the percentage of those children obtaining five A to Gs has increased from 35 per cent. to 41 per cent. and the percentage obtaining five A to Cs from 7 per cent. to 12 per cent. [Hon. Members: “Twelve per cent.!”] That is not good enough, but it is a significant improvement on the previous position. With the Every Child Matters agenda, with the White Paper and with the legislation that is being introduced, which will include additional financial help for children who are in danger of falling behind in school and who are in care, we are determined to make that better.