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Child Abuse

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

National data show that 29,200 children were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2008. Children are given a plan where there are concerns about their safety and welfare as specified in the Government’s guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006. Some 45 per cent. of the plans arose from neglect, 25 per cent. from emotional abuse, 15 per cent. from physical abuse, 7 per cent. from sexual abuse and 8 per cent. from multiple abuses of children.

I thank the Minister for her reply, sad as it is. Sometimes it appears that the Government operate like a fire brigade when a crisis appears in a particular children’s services department. Does she agree that regular training in safeguarding for the whole of the children’s work force is crucial to ensuring that the number of incidents is reduced and that professionals recognise the early warning signs of abuse? Furthermore, what action will the Government take to give leadership to show our society that hitting and abusing children is wrong?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question—I know that she takes a great deal of interest in, and is very knowledgeable about, these issues. She will know that following the death of Victoria Climbié and Lord Laming’s review, there was a wholesale radical transformation of local arrangements, with a focus on safeguarding. Those arrangements are largely working, but they depend on effective implementation in every local area. She is right to say that that crucially depends on the quality, experience and training of the people operating the system at every level. That is why we published the work force strategy; it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced today the taskforce that will specifically examine the training needs of, and issues associated with the work of, social workers and their managers; and it is why we announced leadership training for directors of children’s services and managers, to be provided through the National College for School Leadership.

I know that the hon. Lady is alluding to smacking, but I am sure she would not wish to bracket together good parents who feel that sometimes it is necessary to smack with those who consistently abuse children. Although it is good that parents are moving away from smacking—I support that—we have no intention of criminalising the vast majority of parents, who do a very good job with their children.

Will my right hon. Friend refer to the letter that I sent her last week about examining the failures in Birmingham’s safeguarding children services? As was revealed in this weekend’s Sunday Mercury—my local Sunday newspaper —15 children’s lives have been lost over the past four years in the local authority area, and that is wholly unacceptable. Will she intervene to provide good leadership in that local authority in order to ensure that that number is reduced?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One way in which the 2004 legislation transformed safeguarding arrangements was that it introduced powers for Ministers to act and intervene, and we have recently seen those powers used very publicly. My officials went into Birmingham on 17 December, they have met council officials and they will be reporting to me shortly with recommendations for action in relation to that particular local authority, which, as he said, appears to be in serious difficulty.

Before Christmas, the Secretary of State kindly said that he would reverse the Department’s policy of instructing local authorities not to give me the lists of serious case reviews following the deaths of children from suspected abuse and neglect. I thank him for that, but when will it happen?

As far as we are aware, that instruction has been given, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and clarify the situation for him.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Blackpool council finds that if children are abused in families, those families also often suffer domestic violence and other problems? As a result, the council has developed inter-agency working. Will she ensure that those working not only in children’s services but in other agencies that have dealings with children are aware of the importance of working together to prevent incidents of child abuse?

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these issues in Blackpool, which faces particular challenges from people moving in and out of the area. Any issue that impairs an adult’s ability to parent their child, whether it is domestic violence, substance misuse or a mental health problem, should raise questions about child protection or development in the minds of those working with the parent that should be explored. It is important that agencies that work with children work together with agencies that work with children and adults and that both “think family” rather than one or the other.

I deplore any case of child abuse, but on Saturday evening, as president of the Majestic theatre group in Macclesfield, I attended a pantomime production of “The Little Mermaid”, in which many young children took part—something that I greatly encourage. What surprised and concerned me was the number of chaperones that the theatre had to provide so that those children could participate. Is not that overkill, and will the Minister look at the situation to see whether the burden placed on such groups might be reduced?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed the performance. Unfortunately, I have not seen that production so I do not know how young the children are or how many are involved. However, I am sure that he would want to err on the side of caution, as would many parents. In the case of very young children—say, under seven—a fair few adults are needed to ensure their safety, not just because of the possibility of molestation but because there are many health and safety risks backstage. I will look at the issue and if there are matters to address, we will be happy to do so.

While the massive extension of children’s centres and Sure Start by the Government must have had an impact in identifying children who are abused, unfortunately many parents still do not access those services. What are we doing to try to ensure that we access them?

Of course, one thing that we are doing is putting in additional resources for outreach workers to knock on doors and develop relationships with some of those disadvantaged families who find it difficult initially even to walk up to a children’s centre. The Opposition would cut the funding for those outreach workers, and if that were to happen, the ability of children’s centres to reach those families would be seriously impaired.

One would have hoped that the Minister would not try to make party political capital when talking about such serious issues.

I hope that the Minister will at least agree that the role of social workers in child protection is critical. How confident is she that the current level of training for social workers is adequate, and that the standard is the same across the country?

In a sense, when it comes to political commitment the proof of the pudding is in the resources that political parties put into particular issues and the focus that they place on them. That is why I drew attention to the difference between the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine—

Order. I am going to give a ruling. Let us not draw attention to the party opposite. It is the job of a Minister to answer for the Department that they represent.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comments about the action that she has taken in relation to Birmingham and for her stress on children and parents in the intervention. In some parts of Birmingham, such as Quinton, where we have a safe haven system, the police and schools work together extremely successfully. Will she therefore ensure that the education authorities where police and schools work together to prevent children coming on to the at risk register in the first place roll out their good practice across the entire authority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the focus of the children’s trusts, which we will strengthen to ensure the integration and close working together of all those agencies, which should take responsibility locally and together for whatever measures need to be taken to protect children in their area.

Let me bring the Minister back to her own policies. One of the common themes to have come out of the Baby P disaster and other child deaths has been the high level of case loads on social workers, the increasing time that they spend in front of computer screens filling in assessments and the high vacancy rate that a Unison report today described as a “ticking time bomb” that will lead to further child deaths. Today the Government start the £224 million computer project, ContactPoint. Which does she think is more likely to protect vulnerable children: investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their case load or throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen, which will further take key professionals away from the sharp end of personal contact and the security of which she has declined to guarantee?

It is not an either/or situation. That is the difference with this Government. We are committed to both those things, not one or the other. It is very important that social workers get the training that they need. Lord Laming is looking at that and the taskforce that we have set up is looking at it in detail. It is vital—this came directly from the Victoria Climbié inquiry—that when different people, such as social workers, health visitors and police officers, are working in a family, they know very quickly who else is involved so they can put their piece of the jigsaw into the whole picture. That has been the failing discovered in almost every inquiry into a child death. ContactPoint will do that—we are funding it, the Opposition will not.