I beg to move,
That this House is alarmed that nine years after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié the level of child abuse and deaths at the hands of parents and carers remains unacceptably high; notes that many of the shortcomings of child protection services raised in reports on the death of Baby P and other high profile cases recently echo concerns raised in Lord Laming’s enquiry from which lessons have still not been learned despite the best endeavours of social workers and other professionals working in increasingly difficult and demoralising circumstances; calls on the Government urgently to restore confidence in the system by ensuring that all serious case reviews are published in full, appropriately anonymised and redacted where that would not compromise the welfare of the child and siblings so that all agencies can learn from mistakes made; urges further moves to increase transparency and accountability by requiring all local safeguarding children’s boards to be independently chaired as recently recommended by the Conservative Party, and that the OFSTED inspection system should be overhauled to be fit for purpose in the inspection of children’s services departments; and calls on the Government to free up social workers and other professionals to maximise the time available to spend with vulnerable families by scrapping the highly prescriptive template for the Integrated Children’s System and other cumbersome data systems which have engendered a ‘tick box’ assessment approach which is undermining child protection.
I am pleased to move the motion—[Interruption.] Despite the evacuation of the Chamber, this subject is important to all hon. Members and it is also topical—[Interruption.]
Order. We are just commencing this debate, so would hon. Members who do not wish to stay please leave as quickly and as quietly as possible and would those who remain be aware of the level of their conversations, so that hon. Members who wish to contribute to this debate may hear what is being said?
I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, this topical subject requires urgent attention, but yet again, it is not Government time being given over to debating children’s issues, but Opposition time—that has been the case ever since the Government created the post of a children’s Minister.
Despite a constant stream of well-intentioned legislation on child protection and child-related issues, and despite the best endeavours of many hard-working and dedicated professionals, the child protection system is just not working. Last November’s Ofsted report suggested that up to four children a week in England die from abuse or neglect—and two thirds of those killed or hurt were babies under a year old. That includes cases where parents or carers were not directly culpable for causing death, but the figure is still substantially more than the one to two deaths a week assumed previously by children’s charities, and it is an alarming revelation almost nine years after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, which has become synonymous with the cancer of child cruelty. From her death came the comprehensive report by the highly respected Herbert Laming, who is undertaking a follow-up review in the light of the baby P case.
Subsequently we have had the Children Act 2004, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, the integrated children’s system, the child assessment framework and, most recently, ContactPoint. We have local safeguarding children boards, directors of children’s services departments and so on. It is not the quantity of legislation that is at fault, but the quality, content and direction. Indeed, there is now a growing body of opinion that many of the structural changes that we have seen over the years—especially the constant upheaval and drain on resources and morale that they have brought about over the last five or more years—are actually undermining the effectiveness of the child protection system.
Following the trial of those responsible for the death of baby P in November, the spotlight again fell on Haringey children’s services department, and particularly its director. When challenged about the findings in that awful case—and when elected members had fled the scene—Sharon Shoesmith responded that as far as she was concerned, her social workers had done their jobs properly, all the procedures had been followed and she would not be resigning. By the way, a 17-month-old boy had died in horrific circumstances, despite being on the council’s at-risk register and having had contact with various professionals on at least 60 occasions.
Absurdly, therefore, we are expected to accept that as long as the right pages in the rule book were followed and the requisite number of boxes were ticked, the system was working properly. Child protection has undoubtedly become a big enterprise, and many more people now have an interest in it than, say, 10 years ago, which is quite right. But are we in danger of having created a sophisticated system that has inadvertently put the protection of that system ahead of the protection of the vulnerable children whom the system is surely there to protect and prioritise?
The hon. Gentleman is rightly drawing attention to some horrific cases in which children died in dreadful circumstances. However, he is not drawing attention to the good work that so many social workers do, and how many children they save. When I meet social workers in Blackpool—especially those who work with children—they are proud of the work that they do. They work hard to protect the children the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady, which is why I started my second paragraph by commending the great efforts of the social work professionals. That is also why this party set up a commission on social workers two years ago, which reported again today. And that is why I shall make some further comments commending the activities of social workers later in my speech, if the hon. Lady will be patient.
When the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) launched the Laming report on 28 January 2003, he told the House:
“We cannot undo the wrongs done to Victoria Climbié. We can, though, seek to put right for others what so fundamentally failed for her.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 739.]
A key action point from that statement was the setting up of children’s trusts—a substantial structural innovation. But have they really turned out to be the universal panacea that we were promised? If so, why were they panned in a recent Audit Commission report in which the chief executive, Steve Bundred, said that improvements to children’s services have happened in spite of the trusts, rather than because of them? He said:
“There's no evidence that the trusts have resulted in any improved outcomes for children”.
Again, apparently well-intentioned structural changes have turned out to be bureaucratic nightmares at best, and at worst seriously counter-productive to the business of protecting vulnerable children.
Over the weekend I reread the Laming report. Its findings were not exceptional. Its 108 recommendations were not insurmountable. It said:
“The extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable. Tragically, it required nothing more than basic good practice being put into operation. This never happened.”
It claimed that
“scarce resources were not being put to good use. Bad practice can be expensive.”
“The single most important change in the future must be the drawing of a clear line of accountability, from top to bottom, without doubt or ambiguity about who is responsible at every level for the well-being of vulnerable children. Time and again it was dispiriting to listen to the ‘buck passing’ from those who attempted to justify their positions.”
I think that we would all endorse those comments.
Lord Laming ended by saying:
“I am convinced that the answer lies in doing relatively straightforward things well.”
But six years on, relatively straightforward things were still not being done well in Haringey. The fundamental message from Laming was that there should be clear lines of accountability. That is why directors of children’s services departments were created, but in Haringey no one stepped up to the plate voluntarily to take responsibility.
The joint area review produced before Christmas contained depressing echoes of the original Climbié inquiry, as set out in the letter from the Secretary of State dated 1 December. It mentioned
“significant weaknesses in safeguarding and child protection procedures and practice in Haringey…inadequate leadership and management of safeguarding by the local authority and partner agencies…poor gathering, recording and sharing of information…a failure to identify those children and young people at immediate risk of harm…poor child protection plans…agencies generally working in isolation from one another and without any effective co-ordination and a failure to consult with children in some cases”.
Those are all familiar failings that we had heard before in the case of Victoria Climbié.
In many respects, the circumstances surrounding baby P are worse than those of the Victoria Climbié case. Whereas the abuse of Victoria Climbié went on primarily under the radar of local services much of the time, baby P was the subject of at least 60 contacts with professionals and was firmly on their radar.
Of course the tragedies of Haringey are not unique. This year started with the news that in Doncaster no fewer than seven children have been the subject of serious case reviews over the past four years. Five of them were less than 16 months old, including Amy Howson and Alfie Goddard, whose cases have been brought to court.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in this issue for some time, but when we cite such figures, it is important to look at the detail. Of those seven children, three were found to have died for reasons not related to abuse. Although local authorities may have serious case reviews when children die, those deaths are not always directly attributable to failures in care by social workers or other professionals.
The hon. Lady is right; we have debated these issues on many occasions. In some of the Doncaster cases, the deaths were the result of dysfunctional families, with parents with drug and alcohol addiction who should have been the subject of much closer scrutiny by the children’s services department.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are all horrified by the baby P case, and any case in which a child is killed. I know that his job tonight is to blame the Government, but if he looks at Scandinavia—which my Committee has visited to look at their systems, which I admit are better than ours in many ways—he will see that the levels of child murder are about the same. He should bear that in mind, instead of making this a party political issue that divides us across the House.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman severely underestimates the purpose of this debate. This is not a partisan issue. This is an urgent issue that affects all hon. Members, and it is about the most vulnerable members of our society. We set up our commission on social workers dealing with child protection in that vein, to try to produce solutions to deal with a failing child protection system.
We have instigated this debate—the Government did not do so—because we wanted to draw attention to the continuing problems and allow the House to debate them. So far it has been denied that opportunity. We could have a whole debate on the example of Scandinavia. As the hon. Gentleman knows, members of the shadow children’s team and I have visited Denmark and Finland in recent years to look at the child protection systems there. There is a high degree of alcoholism in Denmark, especially among parents from Greenland, and that demands the sort of interventions that should perhaps have happened in Doncaster, but did not.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, notwithstanding a letter sent by the Secretary of State to the hon. Gentleman, to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) earlier today, the Government’s promise to provide a list, or at least a number broken down by local authority, of serious case reviews following the death of a child since 2003 has not been honoured—
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and I shall talk about serious case reviews shortly. I noticed that my office got an urgent call from the Secretary of State’s office to rush out that answer, which I think the hon. Gentleman was expecting.
In Doncaster, there were again chilling echoes of what happened in Haringey and elsewhere. The published executive summaries of the serious case reviews in Doncaster spoke of missed opportunities—and in any case, in November Ofsted found that 41 per cent. of those serious case reviews were inadequate. Children met their deaths as a result not of one-off violent incidents but of systematic violence. The case of child A involved grossly inadequate responses by social services. Social work departments were in chaos, suffering from unmanageable workloads and not engaging remotely satisfactorily with vulnerable families. Health services had failed to take proper precautions and liaise with other agencies—a fundamental weakness identified in the case of Victoria Climbié and repeatedly since. Similar common themes have come out in other high-profile cases in Birmingham and Huddersfield that have hit the headlines—and, I fear, will come out in many other cases elsewhere that are still to work their way through the system.
We will never prevent all such tragedies in the future. Evil human beings will continue to commit unimaginably evil acts, even against their own kin. However, it is the job of child protection services to reduce the opportunities, to be vigilant concerning the likely candidates, and to intervene in a timely and appropriate manner whenever possible. So how on earth is this still happening, and what must take place to reduce such tragedies in the future? On one level, of course, we are being denied the vital opportunity to find out, to learn from the lessons and to implement the solutions, because we rarely get to see the full serious case reviews of such tragedies. Worse than that, Ofsted reports have thrown significant doubt on the integrity, thoroughness and value of many of the unpublished reviews. Even executive summaries are not necessarily published in full, let alone an accurate picture of the detailed underlying review.
In the case of baby P, the Secretary of State said that he had taken advice from the Information Commissioner that advised against the publication of the serious case review. That turned out to be news to the Information Commissioner. Instead, my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and three other privileged hon. Members were allowed a furtive sight of the report behind locked doors, without pen and paper, and were sworn to secrecy. As David Hencke put it in The Guardian,
“how could we know that these summaries are perfect—except to rely on”
the Secretary of State’s
“words—and that even if all reports under”
the Secretary of State
“are perfect, how can we be sure that under a future children’s secretary they won’t lapse into previous bad ways...The public and the profession deserve better than this. It is no wonder that similar cases to Baby P happen with monotonous regularity. It also seems to make a mockery of Lord Laming’s good work if the professionals, let alone the public, do not get unfettered access to these reports. The fact that reports could be published could sharpen up future case reviews.”
May I correct a mistake made by the hon. Gentleman? At no time have I ever claimed that I asked the advice of the Information Commissioner in the case of baby P. In a letter of 18 November to the shadow spokesmen, I quoted a decision that the Information Commissioner had taken on a different case in 2006, in which he decided that it would be wrong to release that report at that time. I quoted that in support of the decision that I was making not to publish the information in this case. I have never made such a claim. I did not seek the advice of the Information Commissioner in this case. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that statement, because he knows it not to be true.
If anything I said is not true, I withdraw it. However, I distinctly remember the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box praying in aid the name of the Information Commissioner, with whom he now says he had not checked beforehand. Will he clarify what he said?
In the letter of 18 November, which was sent before I made the statement to the House, I said:
“You may be aware that the Information Commissioner took a decision on a request to make available a Serious Case Review in 2006.”
“This risk was one of the considerations taken into account by him in that case. He decided to uphold the decision of a local authority to refuse to release the report.”
Then, in the House, I referred to the previous decision taken by the Information Commissioner, which is clearly documented in the letter that I sent to the shadow spokesman and the Liberal Democrat spokesman. At no point have I misled the House, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the allegation about my seeking the advice of the Information Commissioner when I did not. It was my decision not to release the serious case review, not the Information Commissioner’s, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that statement.
The Secretary of State is very defensive. If this is such a big issue with him, why did he not seek the advice of the Information Commissioner in this case before his name was prayed in aid? We can check what it says in Hansard. If it would please the Secretary of State and enable us to get on with the debate, I will certainly withdraw the comment. However, Opposition Members remember him praying the Information Commissioner’s name in aid as an excuse for why the serious case reviews could not be published.
Perhaps I could move on.
I have given way twice, which I think is generous. The Secretary of State will have ample opportunity to respond shortly.
We agree with David Hencke of The Guardian. The Secretary of State put it succinctly in his letter of 18 November to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State when he said that:
“the purpose of a Serious Case Review is to learn the lessons from what happened....The most effective and efficient way of learning lessons from these tragedies is to provide an environment in which professionals can freely discuss the circumstances of a case as openly as possible.”
How can we learn the lessons when the reviews are not published in full and there are serious question marks over the accuracy and veracity of what they investigate and recommend? The need is not only for political and public scrutiny: how can other local authorities share best practice and learn from inadequate practice when they cannot see the reviews in full? It is nonsense.
I will let the Secretary of State respond in his speech when I have finished. He has had two opportunities to clarify; he can have a third in his own time.
For the reasons that I have given, the Conservative party believes that serious case reviews should, as a matter of course, be published in full, duly anonymised and appropriately but not excessively redacted, unless it would compromise the welfare of the child or his or her siblings. I can report that the cabinet member for children’s services in Birmingham has undertaken in principle that the serious case review of the Kyra Ishaq case, and subsequent reviews, will be published in full subject to the above criteria. I hope that the Secretary of State will take note and encourage other authorities to do the same.
I shall guarantee to take very seriously the advice of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the deputy Children’s Commissioner, both of whom say that the publication of full serious case reviews would put children at risk. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman is disagreeing with that advice. It is important to put on the record the fact that he is taking a different view from that of the NSPCC on this matter.
It is also on the record that the NSPCC has sent round an e-mail clarifying its position, because it did not take kindly to being cited in the amendment. The Secretary of State can claim in aid only two opinions, one of which has been called into doubt by a subsequent e-mail.
Conservative councils have also introduced an urgent initiative to safeguard the integrity of the important local safeguarding children boards, another important product of Lord Laming’s inquiry. LSCBs are there to bring together all the local agencies, co-ordinating safeguarding action and, where necessary, commissioning reviews. The independence of the boards is essential, and that independence was called into question in the case of Haringey—[Interruption.] The Government Whip is getting very excited. Does he want to intervene? I would be happy to hear his words of wisdom if he has anything sensible to add to the debate. He does not.
The independence of the boards is essential, and that independence was called into question in the case of Haringey. Boards and the serious case reviews that they commission must pull no punches, and be openly critical of the commissioning authority paying the bills where necessary. After consultation with Conservative cabinet members for children’s services running many authorities throughout the country, I find that those authorities either have already, or are in the process of, installing independent chairmen of LSCBs rather than the directors of children’s services, as was the case in Haringey. We put that into effect urgently soon after the news about baby P. I am sure that Lord Laming will recommend the same thing in his review, so why has the Secretary of State not instructed Labour-run authorities to make the same changes now without delay, to safeguard those reports?
Those issues are important, but the fundamental key to the effective working of children’s services departments must be the professionals who work at the sharp end. In particular, we need properly resourced, appropriately trained and suitably motivated social workers who are able to get on with their jobs and spend quality face-to-face time with vulnerable children and families. They should not be shackled to computers, paperwork, rigid procedures and bureaucracy. Without that, any amount of structural change—new boards, and shiny new positions for shiny new managers—will amount to nothing at the sharp end, where it matters.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be much easier for these devoted social workers to work if they knew that, when some disaster took place, the head of the department involved would resign, automatically and without exception, because it was his or her responsibility? Do we not have to recover that kind of attitude if we are to revive the real responsibility that should obtain in all such departments?
My right hon. Friend raises a very good point. It was a clear tenet of the Laming report that the buck should stop somewhere. The shortcoming of the Victoria Climbié case and so many others was that nobody stepped up to the plate and took responsibility. As a result, there were no clear lines of accountability. Clearly, that is what needs to happen but, as I am afraid we saw in Haringey, it still has not happened.
That is why in October 2007 we published “No More Blame Game—The Future for Children’s Social Workers”, which was the result of an impressive commission of professionals from a wide range of areas of child protection. Lord Laming and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss were our patrons, and the findings of the commission have turned out to be prescient in many respects. Some of its proposals have been adopted by Ministers, although many were rejected during the scrutiny of the Children and Young Persons Bill last year. Since then, however, the position has undoubtedly deteriorated.
We recently carried out a comprehensive survey of children’s services departments. Since 2005, the vacancy rates for children’s social workers has risen from 11 per cent. to over 14.6 per cent. In 10 boroughs, the vacancy rate is over 30 per cent. In Haringey itself, it is now 34 per cent. and at least 18 authorities have vacancy rates of over 20 per cent.
The phenomenon is not limited to inner-city boroughs, as leafy shires are being affected too. Clearly, we need to do much more to retain experienced social workers, who are increasingly disillusioned, and to recruit more new people into social work. The social worker degree course is a welcome aid to raising standards, but initial reports suggest that a third of graduates do not go on to a job in social work, and that a further third leave employment after only a year.
Above all, effective social work with vulnerable families involves establishing an empathetic relationship and continuity in personnel. It is a false economy to cover such high vacancy rates with transient and costly agency staff. Last week’s survey by Unison found that child protection services are a
“ticking time bomb that could explode at any minute. There are not enough staff, caseloads are too big and social workers are spending 80 per cent. of their time on paperwork. That is a lethal combination that will leave children exposed…Without decisive action it is only a matter of time before there is another tragedy.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have here a copy of Hansard from 20 November 2008. The Secretary of State said:
“I endeavoured to see whether I was able to release the full, confidential serious case review to parliamentarians, but the clear professional advice given to me was that that would be the wrong thing to do, given the ruling of the Information Commissioner”.
Later in the debate, he said that he had looked very hard at whether he could release the full case review.
“Alongside the Information Commissioner’s view, the clear advice that I received was that, if we were to set such a precedent, it would make it much harder in future”.—[Official Report, 20 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 377-380.]
The Secretary of State gave every impression in the House that the Information Commissioner in that case had given his view. He set out that evening—
The right hon. Gentleman must stop chafing at the bit, as I am coming to the end of my speech and want to give other hon. Members a chance to participate. Before that, however, I shall give way—and for the last time—to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindness, but I am extremely concerned when he throws around words such as “bureaucracy” and “paperwork” as if they are not important. Of course social workers have to spend time with families, but recording the information that they gain from that contact is enormously important, and even more so when there are staffing difficulties. Without that accurate record—of a child’s weight or behaviour, for example—it is not possible to reflect over time. Social workers can go to court and present evidence only on that basis, so the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about how he talks about paperwork.
The hon. Lady was a social worker in a former existence and knows much of these matters, but I bet my bottom dollar that she did not spend up to 80 per cent. of her time when she was in practice shackled to the assessment procedures, filling in forms or working on the computer. Instead, I bet that she was out in the field sharing face-to-face time with her clients. If not, there was certainly something wrong with the system.
Separately, the General Social Care Council has reported that social workers are spending at least 60 to 70 per cent. of their time on administrative work as opposed to client contact. Much of this time is spent filling in forms to ensure accountability rather than working with the family. The London borough of Sutton reported that, 20 years ago, only 30 per cent. of a social worker’s time was spent on paperwork. Again, more time is being spent on protecting the system than protecting the clients.
Not surprisingly, increased work loads caused by rising demand, together with staff vacancies, have increased stress levels in the social work force. Indeed, the magazine Community Care, a key publication for those working in social care, recently commented on the difficulty of finding a social worker who
“is not so stressed that they leave to be replaced by agency staff.”
Chief among the bureaucratic obstacle course is the integrated children’s service.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. First, the whole House must recognise that social workers have a tremendously stressful and difficult job. Many are very young, and do not have the experience that the older social worker has. We should pay tribute to the work that they do, as it is not recognised. The status of social workers also needs to be given greater recognition.
Social workers have tremendous problems dealing with our own children in our own constituencies, but is my hon. Friend aware that there is an increasing problem with Roma children? In London alone, 1,017 children from the Roma community have been found on the streets, and that has caused enormous problems for social services. Westminster and Haringey have rejected police requests for care because they are not able to accommodate—
I am trying to make progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point about a subject in which he has a good deal of expertise. That is yet another challenge for already hard-pressed social workers, who already have excessive case loads looking after people who live in their areas.
I was talking about integrated children’s services. The common assessment framework for the assessment of children in need and their families was introduced in 2000, and the core format allowed information to be presented in a helpful and logical sequence, quickly identifying the key issues of concern. However, the ICS recording system, which has been rolled out in the last two years, resulted from a drive for a nationally compliant template and was much more prescriptive. A number of concerns were raised during the consultancy process, many of which were not resolved before ICS was introduced.
In 2007, a major evaluation of ICS concluded that the system, based on a series of tick-box forms, was not tailored to individual children. That important study by Margaret Bell said that it failed to ask important questions of some children while asking others that were irrelevant, resulting in “bland analyses”. The study said:
“The process was felt to diminish analysis and risk assessment. There were particular concerns about risk because it was unclear where the information would be located.”
Moreover, there were
“serious reservations about the design and use of ICS in its present form and the authors believe that the ICS has yet to demonstrate the degree to which and how it is fit for purpose”.
Once again, however, the full report was never published by the Government. If one is able to find the executive summary, one can see that its conclusions have been confirmed by concerns expressed to our commission on social workers. Social workers have said the template is too detailed and requires so much standard information that workers have to focus on completing the document rather than the assessment.
The chairman of the London child protection co-ordinators has warned:
“The forms as they stand are extremely long and their format cannot be considered to be accessible or friendly to parents and children, for whom the child protection process is stressful. Using these forms as a social work report to a Child Protection conference will alienate parents further and will, we fear, prevent their participation in what is often their only chance to meet together with all of the professionals involved with their children.”
ICS forms were supposed to help partners of social work, but the direct opposite is the case. The chairman went on to say that some boroughs had estimated that the increased demands of the system had added 12 to 20 per cent. to the amount of time spent on the issue by social workers. David Wastell, professor in information systems at the university of Nottingham, warned that the ICS was unfit for purpose because it was developed by central Government with little input from front-line social practitioners.
One need only look at the blogs, including a blog by Bury social workers, to see the problems that people in the field, at the sharp end, deal with day in, day out. One such social worker said:
“I am…a Social Worker in Bury…and as a team we are collectively struggling with the new ICS System along with managing a substantial case load. 1) It is very time consuming turning us into paper pushers rather than hands on Social Workers! 2) Very confusing for Service Users—if as professionals we struggle with the forms how are families expected to understand the concept behind them. 3) Very prescriptive in the information they required not giving the opportunity for exploring risk, analysis or indeed the Child’s views!”
“as a practitioner with over 16 years’ experience, I feel they are the biggest downfall in terms of direct work with children and families, which of course we cannot do anymore because we’re all sitting behind desks…Is anyone listening to the experiences of front line social workers using these forms? Where was the consultation prior to their implementation? We find them impossibly time consuming, families don’t understand them so are fearful and made to feel inadequate and stupid”.
The system is not working.
I ask the hon. Lady to bear with me. The commission on social workers strongly recommends that the highly prescriptive ICS template be abolished in favour of a much more streamlined, user-friendly system that allows social workers more empathetic face-time with their clients. Some authorities, such as Kensington and Chelsea, have been developing their own systems at their own expense, which are much more user-friendly. Others should surely be allowed to follow suit without the threat of money from the Department for Children, Schools and Families being held back, as it is if they do not follow the Department’s highly prescriptive route.
The Government’s obsession with bureaucracy and databases is, of course, set to escalate with ContactPoint, which started to go live just last week. It has cost £244 million so far, and the estimated ongoing running cost is at least £41 million per annum. It is a system of unproven value, and there are no guarantees about security of access. It could turn out to be another measure that is counter-productive to genuine child protection, as resources will be spread thinly over 11 million children, rather than being focused on genuinely vulnerable children, which is what we have advocated all along.
I will not.
It is also clear that the database is to be used for many more purposes than the child protection criteria originally cited, including police investigations, and that many more people will have access to it. The House of Commons Library has estimated that the money spent on ContactPoint so far could have been used to employ 7,575 additional social workers—equivalent to 50 in every local authority. The money to be spent on the system between now and 2012 could pay for an additional social worker every four hours.
The Secretary of State will know that at a briefing that he gave to directors of children’s services shortly after the baby P case hit the headlines, a suggestion from one director that ContactPoint should be scrapped and the money instead used to reduce the case load of social workers was greeted with widespread cheering, yet the Government are ploughing ahead with this latest data disaster waiting to happen. ContactPoint is handled by the same firm that managed to lose the details of the entire prison population, and the Government refused to publish in full the security review carried out by Deloitte a year ago, which warned that
“there will always be a risk of data security incidents occurring.”
If that was not bad enough, the special security arrangements that apparently involve the children of hon. Members being subject to shielding safeguards last week resulted in headlines that referred to a “Them and us child register”.
I really am shocked to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He clearly has not investigated the database effectively. He and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) have strongly argued that there needs to be a level of knowledge across the Departments and agencies working with children, so that they can intervene early with the most vulnerable. Without a database such as ContactPoint, it will be impossible to do that. He cannot make both arguments and expect us to think that he is being logical. If he is to be logical, he has to be much more—
I have not even finished responding to the previous intervention.
What will protect children in this country is properly resourced and motivated professionals working at the sharp end, and talking to other well-resourced and motivated professionals to deal together with a problem. They need time to spend at the sharp end, not time shackled to a computer system, constantly inputting data; we do not know whether that will work. I trust professionals; the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) trusts spending a lot of money on unproven computer systems. That is what divides us in this case.
That is why, having opposed the original provisions in the Children Bill 2004, the Conservative party last year announced that we would scrap ContactPoint and focus instead on a streamlined signposting central database, which would include genuinely vulnerable children—a view wholeheartedly endorsed by the commission on social workers. [Interruption.] We are talking about a database of genuinely vulnerable children, not all the 11 million children in this country. That is the difference. Ours would concentrate on vulnerable children. [Interruption.]
I will make some progress so that I can finish. I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of the commission on social workers, whose members were so willing to reconvene to update our original report and to make further recommendations in light of the deteriorating climate, as highlighted by the baby P case and other high-profile cases. Today we are making further recommendations, and I would very much like the Secretary of State to respond to them.
First, and foremost among all the points made to us by our witnesses, an end is required to widespread disruptive structural changes. As I have said, we need to scrap the child databases that take away so much of the time that social workers can spend dealing with vulnerable families, face to face. We also need a national recruitment campaign that will bring in new, properly trained and properly motivated social workers. It should be a high-impact advertising campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said, we need to make sure that experienced social workers stay in place and do not move into early retirement because they are so disillusioned by what is going on.
We need a “care first” programme, modelled on the “teach first” programme, in which highly trained social workers would go into particularly challenging circumstances. We need social workers to have a mixed case load, in which they have supportive and therapeutic work, alongside more serious cases. We need practice training for new social workers, and we need on-the-job training for directors of children’s services departments; too often, they are cosseted away in offices and do not go out in the field with social workers.
We need to overhaul the whole process of inspections. We need to make sure that we have a system that is fit for purpose, and that ensures that we are inspecting the right things. It is absurd that there is not a senior social worker on the board of Ofsted. It is absurd that when Ofsted inspections happen in children’s services departments, the inspectors do not go out with social workers on a case; an Ofsted inspector carrying out a school inspection would sit at the back of a class. We need to ensure much better interagency communication, which should include the Ofsted inspection. The Ofsted inspection should inspect how well the different agencies work together, and should note which do not.
I have concentrated on the crucial role of social workers—real, human social workers, practitioners out in the field with experience, of whom we need many more. To my mind, they are better value than the expensive, unproven computer system by which Labour Members seem to set so much store, despite the fact that the Government’s track record on IT systems over the past 12 years has not exactly been covered in glory. There are many other aspects of child protection that other hon. Members will wish to flag up, not least concerning health professionals. A new study by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, will show how many of the original Laming recommendations are still not being carried out in practice. Interagency working with the police still leaves a lot to be desired, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) will, when she winds up, make reference to proposals that we have already announced to expand the health visitor system. Health visitors will intensively visit new parents in those crucial first few weeks, in a system based on the Dutch Kraamzorg model. She will also mention the benefits of other early intervention practices. I want to leave it to others to talk about the importance of extended family members, and particularly about the role of grandparents in helping to counter child abuse. I have not had time to return to the Government’s continued refusal to take decisive action on private fostering, which has direct links with the added risk of child abuse.
The Conservative party has called the debate in the interests of continuing to highlight the serious problems and inadequacies in the way that we protect our most vulnerable children and families, and of making further substantial and constructive proposals to find the solutions that I am sure all of us in all parts of the House urgently want to see. I hope that when he has cleared up the muddle about his earlier references to the Information Commissioner, the Secretary of State will engage positively with some of the constructive proposals that we have made.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“agrees that safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility; recognises that keeping children safe is a top priority for this Government, commends action taken by the Government following the tragic death of Baby P, to keep children safe in Haringey; welcomes the requirement that all local safeguarding children’s boards responsible for serious case reviews judged inadequate by Ofsted convene an independently chaired panel to reconsider the review and report to the Secretary of State; agrees with the Deputy Children’s Commissioner and the NSPCC that while comprehensive executive summaries should be published full serious case reviews should remain confidential; affirms its conviction that the Every Child Matters reforms are soundly based and essential in driving change for children; welcomes evidence in the joint chief inspectors’ third report on safeguarding children of improvements since 2005 in children’s services and outcomes for children and young people; commends the development by the inspectorates of new local area assessment and inspection arrangements; welcomes the commissioning of Lord Laming to report on progress being made across the country in implementing effective arrangements for safeguarding children; agrees with his recommendation that serious case review panels should be chaired by people independent of the reporting agencies; commends the creation of a Social Work Taskforce to review frontline social work, including the role and development of the Integrated Children’s System in support of its work; and further commends the recent announcement of the first stage of delivery of ContactPoint, which experts agree is vital to keep children safe.”
I shall turn to the Opposition motion shortly and reply to the points made by the shadow spokesperson in the opening speech.
It is the first duty of Government—indeed, it is our shared duty—to do everything we can to keep our children and young people safe and protected from harm. There is no greater responsibility on us as Ministers and Members of the House, so it is right that we ask ourselves tonight whether there is more that we can all do to keep children safe from harm. That is why I welcome the debate on this most important issue.
Although I was disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State chose not to open the debate, I start, notwithstanding the speech that we have just heard and the fact that we disagree on some points, by noting that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has made some important contributions on these issues in recent years.
The number of child deaths has fallen in recent years, and sharply so for the youngest children, but any abuse or non-accidental death is wrong. I know that many hon. Members will have reacted to the tragic case of baby P, as I did, with incomprehension. How could adults perpetrate such terrible acts of evil against a little boy? When professionals became aware of the risks to the child, why did they not act sooner to protect him from harm? Such a tragic and appalling case must rightly raise wider questions of public concern about the safety of vulnerable children around the country. Also, as the hon. Gentleman said, when some local authorities are judged inadequate in their safeguarding of children, it is rightly a matter of grave public concern.
It is my judgment that following the death of Victoria Climbié and the Laming inquiry, we have put in place a strong framework for tackling child abuse. It is our expectation that social workers, GPs, nurses and police officers see the world from the child’s perspective and put the child’s safety first. But we also know, as we have seen in recent weeks and months, that there is still a long way to go until we have the best possible child protection arrangements in every part of the country.
That is why, as we have heard in the debate, we have taken a number of actions in recent months to improve further child protection, which include asking Lord Laming to provide a further report on progress in implementing the reforms that were introduced after the Climbié inquiry, with proposals for further improvement to accelerate improvement across the country. We have demanded that local authorities take action in response to any serious case review that has been judged to be inadequate. We have set up a new social work taskforce, to be chaired by the chief executive of Camden council, Moira Gibb, to reform social work training and practice, and we have begun, as we heard, the roll-out of ContactPoint with the widespread support of professionals and practitioners alike. All these reforms are vital to keep children safe and, despite the comments that we have heard, it is still my genuine and fervent hope that we can build a cross-party consensus on the matter in the House and in the country. That is the best way to keep children safe.
The Secretary of State stated that the number of deaths from child abuse and neglect had fallen sharply in recent years. On what basis does he justify that statement, and how would he justify it in the light of the Department’s continued refusal to provide figures in an auditable form as on serious case reviews following the death of a child?
The answer is that the UN figures show that over the past 15 years there has been a 40 per cent. fall in child deaths for under-fives. There has also been a small fall in the number of deaths of children aged 0 to 17. But that is not good enough. We need to do better. Every death that is non-accidental is not good enough. That is why we need to make further progress.
I am happy to quote the figures from the Office for National Statistics, which show that in 2003 the overall number of deaths of children aged 0 to 17 was 4,990. In 2007 it was lower—4,854. The UN figures show that over the period 1995 to 2006 there has been a 30 per cent. fall in child deaths among under-fives. So I have set out the figures clearly.
I meet and listen to many children in care and people who have been in care, and they would remind the House that there are some great performances by social workers and local authorities around the country, but some very poor performances too, some of which we have heard about. They would want us to be intolerant of those poor performers. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there is the political will and the law to enable tougher earlier intervention on local authorities that are not doing well enough?
There is the political will, as I believe we showed in the case of Haringey. That was an exceptional case in terms of the gravity of the failure, as was made clear by the Ofsted and wider inspectors, but there have been problems in Doncaster, Surrey, West Sussex, Birmingham and Wokingham. In all those cases we are currently taking action to intervene. There is the political will, and we will act because our priority is to keep children safe. Although the figures have come down, it is still not good enough and we need to do more.
The Secretary of State for Justice produced a report on care, which the right hon. Gentleman’s officials may or may not have read. One of the key issues raised by his right hon. Friend is that in 10 successive Acts the same reassurance, by and large, has been given. This is not a direct criticism of the Government. Here we legislate and say what should happen, but perhaps the guiltiest parties in all this are the many local authorities throughout the country which, the report found, do not implement what has gone through the House and leave social workers trapped between a system that does not want to put children into care because of the financial cost, and blame from us when they do not do so. Is it not time that the Secretary of State sorted the problem out? Councils that fail must be brought to account, and quickly.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is important that councils are called to account. This is not a party political matter. As he knows, those are Conservative and Labour councils around the country. More than 100 of the 150 areas that were inspected by Ofsted in the past year were judged good or very good, but not all were, and where there is inadequacy, we will intervene because that is the right thing to do.
Before the Secretary of State moves away from the UN table that he quoted, will he make it clear to the House that what he quoted is a table of all child deaths, which includes traffic accidents, child cancer deaths and meningitis deaths, of which only a small proportion relate to children being killed at the hands of their parents or carers, for which figure he cannot show progress and for which he should be citing his own Ofsted report last year, which said that there had been up to four deaths a week? Is that not the case? If so, he is using figures to create a very false image to the House.
I think I made it clear that UN figures are for child deaths, and they have fallen by 30 per cent. We need to make sure that we protect children from all kinds of death where there is a non-accidental injury. That matters whether we are dealing with safety in the home, transport deaths or child deaths. I also said that any child death that happens because of abuse or injury by a parent or carer is wrong. That is why we are debating these matters.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the central issue of local authority performance? I first fell out with my local, Conservative councillors over their failure on child protection. Now an Ofsted report has found that Essex county council child protection is inadequate. It has been served with a formal improvement notice and given 12 months to get its act together. Does he think that Tory Front Benchers would have more credibility tonight if they had come to the House, apologised for that and said what they were doing to clean up their own councils’ acts—particularly the one in Essex?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as I said this is not a party political matter. The councils in Haringey and Doncaster were Labour, but those in Essex, Sussex, Surrey and Wokingham were Conservative. In the case of Surrey, I think that I am right in saying that last summer the Minister for Children, Young People and Families wrote to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham offering a briefing on the serious matter involved. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take that up at any point, he is welcome to. However, this is not a party political matter, but one that should concern all Members and councils of all political colours. That is why I said that I did not want to play party politics with it, despite provocation. I want to get to a consensus on the way forward, and that is what I am determined to do.
May I return to the point made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)? We have to be careful when talking about whether there is a choice between leaving a child at home and not bringing them into care because of issues of cost. Such judgments are extremely complex. Taking a child away from their family, even when the family is not perfect, has emotional implications. Social workers weigh up trying to improve a child’s situation at home with their natural family and the implications for children who live with other families. Even for very small children, those implications can have lifelong effects—even if they end up with a family that meets a lot of their needs better.
My hon. Friend makes an important point in response to the right hon. Gentleman. Such decisions are not for social workers, but for the courts. The duty of the courts is to make sure that when children are at risk, action is taken. It is for the courts to decide whether the children concerned go into care. If any social worker or council decided that they would not make referrals because of court costs or any other costs, that would be entirely and completely wrong, and I would condemn it out of hand. I do not believe that that is happening around the country, but Lord Laming will explicitly consider the issue in his progress report.
I thank my right hon. Friend. In reference to court action, there have been criticisms that social workers spend too much time on record keeping. I have a background in child protection, and I advise my right hon. Friend that records are absolutely essential in court cases. Often they can go back a long time and demonstrate that over a number of years of intervention of the social worker has not been successful in getting the family to the point where the child can be kept safely at home. We should never forget the importance of social work records.
Of course that is the case. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham did not make the point, because it did not fit into the rhetoric. However, the reality is that good social workers record their interventions with a family and their discussions with other professionals because that is vital not only for the accountability of the service, but to make sure that children are safe. Furthermore, those records are key and critical in court. The idea that a good social worker does not complete records is not of the real world.
I shall make some progress and then take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
I said that I would turn to the Opposition motion, and I will do so. I want to take seriously the points that they make in the motion and in this debate and show where we disagree and where, with a little more thought and intellectual engagement, we could achieve a consensus. They start the motion by pointing to the failings in Haringey, and say that they mean that the lessons from the Victoria Climbié inquiry have not been learned. Indeed, in the Queen’s Speech debate a few weeks ago, the shadow Secretary of State went further and said:
“Lord Laming has said that the foundation of current children’s services is robust, but we are not persuaded of that assertion.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 773.]
Other Conservative Members have called into question the very Every Child Matters reforms, although the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has not; I absolve him from that. Those Conservative Members have even called for a new inquiry to investigate the child protection system from first principles. I agree with Lord Laming, who says that that would not be the right approach. In his letter to me, dated 1 December, he said:
“I note that, understandably, there have been calls for a further public Inquiry into the services in Haringey following the death of Baby P. But such a course of action would, in my view, set back the progress that has been made in many places. It could undermine important developments gained and progress made during the past six years and possibly put on hold planned further work. Furthermore, it would divert effort from the actions needed now to keep children safe in Haringey.”
In its response to Lord Laming, the NSPCC says:
“We welcome the vision of Every Child Matters. There has been significant change in children’s services over the past five years”.
Indeed, it goes on to say that
“the Every Child Matters programme has the potential to be the most significant achievement for children in recent times.”
In the tragic case of baby P, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham cited at length, the inspectors did identify clear failings in management, oversight and practice. That is why we took the exceptional action that we took. However, as the chief inspector told me, the failings that she identified were exceptional. So we profoundly disagree that we have not learned the lessons or that we are not properly implementing the recommendations of the Victoria Climbié inquiry. As I said, much good work is being done in many areas by social workers, police officers, GPs and health professionals, who do incredibly tough jobs, often in challenging circumstances, with difficult judgments to make every day to keep children safe. They get no publicity when they make the right call, and we should give them our praise and support.
At the same time, we are not complacent. In the summer last year, the joint chief inspectors’ report concluded that more work was needed; the same happened in respect of the end of year Ofsted evaluation. That is why we have ordered all local authorities to look again at all serious case reviews where there was an inadequate judgment and why we have asked Lord Laming to provide us with a progress report. However, to ignore, as the Opposition motion does, the progress made in many areas would not only undermine the achievements of social workers around the country, but put that progress at risk. That would be the wrong thing to do.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. May I take him back to the figures on child deaths? It is uncharacteristic of him to have used figures that are essentially misleading. The number of child deaths overall is not relevant to this debate; what is relevant is the number of children who die as the result of abuse. The Ofsted evidence to the Children, Schools and Families Committee was clear: the number of children who had died from abuse over 16 months was 210—that is, three children a week. For the record, and to make the numbers relevant to this debate, will the Secretary of State confirm that that is his understanding?
I hesitate to do this, but I will have to refer the hon. Gentleman back to the Hansard record of the last time that he made the very same point and the reply that I gave. As he knows, the Ofsted figures were different from the Government’s because they used a wider base. They included, for example, children who had died as a result of suicide or anorexia nervosa—or other deaths that could relate to something that had happened in the home—as opposed to the direct death of a child due to injury from a parent or carer. The figures are not comparable. He knows that as I explained it last time.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I am afraid that it is he who needs to go back and read the record. If he goes back to the record of 10 December 2008—the Chairman of the Select Committee is in the Chamber today—he will read that both Michael Hart and Christine Gilbert were quite clear: there were 72 children, of 282, who fell into the category that the Secretary of State has just described. The unequivocal evidence from Ofsted was that 210 children died from abuse in that period. The Secretary of State got it wrong last time, and he has repeated his error today. Will he please look at the record and correct himself on the Floor of the House?
I did that last time, and I explained the different basis for the figures. We are not disagreeing. Too many children die non-accidental deaths, and we need to deal with that. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to refer to his intervention in which he attempted to pin on me the idea that I had asked the Information Commissioner for advice, even though he knows that that is not the case. If he has a decent intervention, he might make it; I will take it if he wants.
The second thing that the Opposition called for is for all serious case reviews to be published in full. We are determined to ensure that we do all we can to guarantee that children in every area are kept safe. That is why it is crucial that we learn from mistakes, which is why we carry out serious case reviews. Where the full report or executive summary is inadequate, that is not good enough, and we have asked for all such reports to be investigated. We have also said, following Lord Laming’s initial recommendation, that the overview panel for every serious case review should be independently chaired. Indeed, I have asked the new chair of the local safeguarding children board in Haringey, Graham Badman, to re-run the baby P serious case review, such is the seriousness of the issue.
The Opposition call for all serious case reviews to be published in full, but we fundamentally disagree for two reasons. First, we would not want to compromise the right to privacy or to protection of other siblings or vulnerable children involved who could, in all likelihood, be identified even if their names were redacted; and, secondly, serious case reviews rely on the open and honest involvement of representatives of all the agencies involved. I had to rely on my judgment, and that is what underpinned the letters to Opposition spokespeople that I sent on a series of occasions. Let us hear what the deputy Children’s Commissioner says:
“A system which ensures we can establish the full facts behind any tragedy is essential for keeping children safe. I believe that a confidential process which enables agencies to thoroughly and effectively examine all relevant facts is crucial to securing this goal, supported by a comprehensive executive summary which makes public the key issues and recommendations for change.”
That is also the view taken by the NSPCC, which has said:
“The publication of full SCR reports will change the climate in which they are produced and reduce their value. It is probable that the process would move from one focusing on what could be learnt to one focusing on legalistic technicalities, with an end-product that is weak and of negligible value.”
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that I was distorting the view of the NSPCC and that it has had to correct the position. Let me read from the letter that was written to me by the acting chief executive of the NSPCC on 4 December:
“We therefore endorse the view that full”—
serious case reviews—
“should not be published.”
It is there on the page in black and white. That is the view of the experts. It is not the view of the Opposition, but in my view they are out on a limb and outside the consensus on this very important matter, and if they prevailed that would put children at risk.
Is it not also the case that my right hon. Friend’s Department initiates research into serious case reviews in order to bring together the learning gained from those reviews across the country? Having a proper assessment of the issues that have come up in many different cases is probably more useful to staff on the ground—social workers, health visitors, and so on—than having to read through lots of separate case reviews involving circumstances which they perhaps know less about?
My hon. Friend is right. That is why we publish those reviews. We have also said that executive summaries should have a clear view of all the lessons learned from every individual case. In fact, we have asked Lord Laming to tell us how we can make those reports better in future. In the case of baby P, it is important that there is a full and better executive summary in the public domain. The reason I am not making them public is not because of the advice to me from the Information Commissioner. As I have made clear on repeated occasions in writing and in this House, I did not seek his advice on this matter. It is my judgment—because the professionals tell me so, not only the lawyers but the NSPCC and the deputy children’s commissioner—that such disclosure would put children’s lives at risk.
This is not something to play politics with but something on which there should be a consensus. I think that it is time that we got off this subject and on to the serious business.
On the occasion of the Secretary of State’s statement to this House, he mentioned the Information Commissioner’s ruling. First, why did he not consult the Information Commissioner when he invoked his ruling? Secondly—this is intimately related to the publication of serious case reviews—why does he put the interests of professionals, their anonymity and their shielding from scrutiny ahead of the maximum possible disclosure to ensure that we have the maximum level of information to create the maximum quality of child protection?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has come to the House to participate in this debate. Even though he has been sitting on the Front Bench all this time, he has clearly not been listening to what I have said. I said that the reason I made this decision was not to protect professionals—why would I want to protect professionals who are guilty of making mistakes? I made the decision because I want to protect children who would be put at risk of harm if we made these reports public. That is also the view of the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner, and the consensus among experts. On 18 November, in a letter to the shadow spokesman, I said that I had made the decision in the light of the Information Commissioner’s decision in 2006. I made it clear in the House when we discussed these matters that I had not asked for his advice in this case, but I was relying on a past ruling. I then wrote to the hon. Gentleman—this may be another letter that he failed to read and act upon—on 25 November, saying:
“On this point, my letter to you of 18 November explained that I had been advised, given the strong terms of the decision of the Information Commissioner in 2006, that I should not allow anyone, even parliamentarians, to see the Report.”
I went on to explain why, on that particular issue, I had changed my mind. I said:
“In your point of order, you ask me to ‘approach the Information Commissioner to establish if a copy of the serious case review can be made available to the public’. As you know, my letter of 18 Nov referred to the Information Commissioner’s 2006 decision. At no point have I asked for a ruling from the Information Commissioner on the question of publishing this”
serious case review
“and I have not claimed to have done so. Nor do I intend to do so. It is my judgement, consistent with ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’, that it is imperative to keep the SCR confidential.”
That is what I wrote in November, before and after the debate. My reason is not to protect professionals, but to keep children safe. That is what I thought was the purpose of this debate, and that is why I urged the Opposition to drop playing politics with this issue and join the consensus to keep children safe. That is the best way to approach it.
On 20 November, the Secretary of State twice specifically cited the ruling of the Information Commissioner. Later that day, the Information Commissioner made it clear that he had not been consulted. The Secretary of State did not say on 20 November that he had not consulted the Information Commissioner—he did so only after the Information Commissioner went public. I just want to know why he did not bother to ask the Information Commissioner and why the Information Commissioner had to contact the press in order to make it clear that he had been kept in the dark.
It would have been much better if the hon. Gentleman had decided to speak in this debate instead of just intervening from the Front Bench. We might then have thought that his commitment on these issues was serious rather than just posturing. I made the following clear to him in a letter on 18 November:
“You may be aware that the Information Commissioner took a decision on a request to make available a Serious Case Review in 2006. This risk was one of the considerations taken into account by him in that case.”
I made it clear in that letter, and in the House, that based on that 2006 ruling and our judgment concerning the safety of children, we would not publish the serious case reviews. I wrote to him again a week and a half later—[Interruption.] The issues being raised in this debate are intended to divert attention from the real issues. My letter of the 28 November to the hon. Gentleman says:
“I have not claimed to have done so”—
that is, to go to the Information Commissioner for a ruling. It continues:
“Nor do I intend to do so. It is my judgment, consistent with Working Together to Safeguard Children, that it is imperative to keep the SCR confidential”
That judgment is shared by the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner.
We should not be playing politics with this issue. We are doing the right thing for the safety of children, and the Conservatives’ persistent attempt to find a political difference is at the expense of that safety, which is why I reject their arguments outright.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a detached observer listening to this part of the debate would be astonished that the principle that the needs of children are paramount is not being considered? Instead, we have been diverted by small, petty debating points made for political advantage.
The detached observer would take seriously the views of the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner that the right thing to do, in order to keep children safe, is not to publish these reports. They would reject the idea that that advice should be ignored by those on the Opposition Front Bench in order to play politics—especially the shadow Secretary of State, who did not even bother to make the main speech in this debate. I shall move on.
In a second. My third point concerns the Opposition’s call for all local safeguarding children boards to be independently chaired and for the Ofsted inspection system to be overhauled. As they know, the system is now changing with the end of annual performance assessments and the announcement by Ofsted inspectors that there will be unannounced reviews of safeguarding every year in every children’s authority area. I welcome that change.
On local safeguarding children boards, we have made it clear in response to Lord Laming’s recommendation that the serious case review should always be independently chaired. That is the right thing to do. There are different views, however, on the wider question of whether the local safeguarding children board should also be independently chaired. The Conservatives jumped out with a press release in November, and I understand their view, but there are other expert voices in the debate who are concerned that immediately to require independent chairs of the overall board would weaken their effectiveness and could put children at risk. That is why, despite the urging of the shadow spokesperson, I will not jump the gun. I will not jump the gun for the sake of a press release; I will wait for the views of Lord Laming on the issue, and only then will we take a view as to whether the Conservatives are right that an independent chair is the right way to go.
I know that there have been debates on these matters, and the Select Committee took a close interest in them as well. Change is happening in Ofsted at the moment, with the move towards a joint inspectorate in relation to the comprehensive area assessment arrangements, and new arrangements for safeguarding begin in April. The right thing to do is to get those arrangements in place. I am sure that the Select Committee will take a close look at the way Ofsted proceeds in these matters, which will be welcome.
In a second. I have two points to make in the time remaining to me.
I completely agree that we need well-trained, well-led and well-motivated social workers who spend as much time as possible with vulnerable children and their families. That is why we have set up the social work taskforce, and why we are considering the quality of training, leadership and mid-career training. They have an important job, and it is important that we work hard with the taskforce to implement that process. I have also asked the taskforce to make it a priority to review the effectiveness of procurement and IT using the integrated children’s system, which was an important part of the speech made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I know that there have been concerns that the IT systems have not worked as well as they should in some areas, but the integrated children’s system does not ask practitioners to collect more information than they should to do their jobs. As we heard earlier, it is vital that proper detailed records are kept. In fact, the reason Scandinavian children’s protection systems are commended is that Sweden and Denmark use the ICS system, as do Canada and Australia.
Computing magazine reported last year that the head of safeguarding in Kingston, Mr. Duncan Clark, believed that
“top-quality professionals should be able to treat the system”—
“as an everyday part of their work.”
It reported that Mr. Clark had said:
“We are not asking staff to be IT bods, we are asking them to learn to use a tool to enhance practice…Any distraction caused will be short-lived. If staff are still stuck at their desks because they are not adapting, they are probably doing less harm there than in the field, because that is not a good-quality social worker.”
Myriad quotations from the experts in the field state that ICS, well used, is a good system, but that we have to address the IT issues and ensure that social workers have the training to use it well, as they do in Sweden, Denmark, Canada and Australia. That is what we are asking the taskforce to do.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that as part of the social work taskforce’s activities, foster carers will be consulted for their experience of front-line social work, so that the taskforce is fully informed of what goes on on the front line when social workers visit foster carers’ homes and the children whom they are there to protect?
The Secretary of State will know that I do not agree with some of the criticisms of data collection—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who made an intervention on that point. However, will the Secretary of State take on board the representations of Professor Susan White and Professor Wastell, who have written to me in my role as Chairman of the Select Committee to say that some modification of the ICS system is necessary? Will he be open-minded about such modification? I do not ask him to get rid of it, and I am not making a sweeping denunciation of it, but it could be modified to be of better use in practice.
My hon. Friend’s point is well made. I have already referred the letters that he mentions to Lord Laming and the taskforce for their consideration. I have said that we will consider the whole use of ICS and its IT effectiveness, but although this is partly about computers, it is partly about training and partly about management. Good social workers record their work, but they also get out in the field. ICS, well used, can enable that to happen, and we will ensure that it does.
There is a danger that in discussing these matters, we sometimes become entirely focused on giving social workers more training, more help and even more pay. It is important to respect our social workers, but they also need the tools of the trade and modern-day IT to do their job. I can recall clearly comments that were made, particularly by those on the Opposition Benches, in our debates on the vetting and barring scheme. Coupled with ICS, that can make a huge difference in protecting children. I hope that all Members appreciate both ICS and the vetting and barring scheme, which I believe many Opposition Members now respect because it can make a big difference to the statistics. Those statistics are children, after all, and those things can help to save their lives.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and ICS, well used, and ContactPoint are both valuable ways of keeping children safe.
Strangely, ContactPoint was omitted from the Opposition’s motion. They omitted any mention of their intention to abolish it. It was developed in response to a key recommendation of Lord Laming and the Climbié inquiry. We all know that no information-sharing system can, in and of itself, keep children safe, but we believe that ContactPoint will make a real difference. It will allow those who work with children to intervene earlier to prevent problems from escalating and ensure that no child slips through the net of support, and it will free up social workers to spend more time with vulnerable children. The idea of having a database that has only the vulnerable children on it shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of child protection in our country.
The Opposition disagree with what I have just said. They say that ContactPoint will increase the risk of vulnerable children being abused. The Leader of the Opposition regularly says that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money and that they would scrap it, on top of the £300 million of cuts to children’s services that they have promised to make in the coming year.
The Opposition are out of step not only with Lord Laming’s recommendation, but with the NSPCC, Action for Children, the British Association of Social Workers, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Children’s Inter-Agency Group, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Youth Justice Board, the disabled children’s charity KIDS, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Royal College of General Practitioners—yes, the GPs, too. All those experts support ContactPoint and are working with us to ensure its successful roll-out in the summer because they know that it is important for keeping children safe. Again, I urge Opposition Front Benchers to reconsider and tell the Leader of the Opposition that he proposes a spending cut too far.
Mr. Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, stated:
“Michael Gove has said that a Conservative government would scrap ContactPoint, the Government’s children’s database… But I would ask Mr. Gove to think long and hard about whether or not Barnardo’s, which works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in Britain, would support ContactPoint if we thought it would, as Mr. Gove suggests, increase the risk of children being abused. We believe the contrary to be true.”
The Opposition are out on a limb and it is time they stopped digging.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is now 8.41 pm The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a 47-minute speech. There have been constant interruptions from the Opposition Front Benchers. Should Back Benchers simply give up attending such debates? Are we going to get any time after Front Benchers have finished intervening?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I have been following the debate carefully, even when I was not in the Chair, and it has been characterised by a large number of long interventions, which contribute to it but inevitably take time out of it. Some of those interventions were made by people who are seeking to catch my eye, and that is counter-productive. I must agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that, increasingly, the share of the debate taken by Front Benchers is not fair on Back Benchers.
Order. In the light of my comments, we ought to move on. I call the Secretary of State.
I am happy to debate the issues at any time and at any length the Opposition choose, because they are vital matters. I hope, next time, that the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will participate properly in the debate rather than just make interventions.
Lord Laming will report this month, the social work taskforce will present its first report in the spring and the full roll-out of ContactPoint starts this summer. I believe that we are taking steps to ensure that our country has the best child protection arrangements in the world. It is no time for opposition for opposition’s sake. I genuinely hope that we can achieve a cross-party consensus on the reforms because they are vital for keeping children safe. I commend our amendment to the House.
Order. Perhaps I might venture to say that the matters that we are debating this evening are extremely serious and, too frequently, heart rending. I think that the manner in which we discuss them will be of considerable interest to our constituents, and we should bear that in mind.
The time constraints mean that there will now be a six-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches.
In principle, I welcome the debate. It is important to hold a constructive discussion on child protection. However, I am not sure about the quality of the debate.
Yesterday “The Good Childhood Inquiry” was published. It reinforced the fact that every child should be entitled to live in a loving and safe environment. Today we are discussing child abuse and deaths at the hands of parents and carers, and we cannot deny that, however we play around with numbers, the figure remains too high. We have spoken a lot about deaths—the tragedies are before us—but we should also remember that child abuse can permanently damage children. They grow into adults who in turn may—I stress the word “may”—abuse others. We should not play with the statistics. We just have to do better. Child protection should be at the heart of our societal aims and embedded as a priority in the whole of the children’s work force.
On the whole, we are getting better at listening to children. Indeed, the Government have made great strides, with meaningful consultation with children and young people. Looking back on the tragic Victoria Climbié case, I recall that none of the agencies ever spoke to Victoria. We recognise the importance of that today, but as was said earlier, half the children killed or seriously injured through abuse and neglect are babies less than a year old. A further 20 per cent. are toddlers under the age of five.
When younger children are the victims, professionals must have the opportunity to examine and assess them carefully. Communication can come in all sorts of guises. In the baby P case, the baby did not appear to have been seen in any detail by social workers. At the heart of our debate should be listening to and focusing on the children and ensuring that we are thinking about their needs and best interests.
The Government must listen and respond more quickly at times; I speak in frustration rather than confrontation. Let me give just two examples. In the debate on the Children Act 2004, we spoke at great length about the quantity and quality of social workers and about how the priority for any new system—more important than the system itself—was to have high-quality, well-trained front-line workers. We spoke a lot about the need for recruitment and retention. I welcome the setting up of the social work taskforce, but it seems that it took yet another series of tragedies to bring that belatedly about.
The Audit Commission published a report in October that concluded:
“there is little evidence that children’s trusts have improved outcomes for children”.
I asked a question about that to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who replied:
“We are very disappointed that it chose to take such a negative approach,”
and said that the report
“draws on fieldwork…almost a year old.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 115.]
The response to studies that shed a critical light on services for our children, as the UNICEF report too did, should not be just to rubbish the methodology. A qualified comment is fine, but should we not always consider how we can do things better?
I know that the Government are responding on children’s trusts. It would be interesting to know exactly what is planned and how it would dovetail into the safeguarding children agenda. The Government often respond by referring to their national initiatives—“We’ve done this,” and so on. There is no doubt that the Government’s children plan, its update and some other strategies are important and to be welcomed. In fact, I would like a national strategy for preventing child deaths, abuse and neglect as well—that is another question for the Minister who will respond to the debate—but surely what is really important is constantly reviewing what is happening at the local level.
At the time of the debate on the 2004 Act there was cross-party support on the need for better multi-agency working and a clear line of accountability—lessons that were to be learned, but appear not to have been put into practice in the case of baby P. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on the dignified way in which she has pushed for the truth and for improvements in her local social services.
Lessons can undoubtedly be learned from serious case reviews. Training and work force-related recommendations need to be acted upon. The Liberal Democrats have called for serious case reviews to be published, albeit suitably anonymised and perhaps with certain details removed. I do not think that we will return to the crossfire that we have just seen, but it is important to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who could not tell anybody else what he had been allowed to read in the serious case review, was convinced that there were issues—the most crucial issues—that needed to be raised publicly. Indeed, that was also the view of others who read that report. This is not about putting children in danger; it is about improving safeguarding practices.
It is important to be clear about the situation with regard to the Information Commissioner. The final point in his letter, dated 21 November, stated:
“The ICO stands ready to provide advice on what may be disclosed on a case by case basis.”
However, it has been confirmed that his view on the matter in question was not sought. I therefore do not believe that we have come to the end of the line.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State fears that people would not participate fully. Indeed, Lord Laming has been asked how the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews could be improved, and whether the right balance between the public executive summary and the confidential serious case review has been struck. I would like to ask the Secretary of State whether we can be assured that he will approach this question with an open mind. He has already stated that he is against the reviews being made public, and it is clear that there are differences of opinion that need to be evaluated. For example, a senior figure who was brought into Haringey supported the idea that a large part of that case review should be made public. I am looking for a balanced approach, because at the end of the day, we have to learn lessons.
The Ofsted findings from 92 serious case reviews were shocking, and most Members have suggested that there is much more to do. More than a third were found to be inadequate. Commenting on an in-depth report on 50 of the cases, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools said:
“This report and the latest figures available clearly show that many children’s services are failing to learn fast enough from the most serious cases of abuse and neglect. Too many opportunities are missed and too many vulnerable children are still being let down”.
We cannot be complacent. Some things have improved, but we must look for more.
The length of time that some serious case reviews have taken has also been highlighted, with some taking between three and four years. They must be completed quickly, and they must focus on the child. They must not just be descriptive; they need to analyse why things have happened, and they must be independent.
We are aware that the Secretary of State is keen to follow the recommendations of the NSPCC. The society has recommended that Ministers should report to Parliament on a biennial basis with a review of learning from serious case reviews of child deaths, and set out how each relevant Whitehall Department will respond to the recommendations. Perhaps a commitment to that practice, while the Laming review is being undertaken, would take us forward.
My instinct is that the local safeguarding children board should be independently chaired. It cannot be right that the director of children’s services should hold that post. I have been gathering data from local councils, and I was interested in a comment, offering the opposite view—that no one else would have the drive to take matters forward and challenge other agencies. That highlights how important the person specification, recruitment, appointment, support and training of the chairman of the board and its membership will be. I am sure that the board will also need extra resources and strengthening.
We have mentioned the Ofsted inspection service, and I understand that Ofsted will review how it approaches its inspections. I welcome the Local Government Association’s summit recommendation that the association should discuss with Ofsted how it can most effectively assess the quality of child protection practice and help councils and their partners to improve.
When we were talking about those issues in the Select Committee, it was noted that Ofsted appeared, on the surface, to have a strong education bias. There are issues about the heads of children’s services, the majority of whom have come via the education route. I welcome the fact that there will be a new course at the National College for School Leadership, and I would like to ask whether all directors will be required to take it, because management and accountability are all-important.
My colleague in the other place, Baroness Walmsley, has raised the issue of the General Social Care Council codes of practice, which set out the standards expected of both social care workers and their employers in delivering social care services. There is currently a substantive difference in the status of the codes for social care workers and their employers. Compliance with the code for workers is required for those who are registered with the GSCC, but the code of practice for employers has no statutory force. Would not placing the code for employers on a statutory footing and including it within Ofsted’s inspection framework ensure that employers in social care were responsible for making sure that people were suitable to enter the social care work force, to provide sufficient support and so forth?
Training and safeguarding for the whole children’s work force is absolutely vital. Obviously that includes social workers, but it is much broader than that and includes teachers, doctors and health visitors. Anybody coming into contact with children in a professional way needs to be able to recognise the signs of abuse and to be confident enough to follow them up. I believe that those two points are recognised by Ofsted and by the NSPCC. Indeed, the GSCC points out that there is no national standard for training and safeguarding.
Tonight, the official Opposition have said a lot about social workers, and I would like to place on record the fact that theirs is an incredibly difficult job: it is an undervalued occupation in which morale can easily become very low; that may be followed by a drive to move away, and with greater caseloads, the whole situation becomes self-perpetuating. This is something that we have to tackle, for the sake of giving better support to the professionals themselves. I welcome the Local Government Association campaign, which will focus on recruitment, retention and respect in children’s social work.
We discussed earlier the part of the motion that refers to
“scrapping the highly prescriptive template for the Integrated Children’s System”.
I do not think I would use the word “scrapping” at this time, but I believe that there is a strong case for reviewing that system. Again, we should think and talk constructively about it, as there are enough criticisms around that risk is not a core focus of the current system and that there is too much paperwork and bureaucracy. That is not to say that there should be no paperwork, but if the criticism has been made, it needs to be examined.
Throughout the change from the old to the new system, a number of academics have questioned whether it was right to get rid of the child protection register. Is there a danger that child support workers will not see the wood for the trees? Are the police being pushed off the stage a bit by the new system? Are they not brought into a situation until it is judged a crime? I think we should be prepared to ask ourselves whether we have got the right system. That does not mean changing the whole thing, but we should be brave enough to ask that.
It seems to me right to ask Lord Laming to carry out the review at this time, and to do it fairly quickly—but is there not a case for having a fresh pair of eyes, or even a group of people coming in to see what else they might see? Obviously, Lord Laming as the architect will see things in a certain way, just as the Opposition see things in a different way from the Government, but I believe that there is a case for having that fresh pair of eyes to look at how things are working out at local level.
We Liberals also oppose ContactPoint, purely on the basis that if we take costs and benefits in the widest sense into account, the benefits do not outweigh the costs. In the costs I include the potential risks. I have never been convinced that it will be a secure system—a doubt that has been backed up by a number of reports.
We have not paid much attention tonight to prevention—a subject sadly lacking in the Opposition motion. This afternoon, fortuitously, I had an opportunity to talk to a member of the WAVE Trust—WAVE stands for Worldwide Alternatives to Violence—who explained that a person’s propensity to violence can be determined in the first few years of life. It may result from witnessing violence in the home, harsh parental discipline, neglect or lack of attachment. That shows us that if we really want to improve things, we must home in on preventive measures.
The Family Nurse Partnership is an example of a good intervention. My difficulty with it is that it does not reach out far enough. I should also prefer there to be more health visitors. The number of health visitors is falling, at a time when there is a larger case load. The training has been changed—it is much more generic than it used to be—but whom do parents actually trust? Their health visitor. That really does need to be reconsidered.
The Government have put more effort into parenting classes, which are important, but much more should be done to support families. If we are to promote successful interventions by means of the strategy that I mentioned, should we not establish a national early prevention agency to drive an early prevention strategy? Every time there is a great tragedy, it is the symptoms rather than the root causes that are addressed. Public inquiries are important, but if we really want to do something, we must examine the root causes of abuse.
Further actions that could lead to prevention include confidential hotlines for whistleblowers so that there is no doubt that a complaint is being investigated if, for example, a social worker is feeling less than supported. I often observe that when a tragic case arises, neighbours talk to the media, and they turn out to have been aware that something odd might have been going on. Why should we not set up a hotline enabling neighbours to report their concern?
Another preventive measure that we need, about which I have said a great deal over the years, is a comprehensive system of therapeutic services. Once a child has been abused, treatment at the time may be life-saving, and may prevent the abuse from being perpetuated and affecting future generations.
I have already mentioned the first point in the Local Government Association’s five-point plan. The second is to make it easier to shift services towards prevention and early intervention. The third relates to resources, which is a big question. What we require of our children’s services departments is a big ask: we cannot expect them to do their job with less than adequate resources. Fourthly, the LGA says that councils should have access to the best possible advice, which seems pretty sensible. Fifthly, links between the care and child protection services should be improved. That in itself is a subject for debate.
I am well aware that many other Members wish to speak, so I shall merely say that this is all about family support, getting the balance right and always putting the child first. Rather than aiming for confrontation, we should look for more and more ways to reduce what I consider to be a blight on our society.
It is a pleasure to be given almost as long to speak in the Chamber as I was given on the “Today” programme when I was interviewed by John Humphrys. Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies. However, I consider it a sad comment on our parliamentary procedures that Back Benchers on both sides of the House have been more or less squeezed out of the debate. That is absolutely disgraceful, and should be raised on another occasion.
I was disappointed by the opening speech of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and the emphasis that it placed on certain issues. This debate was promoted as a discussion of child protection. We have concentrated almost entirely on issues around one particular case—that of baby P—and other cases of such gravity. Such cases are crucial and heart-rending examples of the dreadful things that can happen to children, but, to be totally honest, I think they are the type of cases where it will be most difficult to achieve a reduction in numbers. I have compared the Ofsted figures and those of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and I think that the NSPCC figures are more accurate. Indeed, a breakdown of the Ofsted figures suggests to me that it presented its figures to the Committee I chair in a misleading way.
I believe that child protection includes the much broader remit of stopping child abuse of the physical or sexual kind—which very often does not end in death, thank God—and that we should also have regard to child misery. It is out there, and that weighs terribly on my conscience—as well as, I am sure, the consciences of most Members. It is important to be able to pick up through children’s social services when a child is deeply unhappy, but that is very difficult to do. We must tackle this in a much more positive way, so I shall now say one or two unpopular things.
We need a well trained, highly motivated work force, and a strategy to provide the skills and training tools needed. The social work profession is good in part, but it is not very good in a much larger part. The culture must be changed. That might involve giving more respect and status, or changing the name of the social work profession, or looking at the relationship between health visitors and social workers.
I absolutely agree with that point.
I hope that the inquiry that the Secretary of State has set in motion will look very fundamentally at the social work profession. It needs to be better rewarded, better motivated and better trained. Some evidence given to our Committee contained serious criticism of the quality of university training for social workers, and that must be looked at. We also need a trusted interface between parents and carers. We want a profession that is helpful and supportive; we do not want people to think that the inquisition is coming. We must also acknowledge that the social work profession is more difficult than is often thought.
Let me add a point that is central to the debate and has not been mentioned: we need to have the ability to track a child’s progress, particularly between birth and the age of five. That is why I certainly will not add my voice to the criticism of ContactPoint. At present in this country, when a child faces problems of the kind I am talking about, it can go totally undetected. Unless he or she comes to the notice of the authorities, nothing is known. Many child deaths occur in families who have had no contact with children’s services and social workers. Our system needs to be more like the Scandinavian one, so that we know where children are and we are able to monitor their progress much better. At present, there is very little possibility of doing that, which greatly worries me.
On the system of accountability, Ofsted reports to this House through the Committee I have the privilege to chair. I said to the chief inspector the last time she came before the Committee that I did not think it was good enough to have such a remote inspection system, which did not involve enough face-to-face contact between her inspectors and the departments being inspected. There are only 150 children’s departments. Why is an Ofsted inspector not inserted permanently in each of those local authorities? There are 2,300 inspectors and 1,500 extra inspectors. Why cannot we have that? I ask that question because there is great public concern. The role could involve much more support than at present—the role is currently carried out as a paper analysis.
I do not think I can allow another intervention.
We must also learn from experience and from all these dreadful cases. I urge us to listen to the outside experts; we are not the experts here. I want to secure a consensus, and we might be able to get it from the people who know about this stuff. Politicians do not really know about it; we have to be judged by the professionals. When they say that serious case reviews should be published, I will then be convinced, but I am not convinced at the moment.
We also need the systematic collection of records and data. It is so easy to say that it is all red tape and to cite the figure of 80 per cent. Social work and monitoring children and families is a highly complex task. It needs to be done with a human touch, with good management and with the data, which must be scrupulously kept and scrupulously checked. In every serious case review that I have looked at, I have found that so often things go wrong when management decisions are made on the basis of data that do not exist.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and who has made a number of interesting points.
At the outset, I wish to say, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, that social workers are the unsung heroes of the public sector. They put their heart and soul into their jobs, and they work long hours, often for little reward and in some extremely difficult circumstances. It is an incredibly sad fact of our political life that public perceptions of social work, especially throughout this country, are so low. As hon. Members have mentioned, someone who visits one of the Scandinavian countries will witness a people who value and respect the work done by social workers on behalf of society’s most vulnerable and neglected individuals. I am sure that we would all like to see the profession join the likes of teaching and medicine as something that more children and college students aspire to enter once they reach adulthood. The baby P case reminded us all of just how high the stakes can be, because when things are not running smoothly, when systems do not work and when people take their eye off the ball, tragedy can strike. That is why it is so important for us to look at the state of the profession and take urgent steps to reform it.
I wish briefly to touch on recruitment, which, put simply, is in crisis. According to Unison, vacancy levels in children’s social care work are running at more than 10 per cent., and three quarters of all local authorities are reporting difficulties in recruiting social workers for these teams. Higher numbers than those provided by Unison could be cited, but undoubtedly the vacancy rate is very high. There has been a 30 per cent. rise in vacancy rates in just four years, and more than a third of those who study social work at university do not go into the profession. The number of whole-time equivalent social workers per 100,000 head of population is just 87.6. When I looked on the internet earlier today, I found that the figure for Massachusetts and some other US states where we do not think of public provision as being that great is more than 200 per 100,000 head of population. Unison recently did a survey of 369 front-line staff across the country and found that two thirds of respondents were working in teams where more than 20 per cent. of posts were vacant.
The reasons for such a shortfall in front-line staff have been set out to Ministers over and over again. One of the leading reasons is, of course, pay, which is a difficult issue. At the top end of the tree, a social worker can earn, at most, £40,000 a year. That should be compared with the sums paid to deputy head teachers or head teachers in schools, where salaries of double that are more common. Thus, one can see that social work is a less attractive route for someone to take. There is a huge difference in incentive between the different professions. If we want social work to be regarded in a similar light, we need to address the fact that the average salary for a social worker is just £23,600. The question has to be asked: is that high enough to attract the brightest and the best into the profession?
We must ensure that we target attracting people into the profession, and retaining and motivating them as our No. 1 concern. That is even more important than the systems, although of course we need good systems and to ensure that information is shared. High quality, highly motivated social workers in full-time posts will guarantee continuity and good information sharing far more effectively than overblown Government-driven IT projects. That is why there is so much concern about those projects that the Government are currently pursuing.
The key is to improve the status and attraction of social work. Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, said recently:
“when you look at what has been done with teachers over the last ten years on pay and recruitment, that is the sort of thing we need. We need to start on an academic threshold on entry. That is important. We need bright people. Then we need proper career development. And we need social workers to be able to earn a lot while on the front line.”
Perhaps that is one of the factors that has stopped young people wanting to go into social work in the first place.
For an example of a positive response to the recruitment issue, I cite my local authority, the East Riding of Yorkshire council. It recently initiated a recruitment and retention plan, which sought to address shortages in children’s social worker posts. Its award-winning approach saw a reduction in vacancies from 50 per cent. to just 6 per cent. in 12 months. It introduced several initiatives, including a social worker recruitment pool, a care ambassador scheme and the production of a DVD and a prospectus for all local schools, colleges and universities. The council faced up to that issue and made a serious difference.
Social workers are the unsung heroes and we need to ensure that they are in place and properly supported. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) emphasised, we need an holistic, joined-up approach in which issues such as the lack of universal cover by health visitors—which has happened under this Government—are looked at again. We need early intervention, and we should always remember the evidence that the Committee heard: that children who suffer from neglect are damaged more than any other children apart from those who suffer the most severe physical abuse.
Too much of our child protection policy has been constructed following tragic cases. I am afraid that I can go back a lot further than the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). At the beginning of my time in this House, I served on the Committee considering the Bill that was introduced after three very tragic cases during the mid-1980s and the Cleveland child abuse case. Those cases, of course, provided very different perspectives. The inquiries into the cases of the three children who died saw them as a failure of agencies to work together effectively and the failure of social services departments to intervene, especially when parents were avoiding contact. The Cleveland case was on the other side of the issue, and the social services and the medical profession were criticised for over-zealous diagnosis of sexual abuse and intervention that was too hasty and overrode the rights of parents. Somehow, in the midst of all that, we had to construct legislation. At the same time, social workers were trying to do their job with very different messages coming from this House and the world outside.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) talked about his visits to Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, and how well they were doing in respect for social workers. When I made such visits, the social pedagogues told me that they would not be able to work in the same way if they had our press. They said, “We don’t have everything that we do paraded in tabloids. We don’t know how people ever go into social work in the UK, because whatever decision they take is frequently pilloried.” We must all take some responsibility for that, and I am afraid that the earlier exchange would perhaps reinforce that view among social workers rather than making them feel that people in this House were seriously trying to come to terms with what is happening in the world in which they are working.
During the passage of the Children Act 1989—I invite the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to read some of the exchanges that took place—I had to work extremely hard to get the then Government to take seriously the suggestion that training should be written into it. It was a battle royal to get training written in as one of the basic requirements for early-years workers and those working with vulnerable children.
We cannot eliminate risk altogether, although we sometimes talk as though that were possible. Some of our press certainly talk as though we could. We cannot do that. People have to be enabled to make sound and robust judgments, but it must be clear what is expected of workers in a particular position. The tragedy at the moment is that workers are totally risk-averse. I talk to lots of directors of children’s services and chief executives, and it seems that the system has become totally risk-averse. That is not in the interests of children, either. It is in our interests and theirs to have more long-term strategic objectives, which we allow people to get on with and to work with. Yes, we should inspect and, yes, we should hold people to account, but we should recognise the seriousness of the job that people are doing in a way that enables them to make sound judgments.
We also have to do far more to support parents. The risks are greater when parents are not confident, sure or able to take the right decisions. So, the early intervention that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) talked about and that I have talked about until everybody is bored silly is still at the heart of good child protection. We need effectively to support parents in their role as parents. We should not see parenting as a natural skill that everybody has. I do not know any parent who, when they are being honest late at night, says that it is all easy and straightforward. Every parent has huge challenges and huge difficulties. It is our responsibility to ensure that the support for parents is such that we tackle child protection in a much more serious way.
Child protection is absolutely at the top of the agenda in my constituency and I want to take the opportunity of this important debate to focus on some local issues.
As many have said, the tragic case of baby P exposed a catalogue of failures at Haringey social services department, but it was not an isolated case. I think we all know that. My local authority, Reading, experienced a similar tragedy with the death of three-year-old Trae-Bleu Layne, who died in October 2006 from methadone poisoning when she was injected by her mother to make her sleep. The council’s handling of the case was subsequently described as inadequate by Ofsted. The child was under the supervision of Reading borough council’s children’s department, and during the inquest into her death the coroner was critical of the failure to do enough to safeguard her well-being. In particular, there was a failure to ensure regular visits and to monitor those visits.
The mother was a known heroin addict and the police admitted that both they and social services staff could have done more to protect the child. The coroner concluded that, despite the mother’s manipulative efforts to stop social workers visiting the house,
“the frequency for seeing Trae-Bleu fell well below the required and acceptable level”.
One would think that an episode like that would act as the strongest possible warning to a local authority, but in 2008 Reading borough council was one of only eight councils, including Haringey and Wokingham borough council, to have its child protection services deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted.
The main findings of that Ofsted report make very uncomfortable reading for anyone involved in Reading. It highlighted a catalogue of failures in the children’s services department. It specifically noted that key child protection assessments were not being completed within acceptable time scales, that personal information on children was not being stored in a way that was easily retrievable, and finally that there was weak performance management in the local authority’s social care service.
Although the lead councillor for children’s services was sacked at a full council meeting last week for his negligence in leading that service, a whistleblower has stepped forward and described a culture of bullying in the service. If that is true, that culture undoubtedly contributed to systemic failure in the department. What I find difficult to understand is that the very people in the department who were employed to protect Reading’s most vulnerable children were probably being bullied themselves. However, it is not the first Reading borough department about which I have heard allegations that a culture of bullying exists.
Unfortunately, the bad news does not stop there. Reading borough council also has problems with its performance relating to looked-after children. The Ofsted report highlighted the disturbing fact that only a relatively low proportion of children leaving care achieve one pass or more at GCSE. I know that that is not so uncommon around the country but, if we are serious about social mobility, then surely we must ensure that vulnerable children are able to access a decent education.
Another worrying aspect of the report was that it found that there was a
“lack of clear, agreed staff recruitment and retention strategy”
in the children’s department. Reading council has stated that it wishes to take on more social workers to ease the burden on existing workers, although it appears that the reason it has not been able to recruit and retain staff is the culture of the department. That said, the poor public image of social work following the crisis after baby P, coupled with the growing pressure of the job, has clearly cut the number of people who are willing to enter the profession.
That is incredibly sad, because social workers do an extremely important and valuable job, and most do it quite brilliantly. I stand in awe of the contribution that many of them make. It is our duty, in this House this evening, to help to restore the reputation of social workers, not to try to destroy their profession. In this respect, the Ofsted report noted the fact that action has been taken in Reading over the last 18 months to deal with “significant staff capability issues” and to address shortcomings in supervision and front-line practice. I pray that those actions will bring about a significant improvement.
However, it is true that the Government’s red tape is stopping people doing their jobs, and we heard earlier this evening about the 80 per cent. of time spent on paperwork. No amount of child protection legislation is a substitute for skilled professionals. Social workers need to be allowed to get on with the jobs that they are extremely qualified to do, instead of collecting data and ticking boxes.
As far as Reading council is concerned, I support the changes that it is implementing and understand that it is trying to make improvements. I hope that the results of the recent Ofsted report will trigger some deep thinking and reflection about past errors and behaviour, but there is no room for complacency or further error in either Reading and Wokingham. Improvements must be deep-seated and long lasting. A real change must take place in the running of children’s services both locally and nationally, so that all our constituents get the services that they are entitled to receive.
Whether they involve baby P in Haringey or Trae-Bleu Layne in Reading, we all have a duty to ensure that such local authority failures are never repeated.
I shall deal with just three issues in my contribution. I want to speak about the importance of raising the status of those who work in child protection, and about the need for better training and better inspection.
I very much welcome the tone that Members across the House have taken on the importance of social work and the jobs that are done. That is something of a turnaround; in my 20 years in social work, I certainly never felt loved by the public generally, or by any Government of the day. The reality is that for years, Governments have not focused on the profession. The number of people in social work is much smaller than the number in teaching and nursing. The time has come to focus on the issue, and to raise the status of all involved, whether they are child care workers, nursery nurses, health visitors or social workers. That will mean more money, and more investment. We should not just raise salaries—it has been amply demonstrated that that needs to happen—but make investment in ongoing training.
Training is enormously important at the outset of the career, but continuous professional development is equally important. Quite apart from the issues that we have debated, such as whether social workers are too much tied to computers or to recording, I worry that not enough time is put aside in their day, week or month for professional development and learning. I recently tabled a question, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families responded, on what research is being undertaken on those issues. There are 22 such pieces of research being undertaken. They take up two pages of A4. My concern is not that that is too much research, or that it is problematic; my question is how people on the front line will get to know the outcome of that research. What aid will they be given to learn from those detailed investigations?
I want to come on to an issue that we have talked about at great length—serious case reviews. I do not know whether any other Members of the House have ever been involved in serious case reviews or what preceded them, but I certainly have. I have chaired them, written them, and given evidence to them. I remain strongly of the view that they should not be published. I do not think that they would give a great deal of help. They are important within authorities, because they help people in those authorities to understand what went wrong in their area, and to learn from it, but the summaries should be sufficient to enable people to learn. I commend the NSPCC for publishing those summaries on its website. That is where one goes to if one wants to find out what the child protection issues are. I ask the Department to look at the matter more carefully.
Research done on the back of those summaries to bring together the lessons learned is important. The real tragedy of all the cases that we are discussing is not that we do now know what is going wrong, but that the same things go wrong year in, year out. To concentrate on saying, “Publish serious case reviews” is to miss the point. We know a great deal about what goes wrong, so we need to concentrate on learning that and making sure that all professionals have that information.
We also need to do more about learning from good practice. I recall a case of sexual abuse that I was involved with some 15 years ago. We were congratulated by our local authority at the end of the process; we worked very well with the police and a conviction was secured. The people in the policy section of the council said, “We must come and see how you did that, and what made it work.” Of course, they never did. So much more time and effort goes into looking at the cases that go wrong than into those that go well.
Another enormously important issue is better inspection. I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on the idea of embedding inspectors in departments; I would worry about their independence. However, closer involvement is important. The way in which inspections have been carried out means that individual social workers, and managers, can go years without their practices ever being looked at by any external person; that is not right. We need to change that, and we need to be more rigorous in that regard.
My final plea is that we make a big effort on the issue. The Government should look at what the social work taskforce comes up with in due course, and something should then happen on the ground. In 1998, social workers stood up and cheered when the Labour Government gave money to the quality protects programme, and for the first time in 10 years we stopped cutting social work posts and invested in doing something about children. We need the same kind of energy now. We need a new initiative, but one that focuses on child protection specifically, rather than on children’s services as a whole.
When the Victoria Climbié tragedy happened in Haringey, the leadership took no fall for that. Only the social worker at the end of the food chain took all the blame and was hung out to dry. That is why Laming so pointedly criticised the lack of accountability in the leadership, why the Government—I am grateful to them—put in the Children Act 2004 two accountable positions for child protection, and why those people at the top had to go this time. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acting so resolutely and swiftly to ensure that Laming’s views were regarded.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has done. The concentration has been on the practice, management and focus of children’s services, and rightly so, as that is the front line. However, those departments do not exist in isolation. They are subject to pressures. If those pressures and the wider issues are not examined, those departments, however good their work is, will again succumb to those pressures in the years to come and begin to fail. That is why I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman and continue to call for a public inquiry to examine those wider issues.
Very briefly, I shall give some of my reasons for that opinion, one of which relates to cost. Although that should not be an issue, I have been told by two sources that an e-mail and a memo are going between senior managers in Haringey instructing senior managers not to take children into care. I have made a freedom of information request to obtain that information, which was denied on cost grounds. I appealed and I am now referring the matter to the Information Commissioner. I have passed that information to Mr. Badman, because it is not inconceivable that cost was an issue in that children’s services department.
We need to look at scrutiny. It is not as though Haringey did not have whistleblowers coming out of its ears, trying to tell it what was going on. I went privately and without any coverage, so that politics and publicity would not come into it, to the leader and the chief executive of Haringey council to tell them about three cases in which there was an endemic problem of a closing of ranks when people tried to raise issues of concern. One of those people was a social worker, one was a parent and one was a school governor.
Sharon Shoesmith famously said that her department was commendable and did not need scrutiny. Opposition members raised the matter of concern in full council and in other places. We need to consider how we can ensure that those concerns are taken seriously and that politics do not get in the way of issues being dealt with properly.
Perhaps we need to revisit the merger between children’s services and education. I tread on dangerous ground in making that suggestion. I do not know the answer. Why were health visitors not included in that merger? Where there is an education head, social services or children’s services feel that they are not covered, and vice versa. There are issues that we need to revisit.
Secrecy and injunctions are further matters of concern. Haringey has issued many injunctions to stop employees talking about what they know, quite apart from what they might say in private to a serious case review. Injunctions should not be issued like confetti. They act as a protection for the serious issues involved and should not be used to stop people talking about what they know.
We must also consider the paper trails that are created. We need to look at the Government hoop that Haringey jumped through by presenting false information to Ofsted, which did not see what was under its nose. I shall not enlarge on that, as I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) to speak. I conclude by asking hon. Members to sign early-day motion 53. There are already 100 signatures. We need to look at the wider issues or the Department will not be able to hold out against the pressures on it, however good the Secretary of State can make social workers.
I preface my short contribution to the debate by re-emphasising that the issue requires genuine cross-party co-operation. It is important to recognise that there are many children who have been well protected by our care system, and they are the rule rather than the exception. However, I want to speak in this debate because of my lifelong involvement in child protection, as a result of which I have a deep desire to make sure that we get it right.
Child protection is about safeguarding children and managing risks. Although the “Every Child Matters” Green Paper was important and commendable in its motives, sadly it has not led to the wholesale reform of child protection intended by the 2003 Lord Laming report. In my view, it has not been helped by the clear tension between the two statutory duties of local authorities: on the one hand, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their areas; and on the other, and as far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families.
As a consequence, councils are seeking alternative options for children identified as being at risk—for example, section 20 voluntary accommodation and placements with family friends, as happened in the baby P case. In my experience, that has led to some cases that have gone on far too long before there has been any legal intervention to protect the child. The problem is compounded by two, more recent, introductions. First, there is the hike in issue fees in care cases and, secondly, there is the public law outline in our court system.
I turn to issue fees. There has been a thirty-twofold increase in court fees charged for care proceedings, imposed by the Government; they have gone from £150 to £4,825 per case. As an immediate consequence, there was a 20 per cent. drop in care applications. Many see that as a significant disincentive against cash-strapped local authorities taking care proceedings. For example, from March 2007 until April 2008, Sunderland spent £32,000 on care proceedings; from March 2008 to December 2008, it spent £116,000 on them. The Government would say that they had provided £40 million to help local authorities finance those hikes in the cost of care applications. However, that additional money was not ring-fenced for that purpose and, as we know, local authorities have a number of other financial constraints. Perhaps the money would be much better spent in other ways—the issue of five care proceedings, for instance, would pay for a family support worker for a whole year. I ask the Minister how it can be right to charge such an extortionate and disproportionate fee to bring proceedings to protect vulnerable children.
Secondly, there is the issue of the public law outline. I declare an interest, as I had some direct experience of the outline when it was in its infancy in April-May last year. Even at that stage, in the pilot phase, it was obvious that although its aims were laudable, it was an unrealistic model for our current care system, particularly as we are now aware that one in seven social work positions sits vacant. The fact is that local authorities do not currently have the means, resources or expertise to fulfil everything that the public law outline requires them to do. Indeed, the shortages of social workers and the revolving nature of their involvement in a case often mean that the author of the initial social work statement is different from the social worker who carries the case through the courts.
I am delighted that in my constituency the new local authority-to-be, Cheshire East, has recognised the enormous significance of child protection in its range of responsibilities. My message to it and to the Secretary of State is that we must continue to invest in more permanent and highly trained social workers, reduce their casework load, reverse the rise in care application fees and review the public law outline and its impact. Despite the best intentions on all sides, there are still flaws in our care system, and they must be put right.
This debate has been an opportunity seriously to discuss the importance of child protection. It is rather disappointing that the Secretary of State did little to illustrate to those who watch our deliberations carefully that he was able to approach the debate in the collaborative manner that our constituents and others would expect. Members of this House expect better. He used statistics about the numbers of deaths of children from abuse in a way that some, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), may say runs the risk of being misleading. I would like to give the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who will wind up for the Government, the opportunity to set the record straight, because I am sure she would not want to leave her Secretary of State in the position of potentially misleading the House by saying that the Opposition would cut budgets in this area.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
We all have a clear duty to do all that we can—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker; I withdraw my comment so that we can move on and have an important and constructive debate.
We all have a clear duty to do what we can to ensure that children growing up in our country are safe. In that respect, the Government are absolutely right to say that safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility. Yet the tragic case of baby P graphically shows that although changes have made following the death of Victoria Climbié some eight years ago, there remain unacceptable and devastating flaws in child protection that need urgent attention if there is to be a change in the unacceptably high levels of child abuse in this country. In truth, the systems that support families have struggled to keep up with the staggering pace of change in our society. Increased levels of family breakdown, highlighted by this week’s Children’s Society report, coupled with increasingly mobile families, with few people living in the same place for life, mean that the natural checks and balances and safeguards built into our communities over time have been eroded.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pointed out in his thoughtful and well-presented speech, it is not that there is a lack of legislation in this area—indeed, the scale of change may have added to some of the problems that we have encountered—but that we have to ensure that the protection system itself does not overwhelm the most important issue, which is the care of children in our society. It is important that that point is noted.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) rightly observed that these are highly complex issues, but it is clear that there are still lessons to be learned. I hope that the Minister will do what her Secretary of State has perhaps not indicated that he is willing to do and listen to the proposals for further reform that we have put forward.
I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for all the work that he has done. Under his chairmanship, the Conservative party commission on social workers has provided a clear analysis of the problems that have to be faced and some detailed and practical policy proposals that the Government should carefully consider. Those proposals would provide the framework of openness, transparency and accountability that is so badly needed.
Most significantly of all, we have highlighted the importance of front-line professionals in delivering the changes that are needed. That was reiterated by Members on both sides of the House; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about unsung heroes. Although the structures and systems are important, it is the training, experience and continuity of front-line professionals that are critical in child abuse cases. As Dr. Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics said of the Victoria Climbié case, there was no shortage of information but there was a shortage of wisdom as to how that information should be used.
The right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) said that we must ensure that we can enable people to make sound and robust judgments; she made a very good point. Up and down the country, many of the professionals tasked with child protection are finding it difficult to ensure that the level of care that is needed is in place. Indeed, we know from the statistics that in eight local authorities, including the borough of Haringey where baby P died, a third of the required number of social workers are not in place.
It is not enough just to treat the symptoms. We also need to ensure that early intervention is in place, because it is key if we are to see a reduction in the number of child abuse cases that so many hon. Members have talked about today. It is important that Sure Start has an even stronger role in providing a focal point to support families before they reach that crisis point. That is why we have set out in detail our plans to re-establish a modernised universal health visitor service, led through Sure Start, to ensure that families, particularly vulnerable ones, get the support they need. That service will ensure that Sure Start is effective in reaching vulnerable families in our community.
In conclusion, child protection remains a top priority for Conservatives, and this Opposition day debate graphically illustrates that. I welcome the time given by the House to the discussion of these important issues. In the light of the baby P case, Lord Laming’s report on child protection is due to be published in a few weeks’ time. The Government need to take some decisive action to ensure that the professionals on whom we rely to protect and support some of the most vulnerable people in our society are trained, prepared and supported to deal with the demands that they face on a day-to-day basis.
As we sit here today, staff shortages, vacancies and spiralling case loads mean that professionals are spread thinly. They already feel that they are losing touch with some of the most vulnerable families in our community. Last month, Unison referred to the situation as a ticking time bomb that will lead to more tragic deaths in the future. We urge the Government to take up the measures that we have proposed today to defuse that ticking time bomb, and to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent future tragic headlines from hitting our newspapers.
I start by saying that I welcome the fact of this debate but regret the tone of it, which was set by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). We genuinely wanted a cross-party consensus that would demonstrate to the outside world the importance we all ascribe to keeping our children safe. We hoped that we could agree across the House on what more needs to be done to ensure, as far as we possibly can, that the safety and protection of children are as good, reliable and consistent as they can be.
We are building on the fact that this Government have done more than any other to protect children, with the critical reforms in the Children Act 2004, the Every Child Matters programme and the establishment of multi-agency children’s trusts and local safeguarding children boards. All have transformed the local arrangements for prevention, early intervention and the robust inter-agency responses necessary when children are at risk. I am not complacent, however, and we need to keep a relentless focus on how well those reforms are implemented in every local area. We will not tolerate a postcode lottery in safeguarding. We have to ensure that every single child everywhere has that most basic of rights: a safe childhood.
In the majority of areas, as Ofsted has shown us, things are moving in the right direction, but we need to ensure that that continues. No Government can guarantee 100 per cent. safety, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) pointed out, but that definitely should be our goal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already outlined the progress made in the last 10 years, and acknowledged the serious concerns following the tragic death of baby P and the action that we have taken since. We have to ensure that every children’s trust performs to the highest standard, which is why we are strengthening them legally. We are awaiting Lord Laming’s report, and we expect further improvements from the work of the social work taskforce. Where areas fall behind, as in Haringey and elsewhere, we will continue to take swift, decisive action, including in Surrey. I have to say that I cannot understand the failure of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to respond to my genuine invitation to give him a briefing on the serious situation in Surrey. I would have thought that he would be interested in the implications of the inadequacies that exist for the children of Surrey. Together with his failure to lead the debate, that will call into question the Tories’ commitment to child protection. It was a serious error of judgment.
Members raised three key issues, the first of which was the work force. I say to the Opposition that there are issues to consider in relation to the work force, but that their freedom of information figures include not just social workers but everybody in the social care work force. They therefore inflate the vacancy rate, which is at a national average of 9.5 per cent.—too high, but not as high as the Opposition cited. There was also a rise of 39 per cent. in the number of full-time equivalent social workers employed between 1998 and 2007.
I agree that improving the status, training and practice of social workers is key to the further reforms that are needed. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) that it is very important that we have that highly trained work force. That is why, in addition to the measures that we have already taken, the social work taskforce is helping us to focus on what needs to take place on the front line.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham pointed out the importance of prevention and early intervention, which are very much part of child protection. She has championed the family nurse practitioners whom we are now funding and the huge investment in services for the under-fives, which was not in place pre-1997. That is very important in making a big difference to children and their safety.
The third key point that was raised was the importance of data, information sharing and joint working. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield for pointing that out. Every inquiry into the death or serious harming of a child since the case of Maria Colwell in 1974, when I was just starting out on postgraduate training as a probation officer, has pinpointed the failure to share information and the failure of professionals to act together as key factors in failing to safeguard those children. That is why ContactPoint is so essential.
I am sorry; I am going to finish. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
I implore Opposition Members to rethink their position on the ContactPoint system. It is not of itself a guarantee, but without it we cannot be sure that we will not see another failure of information sharing leading to the death of a child. Systems have been intended to achieve that for 30-odd years and have still not done it, and ContactPoint is essential.
This has been a very important debate, and if one thing has united us, it has been the opportunity to acknowledge the commitment and dedication of those involved in services right across social care, health, the police and beyond—all those involved in safeguarding children. They face a difficult job in challenging circumstances, and we must support them. However, we recognise that there is much more to be done. Every single child should enjoy a happy, safe childhood, regardless of where they live or their background. Achieving that means a relentless drive by the Government and local children’s trusts to raise standards and tackle failure. It means support for social workers and their training, the willingness not to duck difficult decisions such as that on ContactPoint and the commitment to sustain the money necessary to invest in services.
The Opposition have told us little about what they would do and where they would get the money. They have said that they are not committed to children’s centres and that they would axe ContactPoint. Their spending plans would cut £300 million from the children’s non-school budget. That is the equivalent of a £2 million hole in every local authority’s budget.
By contrast, the Government will continue to invest in children and families, drive the necessary reforms and raise standards to give every child the best. I commend the Government amendment to the House.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House agrees that safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility; recognises that keeping children safe is a top priority for this Government, commends action taken by the Government following the tragic death of Baby P, to keep children safe in Haringey; welcomes the requirement that all local safeguarding children’s boards responsible for serious case reviews judged inadequate by Ofsted convene an independently chaired panel to reconsider the review and report to the Secretary of State; agrees with the Deputy Children’s Commissioner and the NSPCC that while comprehensive executive summaries should be published full serious case reviews should remain confidential; affirms its conviction that the Every Child Matters reforms are soundly based and essential in driving change for children; welcomes evidence in the joint chief inspectors’ third report on safeguarding children of improvements since 2005 in children’s services and outcomes for children and young people; commends the development by the inspectorates of new local area assessment and inspection arrangements; welcomes the commissioning of Lord Laming to report on progress being made across the country in implementing effective arrangements for safeguarding children; agrees with his recommendation that serious case review panels should be chaired by people independent of the reporting agencies; commends the creation of a Social Work Taskforce to review frontline social work, including the role and development of the Integrated Children’s System in support of its work; and further commends the recent announcement of the first stage of delivery of ContactPoint, which experts agree is vital to keep children safe.