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Children in Care

Volume 523: debated on Thursday 10 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Before I ask Mr Edward Timpson to speak to the motion, may I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording to the hon. Gentleman the same courtesy that they would want extended to themselves in such circumstances?

Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by thanking you for granting this short but none the less invaluable and timely debate on improving outcomes for children in care. With Eileen Munro’s final report on child protection due out in April, the spotlight on looked-after children in this country is rightly intensifying, as we strive to narrow not the gap but the chasm that still exists between the life chances of children in care and others. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on looked-after children and care leavers, I was disappointed not to be able to contribute to the recent excellent Backbench Business Committee debate on disadvantaged children, which was opened with great force by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to speak up for all those children and young people in care.

I also declare an interest as a non-practising family law barrister specialising in care cases and, perhaps more importantly, as someone who shared their home for more than 30 years with 90 foster children and two adopted brothers. I have no doubt that that experience not only shaped and hardened my strong sense of social justice but propelled what some would argue was my misplaced desire to come to this place and fight for better outcomes for children in care. Indeed, I had no hesitation in using my maiden speech almost three years ago to do just that.

I want to pay a warm—and, I stress, in no way sycophantic—tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is replying to the debate today. He has shown a profound interest in and deep knowledge of this subject. In government, he has embarked on the direct, purposeful, common-sense programme of reform that he advocated in opposition. As he has said, the programme is committed to

“infusing the entire care system with a culture of aspiration, hope and optimism for each young person”.

I am sure that his recent appearance before the all-party group, when more than 100 passionate young people came to Parliament to make their views known directly—and, on occasion, quite forcefully—to the Minister, did not put him off his stride. Instead, I am sure that the experience provided him with ample proof of the importance of the work that he has undertaken.

I am sure that much of what I am about to say will sound as though I am teaching the Minister to suck eggs, but I hope to persuade him that, in supporting his efforts, there is even more we can do to help children in care to overcome the odds that are still so heavily stacked against them. Let us look at the facts. Looked-after children are four times more likely than others to receive the help of mental health services, nine times more likely to have special needs requiring assessment, support and therapy, seven times more likely to misuse alcohol and drugs, 50 times more likely to end up in prison, 60 times more likely to become homeless, and 66 times more likely to have children of their own who will need public care. As if that were not enough, there are four times fewer children in care getting five good GCSEs including English and maths than their peers.

The financial and societal cost of those appalling statistics is heavy. According to Demos’s recent report “In Loco Parentis”, published last year, a young person who leaves care at 16 with poor mental health and no recognised qualifications could cost the state more than five times as much as one who leaves care with good mental health and strong relationships and who goes on to university or an apprenticeship and finds a job. The costs to society are, perhaps, immeasurable.

I recognise that there are a number of counter-arguments to the picture that I have just painted. We must exercise a degree of caution about making direct, unqualified comparisons between children who have been through the care system and those who have not. In too many cases, children who enter the care system are already deeply damaged by their early-life experiences, which even the best possible care might be unable to unravel and overcome by the time they reach adulthood. We must therefore be careful to view such children’s outcomes in that context.

We must also acknowledge the tremendous amount of fantastic care and support that is benefiting thousands of children in care every day. I have seen it and lived with it myself; I have witnessed at first hand what good parenting and appropriate emotional support can achieve. We should not forget that there are many children whose time in care was an enriching life-changing experience that led to a successful career and a fulfilling personal life. We need to be better and more open about accentuating the positive work that is done and not drag all those who work in the care system down with the structural failures within it.

In many ways, we do not have a single care system, but more of a fragmented patchwork of care systems where good practice thrives in some parts of the country, despite the design of the system. In other areas, however, as noted in the Select Committee report on looked-after children during the last Parliament:

“The quality of experience that children have in care seems to be governed by luck to an…unacceptable degree”.

Let us be clear. As I know the Minister accepts and appreciates, there is no quick fix. This is going to require a cross-party commitment over a generation to build a care system that is proactive, responsive, joined up and brimming with high-quality multidisciplinary support, giving a real and enduring priority to improving outcomes for children both in and on the edge of care.

As Sean Cameron and Colin Maginn lay down in their paper of March 2007:

“The challenge for social work is to provide the quality of care and support that is to be found not just in the average family home, but also in the most functional of families.”

So how do we achieve that end?

Based on strong body of evidence and research by Demos, the three main factors associated with achieving the most positive experiences of care and the best outcomes for looked-after children are: first, early intervention and minimal delay; secondly, stability during care; and, thirdly, supported transitions into independence. This is backed up by Mike Stein of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who similarly identified the priorities for ensuring resilience and well-being for looked-after children in later life as preventing children entering the care system through pre-care intervention, improving their care experience and supporting young people’s transitions from care.

The fact is that we need a comprehensive response at all stages of childhood, but there is unquestionably in my mind, amid a growing consensus, the need for a strong emphasis on and commitment to early intervention and prevention, which are absolutely key. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—a standard bearer for all things early intervention—said in his latest report, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that

“we need to rebalance the current culture of ‘late reaction’ to social problems to help create the essential social and emotional bedrock for all children to reap the social, individual and economic rewards.”

To that end, I welcome the Government’s financial commitment to that programme through the early-intervention grant, the expansion of family nurse partnerships and the widening of free nursery care for two-year-olds. Like others, I would also want to highlight the superb work done by Home-Start in my Crewe and Nantwich constituency and across the country to help families struggling with the demands of very young children. They deserve proper and longer-term support, so I look forward to the Minister taking the opportunity today to reiterate that to local authorities in no uncertain terms.

By getting in early before problems become entrenched, Action for Children and the New Economics Foundation have calculated a potential saving to the economy of £486 billion over 20 years—imagine that. Just as relevant would be the transformation of life chances for so many young people. The brutal truth is, however, that even with more targeted and consistent preventive work, there will still be children who need the state to intervene in their lives. For them, stability is the foundation stone.

Young people who experience stable placements providing good-quality care are far more likely to succeed educationally, to be in work, to settle in and manage their accommodation after leaving care, to feel better about themselves and to achieve satisfactory social integration into adulthood than young people who have experienced further movement and disruption during their time in care. With stability comes the security as well as the time for children to develop those all-important secure attachments, but much of that is undermined by frequent and disruptive moves, which are too often a feature of a child’s experience in care. As one year 8 child in care put it:

“What was the point in trying to please people, because you would just get moved on again?”

Children need and want a sense of belonging, of family, to feel reciprocal emotional warmth and to have someone who loves them unconditionally and believes in them.

It is true that in recent years there has been a small drop in the number of looked-after children with three or more placements during the year, but there is still a long way to go. We are short of about 10,000 foster carers. Given that foster placements make up about three quarters of all care placements, and given that in 2010 the number of looked-after children stood at 64,400—up 6% on 2009—a relentless recruitment and retention drive for foster carers remains crucial if we are to increase the prospect of providing every child with the right placement, rather than providing the right child for the placement.

However, foster carers are only part of the stability equation. The recruitment and retention of social workers continues to cause concern, which is the driving force behind the Government’s new “step up to social work” scheme. With a high staff churn rate comes more instability for the child. That is not new. Lord Laming, Moira Gibb and, most recently, Eileen Munro have produced reports in the last few years that pinpoint the tick-box culture that has spread its tentacles across social work and has sapped the morale and professional judgment of social workers. Eileen Munro hit the nail on the head when she said:

“Compliance with regulation and rules often drives professional practice more than sound judgment drawn from freed up social workers spending meaningful time interacting and building a trusting relationship with children, young people and families.”

As the Minister has said previously, taking a child into care is not a science but a subjective judgment. To be able to make that and other judgments correctly requires experience, consistency, and the time and space that make it possible to really understand the needs of a particular child. A change of social worker every five minutes will not lead to good child-focused decisions. But it does not have to be that way.

I am conducting a cross-party inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children, with the welcome support of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and Lord Listowel. A few weeks ago we visited Hackney children’s services to observe the way in which children’s social care in the borough had undergone a complete shift in the culture of practice and management by reclaiming social work through the establishment of social work units. There are teams consisting of a social worker, a family therapist, a children’s practitioner, a unit co-ordinator who takes all the red tape out of the hands of the social worker, and a consultant social worker who, under the old system, would have gone into management and had little or no contact with children of families, but is now using his or her experience on the front line.

The results have been dramatic. We have seen a reduction in the number of looked-after children from 470 to 270, a reduction in the number of agency staff from 50% to just 7%, a 50% reduction in sickness levels, a 5% reduction in overall costs, high levels of morale, and a strong increase in academic achievement among the children in the care of those teams. That example of best practice shows what is possible at a lower cost. Other local authorities have shown an interest in copying the model, but let us make sure that they all know about it. The Government have rightly embarked on a trial of flexible assessment time scales enabling social workers to exercise their professional judgment more effectively, and I note that Hackney council is among those taking part.

Despite those welcome initiatives, the lines of accountability in local authorities remain cluttered, blurred and confusing. Local safeguarding children boards, directors of children’s services, children’s trusts, children in care councils, virtual school heads, corporate parenting boards, independent reviewing officers and others are all there to champion the voice of the vulnerable child, but, as Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, will confirm, many children in care feel that their voices are lost in the myriad management decisions being made in their name. The problem needs to be sorted out. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to look formally into how the voice of children in care can be better and more clearly represented, so that all who act as corporate parents have them constantly at the forefront of their thoughts, words and deeds.

I mentioned my current inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children. I do not want to pre-empt its outcome, but the very fact of its existence demonstrates the central role that education plays in improving outcomes for children in care. Evidence that the inquiry has taken from young people in or leaving care suggests strongly that when they have had a stable educational experience not only are their prospects of future employability and independent living greatly enhanced, but their self-esteem, confidence and belief in themselves are significantly boosted. That is why I am reassured by the Government’s guarantees that all looked-after children will receive the pupil premium, and that that additional money will be attached—metaphorically speaking—to all children wherever their education is taking place. However, it would be remiss of me not to add a further plea to my hon. Friend the Minister. If it is right that the personal education allowance is to be rolled into the pupil premium, I urge him to make robust representations to his ministerial colleagues in the Department and the Treasury and to put to them the compelling case for looked-after children to receive an additional sum—a pupil premium-plus, as it were—to reflect their often acute problems, and therefore their heightened need for one-to-one support, psychological input such as cognitive behavioural therapy and other specific interventions relevant to ensuring their prospects at school are not compromised in any way by their looked-after status.

Good quality support does reap rewards. We need only look at the achievements of the Horizon centre in Ealing, which was opened by the Minister and which I recently visited. Through offering young people in and leaving care a safe space where they can get financial, emotional and psychological support, and education and training, the centre has helped to increase the number of children in Ealing borough going to university from 7% to almost 20%. It is an example to others that the transition from care into independence can be successful with the right level and length of support. The so-called cliff-edge that many children leaving care face needs to become a thing of the past, and be replaced by an appropriate and incremental release of support backed up by a safety net when needed, something their peers—who on average do not now leave home until the age of 25—often take for granted, me included. Why should looked-after children be any different?

If time had allowed, I would have wanted to cover much more ground, but before giving the Minister his opportunity to reply, there are four specific issues I want him to respond to in detail, if not today, then at a later date. First, we need to widen the range and choice of care. At present, about 14% of looked-after children are in a residential setting. That may be too high, or it may be too low; I simply do not know. Yet in Denmark and Germany more than half of looked-after children are in residential care. Why the huge difference? Is residential care in our country now seen as a placement of last resort? As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, there is scope for seeing whether a greater use of children’s homes is appropriate. The Select Committee report on looked-after children to which I have referred stated that

“the potential of the residential sector to offer high quality, stable placements for a minority of young people is too often dismissed. With enforcement of higher standards, greater investment in skills, and a reconsideration of the theoretical basis for residential care, we believe that it could make a significant contribution to good quality placement choice for young people.”

Indeed, the New Economics Foundation report, “A False Economy”, estimated that for every pound invested in providing an appropriate residential placement leading to good outcomes, a return of between £4 and £7 was created for the economy. With the continued shortage of foster carers and the hit-and-miss aspect of matching children to the right placement still prevalent, I invite the Minister to consider seriously the case for a full and proper national review of residential care, to ensure we can be confident that we are offering children the right placement for them, not simply the only placement available.

Secondly, on looked-after children in custody, I urge the Minister to look urgently at ending the continuing and unjustified anomaly whereby, unlike a child placed under a care order, a looked-after child who was voluntary accommodated prior to custody loses their looked-after status on entering custody and therefore the support of their social worker and other key professionals. I know that people’s minds have been on prisons for another reason today, but this is a serious issue that merits action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister spoke in favour of putting this discrepancy right during the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, so I hope that now he is in a position to do something about it, he will do so.

Thirdly, I echo the words of Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, who has called for the prioritising of children’s cases in court above all other family law proceedings, especially judicial decisions on placement in care and adoption. I am aware that there is currently a review of all aspects of family law, so I hope this plea from our most senior family judge does not go unheeded.

Fourthly, more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being looked after by local authorities, but there continue to be concerns about their access to fundamental services such as education, as well as their vulnerability to trafficking. I know the Minister is vexed by this issue and trust he will look into it closely.

I do not doubt that this Government and all previous Governments of whatever political hue have been, and are, determined to improve outcomes for children in care. So am I. With the tightening of purse-strings, the temptation for some will be to continue on a course of crisis management. My message to the Government, local authorities and all those who work with children in care is this: “Be bold, be smart and, above all, show you really care.”

As is conventional, I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) on securing this debate on a vital subject that is too little aired in this House. I also congratulate him on one of the best-informed Adjournment debate speeches that I have heard in this place. The quality of his speech was not surprising. I am something of an amateur on this subject compared with him, because he has vast experience. As he said, he is no stranger to the experiences of looked-after children; I know that he grew up with many of the prolific number of children whom his parents fostered over a period of 30 years and with his adopted siblings. He understands first hand the challenges that they face and he is leading a cross-party inquiry into their outcomes, as he mentioned. My hon. Friend’s choice of subject comes as no surprise, and I am grateful to him for raising it.

I am aware of the time limitations, so if I do not reach the end of my speech, I will be happy to provide my hon. Friend with an annotated version of it and also respond to the additional points that he has raised specifically.

It is absolutely right to keep the outcomes of looked-after children firmly in sight. My hon. Friend has reminded us of some of the horrific statistics and I agree that they are completely unacceptable. There has been a modest improvement in some outcomes, including attainment, but it is not nearly good enough, as a chasm still exists, as he mentioned. There are no quick fixes in this area. A top-down approach has not produced the results that we all desire. However, the approaches that he spoke about—improving accountability, trusting professionals and sharing best practice—offer the hope of such results.

It is absolutely right that central and local government listen very hard to the voices of looked-after children and those who have left the care system. As my hon. Friend kindly said, since becoming a Minister—and indeed before—I have placed great importance on finding ways in which we can sharpen accountability, rather than tick-box compliance, and on ensuring that we take this subject much more seriously. For example, in partnership with the children’s rights director and A National Voice, we are supporting quarterly meetings of the chairmen of children in care councils, and I have enjoyed those meetings thus far. I have also set up reference groups with foster children, with Roger Morgan, on a quarterly basis and a further group comprising young people who have been through the care system. They have expert first-hand experiences and are not shy in coming forward with their invaluable views.

We want to see the children in care councils drive local change by helping looked-after children to ask challenging questions of local authorities about the services they provide. That is one way in which we hope to bring best practice to all local authorities—my hon. Friend mentioned that that is crucial. Foster carers are the bedrock of the care system. We need to listen to them, and be clear about what they can expect and what is expected of them. The charter for foster carers that we are developing is intended to bring that clarity in an accessible way, and I look forward to launching it in just a few weeks’ time.

My hon. Friend rightly said that early intervention is key. I agree that the case for it is compelling. If we are to provide cost-effective services in the long term, early intervention must be a top priority. The evidence shows that early interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy and multi-dimensional treatment foster care, work, even where children already have very serious emotional needs. Properly targeted, such programmes can make a real difference. According to current audit data, 95% of young people on multi-systemic therapy programmes for children on the “edge of care” remain at home at the end of the intervention. For children in care, local authorities can save on an expensive residential placement later by investing in multi-dimensional treatment foster care at the right time. When faced with difficult choices about funding, it is natural to focus on the immediate priorities, such as, of course, keeping children safe. It is right to do so, but too often education for looked-after children has then been an afterthought, and that is a false economy.

Like any good parent, the best local authorities have high aspirations for the children they look after. The virtual school head model, embraced by almost all local authorities, has done much to emphasise that education for looked-after children and care leavers is absolutely vital. If local authorities act as corporate parents to looked-after children, then perhaps central Government are the “corporate grandparent”. In that capacity, we have extended the pupil premium to include looked-after children, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. The premium is not the same as the personal education allowances that local authorities provide to support education in its broadest sense. The pupil premium is about focusing hard on raising attainment through extra one-to-one tuition, and it will benefit all children who have been looked after for six months. The overall funding for the pupil premium will go up from £625 million in 2011-12 to £2.5 billion in 2014-15 and the looked-after children premium will rise in line with increases to the deprivation premium.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s general argument that more support needs to be given to those children who have been looked after on a voluntary basis and who enter custody. They can no longer be looked after when they receive a custodial sentence, but I accept that they will be as vulnerable and will have the same range of needs as any other young person from care while in custody. We do not propose to amend primary legislation so that those children retain their looked-after status, as that would not fit with the coalition Government’s view about setting new burdens on local authorities. However, from April 2011 revised regulations and guidance will include explicit requirements on local authorities to minimise offending by looked-after children. Most importantly, they say that whenever a child loses their looked-after status as a result of going into custody, the local authority must appoint a representative to visit them.

The purpose of those visits will be to meet the young person, assess their needs and make recommendations to the local authority that had been responsible for their care about how best to respond to their needs in future. Where necessary, local authority children’s services will have to be involved in release planning so that clear arrangements are in place to support the child and their family in the community on their release. For some young people, that will mean being looked after again. So, in future, when a young person who is looked after by the local authority is given a custodial sentence, the authority’s responsibility will not stop at the gate of the secure training centre or the young offenders institute. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend mentioned unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who have the same needs as any other looked-after child but face particular challenges. We have been explicit in our care planning statutory guidance to local authorities that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have the same entitlements to support as all other looked-after children. In recognition of that principle, our revised suite of statutory guidance on care planning and transition from care goes much further than previous guidance in setting out how local authorities should support that especially vulnerable group of young people.

I recognise that the children placed in residential care are among the most vulnerable of all looked-after children. My hon. Friend also raised this issue. Children are often placed in children’s homes only after other arrangements for their care have broken down, and they might find themselves living many miles from their home community. In September, as part of a wider review of all departmental contracts, I decided to cancel the contract awarded to Tribal under the previous Government to support and challenge children’s homes. I took the view that, in the current financial climate, contracting out that important work did not represent the best use of available resources. Instead, I have instigated a new programme of work, led by my Department, to support and challenge children’s homes to identify the challenges faced by the residential sector in order to promote much-improved outcomes for looked-after children in residential care and to see whether it could be used more extensively.

That programme will support children’s homes in learning from the best practice that certainly exists and in developing approaches to supporting children in their care, so that residential care staff understand and are able to use interventions based on solid research evidence about how best to respond to children’s needs in order to nurture them, promote stable care and improve their educational attainment. The programme has already embarked on a wide range of activities, including piloting learning sets for residential care staff in several regions. My staff have also scheduled a programme of visits to regions with high numbers of children’s homes to meet social workers, the staff of children’s homes and a wide range of others to understand their views about the support required by children’s homes. I hope to report on some of that work and research in due course. Of course, that will include consultation with those children, which is so important, as my hon. Friend has said.

Our commitment to raising the quality of residential care has been demonstrated by the overhauling of the national minimum standards for children’s homes. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as some assurance. I agree that it is extremely important that local authorities learn from each other in order to improve their services. I am concerned that there is not more sharing of knowledge and effective practice. Why is it, for example, that in one local authority no care leavers go to university whereas another manages to support no fewer than 41? The Department’s streamlined regulations and statutory guidance on care planning and leaving care should help as they are more coherent, rooted in best local practice and provide a clear framework for achieving greater consistency. My hon. Friend mentioned some very good examples of best practice in Hackney and Ealing with which I am familiar and which Eileen Munro is certainly taking on in her review. However, that will not be sufficient on its own and we are therefore working with local government colleagues on the development of a sector-led improvement support system.

Central to improved outcomes is the ability of social workers to do their job. We need confident, autonomous professionals who spend more time with children and less time on over-complex recording systems. That is at the heart of the Munro review, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, and is why we recently announced the expansion of social work practices. Placement stability and high-quality care planning, particularly—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).