I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Munro Report and its implications for child protection.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead the debate, as well as by the number of hon. Members who wish to speak in it. I would like to set out my stall, and although I am supposed to make a winding-up speech, I am keen that we hear from Back Benchers, so I shall keep that to a minimum.
Today is significant for two reasons. First, this is the only Government-led debate on child protection in Government time that I can recall in my 14 years in the House. The debate is therefore long overdue and it reflects the importance that I and my fellow Ministers attach to child protection. It is an enormous privilege to lead the debate and I look forward to what I am sure will be a constructive discussion, as I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House hold passionate and well-informed views about the subject.
The second significance is that this week is the first anniversary of the launch of the Munro review of child protection. Hon. Members will remember that this was the first review that was established by the Department for Education. It was launched on 10 June 2010, and that underlined the fact that getting child protection right is an enormous priority for the Government. I know we all share that as a priority, so let me pass on my thanks to all hon. Members, leading organisations in the sector, the child protection work force and the wider public, including children and young people themselves, who contributed in some way to Professor Munro’s report. Their experience, insights and expertise have helped make it a well-informed and widely welcomed report.
We should not forget that the vast majority of our children enjoy a safe and happy childhood, but even now too many still do not. Some of their names are sadly familiar—Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Khyra Ishaq—but many more are not. Whether we hear about a case in the media or it goes unnoticed by the public, there is always an individual tragedy at its centre. It is those individual tragedies that have so often been the triggers for different reviews and inquiries on child protection over many years. Every one of those reviews has resulted in calls for action, and in response legislation has been passed, rulebooks have been expanded, more procedures and processes have been introduced and structures have been restructured.
However, the fundamental problems have not gone away. Despite the very best of intentions, our hard-working, dedicated social workers, foster carers and other front-line professionals are too often still unable to make the difference that they want and need to make for vulnerable children and families. Day in, day out, they are up against a system that too often simply does not help them to do their best for children.
From the start we wanted the Munro review of child protection to be different. That is why, unlike its predecessors, it was commissioned not as a knee-jerk response to a specific tragedy that had hit the headlines; that is why it is recommending that regulation and prescription are reduced rather than increased—it is not just another case of adding a few hundred more pages to the “Working Together” guidance; and, most importantly, that is why the review has focused on the child rather than the system. Professor Munro’s final report, “A child centred-system”, is wide ranging. It looks not only at the problems, but at the underlying environment that allows, and sometimes inadvertently encourages, such problems to occur. The review takes an holistic approach to child protection and bases its proposals on evidence and experience.
The report has been widely welcomed, as I said. The College of Social Work welcomed it as a “huge step forward”. Nushra Mansuri of the British Association of Social Workers described it as
“Music to the profession’s ears”.
The Children’s Commissioner praised its emphasis on the child’s right to protection. I am delighted that it has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air for all those hard-working professionals involved in child protection.
For that success, I have first and foremost to thank Professor Eileen Munro for her expert insight and analysis and the open and collaborative approach she has taken to the review over the past 12 months. I also pay tribute to the reference group that supported her so closely: Melanie Adegbite, District Judge Nick Crichton, Marion Davis, Avril Head, Professor Corinne May-Chahal, Lucy Sofocleous, Dr Sheila Shribman, Daniel Defoe, Professor Sue White, Martin Narey and the great many officials from the Department for Education and beyond who worked tirelessly over the past 12 months. I know that Professor Munro has hugely valued the support, expertise and different perspectives of all members of the reference group.
The report builds on previous reforms and the work of eminent experts such as Lord Laming, and I pay tribute also to the enormous contribution he has made in this area over so many years. This really is not about criticising previous, well-intentioned efforts to improve the system, but about making the time and space to understand why those efforts did not always work as well as they were intended to and should have done, learning from that to bring about long-term, sustainable reform in the future.
Eleven years, three months and 17 days since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié I still find myself asking whether the ever more complex systems that were created have actually made children safer now than they were then. Has the enormous additional amount of legislation, regulation and guidance made that much of a difference where it really matters? I fear that the answer may be no. Has, in fact, the child protection system in this country become rather more about protecting the system than about protecting the children whom the professionals went into their professions to protect? That is why it is now of the utmost importance that we restore public confidence in child protection, and restore confidence in the social worker profession and others—not least through those professions themselves.
The Munro review report seeks to do exactly that. Its fundamental analysis is that the system has become too focused on compliance and procedures and has lost its focus on the needs and experience of children themselves. That interest has occurred not just since the election, however; we started the process when, in opposition, I chaired a commission on children’s social workers and we produced the “No More Blame Game” report back in 2007, with contributions from all parties, followed by our policy paper “Back to the Front Line”, produced before last year’s election.
Professor Munro makes 15 recommendations for reform. She makes it clear—and I agree—that they need to be looked at in the round, because they are interrelated and impact on the system as a whole. I shall go through them briefly, and in doing so I start by noting that this is an excellent report with which I find little to disagree.
The first recommendation is to revise the statutory guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, and the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families to distinguish essential rules from guidance that informs professional judgment, because, although we need rules it is important that they are the right ones.
The second recommendation is that the inspection framework examines the effectiveness of the contributions of all local services—including health, education, police, probation and the justice system—to the protection of children.
The third recommendation is that the inspection framework examines the child’s journey from needing to receiving help, explores how the rights, wishes, feelings and experiences of children and young people inform and shape the provision of services, and looks at the effectiveness of the help provided to children, young people and their families. Too often, do we not hear that, actually, nobody really listened to the child at the centre of a case? We need inspection to look across all the relevant agencies and to focus on the things that really matter: outcomes for children and young people.
The fourth recommendation is that local authorities and their partners use a combination of nationally collected and locally published performance information to help benchmark performance, to facilitate improvement and to promote accountability. It is crucial that performance information is not treated as an unambiguous measure of good or bad performance, as performance indicators tend to be, because it is important that performance data are used intelligently to drive improvement in practice.
The fifth recommendation is that the existing statutory requirement for local safeguarding children boards to produce and publish an annual report for the local children’s trust board are amended to require its submission instead to the chief executive and the leader of the council.
The sixth recommendation is that “Working Together to Safeguard Children” is amended to state that, when monitoring and evaluating local arrangements, LSCBs should, taking account of local need, include an assessment of the effectiveness of the help being provided to children and families, and the effectiveness of multi-agency training to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people. Local safeguarding children boards play a vital role, and I see a much enhanced future for them as the linchpin of how we get this right.
The seventh recommendation is that local authorities give due consideration to protecting the discrete roles and responsibilities of a director of children’s services and a lead member for children’s services before allocating any additional functions to individuals occupying such roles. We know that that is an important concern, and it has come up in the House recently.
The eighth recommendation is that the Government work jointly with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of General Practitioners, local authorities and others to research the impact of health reorganisation on effective partnership arrangements and the ability to provide effective help for children who are suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. I shall discuss that point further, but the implementation board, which will put forward these reforms, is heavily weighted—over-weighted in fact—towards health, and it is important that it should be.
The ninth recommendation is that LSCBs use systems methodology when undertaking serious case reviews with accredited, skilled and independent reviewers and have a stronger focus on disseminating learning nationally. Ofsted’s evaluation of SCRs should end, because serious case reviews need to be about learning rather than about processes or the story of a case; they need to be about supporting analysis, beyond identifying what happened, in order to explain why it happened. They should not be all about blaming people, because blaming individuals for errors and mistakes is unhelpful and counter-productive. Rather than having a blame culture where people try to conceal mistakes, surely it is better for people to work together to identify errors early so that they can be managed or minimised, often through the redesign of local systems. That is not to say that people should go without any repercussions when things have gone wrong, but simply wagging the finger of blame has clouded our judgment too much in the past. The name of the report that we produced in 2007—“No More Blame Game”—is as appropriate now as it was then.
I feel that I should apologise for interrupting the Minister, because he is giving a very good exposition of what is in the report. However, will he deal at this point with the issue of Ofsted not looking at serious case reviews in future? I find that slightly puzzling, and I do not understand the basis for it. In my view, Ofsted’s role is not allocating blame but assessing whether it is an adequate case review that properly describes what went on.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have had reservations for some time about the way in which serious case reviews are produced, read and inspected. This area was clearly highlighted in the report, and the implementation group will need to do a lot more work to see how we get to where we want to be. Ofsted itself will say that evaluating serious case reviews is not the best use of its time and resources.
In the past, we have seen questionable gradings of some serious case reviews. We should be using serious case reviews as serious learning tools. Before the baby Peter case, I did not realise that serious case reviews were not available in their full form to every other director of children’s services and other such relevant people around the country so that they could read what had happened in a certain case in a certain authority, say, “Gosh, hold on a minute—could that happen here?”, and be alert to the problems that had happened elsewhere to see whether they needed to do things locally to ensure that they did not happen there. However, serious case reviews in their full form are available only to a very small number of people.
There have been question marks over the consistency of the quality of serious case reviews, who is commissioned to carry them out, who is controlling the quality of the people producing them, and, above all, who is bringing together the learning expertise and learning points to see whether they have generic applications for people up and down the country. That is not happening as a result of the way in which Ofsted does it, with the very best of intentions. We need to get to a place where a serious case review is not about learning from things that went wrong in a particular case but learning from things that went wrong in the system and applying that to the system elsewhere. We also need to ensure that the people producing serious case reviews produce things of a sufficiently high quality. We have a lot of work to do because the current situation is not sustainable and serious case reviews are not producing what we need them to produce.
Does the Minister accept that we have a media who are obsessed with the blame game? They will attack social workers for not intervening soon enough, and perhaps the following day attack them for wrecking families and breaking up family units.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He might have heard me say on many previous occasions that social workers, and other professionals, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Certain newspapers will carry headlines saying, “Those terrible, incompetent social workers were to blame—they should have intervened earlier and taken that child into care.” Two weeks later, they are saying that those terrible, incompetent social workers are too busy snatching children from good, decent, middle-class families and should be ashamed of it. Social workers cannot win. To get a better system we have to restore the confidence of the public in our child protection system. A key part of that is to get the media to understand more what the job of child protection is all about, and not to be so swift to wag the finger of blame but to help in the explanation and understanding of what went wrong and look to want to bring about solutions jointly, because that is in all our best interests. We are not in that position yet. Things are improving, but we have a long way to go.
In the report, Professor Munro expresses how concerned people in the profession are about the Minister’s decision to make overviews of serious case reviews available, rather than simply the executive summaries. Many people feel that that reduces the capacity of such reviews to aid learning because it makes people more defensive. It seems that the priority is wrong. I will expand on my views with regard to Ofsted later. Does the Minister accept the concerns of Professor Munro and others who fed into the review about the negative consequences of making the overviews of serious case reviews widely known?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Actually, Professor Munro supports the publication of full serious case reviews. She would much rather support the publication of a better form of serious case review, which is what we need to get to.
Professor Munro made the right decision to make serious case reviews open and accessible subject to three criteria: first, that the anonymity of the characters involved is maintained; secondly, that there is appropriate redaction where information would intrude on private details; and, thirdly, that it will not go ahead if a case can be made that publication in full would be detrimental to the welfare of a surviving child or sibling. With those considerations, I think it is absolutely right that we should all have access to those reports as a learning exercise.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying, as others have, that people might be less prepared to co-operate with such reviews, he is wrong, because it is in all our interests to ensure that the fullest information possible is in the public domain so that it can be assessed and the lessons learned. The people who will benefit most from the publication in full of serious case review overview reports are social workers, for the very reason set out by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who is no longer here: when there is a tragic incident, it is always the social workers what done it. When one reads the full details, one finds that in some cases the police were not too clever or perhaps there were serious shortcomings with the GP, the school or various other agencies. However, it is always social workers who are on the front line. It is only by seeing the full picture that one can get an understanding of what was the weak link in the chain or where the co-operation between agencies that is needed did not happen properly. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis.
Already, a lot of learning has come from the serious case reviews that have been published in full in Haringey and on the Khyra Ishaq case in Birmingham. All serious case reviews published after 10 June 2010—we have not had one yet—are obliged to follow the new publication process.
My hon. Friend has great expertise in family law and in this matter, and she is absolutely right. Serious case reviews should reveal not just the failures and the bad things, but good practice so that we can learn from where things went right. Of course, we only ever read about the stories that go wrong in the papers. The media are not interested in the plane that lands safely. People do not really understand social work. It is easily caricatured, and that happens even in the soap operas that we see on our screens. Our report in 2007 made the not entirely flippant suggestion that there should be a soap based on social workers to give the public a better understanding of the exceedingly complicated job that they do. Day in and day out, they have to exercise the judgment of Solomon in deciding whether children should be taken into care or left with the family.
May I remind the Minister that these are devolved matters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Learning, experience and good value have been mentioned. Does he intend to make the devolved Administrations in the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland aware of the 15 recommendations in the Munro report? I think it is good to exchange information for the benefit of parts of the United Kingdom that might not have experienced what has happened in England and Wales.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There has been some correspondence between Professor Munro and the devolved Assemblies, and I have been trying for some time to meet my counterpart in Northern Ireland to go through such matters with him or her, whoever it was on either side of the elections. I am keen to go and hold conversations with our counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so that they can hear what we are doing, but also so that I can hear what they are doing. There are different ways of working in those areas.
Like the Minister, and I think everyone here, I welcome the Munro report. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made a point about the status of social workers, how they appear in public and how the newspapers denigrate them. There is also the problem of young social workers who are just out of university and newly trained and qualified having enormous difficulty in getting their first job, because they lack experience. Particularly in areas of inner-city Britain such as the one that I represent, there is great difficulty in retaining social workers because of housing difficulties and because of the enormous pressure and case loads that they face in fast-changing, high-turnover communities. It is not surprising that many do not stay on. I am sure the Minister is well aware that that turnover debilitates the entire service.
I agree, and we could have a debate just about the list of matters that the hon. Gentleman mentions, most of which are covered in the Munro report. The social work profession in this country has an awful lot of good people who do not get recognised and some poor people who need to be weeded out. In the past, people have felt frustrated and undermined, and the media onslaught against them has been completely demoralising. They have therefore left their jobs or taken early retirement, because the pressure has been too much for them. Who would want to go into a job like that, after all the publicity about baby P and other cases? Who would want to put themselves in the firing line by taking a job in which they try to do their best, but blame is pointed at them because they happen to be a social worker, even though they might be doing a good job?
We have problems at both ends. We need to retain and encourage good social workers and ensure that they can do their job as efficiently as possible, and we also need to ensure that the people coming into the profession—there has been a big rise in applications for social work degrees recently—are the right people. They need to have the necessary calibre and dedication and be there for the right reasons, and we need them to stay the course. That is part of the work that the Social Work Reform Board is doing and part of the reason why the College of Social Work is so important. Having a chief social worker, which is the 15th recommendation in the report, will help to raise the game. It will raise the profile and status of the profession, and it will give people in it the feeling of being valued. Those are important matters.
The Minister will be glad to know that the new Minister in Northern Ireland is a colleague from my party, and that the new Northern Ireland Ministers have hit the ground running. I assume the situation is the same in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that he will find an open door from the Minister in Northern Ireland, and probably from those elsewhere in the UK.
When the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families looked into the training of social workers in the last Parliament, it found that they could find themselves dealing with the most acute and difficult children’s cases having had placements in their training that did not involve children’s social work at all. They went from having no experience at all to the front line. Has the Minister been able to do anything about that yet, and if not will he tell the House what he will do about it?
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education again makes a very good point and he has a good deal of expertise in this matter. It is completely self-defeating for newly recruited social workers to be turfed in at the deep end on tier 3 or 4 cases—serious cases—with little experience or expertise. How demoralising is that, let alone the danger it poses for the vulnerable children who need to have the appropriate level of support?
A number of things need to be done and they are being done. We need to ensure that we have the right calibre of people coming out of universities with degrees in social work. In the first year after their qualification, they should be given on-the-job guidance and training, preferably by people with great expertise. They should be eased into jobs at an appropriate rate in appropriate circumstances. My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Virtually every week I speak to social workers and visit children’s services departments—I make a point of seeing social workers on the front line—but I have met too many who are given challenges for which they are not appropriately equipped at that stage.
I should like to make progress now because I am keen for other hon. Members to contribute and I have a few more points to make. I got up to recommendation 10—I do not know why recommendation 9 brought about the pause that it did. Recommendation 10 is that the Government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to secure the sufficient provision of local early help services for children, young people and families. That is very appropriate to the early intervention work that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has been doing for the Department.
Recommendation 11 is that the social work reform board’s professional capabilities framework should incorporate the capabilities necessary for child and family social work. That is precisely the point that the Chairman of the Education Committee just raised. That framework should explicitly inform social work qualification training, postgraduate professional development and performance appraisal.
Recommendation 12 is that employers and higher education institutions should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work, including through better quality placements.
Recommendation 13 is that local authorities and their partners should start an ongoing process to review and redesign the ways in which child and family social work is delivered.
Recommendation 14—I am almost there without taking another intervention—is that local authorities should designate a principal child and family social worker who can report the views and experiences of the front line to all levels of management. I have too often seen good social workers, who have built up good reputations and who are really good hands-on, get promoted, become managers and get stuck behind a desk. In that way, we lose front-line expertise. Some models, such as the one in Hackney, mean that people can gain seniority within their profession but not lose contact with people at the sharp end and the families that they entered the profession to help.
The 15th and final recommendation is that a chief social worker should be created to advise the Government and to bring the voice of the profession to policy. That was discussed recently in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill, and it was a recommendation of my report back in 2007.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The first priority—this is the most desirable outcome for any family who find themselves on the child protection radar of a children’s services department, and who become a social worker’s focus of attention—is keeping that family together. We should ensure that where possible, the child can be kept with that family. The phrase “fostering a family”, which has been used before, means ensuring that parents have the parenting skills and that it is safe for the child to stay with them. Only when leaving a child with a family is deemed unsafe should we consider taking them into care. Of course, the work done in the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions—the projects that deal with families with multiple problems—aims to ensure that parents have the tools and the confidence to parent properly. In too many families in this country, there is a serious problem with the standard of parenting. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made that point very clearly in the report that he produced for the Department for Education.
I apologise for being late—I was on the Finance (No. 3) Bill Committee, which has just finished.
The Minister’s last point—on whether a family should be kept together and at what stage a child is taken into care—gets to the nub of child protection issues. I hope he agrees that the threshold for making, and the timing of, such decisions bears constant review and analysis.
The hon. Gentleman is right. An understandable result of what happened with baby P is that social workers have become more risk averse. If it is a marginal decision, they might take the child into care just in case, whereas if they have the time, space and appropriate tools and applications to deal with that family, it might be possible to keep it together rather than break it up.
I have set out Professor Munro’s recommendations for reform. Rightly, they address every aspect of the system. Rightly, they place the child at the centre. And rightly, they have as a basic principle the importance of placing trust in skilled professionals at the front line. It is of course the case that there are vulnerable children outside the immediate child protection system, and we need to improve radically how they are supported and make sure that they have a voice.
One of the main groups of such vulnerable children, for which I have responsibility, is of course children in care. With more than 64,000 children in care at the moment, we need to improve all aspects of their lives, including placement stability, education, health and the transition to adulthood, which are all priorities for Government and the wider sector. If we get Munro’s proposals right, there will be benefits for all those involved in children’s social care, not just those at the acute end of child protection.
From 1 April, we introduced a new statutory framework for looked-after children, which is far more streamlined, coherent and clear about the “must dos” for local authorities. In particular, we have brought together the care planning regulations and guidance into one volume, which should ultimately help councils put together better care plans. Less is often more. We have also strengthened the role of independent reviewing officers so they can challenge poor care plans, and make sure children’s voices are at the heart of all reviews. We have given clear steers in the revised fostering guidance about how local authorities should support foster carers and children better. The revised transition guidance makes it clear that young people should leave care only when they are ready and have a strong support package in place.
I have also written to every local authority about foster carers being encouraged to treat foster children in their care no differently from their own children. In March, I launched the foster carers’ charter, which sets out clear principles for the support that should be available, what foster carers can expect and what foster children can expect of their carers.
I also launched earlier this year the Tell Tim website so that carers and, in particular, children and young people in care can let me—as the Minister responsible—know directly what they think is working well, what improvements they think need to be made or what is going wrong. I have also set up reference groups so that I can hear from foster children, care leavers, adopted children and children living in residential homes. Just this week, I met my regular group of young people who have left the care system, who recount their often moving and relevant experiences of what is going wrong in the system. We could all learn a lot if we spent more time with the children who are still being failed because, through no fault of their own, they have become part of the care system.
As hon. Members will be aware, some children and young people—including young runaways—become victims of sexual exploitation. The report published by Barnardo’s in January, “Puppet on a String”, highlighted the scale and severity of this horrific abuse. I pay tribute to Barnardo’s work and expertise in this area and I especially congratulate Anne Marie Carrie for hitting the ground running in her first few months at the helm of Barnardo’s.
The Government are determined to do everything possible to stamp out this abuse and safeguard vulnerable children and young people. Recent events brought to light in the midlands through Operation Retriever and the other ongoing police investigations underline the extent of this insidious abuse. As the lead Minister in this area, I have been urgently considering, with my colleagues at the Home Office, Barnardo’s and other national and local partners, what further action should be taken. The Government are now committed to working with partners to develop over the summer an action plan to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation. This will build on existing guidance and our developing understanding of this dreadful abuse, including through local agencies’ work around the country. It will include work on effective prevention strategies, identifying those at risk of sexual exploitation, supporting victims, and taking robust action against perpetrators.
Another area where excessive central prescription has had unintended consequences, leading to risk aversion rather than risk management, is in vetting and barring. The Government believe that children will be better protected if we move away from unnecessary and top-down bureaucracy towards more responsible decision making at a local level. It is vital to balance the need to protect the vulnerable against the need to respect individuals’ freedoms, and not to create a system that imposes unnecessary burdens on individuals or organisations. That is why the Government undertook a review of the barring and criminal records regimes in order to scale them back to common-sense levels. We need to get away from a system that has unintentionally driven a further wedge between children growing up and well-meaning adults who come forward genuinely to offer their time to volunteer and to work with young people. They have been deterred from doing so by all the regulation.
I spoke earlier about the action we were taking to improve the lives and prospects of children in care. For many of those children, adoption will be the most appropriate outcome, which is why in February I issued new guidance with a call to arms to local authorities to re-energise their efforts on adoption and improve front-line practice. This refreshed and improved statutory guidance will be an important element in the Government’s programme of reform aimed at supporting adoption agencies in removing barriers to adoption, reducing delay and continually improving their adoption services.
My hon. Friend, who has great expertise particularly in dealing with young children and in the whole area of attachment, knows how important it is that a child growing up is able from an early age to bond with, and develop an attachment to, parents or carers. We know from all the statistics that young children who are unable to grow up safely with their own parents benefit from adoption, where appropriate, at an early stage. If we can find them an appropriate adoptive placement, their chances of growing up as normally and conventionally as if they were with their own parents are greatly heightened, and they will have a better chance of catching up with their peers who are lucky enough to be able to grow up with their parents, so she is absolutely right.
I welcome the tone that the Minister is taking in this debate. On adoption, may I ask him equally to adopt another approach—if that is not too many adoptions? It is enormously difficult to make the decision to place a child for adoption. It is a lifelong decision, and it is as important not to rush into it inappropriately as it is to make the decision to go for adoption. In reality, some of the biggest problems derive from other matters in the process, whether decision making in local authorities or decision making in the courts. I urge the Minister to consider those issues as well.
The hon. Lady is right and will know that we have been doing a lot of work on adoption. I have set up a ministerial advisory group with all sorts of people, and we have issued new guidance, as I said earlier. We need to balance timeliness with appropriateness to ensure that where it is clear—it is not always so—that an adoptive placement is the best way forward and in the best interests of the child, we get on with it.
There are, I have to say, some people who, usually because of excessive addiction to drugs and alcohol and a complete failure to rehabilitate, will never be able safely to bring up children in their care. I have sat in family courts and seen parents—usually single mothers— have their ninth, 10th or 11th child taken into the care system. If that parent’s situation has not improved, can we be sure that it will ever improve? Need we take that risk, and wait years while a child is kept in an abusive situation? Again, those decisions require the judgment of Solomon, which is why I will shortly be holding a round-table meeting with a group of judges from the family court, directors of children services and chairmen of adoption panels to consider how we can make the adoption process better, more efficient, more robust and fairer; to ensure that we are making the right decisions for the too many children who are left in the system and could benefit from adoption; and to ensure that we are not taking into adoption children for whom it is not appropriate. I know that there are concerns there as well.
Finally, we need to remember in our policies the particular needs of vulnerable young people and the fact that they have the same right to enjoy the rich experiences of growing up, the transition to adulthood and becoming valuable members of society as those lucky enough to be part of safe, loving and stable birth families of their own. I recognise that it is vital for the sensible policy put forward by Professor Munro to be backed up by proper investment. As my hon. Friends will be aware, the Government have already announced some funding to support work force development, but the real cost is the cost of failure. The current system needs fixing. Because it needs fixing, huge amounts of resource are wasted. One local authority that has been working with Professor Munro and the review team as a “journey authority” calculated that around 50% of its children’s social care workers’ time is wasted in nugatory activity that does not add to the quality of service or outcomes, which is something that the authority is now starting to recoup—a resounding endorsement of the need to eliminate unnecessary red tape if ever there was one.
Few things are more important than helping and protecting vulnerable children and young people. In our first year in government, we have shown in the wide range of actions that we have taken—on child protection, children in care, adoption, fostering and dealing with the sexual exploitation of children—that we are deeply committed to tackling these issues, and I am determined to ensure that we make progress. Sadly, we need to recognise that despite Government reforms and the hard work of professionals, tragedies will still happen. There are individuals who will harm children. We cannot eliminate that risk, but we can all work to help to reduce and manage it—indeed, we all have a duty to do so. Society is right to expect professionals to take responsibility and make the best judgments that they can in the best interests of children. Those judgments will not always be the right ones, but they need to have been made for the right reasons and on the best possible evidence.
This Government believe that we need to move towards a child protection system with less central prescription and interference, and in which we place greater trust and responsibility in skilled professionals on the front line. Professor Munro has provided us with a thorough analysis of the issues. It is now for the Government, working with the sector, to help to bring about sustainable reform. That is why I have established an implementation working group, drawing in expertise from local authority children’s services, the social work profession, education, police and the health service, to work with the Government to develop a response to Professor Munro’s recommendations by the summer recess. We are today publishing on the Department for Education website the first account of the group’s deliberations, which started at the end of last month.
I am delighted to hear that those other agencies are represented on the implementation group. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the group’s remit and how we can ensure that other Departments integrate with it, so that it is not just the social work profession that looks to respond to the Munro review?
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education makes a good point. The people serving on the group, whose names are published on the website, have been chosen not because they are the great and the good—although I am sure many of them are great and some of them are good—but because they are experienced practitioners with expertise in their particular areas. For example, we have on the group the chief safeguarding expert from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and a safeguarding expert from the NHS Confederation. We also have the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is the Minister responsible for public health, a senior headmistress of a secondary school, a senior headmistress of a primary school, a senior police officer with a long record in child protection, a real social worker from the front line, along with a Labour councillor from an authority with a good track record in child protection, and so on.
This is absolutely about getting all the right parts of the jigsaw together and trying to produce a system that, by working together from the same song sheet and with the same priorities and the Government’s backing, produces an environment that ensures that we can keep more of our children safer. Today’s debate—even though I have taken up rather too much of it, and more than I had intended—will help to inform the implementation group’s response. I very much look forward to my hon. Friends’ contributions this afternoon.
I echo the Minister’s welcome for the work of Professor Munro, and thank her and everyone involved in the production of the report. I also give the Government credit for commissioning this important piece of work. Unlike many other reports on social work, this review has not been produced in the immediate aftermath of a specific, much-publicised tragedy. It takes a holistic view of how we could protect the most vulnerable children in our society better. I also echo my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) in welcoming the tone of the Minister’s remarks today. We look forward to working constructively with the Government to take forward Professor Munro’s recommendations.
Protecting our most vulnerable children is crucial, difficult and emotionally charged work. Providing the most resilient environment in which to protect children is a responsibility that has challenged and exercised Governments of every hue for many years. I pay tribute to the many hundreds of social workers who, through their hard work, commitment and professionalism, literally save lives. Social workers know that theirs is often a thankless task. When they perform at the top of their game to improve lives for the better, safeguarding children from harm and assisting families to get back on to the right path, they rarely get bouquets or thanks. They do not expect to get even a mention in the local free paper. Their own satisfaction at having made a difference has to suffice. But they also know that should any of the multitude of their borderline decisions be proved, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been wrong, and should a tragedy then occur, they will be on the front page of every newspaper in the land and held to account for their decisions.
It is in that context that Professor Munro produced her report, and that the previous Government took many significant steps to support the social work profession and our children. It is also in that context that we all have a duty to speak up for the importance of the work that social workers do, and to recognise the knife-edge nature of much of their decision making in an imperfect world.
I shall also follow the Minister’s lead in thanking foster carers across the country for their invaluable work. I know from personal experience how vital their role is. I also welcome the measures to make the route to adoption a quicker one. As an adoptive parent myself, I know the importance of children being taken on by a new family as early as possible, once they have been identified as suitable for adoption.
This is not the first report on protecting children to call for a change in society’s attitudes towards and expectations of the social work profession. Nor is it the first to call for an approach that puts children at the heart of our thinking on this subject, but it is no less valuable or right to call for these things just because they have been spoken of before. We recognise that in this vital area, progress is always more easily made when there is a sense that all the parties involved are working together constructively and positively, and there is a great deal in the report that we are happy to support enthusiastically. It builds on many of the reforms that the previous Government embarked on, and endorses many of the structures that they implemented. It also builds on the work of the social work taskforce and the social work reform board, whose contribution the review warmly endorses.
I shall turn now to the specific recommendations in the review. In calling for a child-centred approach, it recognises that the needs and rights of the child, and the child’s involvement in and ownership of a process that might be happening at a confusing and frightening time in their lives, must be paramount. We absolutely support that idea, and recognise that children must feel that the interventions and decisions being made about their future should involve them and not just be a process that happens to them. We are pleased that the review recognises that we all owe a debt of gratitude to the firm foundations of reform laid down by the social work taskforce. Among many other reforms introduced by the Labour Government, the report recommends the protection of, and specifically cautions against the dilution of, the role of directors of children’s services. I shall return to that point later. The report also endorses the vital role of the College of Social Work in lifting standards and representing the profession internally within local authorities and more broadly across all parts of our society.
The report gives further support to local safeguarding children boards, and to the 10 principles of the assessment framework. We hope that, as recommended in the review, the position of chief social worker will be able to play a key role in promoting the interests of children through the improvement of the profile and professionalism of social work, and through influencing Government policy on behalf of children and the profession.
We will support any efforts that will improve the standing of social work. This includes its profile within the media and among the wider public. It includes helping to make social work a career of choice for talented graduates, helping to build the self-esteem of the social work profession and, within the House, recognising the debt we all owe to the profession for the work it does on behalf of our most vulnerable children and families.
My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier intervention on the Minister about the status of social workers, and I am sure he will have agreed with me. Does he also agree how important it is to have some sort of steer or directive for local government to take on newly qualified social workers and to provide them with the relevant training and entry into the profession? I observe huge cuts taking place in local government all over the country, as a result of which there are fewer new job opportunities for qualified social workers—and therein lies a problem 10, 15 or 20 years down the line.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem is not just 10 or 15 years down the line; it is more immediate. When we know that there are social work vacancies around the country, it seems bizarre that newly qualified people in this sector are finding it difficult to find work. Professor Munro’s recommendations on practice and assessment years at the early stages will make a significant difference—at least, I hope they will. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the considerable anecdotal evidence that newly qualified social workers are finding it difficult to find work. I hope that the proposed measures in the report will be followed through, as it is vital that people should choose to work in this area. As the Minister has said, we want to make social work an attractive career option for talented people leaving university, but if those people find it hard to find work as a social worker, that is going to become more difficult.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to support new young social workers freshly out of university would be to provide a better end-to-end network of support, taking into account what is already available in children’s centres and other therapeutic services that could be available in a package, which could help to provide the network of support that social workers desperately need?
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. The Munro review recognises the significant steps made in the direction of partnership working and some of the challenges, particularly in difficult financial circumstances. The report also deals with other innovations that might be needed to help achieve the hon. Lady’s suggestion in her valuable point.
The report’s recommendations on the education, training and continuous professional development of social workers are an important step forward. We entirely endorse the review’s commitment to the highest standards and consistency of education, the importance of the highest quality of practice placements and the new supported and assessed first year in practice, acting as the final stage of becoming a fully practising social worker. We recognise that more must be done to strengthen the quality of social work in this country, and a real commitment to improving education and recruitment will be very welcome.
We also believe that the recommendation for local authorities to appoint a principal children’s and family social worker could play an important role in ensuring that the voice of those who safeguard our most vulnerable children is heard loud and clear in every town hall in the land.
We particularly welcome the further support for early intervention to identify and work on problems as soon as they are presented. Professor Munro particularly identifies the importance of early intervention whenever it occurs in a child’s life, and we entirely agree with her on that. Although many families that require the help of social services might appear likely to head down the wrong path in life from an early stage, changing circumstances can mean that children and families hit problems and need support at any time in the childhood journey—and the earlier those problems are identified and the more broadly all parties work together, the better the chance that families can be kept together and problems averted before they become impossible to deal with.
The review also focuses at length on the importance of partnership working, extolling the virtues of the existing networks in early years practice and the importance of a constructive relationship with the police, mental health services, adult social services and health professionals. The review expresses the fear that widespread changes and the desperate financial position in which some public services find themselves could lead to a fracturing of the partnerships. Indeed, we are already seeing evidence of that.
We know from the Secretary of State’s letter to Professor Munro, the choice of Professor Munro to head the review team, and the press releases that have emanated from the Department for Education that the need to cut paperwork and bureaucracy in order to enable social workers to do what they should be doing is intended to be a prominent theme, but anyone who focused solely on that element of the report would greatly undermine its quality and depth. I hope that no one will again attempt such a paraphrase, because the quality of the research and the importance of the issue deserve better. I am thankful that the Minister went far beyond that in his speech today.
We welcome the recognition of the importance of administrative support for social workers so that they can spend more time in the field. It is sad, however, that that comes at a time when Unison is reporting that many of its members with administrative roles are among the first to be laid off in councils. Administration and record-keeping vital: they can save social workers’ time, and are invaluable to the quality of their intervention. No one in this House wants to prevent social workers from spending as much time as possible working with children and families, and we all know that social workers themselves do not go into the profession with the dream of sitting at a wooden desk typing away.
There is no doubt that the review team considered at length the amount of central prescription and the amount of time spent on administration—matters that have also concerned the profession and its representative bodies and unions. We support the pilot schemes that are taking place in four authorities with the aim of relaxing time scales. They are at an early stage, but we look forward to the outcome. We urge the Minister to ensure that the additional quality assurance measures referred to in appendix D and implemented in Hackney are tightly observed while those trials are being completed, and that before anything is done to make the changes widespread, the full implications of those changes are understood.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the subject of bureaucracy, but he did not make his views clear. Does he accept that there was too much prescription from the centre, does he accept that it was getting in the way of effective social work, and will he give an undertaking that a future Labour Government would not seek to reverse sensible, practical and common-sense attempts to reduce bureaucracy and ensure that the priority is given to the front line?
I shall deal with that point in some detail later. However, I can say that we support the trials that are taking place. If the professionals feel that some measures can safely be dispensed with, that is acceptable as long as safeguards are established, as they have been in Hackney, to prevent slippage of cases. We do not want social workers to lose sight of the importance of some cases along with the paperwork.
The report is evidence based, and Professor Munro identifies both excitement and anxiety in the profession about the steps to be taken. Throughout its time in government Labour took advice from experts seriously, as the present Government are doing.
In the report, Professor Munro observes that
“most bureaucracy which limits practitioners’ capacity and ability to practise effectively, is generated and maintained at a local level.”
We should consider that carefully. Headlines that blame people for bureaucracy are not helpful. We need to identify where the bureaucracy is coming from, and tackle it properly.
My hon. Friend speaks on the basis of tremendous experience as a result of the work that she did before entering the House—and, of course, since doing so—and she is absolutely right. Trade unions, social workers and others in the profession want us to proceed as carefully as possible. I reiterate that there is nothing that we want more than social workers who are enabled to spend the maximum amount of time with the children and families with whom they are working.
We support the pilot scheme in four authorities, and we urge the Minister to ensure that the additional quality assurance measures referred to in the report are followed so that the full implications of the changes are understood before any measures are taken to make the scheme more widespread. The proposed changes are important and offer advances, but they must not be rushed. The Ofsted report detailing children’s experiences before entering care demonstrates the importance of social workers spending time in face-to-face, one-to-one meetings with the children and families in their care, but the research also shows how varied the quality of practice is, and with that in mind, and in advance of the improved education and training—and also in the context of the difficult financial settlement facing local authorities—it must be stressed that it is vital that every care is taken.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children echoes this view. It states:
“The Government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children. Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built. Otherwise, children’s lives could be put at risk.”
We entirely support those comments.
We have concerns about the portability of documentation if each local authority has a different common assessment framework. The whole point of having a common piece of documentation was that it would only need completing once. Perhaps it could be slimmed down and used by all partner agencies, wherever they are. If that documentation needs to be re-done every time a child moves from one authority area to another, the intention of cutting back on paperwork may be undermined.
We also have concerns about the recommendation and current direction of travel with regard to serious case reviews. The review rightly identifies the importance of learning lessons from SCRs. Alongside learning lessons, however, they must also perform the task of building public confidence in the profession and illustrate that there is no cover-up, no attempt to hide from the truth and no sense of the ranks being closed. There is a delicate balance to strike.
Local safeguarding children boards are not forced to be independent and are inevitably seen by some as internal partners, having a relationship with the practitioners providing the service. In some cases, they are chaired by the director of children’s services. The independent evaluation of the work of LSCBs on SCRs offers an important neutral balance to ensure that the correct lessons have been learned.
Professor Munro identifies LSCBs’ unhappiness at the role of Ofsted, but I wonder whether the independent assessments analysing the quality of the SCRs might check on how successfully lessons are learned. It does not seem to me that the fact of an evaluation in itself prevents a culture change towards a more learning-based approach. Whoever does independent inspections in future can be directed by the Minister in whichever way he wants, but simply to abandon any sort of independent review until a new body is in place in the next year or so is unsatisfactory.
We also feel that the decision to publish the entire overview of SCRs is having, and will have, very negative consequences. When in government, Labour increased the transparency of executive summaries of SCRs, but we feel that the balance is now leading to a less helpful situation. Professor Munro highlights on page 61 of the review the unhappiness felt by many in the profession about this move. It can hamper the attempt to make learning the principal aim of SCRs, and it inevitably restricts the enthusiasm of some practitioners to be frank about what they may have got wrong. We need to see the culture change before there is a move towards publishing the entire overview of the SCR. This also inevitably makes it highly unlikely that the better reporting of social work practice by the media that the Munro review cries out for will happen. It is also apparent that other partners are stepping back from getting involved in SCRs because of the full reporting of them. The Minister was right to say that if people are refusing to get involved in SCRs, that is wrong, and it is important that we learn those lessons. We are worried that publishing the full overview of them is having that effect, however, regardless of whether that should be done in the best interests of our children.
There is also anecdotal evidence, which we will be investigating further, that the threshold for serious case reviews is being lifted by authorities and that they are deciding that they are less likely to do them. Again, that will have a negative impact on our capacity to learn from past mistakes. It seems an odd set of priorities to remove the independent evaluator of serious case reviews at the same time as we are opening them up to wider public and media scrutiny. That suggests a “kangaroo court” approach, which is totally out of keeping with this review, and it could be a seriously retrograde step.
I mentioned that the review had identified, as had our own work with local authorities, that the role of the director of children’s services to be a purely child-centred position was under threat. That is hardly surprising, given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is positively encouraging this sort of change to local government practice, with managers merging roles and councils becoming a little bit cheaper and quite a bit worse. That seems to be the Pickles recipe for local government. We urge this Minister to stand up for children against the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles) and we urge councils to protect the role of director of children’s services.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the flip side of his argument about serious case reviews is compelling? We must be transparent at this point and we need to assist all professionals working in child protection. Everybody needs all that information if we are going to learn the lessons, not only from where things have gone wrong, but from good practice. We need to have full transparency, and serious case reviews must be published in full.
As I said, we take advice from specialists in the profession and many people within the social work field are deeply concerned about that issue; page 61 of Professor Munro’s report alludes to those concerns. Of course transparency is important, and it is precisely for that reason that we would like an organisation that is seen as independent continuing the evaluation of serious case reviews. However, alongside that important transparency, we need to deal with key issues relating to the protection of anonymity of both professionals and people within the families. It has been relatively easy for people in local areas to identify who has been alluded to in many of the serious case reviews. In one example that I was told about by a social work professional, a serious case review referred to a relative of a soldier serving on the front line. If that review had been published in full, a difficult situation could have been caused for someone who was already in a difficult position. Although I share the hon. Lady’s idea that transparency is important, and it is for precisely that reason that an independent review of the evaluation must remain a part of the system, I question whether this approach will aid learning and will instead reduce people’s willingness to get involved.
Much of this review is dedicated to the importance of improving the quality of social work training and the continuous professional development journey that social workers go on, yet worrying signs are already emerging about councils reacting to the savage cuts forced on them by cutting back on CPD and training. We also share Professor Munro’s alarm about the evidence of cuts to early years provision. Some 25% of Children England member organisations are experiencing cuts of more than a quarter of their income—for them it seems as if the big society is rapidly shrinking. The Minister needs to stand up for early years funding if the measures on sharing responsibility for early help set out in this report are to be more than warm words. Continued denial about the scale or fact of the cuts will simply suggest that the Government are not serious. It is particularly worrying that areas with the highest level of deprivation and the highest demands on social services are the very ones that have seen the largest Government cuts.
I will just make this point and then I will be happy to allow the hon. Lady to intervene.
I have referred to the survey that we sent to every director of children’s services in England on the state of safeguarding services. We had an excellent response from a significant proportion of local authorities and a number of patterns emerged. Local authorities are trying desperately hard to protect spending on safeguarding, and we salute them for that. However, despite that commitment, 36% of local authorities expected case loads to increase this year and only 10% expected them to fall. One assistant director of children’s services explained the paradox of statutory guidance.
Before I move on any further, I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene. I was trying to find a natural pause, but the words just flowed so wonderfully that I could not stop.
Absolutely. This is a matter on which there is clearly consensus across the House, but there is a difficulty when it comes to the reality on the ground, for example in Sure Start centres and with early intervention. People are seeing that the—for want of a better word—rhetoric around early years is not being supported by funding, and there is a danger that the massive cuts to local authorities mean that they might not be able to follow through on worthy intentions such as those that the hon. Lady mentioned, which are shared by Members across the House.
One assistant director of children’s services said that statutory guidance was extremely important to ensure that she could stand up to councillors who look to her services for cuts, as it meant she could say, “This is stuff that we have to do.” She warned that the more freedom local authorities were given to drop safeguards, the more likely councils would be to cut back on safeguarding. That is not an argument for keeping in place regulation that we can do without, but it is a possible unintended consequence of which the Minister should be wary.
Our survey also showed that directors of children’s services are almost unanimous about the impact of cuts on police, mental health and primary care services, saying that it will reduce their ability to safeguard children in their care. That is the voice from the ground and no one can run away from it.
On the subject of local authorities’ identifying which models of best practice they want to follow, we are again in support of the principle, but I am interested to know what drivers of best practice the Minister feels he has at his disposal to improve standards. Is he worried that if each council is radically different in the way that it provides services, the transition for social workers who move from one authority to another will be more difficult? Will it increase the postcode lottery? Will there be even greater variation in the quality of service provision from one authority to another?
As I have said, our greatest reservations about the direction of travel proposed in the report are not about Professor Munro’s suggestions, but about whether the Government will put legislative and financial muscle behind the changes that she suggests. An exciting opportunity to build on past progress has been presented, and the Government, having commissioned this report, now need to act on it fully, with the relatively minor exceptions that I have described.
We worry that the dogma of cutting back on the state could overpower the genuine desire to do the best for our most vulnerable children. The Minister and the Government can rely on us to support them on these reforms if they actually provide the resources needed. This is not an opportunity for cherry-picking, but it is a time for boldness. The Minister and the Government have an opportunity to act and we hope that they seize it because our children deserve nothing less.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this significant, serious and now rather too short debate on this extremely important issue. Only a few months ago, I was granted an Adjournment debate on how we can improve outcomes for children in care and I am pleased that many of the arguments I raised with the Minister, together with recommendations on how to reform and strengthen the care system, particularly around child protection, are very much at the heart of the Munro report. I must declare an interest as a non-practising family law barrister specialising in care cases as well as being the son of foster carers who have fostered 90 children over the past 30 years.
The reaction to the Munro review has been almost universal in its praise. I have read the responses of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Action for Children, Home-Start, the British Association of Social Workers and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, among others, and they all agree that the report is an important opportunity to create a high-quality child protection system. This prompts me to ask why these changes have not already happened. It is not as though previous reviews and reports have not drilled down and exposed the inherent flaws in the system.
In his second report of March 2009, Lord Laming lamented the
“over-complicated, lengthy and tick-box assessment and recording system”
that has developed since the Climbié report in 2003. Of course, he is right, but despite his exasperated pleas the tick-box culture has continued to spread its tentacles across social work and to sap the morale and professional judgment of the work force. Children in need do not require reams of paper produced by case reviews and do not benefit from a social worker who spends half their time strapped to their desk and sat in front of a computer. They also do not need social workers who sit in endless meetings.
Social workers do not want that either. As part of her social work taskforce report, Moira Gibb asked social workers to identify the factors that would most improve their professional lives and, by implication, their ability to do a professional child-focused job. They indentified: first, fewer targets; secondly, smaller case loads; thirdly, the abandonment of the integrated children’s system; and, fourthly, more experienced social workers in their teams. Of course inspection, accountability and good record keeping are important, but it has been clear for too long that, as the ADCS says, social workers are
“hindered by the restrictions and regulations concerning assessment, risk management and performance indicators that do not focus on the best outcomes for the children and young people involved.”
The social work taskforce found that those engaged in child protection work spent only a quarter of their time with the children they were there to protect. In short, the system has become too preoccupied with compliance, bureaucracy and defensiveness. As a consequence, we have a demoralised child protection work force who are depressed by negative media attention but without the confidence to break free and get on with doing what motivated them to take on such an admirable vocation in the first place. As one BASW member said:
“I feel exhausted and stressed for the majority of the time. I have only been in the child protection team for 3 months and have already decided that the work is too stressful and too risky—I am now actively looking for another job.”
High staff turnover, high levels of sick leave, a high percentage of agency workers—the figure is as high as 50% in some children’s services departments—and an increase in long-service leavers are all signs of a failing organisation. More worryingly, however, that puts the children who need protecting at a greater risk of harm. The culture needs to change once and for all.
In their response to the report on looked-after children that was produced during the previous Parliament by the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the Government clearly identified those problems and endorsed the report’s view that high staff turnover, heavy work loads and administrative burdens lead to relationships that cannot flourish and social workers who do not feel empowered. They went on to express their commitment to changing the system so that social workers have
“more freedom to make decisions, more support and understanding, and less prescription and censure.”
It was extremely gratifying that the Minister re-emphasised that the Government take those important issues seriously. I do not doubt their determination, but given that people have asked why that is yet to happen, there is a worry that if we are not careful the critical state of some children’s services departments could lead to another round of regulations that result in even more prescription and red tape, which, as history has shown, would only make matters worse.
Eileen Munro is right that we need to reduce radically the amount of central prescription so that we help professionals to move from a compliance culture to a learning culture. We need to focus on the essential rules for effective multi-agency working that have been so successful in places such as Hackney and Ealing, as well as on the principles that underpin good practice elsewhere in our child protection system. We also need to focus on the quality of the help that is given by paying close attention to the views and experiences of those who receive the services and the professionals who help them. We will never completely eradicate the risks of harm to children, but by building a system with the child at its centre, rather than one that is driven by process, we can be in a much stronger position to anticipate, flush out and deal more effectively with the risks that still remain.
I, too, welcome the publication of the review of the child protection system by Professor Eileen Munro. Her excellent report is thoughtful, well researched and based on extensive consultation. She makes the strong point that the responses to the terrible deaths of children in recent years have shaped the existing child protection system. She identifies four driving forces and says:
“These forces have come together to create a defensive system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to developing and supporting the expertise to work effectively with children, young people and families.”
I agree with her conclusion that there should be a move from doing the right thing procedurally to doing the right thing for the child.
Professor Munro points out that her recommendations are not a quick fix but should be seen in the context of changing the system while putting in place the knowledge, skills and professional expertise to enable professionals confidently to exercise their judgment to do the right thing. Judging whether a child should be removed from their family because there is an unacceptable risk to their life or well-being might be necessary in a very complex family situation. It might follow months of concern, intervention and meetings with parents and other agencies. Assessing the risk to a child relies on many agencies working together to do the right thing. I absolutely agree that over-reliance on procedures does not help make such decision making effective. As she says, procedures can be followed in a way that is technically correct but so inexpert that the desired result is not achieved.
What is the right thing for the child? In my early years as a social worker I supervised a family—a single mother who was an alcoholic and who had a seven-year-old child. The bond was close. The problem was that the mother’s drinking took the form of drinking bouts, often resulting in blackouts, during which she was unable to supervise the child in the home. The child had taken to wandering outside the house at night and his attendance at school was suffering, but there was no question of his suffering any direct harm from the mother. When sober, she provided good parenting and the child responded to it, but no amount of intervention or exhortation could stop her drinking and instead she retreated into a tissue of lies to hide the extent of her problem. I use that example to illustrate the complexity of judging what is the right thing to do, as levels of risk are not easy to assess and must be balanced against positives for the child in an existing relationship and the outcomes of any actions on their long-term welfare.
I was particularly interested in the report’s chapter on sharing responsibility for the provision of early help, particularly early in the emergence of a problem. I entirely agree with Professor Munro that preventive services will do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services and that the co-ordination of services is important to maximise efficiency.
As chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, I would like to offer some comments on the child protection system in relation to children who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation while missing from home or care. Sadly, many children and young people go missing from children’s homes. For them, it has already been decided that they cannot be safeguarded and protected at home. We are their corporate parents and they are in our care, and I was pleased that the Minister referred in particular to our responsibilities as corporate parents.
More than 100,000 children run away overnight each year. Readers of the Manchester Evening News were stunned to read recently that there were 11,819 police reports of children going missing in Greater Manchester last year. Of those, 2,281 cases related to youngsters aged 11 or younger. Another shocking figure is that half of those cases related to children living in care, with more children disappearing from the 43 children’s homes in Stockport than in the rest of Greater Manchester put together. We know that running away is an important indicator that things are not right in a child’s life. One in five children who run away will be harmed and many will become involved in the things that worry parents and society the most—drugs, alcohol and falling prey to sexual predators. I pay tribute to the recent Barnardo’s report, “Puppet on a String”, which highlights those issues.
I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of an action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation and think it is important that it focuses on both running away and child sexual exploitation, as all the research shows that the two issues go hand in hand. I will be interested to hear the results of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s current investigations on recent cases of sexual grooming. One of the problems is the collection and analysis of data and assessing the risk to children individually and in the wider community. I hope that the work being undertaken by CEOP will help to develop a risk assessment framework for incidents of children going missing that could form the basis of effective inter-agency work. Local safeguarding boards have an important role because they are in a unique position to monitor how effective local agencies are in addressing the problem.
When the Minister considers recommendation 6 in Professor Munro’s report, I would like him to take on board the child protection issues in relation to runaway children. I firmly believe that if we can reduce the massive number of children and young people running away and going missing, we can reduce the number at risk from violence, drugs, alcohol, sexual exploitation and grooming.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this excellent review.
Strikingly, we knew as far back as 2009 that some social workers spent more than 80% of their time in front of paperwork, rather than out on the front line, face to face with children and families. Cameron’s quotation:
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,”
published in 1963, has never been more apt than it is to our over-bureaucratic and compliance-ridden system. The focus on early intervention, also highlighted in the Allen, Field and Dame Clare Tickell reviews, shows the long-term benefits to the enrichment of families on the whole, as well as the massivly reduced burden in the cost to the state, and it can only highlight the need to turn that huge supertanker in a different direction.
It is time that we put social workers on the professional platform that they deserve. We need to develop a system in which child protection truly is a multi-agency business involving not only social workers but schools, police and health workers all finally working together—a system that removes constraints on local innovation and professional judgment. But let us not be under any illusions about the time that it will take to change mindsets and to implement the changes needed. The system has been so burdened for far too long.
I will home in on the role of the lead member for children’s services in local authorities, a position that Professor Munro says should not be undermined. Having spent three years as lead member for children’s services on Calderdale council, I believe that the lead member role needs to be looked at and enhanced through further guidance. I know only too well how brilliant a lead member is and how brilliant they are considered when they are out there batting for that extra £1 million in the budget, but the moment they start asking tricky or challenging questions they can almost see and feel the shutters closing down around them.
One good thing that the previous Government did introduce, just over two years ago, was the lead member’s membership of the local safeguarding children’s board, albeit on a limited basis as a participant observer. With that privilege, I could at least challenge partner agencies, and had it been introduced earlier I might have been able to use it as a tool to deep-dive issues even further.
Generally, however, partner agencies were not the only problem, because they chose to work traditionally in silos; it was also down to our directorate. The problem started at the top in Calderdale, which, like most authorities in the UK, has an educationist as its director of children’s services. Educationists also take up most head of service roles. Educationists and social workers generally lack the professional knowledge and understanding of each other’s roles, and without question there is professional snobbery between the two.
Just imagine, then, how it was for a lead member with only 30 years’ retail and people management experience going into that lion’s den. As one head of service once said to me, “With all due respect, you are only a shopkeeper.” A tongue-in-cheek comment, I know, but the battle line was drawn.
The lead member is also generally part time and often from a totally different sector. They are the only councillor with legal responsibilities, but when things do not go as well as they should, as was the case for me in Calderdale, gaining access to information can be hugely cumbersome. The information is often non-existent, and frankly the lead member can hear those shutters going down around them.
Interestingly, Professor Munro mentions Klein’s view on intuition, and with my managerial experience and intuition it became evident to me early on that we had a head of service who was not fit for purpose, an information service that was wholly inadequate, a children’s service base budget that was under-resourced to the tune of £1.5 million, a work force with low morale and a high proportion of agency staff, core and initial assessments woefully behind on time scales, two serious case reviews in the pipeline and a children’s trust in name only—and all that was just the headline stuff. When I challenged those responsible for the day-to-day running of CYP services, there were always reasoned responses and excuses, but that is often exactly what they were—excuses. It took three heads of service, three serious case reviews and more than two years before the appointment of a new director of children’s services, who agreed to an independent review by PricewaterhouseCoopers, before we managed to get a truthful picture of how bad things were in Calderdale regarding safeguarding.
Professor Munro mentions the role of the lead member staying the same. I would like the Government to consider four key points, if I can get them in very quickly. First, the lead member, who is currently a participant observer, should be a full-time member of the local safeguarding children board. Secondly, I would like the Minister to consider the fact that there is no mandatory training for the lead member role. Training of sorts is available, but it is difficult to accommodate if they have a full-time job. Thirdly, will the Minister consider guidance on making the lead member role a four-year term for the sake of continuity? Calderdale is now on its fourth in three years.
Finally, may I ask the Minister to look at the leadership—
If the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) wants to intervene on me at an appropriate point, perhaps he can get his fourth point in.
I welcome this debate and this report. Child protection is an important issue that has been given too little attention, generally having periods of intense focus following the death or serious injury of a child or children. No one could disagree with the aims set out by Professor Munro, but I want to look at some issues that are perhaps more nuanced than the Minister set out in his speech.
Looking back, we have had investment in the past. From 1998, we had the Quality Protects programme, which made a big difference to social services; I speak from personal experience. More recent work done by the previous Government should be built on. Indeed, Professor Munro identifies the need to build on the firm foundations of reform created by the Social Work Taskforce and the Social Work Reform Board. Let us not reinvent the wheel where we do not need to.
Importantly, Professor Munro recognises the multi-agency nature of this field. There is a danger of other Government policies making child protection more difficult. I am concerned not only about the cuts but about the proposals for how things are to be done. The all-party child protection group, which I chair, and of which many members are present, will be carrying out an inquiry into the proposals on vetting and barring, and I hope that that is helpful. The next session is on Monday—a little advert there—and I hope to see many Members attending to look at this in detail.
We need to be aware of the importance of child protection for children in all settings. Looked-after children have been mentioned, and the residential sector is important. On health, what is going to happen as a result of the abolition of primary care trusts? The PCTs have played an essential role in local safeguarding because they can give an overview and they are able to get involved in the wider issues of what is happening in their local area. I fear that the proposals do not deal with ensuring proper, effective child protection policies for the future. I also have worries about the role of the police.
I have great concerns about education. I will not go into those in detail now, as I have raised them with the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who was here earlier. Certain aspects of the Education Bill put children at risk, and the Government need to deal with that.
I am also concerned about the localism agenda. The recommendations in chapter 4 on accountability lead us to believe that there are clear tensions in this respect. We should be able to specify what needs to be done, and there should be ways of following best practice while ensuring some local flexibility. The Government need to address that properly.
I want to speak briefly about the recording of information and time scales. That debate has been conducted in a one-dimensional way. Poor IT systems have made life difficult. However, it is significant that every major inquiry into child deaths has identified two things at fault: poor information-sharing between different professions in contact with children and poor recording of information. Not only is good recording essential to enable effective continuity of support for children, sometimes over years or when somebody is on leave, but it is part of the process that social workers need to go through to reflect on a family’s situation. The idea that the only work of a social worker is direct face-to-face contact is false.
I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) about moving to the use of all localised forms. Frankly, that would take us back round the circle. Thirty years ago when I started in social work, every local authority used a different form and a different process. Not only did that involve lots of people writing those forms and producing guidance, but it meant that when people moved authorities, it took even experienced staff a long time to understand the systems and procedures. I know that the Minister is genuinely committed to this agenda, and I commend him for that, but I urge him to consider a middle way.
I also urge the Minister to consider a middle way for serious case reviews. He and I have disagreed on the publication of serious case reviews in full, and I will not rehearse those arguments now because I do not have time. However, I think that he should have held back, carried out a review, and put in place a new system. In my experience, not only are full case reviews poor learning tools, but sometimes their publication means that people do not come forward. There was a well-publicised case in Sheffield only a year ago of serious intergenerational abuse. The people in that family would not have come forward if they had thought that their information would be put into the public domain.
This is an important review in many ways, and we need to go into it in more detail. I ask the Minister to give more detail on how a wider group of people beyond his implementation group can have an input into the recommendations to ensure that we get the best possible things out of the review for the benefit of children, social workers and all who work in this important area.
We now have about three minutes if we are to get everybody in. When do we have until? Is it not until 6? [Interruption.] Okay, I will keep going and stick to time. If I have six minutes, I will be quite happy. I want everybody to have the opportunity to speak in such an important debate. I do not mind shortening my speech to make sure that other hon. Members can speak, but there are certain things that I must say.
I disagree with the Government’s objective of increasing the number of adoptions. Already in England, roughly twice as many children under five who leave care are adopted than return to their parents. In fact, the number returning to their parents went down last year. Of the 4,700 under-fives who left care in the year to 31 March 2010, 880 went to their parents and 2,000 were adopted. In Scotland, the reverse is true and the majority return to their parents. I define care as compulsory care and do not include all the section 20 children who go into care voluntarily. It is important to consider those issues.
Checks and balances are critical. I very much support the Munro report and think that the approach of being less bureaucratic is important. Sadly, I do not support the family justice review. The difficulty is that if one is to look at the process of dealing with a child who goes into the care system, one must consider all the aspects. Even if one considers just the local authority costs and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service costs for a child who is taken into care at birth and then adopted, one sees that half the costs are for foster care and half are legal costs, fees for experts and such things. If one is to look at how that process can be managed to work effectively, one has to consider both the judicial processes with its checks and balances and the decision making in the first instance. The Munro inquiry is about the process by which decisions are made and the process by which those decisions are given quality control. In my view, it is the quality control on the decisions that fails. That is why there are a lot of odd decisions and some very strange outcomes.
I thank the Minister for the efforts of his statisticians in producing a detailed analysis of the SSDA903 return. I have a copy here and anybody is welcome to see it. Obviously it is available under freedom of information. That analysis demonstrates what is happening to the children. Our priority should be what happens to the children and what is best for the children.
The problem when we get something substantially wrong, as I think we are, and when the practice is substantially wrong for a number of years, is that people continue to practice in the same way. Only many years later when the children grow up and wonder, “Why was that done to me?”, do things get reviewed. That happened in respect of the children who were sent around the world, for instance to Canada and Australia. That decision is now recognised as wrong, but at the time it was thought to be right. A similar situation is occurring in respect of about 1,000 children a year—that figure looks right when the figures in England are compared with those in Scotland—in cases of forced adoptions in which consent is dispensed with. That problem is of a reasonable order of magnitude and, in the end, it comes down to the need for individual case studies.
Another area in which the Government are missing out is in studying what happens to children who are adopted. In many cases the adoption is disrupted, so about a quarter of those children return to the care system and some are then adopted again, causing them additional trauma. If we are to assess the effect of adoption decisions, we have to include the effect on children who come back into care because they have had reactive attachment disorder, perhaps as a result of being taken into care too early and by overloaded foster carers. A lot of issues are not being looked at, and we need longitudinal studies of individual cases.
Many Members want to speak, and I have emphasised the points about adoptions that I keep making. The figures are there, and I thank the Minister for getting them, but he should take them into account.
I add my welcome for the work of Professor Munro and the recommendations in her report. The huge challenge for Ministers is how to put them into practice. I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the group that will be set up, and the expertise of the people who will be on it. I ask him to consider including a member of the Opposition in that group—other than a Labour councillor. He knows what I mean by that.
I want to speak about my concerns about the speed of intervention and the impact of neglect that does not hit the headlines through serious case reviews. I should mention one of my interests in the matter—I am an adoptive parent. When I trained as an adoptive parent, we were presented with evidence that over an extended period, neglect is often, although not always, far more damaging to a child or young person than physical or sexual abuse. That is why it is so important to consider neglect.
I will quote the comments of a senior NHS professional, who writes:
“Child protection’s preventative role in protecting vulnerable children/young people from neglectful behaviours is hindered and hampered by a lack of clarity and legislative support to recognise the impact of neglect on a child or young person until it reaches a threshold for ‘significant harm’. This results in an inability to respond in a timely manner until it is too late to prevent harm from occurring.
Practitioner tools and chronologies to identify and recognise these neglectful behaviours do not provide the requisite evidence base to support care proceedings or child in need packages that put the child in focus.”
“Legislation needs to provide clarity of definition and recognise the impact of neglectful behaviours. The practitioners need to be provided with definitions which are not retrospective; in other words the legal system needs to recognise neglectful behaviours as significant before ‘significant harm’ has been caused to a child or young person, by which time it is too late.”
The Minister spoke about the importance of trying to keep families together and used the phrase “fostering families”. It is important that that is given every chance, but I am aware—this is the point made by that health professional—that in far too many cases, the balance is skewed too far in that direction. It can take too long, and evidence of potential neglect is ignored. Early recognition, and action on it, is essential. The evidence that I have seen, of which other Members will be well aware, shows that the long-term damage of extended neglect is incredibly bad for people psychologically and for their mental health long into adulthood.
To come back to the comments that one or two hon. Members have made, those in foster care are not universally treated as one of the family, because there are too many barriers. Too many rules prevent foster carers from getting close to children for that to happen meaningfully in reality.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on learning from care leavers—that needs to continue. On the issue of neglect, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said that striking the right balance between protecting the vulnerable child and the rights of the individual is incredibly important. From the experience of constituents who have spoken to me, far too often the rights of the individual parent are given greater prominence than the needs and rights of the child.
Because I am an adoptive parent, I shall speak briefly in the time I have left about adoption. I welcome the comments in the report on reducing the delay in getting children through to adoption, but there are serious blockages in finding families. Measures for finding good families in adoption and fostering are very important, as is providing long-term support. There is a lack of support for foster carers and a lack of long-term support for adopters. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.
The delays in the courts cause great concern to professionals and families. The courts are still far too slow. I am aware of a case in which some children from a large family were adopted and some went into long-term foster care. One child ended up back with the mother because the court refused to look at the evidence from social services, which had originally issued the order for the family to go into care. The system is quite unworkable, because the neglect remained after the child returned.
I welcome the report. This is a long-term project, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House come together to support it.
I am pleased to speak in this extremely important debate on child protection. I find it quite startling that this is the first debate on child protection that has been instigated by a Government, as the Minister told us in his opening remarks. Given the difficulties and concerns over child protection, which have been ongoing for many years, I find that worrying. This might be the first such debate instigated by a Government, but I hope that it will not be the last.
I should declare an interest, because I worked as a family lawyer for about 10 years, specialising in child protection and adoption. I should also say at the outset that I welcome the conclusions in Professor Munro’s report. The point has already been made, but it is a quality report. It is extremely well set out and contains many helpful conclusions. I hope the Government implement many of its recommendations.
Over my years of working for and representing parties in care proceedings—that includes social workers and parents, or children, through their guardians—I have seen dozens or even hundreds of extremely dedicated, hard-working social workers, who try their best in very difficult circumstances to protect children. In my view, that is front-line work. It can be a dangerous job. Social workers must sometimes go into people’s homes when they do not know what is on the other side of the front door. They could find a parent under the influence of alcohol or find themselves in a violent situation. Children might need to be removed.
I bear that in mind, which is why I hope that following the conclusions of the Munro report, we focus on empowering those social workers to exercise their professional judgment as best they can, without being hampered by other pressures in their day-to-day jobs. I would not like to make those decisions—they can be life-changing decisions—on whether a child should be removed, whether one should undertake a further assessment of a parent, or whether all has been done but it is time to draw a line and look for an adoptive placement for a family.
The Centre for Social Justice has produced some figures that remind us that although care leavers form only 1% of the population, they are four to five times more likely to have mental health issues; a third of homeless people have been care leavers; 30% of children in custody and 23% of the adult prison population have been in care; and more than 20% of women who leave care between the ages of 16 and 19 become mothers within a year, compared to just 5% of the general population. These are troubling figures and, as we seek to support social workers, we must remember that they are trying to achieve improved outcomes for all the young people in their care. I know that all hon. Members will be committed to improving those figures.
I pay tribute to the contribution by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who mentioned the important issue of neglect. There are different sorts of abuse that children can suffer—physical, sexual and emotional, as well as neglect—and more than 19,300 children are under child protection plans for neglect. That is a very high figure, and that kind of abuse can have long-term effects that are just as damaging as other forms of abuse. That is why the attempt to support early intervention work is so important. It is just those families in which neglect persists for several years, and who perhaps fall in and out of the attention of social work departments, who need our help to be able to move on.
Over the years I have represented local authorities, children and parents in some very upsetting cases. I do not wish to be over-dramatic, but some children arrive in foster care so thirsty that they drink out of the lavatory bowl. Some hide food in their room in case the food never appears again. Some have been shaken so badly that they are brain-damaged for life. I give these examples as a reminder of the pressures and challenges that social work teams have to face every day. Those examples are not from a Dickensian story set more than 100 years ago: they are happening in our country in 2011. We must all work harder to stop such abuse taking place.
Time is against me, but I shall conclude with my key point. We must take this opportunity to try to move forward with the Munro conclusions, empower social workers to make their professional judgments, and reduce bureaucracy.
The greatest risk of dying a violent death is when you are less than one year old. And the greatest risk comes not from strangers, but from those who are closest to you in your own home—those who should love you and take care of you. Social workers are in the front line of the battle to protect babies and children. The importance of caring, motivated and well-trained social workers just cannot be overestimated. Frankly, if we do not recognise the massive potential of a good social worker to turn around life chances for babies and children in vulnerable families, we shall get the society we deserve.
I congratulate Professor Munro on her comprehensive report on what is generally recognised to be a difficult and troubled area. I want to focus today on recommendations 10 to 13 of that report, because I have spent the last 10 years of my life developing a passion for and a detailed understanding of why she may have made those points.
Recommendation 10 states:
“Government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to provide sufficient early intervention services for those children and young people who do not meet child protection thresholds”.
That, to me, is the key recommendation, and I can encapsulate why in the shortest of slogans: prevention is kinder and cheaper than cure. Supporting vulnerable families and enabling them to form a secure bond with their babies in the first two years of life has profound consequences for society. Can anyone here imagine what the relationship is like between a mother and her baby if she would allow her boyfriend to stub out cigarettes on her little boy, as happened in the case of baby Peter? No, none of us can quite get our heads around what on earth possessed a mother to so violate the nurturing role of parent and carer as to allow her own need for a boyfriend to overrule the tigerish instinct of a mother. For my own part, I am quite sure I would kill rather than let anyone harm my children like that.
What makes one mother or parent neglect, abuse or even kill her own child, while another would kill to protect her child, is simple: the quality of the attachment between the carer and the child. This attachment begins during pregnancy, and its development is most critical during the first two years of a baby’s life. We could call it the Harry Potter syndrome. Harry was loved and nurtured by his parents until Lord Voldemort murdered them when Harry was two years old. He then suffered unspeakable cruelty and neglect at the hands of his uncle, aunt and cousin, but through it all he kept his unshakable sense of self-worth, personal resilience and his ability to make friends and form strong relationships. Those qualities are the reward for secure early attachment between baby and adult carer.
That is not just an entertaining story; the scientific evidence is overwhelming. When a baby is born his brain is significantly underdeveloped, but between six months and 18 months, as a result of the stimulation of a loving relationship, of peek-a-boo games and silly baby-language chatter with mum, the brain puts on a massive growth spurt and the central frontal cortex—the part of the brain that enables empathy and deals with social interaction—starts to develop at an astonishing rate. Conversely, the baby who is neglected, abused or treated inconsistently by uncaring adults will fail to develop a healthy frontal cortex. His ability in later life to form strong relationships with friends, a partner, work colleagues and so on will be severely impaired—and for a girl baby who does not form a secure bond, the incredible tragedy is that without help, she will struggle to form a bond with her own babies in later life, and so the cycle of misery is perpetuated through the generations.
It is at the critical end of the spectrum of poor attachment that the social worker is the key to the outcome for the child and the family. Where a baby is severely neglected or abused, the development of the frontal cortex may simply never happen. Babies left to scream for hours at a time suffer other problems as a result of having constantly raised levels of the stress hormone. Those babies develop a tendency towards high-risk-taking behaviour, drugs, violence and self-harming. Our prisons, streets and psychiatric hospitals are full of the evidence of poor early attachment. It is in these cases—the most difficult to resolve—that social workers often represent the only chance of survival for the family. However, their challenges are manifold. How can they identify those particular cases? How can they tell if the problems are temporary or life-threatening, and how can they be supported in what is an almost impossible task?
I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that providing parent-infant psychotherapy will dramatically change the work load of social workers and the amount of support available for these vulnerable families before those problems happen. I wanted to give you a perfect case study, Mr Deputy Speaker, but time does not permit, so you will have to take my word for it that the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity that I have chaired for the past 10 years, provides an enormous amount of life-saving support for families in Oxfordshire by working with social workers to reduce their work load, to provide them with the support they need and to help these vulnerable children. OXPIP also provides training in the crucial understanding of parent-infant relationships. What is so sad, to my mind, is that for many of those who attend, it is a “road to Damascus” moment. Previously they had no understanding of brain development, the critical importance of early attachment and the possible interventions.
I would like to leave my hon. Friend with these two thoughts: first, we need to provide parent-infant psychotherapy across children’s centres in the UK, and secondly, we need to improve significantly the quality of education not just for social workers but for everyone who works with babies.
I want to make just one brief but important point that has arisen as a consequence of representations made to me by constituents about the regulation of the social work profession.
The regulator of social work has been the General Social Care Council, which is charged with issuing and enforcing standards of professional conduct and practice. For the past few years the council has been located in my constituency of Rugby, having relocated from London. However, last July the council learnt that it was on the list of non-departmental bodies to be disbanded by the Government. Understandably, the Government wish to reduce the cost of bureaucracy and regulation. Early advice from the Department of Health was that there was no compelling reason to retain the council, with a potentially significant benefit arising from social workers being placed on a footing similar to that of professional workers and regulation being transferred to the Health Professions Council, a body that will regulate all professionals, including those more generally involved in the delivery of health care. There will therefore be a transfer of functions between the bodies.
One consequence of that is that offices in Rugby will be closed, involving a certain number of redundancies, although the date is not certain. Since the announcement, I have met both management and members of staff at the General Social Care Council. Staff have concerns, principally that there will no longer be a body specifically dedicated to the regulation of professionals in the sector, and that the focus that currently exists may be lost. The Munro report draws attention to the important role of the social work profession in ensuring that all children are safe. Specifically, recommendations 11 and 12 reiterate the need for the robust supervision and training of social workers, supported nationally by a regulator. It is therefore crucial that the HPC should continue to monitor the ongoing professional development of social workers.
We have heard much in today’s debate about the value and importance of the role played by the social work profession in child protection. I hope that in summing up, the Minister can provide assurances that, in the interests of all the vulnerable people whom they support, there will continue to be proper and effective regulation of social work professionals.
Like the previous speaker, I do not intend to make a long speech. I rise to make just one point to the Minister before allowing him the time he needs to sum up the debate.
I welcome the Munro report and its recommendations. Everybody, on both sides of the House, would agree that it is important for the best interests of the child to be paramount in all child protection decisions. However, a number of constituents have raised concerns with me about the term “emotional abuse”, and how it is defined and interpreted by social services. I note that none of the recommendations of the Munro report relates to the term “emotional abuse” or its definition. We would all agree with the need for children to be taken away from such abuse, but some parents who have come to my surgeries are concerned that in some cases social services are being over-zealous or taking quite extreme action based on a rather loose interpretation of the term “emotional abuse”. In one case highlighted to me, social services removed a child from her parents because they felt that she had not been made aware of her father, the evidence for this being that there were no photos in the house. That seems to be based on a loose definition of “emotional abuse”. As part of the Minister’s review of child protection services, will he consider looking again at the definition of the term, to ensure that it is applied correctly and accurately?
I did not expect there to be time for a proper summing up, but as there is, I will make the most of it.
This has been an excellent debate—well measured and exceedingly well informed—with the House at its best, and certainly its most earnest. Indeed, the implementation working group on the Munro report could have been formed of the hon. Members in the Chamber who have contributed today. We have two adoptive fathers who revealed themselves as such in their contributions. We also have two family law barristers, one of whom—my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—grew up with 90 foster children, because of the amazing contribution of his parents, as well as having adopted siblings.
We have two former social workers, who also happen to be the chairs of the all-party parliamentary groups on runaway and missing children and adults, and on child protection. They have always brought enormous expertise to the House on those matters. We have crossed swords, and also often agreed, in many Committees on many pieces of legislation over the years. We also have one former lead member for children’s services in a council, even if he was “only a shopkeeper”. Of course, Churchill said that we were a nation of shopkeepers, so my hon. Friend should not undersell himself in that way. My only regret is that we will never hear his fourth point. We know about the missing fourth man—
My fourth point was about the chairmanship of the local safeguarding children boards. There are still 23 authorities in the UK that have the director of children’s services as the chair of their board. Will the Minister ensure that in future the role of the chair is independent?
What an excellent fourth point that was! It was well worth waiting for. When we were in opposition we said that the chairs of local safeguarding children boards should be independent. I think that the boards should include lead members and perhaps directors of children’s services, in whatever role, but they should be independently chaired. If LSCBs are to make progress and have more teeth and more importance, that will be an even more important factor in the future. I am glad that my hon. Friend managed to get his fourth point in.
So, we have one shopkeeper turned lead member of children’s services. We also have one head of a very successful children’s charity who has enormous expertise in attachment. We have a Member who I think used his first Adjournment debate to discuss adoption, including some cases in his constituency. We have another new Member who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of constituents who are concerned about abuses of adoption. And we have one conspiracy theorist. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming); we disagree on many aspects of this issue, but he is assiduous and he rightly acknowledged that we had given him as much information as possible. We disagree on the interpretation of that information and we will continue to do so, but he has certainly got his teeth into this subject.
We have had an excellent debate. I do not have time to refer to every point that has been raised, but the personal experience that has been brought to bear today does the House credit. There has been overwhelming support for the principle, the thrust and the exhaustive nature of the Munro review. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said that it was well researched and the result of extensive consultation. She also said that too much of what social workers have to do may be technically correct but inexpert in its findings.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) made some excellent points. I thank him for his welcome for the report, and we look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House on carrying forward its recommendations. This is an evidence-based review, and I want to see Government policy guided by evidence, and by things that work and actually improve the outcomes for children at the sharp end. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out that this is not rocket science, and asked why it had not been done before.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) mentioned the very good work of the social work taskforce and the social work reform board. We acknowledge that that work was undertaken under the previous Government. When we set up the Munro review, the first thing I said was that it was not intended to take the place of or to rubbish the work that had gone before; it was to complement that work. The first person Eileen Munro went to see was Moira Gibb, the head of the reform board. Members of the reform board have worked on the review and are now working in the implementation group.
The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) mentioned the mixed destinations of siblings who are taken into adoption or care. That is a really important point, and I want to do a lot more work on it. I have heard too many horrific stories of families being broken up. At a time when they cannot rely on the stability and familiarity of their birth parents, it is crucial that they should have the familiarity of contact with their siblings when they desperately need some kind of anchor. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) has had great experience of children in the care system, and she told the House that the incidence of mental health issues and homelessness was absolutely appalling.
I thank everyone in the Chamber for an excellent debate. We are absolutely determined to carry forward the recommendations of the Munro review. Today’s debate will help to inform our response, and I look forward to receiving the help of all hon. Members to ensure that we get this right. I am up for that challenge, as are the House and the Government, and we are going to make this work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Munro Report and its implications for child protection.