I beg to move,
That this House notes the updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children published on 12 June 2012; and calls on the Government to ensure that the needs of the child are at the centre of all assessments and decision-making processes regarding safeguarding, that appropriate information and guidance is provided to young people so they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation, that all local authorities and decision-makers are upholding the highest standards when it comes to integrated care access and multi-disciplinary and multiagency working, and that early intervention programmes are promoted on the best available evidence, and to clarify who is responsible within Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance.
Yesterday the Government published updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I am sure that all parts of the House will welcome the opportunity to consider the Government’s proposals today. Our motion has been tabled to provide for such a debate, and it sets out five areas of concern.
Modern society places huge pressures on children and young people. Although the influences of adult life on children are not new, it is clear that the advent of social media, new pressures on parents and the increasing availability of sexual content are accelerating the process. The term “child protection” covers a wide spectrum of issues and crosses several Departments. From online grooming, child neglect and forced labour to the trafficking of minors, the challenge of ensuring that children get a safe and happy start in life has a moral imperative—a view that I know is shared in all parts of the House. However, it is not just a moral necessity we face: the long-term impact of child abuse—to take one important example—has been well documented. It is therefore critical that we invest in early intervention, not just for young children, but for older children as well, in order to reduce the long-term risks and costs.
It is one of the foremost duties of any civilised society to protect its most vulnerable members. It is clear that that duty was breached in the most horrific way in the recent case in Rochdale, and in the tragedies that befell Victoria Climbié and baby Peter Connelly. The Government were right to establish the Munro review, to provide a thoughtful, calm analysis of the challenges affecting the child protection system. I want to focus on the five areas that we have identified in the motion as being of particular importance, though I make no claim that they are fully comprehensive.
I am sure that the whole House will appreciate the approach that my hon. Friend is taking to this subject. I should like to give him some information to emphasise the urgency of this debate and the need to approach it in this atmosphere. Part of Birkenhead is so rich that it makes Hampstead look downmarket, but parts are not so advantaged. A couple of months ago, I asked three head teachers from the more challenged areas, in different meetings, what percentage of families they would not wish to be part of if they were a child. Independently, all three said about 40%. I then asked them what proportion of children they would like to see in care today, if there were no restriction on budgets. I am not saying that that is desirable, incidentally. They said 20%. So I have an image of a group of poor social workers having to fight over inadequate budgets—whatever party is in power—and thinking, “If I get the resources, I might be able to prevent a child’s murder. If my colleague is not as powerful as me, perhaps the murder will take place elsewhere.” Will my hon. Friend stress that this is not just about resources, however—they are important, but we will never have enough to deal with these issues—and that it is about what is happening to parenting more generally?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution. He has a long-standing record on these matters and is respected in all parts of the House for his work in this area. I will touch on some of those issues later in my speech.
The first of the five areas involves ensuring that we have a child-centred system, and that the needs of the child are the first consideration of the many professionals who are involved in child protection and safeguarding. This was at the heart of the Children Act 2004, and of other reforms brought in by the previous Labour Government. They include the establishment of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the focus on five clear outcomes through Every Child Matters, which helped to deliver some of the previous Government’s most successful policies, including the reduction in child poverty. Yesterday’s report from the Child Poverty Action Group reminded us of that achievement, and of the real danger that that progress could be reversed by the present Government.
Let me place on record our support for the work of Professor Eileen Munro, who has done a service to the Government and to the country in promoting this child-centred approach. She is absolutely right to focus on the journey of the child through the system. Any shift from a process that is focused excessively on compliance to one that better values the expertise of professionals is one that will have my support. However, we need to strike a balance between allowing professionals the flexibility to make a judgment on a child’s needs and the need for clear rules and principles. There is clearly a danger that a big reduction in the amount of guidance could take us from one undesirable state to another.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that child protection is no longer specifically included in the Ofsted framework, although I am told that it is implicit? Does he also share my concern that the Education Act 2011 puts more power into teachers’ hands and puts children at risk by allowing a teacher of the opposite gender to search a child without another adult being present? Does he agree that we should look into those issues more carefully?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s current and previous work in this area, including her chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on child protection. She has raised a number of proper concerns about the changes that have been made, and I will return later in my speech to some of them—including the involvement of Ofsted and the well-being of children.
As I was saying, there is a balance to be struck between professional flexibility and clear rules and principles. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has warned that
“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.”
In its response, published today, to yesterday’s announcement, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that it supports the slimlining of guidance, but it is worried that the downsizing might have gone too far so that vital information is no longer included. It provided the examples of training, lessons from research and, in particular, the safeguarding needs of particularly vulnerable groups, mentioning forced marriages, female genital mutilation and victims of trafficking.
Does my hon. Friend agree that children in care, including those trafficked for purposes he has mentioned, including sexual exploitation, who find themselves up against the law should be treated first as children and victims, not as criminals? Something needs to be done to ensure that all agencies, including the police, regard that as a first principle.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern in that regard. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that when he responds. The consultation on the draft guidance issued yesterday may provide an opportunity to clarify some of these matters. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that when he speaks after me.
Professor Munro makes it clear in her report that the Government should not cherry-pick her recommendations. She says, for instance, that
“reducing prescription without creating a learning system will not secure the desired improvements in the system.”
We should remember that only one of her 15 recommendations is about reducing bureaucracy. The bulk of her report is about improving training and leadership in the system. As the Government make the move away from prescription, it is important that they are clear about how they intend to ensure robust checks and balances in the system and rigorous training and supervision and staff.
In her recent evidence to the Select Committee on Education, Professor Munro said that because
“there is so much change related directly both to child protection but also to the health and police reforms…we cannot be quite sure how they pan out in reality and whether we end up with some unintended clashes so there are gaps in the way services are being provided.”
If the Government’s own appointed adviser is warning that the changes could have these unintended consequences, it is clearly critical that Ministers heed that advice.
Taking the example of today’s Government announcement on shared parenting, while the principle of parental balance is of course important, it is vital that the change does not create more confusion and delays in the courts, which would not be in the interests of children, families or, indeed, of the taxpayer. David Norgrove in the family justice review cautioned against such a move, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has said:
“Children’s best interests should be the paramount consideration in decisions affecting them. That principle has been clear in law for over two decades. Ministers should think very carefully before they decide to weaken it.”
David Norgrove is, of course, talking principally about equality of time. In family court cases in which I was involved, it was clear that when people started to talk about 9 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening and shared arrangements of equality during the week, it often proved divisive, whereas trying to reach agreement is in the best interests of the child. What I think the Government are trying to achieve through their shared parenting considerations is children receiving a shared time of quality care from both parents, which is a very different model from simply trying to cut the time in half.
The hon. Gentleman, who I know has campaigned and spoken out on these issues for many years both before and after he came to the House, speaks with authority. What I am saying is that we need to tread very carefully, as these changes might have unintended consequences. I believe I am right in saying that evidence from Australia suggests that a similar change resulted in greater litigation and greater resort to the courts there. [Interruption.] The Minister says that the position is different there. Let us learn from the experience of other countries. We will study the Government’s specific proposals in detail today.
Norgrove recommended that
“children and young people should be given age-appropriate information to explain what is happening when they are involved in cases.”
They should be offered a menu of options setting out the ways in which they can do that if they wish. The court process is clearly an important part of that, but I think that we also need greater clarity from the Government on how we can ensure that children’s views are taken on board in the rest of the care system, which includes social workers.
We have been looking at the issue in our policy review, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the work that she did on it when she was in the shadow education team. Children often stress the importance of the monitoring of placements by social workers, and the importance of being able to talk to their own social worker alone. Often a social worker is a source of constancy—a rock—for a child who is moving between different foster carers or residential homes.
The second aim of our motion is to ensure that children and young people are given appropriate information and guidance so that they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation. We fear that in too many cases young people may not be clear about how to report instances of abuse or exploitation, and that some may not understand that the acts in which they or their friends are involved constitute sexual abuse. I am sure that we were all shocked by yesterday’s “Channel 4 News” investigation of Habbo Hotel, a very popular website which is used by children as young as 10 and has 250 million users globally.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling what I think is an incredibly important topic to be debated on the Floor of the House. I only wish that as many Members were present now as were present for the debate that preceded this one, because I think that this one is far more important.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main problems is the accessing by children of inappropriate material on the internet, and does he welcome the Government’s commitment to formally reviewing an opt-in system? Many Members in all parts of the House believe that that would be a step forward, and a very good way of keeping our children safe.
I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. As she says, that proposal has full cross-party support. My colleagues in the shadow home affairs team made the call, and she has made it as well. I think it vital for us to explore all practical options to ensure that the material that is available is age-appropriate.
The “Channel 4 News” investigation produced extremely disturbing evidence that children using the Habbo Hotel website are being sexually propositioned and encouraged to engage in inappropriate activities. I understand that the programme’s considerable body of evidence has been passed to the Government, and I should welcome an update from the Minister on what further action they will be taking in response to its investigation.
Voluntary organisations have a significant role to play in the provision of information, advice and guidance. Many organisations, including Beatbullying and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have played an important part and will continue to do so. There are also ways in which the media can be used to raise the profile of abuse and how it can be reported. As we know, the overwhelming majority of young people are confident about gaining access to online material, and as the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) pointed out, we need to ensure that that material is age-appropriate as well as accurate. There are obviously ways in which television resources can be used: soap story lines, for example, can be effective. I am certainly not suggesting that Ministers issue instructions regarding the plot lines of “Hollyoaks” or “EastEnders”, but there are smart and subtle ways in which we can raise awareness among young people.
Schools also have an important role to play, but I fear that the direction taken by the Secretary of State for Education is squeezing well-being out of the school environment. Ofsted is no longer required to measure well-being. The Secretary of State has described it as peripheral or even a distraction from academic education, although evidence shows that it can be an important foundation stone for academic success.
The third element is to ensure that all local authorities and decision makers are upholding the highest standards. We know there is huge variety within the system. Some places are pressing ahead with reform, while others are struggling with their caseloads and are unable, or even unwilling, to make the necessary changes. There is a widely held view that the Government’s top-down reorganisation of the NHS will mean, to quote Professor Munro, that
“child protection will get lost by people who do not directly deal with it and so do not fully understand its significance”
The Government need to clarify exactly where child safeguarding sits within the new NHS structures. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has today said that we need a detailed safeguarding accountability framework from the Department of Heath which covers all the safeguarding issues and sets out the roles and responsibilities of each of the new commissioner and provider organisations.
In local government, there has been real innovation in a number of local authorities to ensure that there is an integrated team for when children enter child protection or the care system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that multidisciplinary and multi-agency teams, such as Operation Messenger in my constituency, have a key role to play in identifying children and young people at risk from, for example, sexual exploitation? Does he also agree that although the guidance goes some way in the right direction, it does not go far enough? We must support such partnerships and ensure the practices they follow are based on evidence.
My hon. Friend is right, and I hope we will have an opportunity in today’s debate and the consultation period the Government have set out to make those very important points so the guidance is stronger than the draft guidance issued yesterday.
I want to highlight some excellent practice in the London borough of Hackney, which has been well evaluated. Hackney is one of a number of London boroughs that have established MASH—multi-agency safeguarding hub—teams to bring together the key services in one place. London boroughs are leading the way in such respects. Clearly, trustworthy and supportive relationships are key to ensuring a focus on the needs of the child.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing a debate on this topic. Does he recognise that since the baby P case there has been an increase across both London and the country in the number of children being taken into care? In Haringey there has been a 40% increase. Does he recognise that we still have to do more to encourage parents and carers to contact social services before problems arise, and that there is growing concern about fear in relation to social workers? This hits the most deprived. Social work is not on the whole an area known to Britain’s middle classes.
My right hon. Friend speaks very powerfully on this issue, and makes the case on why the relationships I am talking about are so important. He also, by implication, makes the case for something I shall come to a little later: the importance of enhancing the status of social work as a profession.
These relationships should, of course, be challenging. Hackney has developed approaches whereby mistakes by people working in the services can be openly acknowledged and addressed without fear of reprisal. That is fostering a culture that should ensure systematic learning, including learning from mistakes. The role of local safeguarding children boards in this process has been invaluable. The boards were originally established by the Children Act 2004, and they bring the key partners together in one place to focus on safeguarding. There is significant variation in the quality and effectiveness of these boards, of course, but I hope the work that is now being done to ensure lessons are learned between them, such as through networks of board chairs, will go some way towards addressing that. However, there is concern that in the context of reduced regulation, the Government must remain vigilant to make sure that that learning process moves forward.
Does my hon. Friend, who is getting to the heart of the matter, share my concern? When I chaired the Select Committee, the inquiries that we did on this subject showed time and time again that people did not learn from their mistakes and that the core management and training were at the heart of all the problems.
That is absolutely right, and I shall come on to one or two of those themes. As a principle, that makes sense, and not only in social work—there are similar lessons in other areas of public service.
As well as integrated services, I want to emphasise the importance of leadership. Professor Munro has said that local authorities should protect the role of director of children’s services and the lead member for children’s services, as established in the 2004 legislation. There is evidence from some authorities of those roles being combined with other functions, typically adult social care responsibilities. Professor Munro made it clear that she opposed that, and I urge the Minister to respond to her concerns.
If the Government are to meet their aim of improving professional expertise and flexibility, there is a need, as I have said, to improve the status of the social work profession. The British Association of Social Workers has warned that the proposals set out yesterday do not address sufficiently social workers’ concerns about issues to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) referred—unmanageable case loads, stress, plummeting morale and cuts to administrative support staff. We need to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility and professional expertise in the system, including on the important issue of neglect. Given that extreme, high-profile cases have, understandably, been well publicised, occasionally there is a tendency for the system to, as it were, neglect neglect. Professor Munro has said that the processes are
“better designed to deal with an urgent concern about an incident of physical or sexual abuse, so neglect, which is about a chronic pattern of parenting, does not come up as a serious case.”
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Education is carrying out a detailed inquiry on child protection. Although many issues have emerged—and the report has yet to be drafted—there is clear concern about neglect, the inconsistent thresholds across the country for services to families, and the fact that in cases where older children are clearly at risk they do not necessarily get access to the services that they need. Those are three areas of serious concern for the Select Committee.
I know that my hon. Friend raised those matters directly with the Minister when he gave evidence to the Select Committee yesterday. I wish to put on record our appreciation of the detailed work that she and other members of the Select Committee have done on this important subject. I am sure that all Members look forward to that report, including its recommendations.
Services such as ChildLine have done an immense job in identifying the problems facing children and young people, but the increasing work load for its staff—similar to the increasing work load for social workers and council staff—and the fact that the processes for dealing with referrals are often bureaucratic, is something that the Government should address.
On early intervention, Labour supports the Munro recommendation that a statutory duty should be introduced on local authorities and relevant agencies to secure the provision of early help. Early intervention is vital in the prevention and detection of abuse. These services need to be expanded, but are under a great deal of pressure, not least from spending cuts. I wish to put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for the excellent work they have done on this very important area of early intervention. They have outlined the importance of early work in identifying challenges and managing to tackle them at an appropriate stage.
On that point about early intervention, the Government have marked out a route whereby they want to see special treatment for 120,000 families who meet five of their seven criteria, but the fact that they meet five of those negative criteria almost automatically suggests to me that they are past the point of early intervention.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generous remarks and for the way he has couched the motion, which allows all Members across the House who are concerned about the issue to support what I hope Members on both Front Benches will say today. He talks about early intervention, and obviously there are catastrophic consequences for individuals when things are not done right and social and emotional capability is not given to babies, children and young people, but there are also tremendous economic consequences. Does he agree that if the Chancellor wants an enormous deficit reduction programme, early interventions that mean we do not have the costs of later interventions, which are not only expensive but often only partially successful, suggest that the way to go is to have a little, but early, rather than a lot, wastefully, later?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He makes the point powerfully and better than I could, so I will simply say that I agree entirely.
There are positive signs that the system has been improving. Three years on from the baby Peter case, a review by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service into care applications found that local authorities are intervening much more quickly and in a much more timely way. However, we are concerned that many essential early intervention services are being cut.
An important innovation has been the family drug and alcohol court, which provides intensive support to parents alongside a series of carrots and sticks to help them make progress. The close relationship between the court and families can serve to improve the speed of decision making and provide crucial therapeutic help at an early stage. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said earlier, it is so important to work with parents to improve parenting skills. Parental support was a key element of Labour’s Sure Start programme, and the national evaluation of Sure Start found greatly improved outcomes for children in Sure Start areas, with more consistent discipline from parents, less chaos at home, parents making more use of local services and fewer children suffering in accidents.
There is a wealth of evidence on the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse, as the Minister acknowledged yesterday when he appeared before the Select Committee. We are concerned that we have seen a 31% cut in funding for refuges and specialist advice, which is surely undermining action to deal with domestic violence. On the subject of unintended consequences, I have a real concern, which I think has been expressed in the Select Committee’s deliberations, that in some cases the legitimate desire to protect a child from domestic violence can lead to the child being taken away from the non-violent parent, usually the mother. I would be grateful for any further information the Minister has on that.
Finally, let me say something about the importance of clarifying who is responsible within the Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance. Professor Munro has said that she feels on occasion that momentum is not being maintained, and I think that, one year after her recommendation to appoint a chief social worker, and three years after that was first proposed, the Government need to move swiftly to appoint someone to that important new post. At the end of her one-year progress report, Professor Munro says that there should be continuing oversight of the whole system so that progress is maintained. The Government need to make it clear who will be responsible for that oversight, and I note that Professor Munro says that it should not be her, but a “fresh person”.
Before my hon. Friend finishes his excellent and even-handed contribution, like those from Members across the parties, will he take it from many of us who have been in the field for a long time that there is a crisis not just of children at risk, but of childhood? There are sometimes unintended consequences, and Opposition Members have been complicit in that, given our attitude that there should be votes at 16—with no attention paid to its implications in terms of shortening childhood. That is an unintended consequence, but two parties in the House had the measure in their election manifestos—with no thought about the implications for the protection that childhood until 18 offers so many children.
My hon. Friend tempts me, as a long-standing supporter of votes at 16, down a different road. I am sure that it was not a consideration in his making the intervention, but it is a debate for another time and place.
We also need to safeguard the safeguarding system. Studies have shown that the vast majority of care proceedings are appropriate and taken in the best interests of the child, but we need to ensure that there is a suitable mechanism for the occasions when that does not happen. Yesterday the Minister said that he was considering a form of “appeals process” to enable that, and I am sure that the House would be grateful if he could elaborate on his thinking.
I said at the beginning of this speech that child protection and safeguarding covers a range of issues and Departments, and, in addition to my warnings about unintended consequences and the well-being of children, I am concerned by the Government’s somewhat incoherent approach: on the one hand, Ministers like to lambast local authorities, yet on the other they are removing regulation and placing more power in the hands of local authority social work staff; on the one hand, Ministers say they want to reduce bureaucracy and red tape, but on the other they are introducing adoption scorecards for every local authority; and, on the one hand, Ministers say that early intervention is important, yet on the other they have not taken forward Professor Munro’s recommended statutory duty to do “early work” on child protection.
The British Association of Social Workers has raised a series of concerns about the state of the profession, particularly case load and the pressures on administration. In a survey that we conducted, more than 80% of the directors of children’s services who responded said that cuts to other services would affect their ability to safeguard children, and in a survey by the BASW 90% of social workers expressed concern that lives “could be at risk” as a consequence of cuts to services. The Government need to explain how they will address those challenges.
At a previous session of the Education Committee, when the Secretary of State was in attendance, I asked him whether he thought that it was a good idea for his Department—he being the Secretary of State for Education and children—to undertake an impact assessment of the Government’s proposed benefit changes on the welfare of children and their educational prospects. He subsequently said that he did not think that it was his responsibility, and he was doubtful about the veracity of such assessments anyway. Is that a surprise to my hon. Friend?
It is not, and in my concluding remarks I shall say something about the Department for Education’s broader responsibilities for the well-being of children.
The Government have to explain how they will address the challenges that I have set, and there needs to be a robust training and continuing professional development framework not only for social workers, but for other staff in the relevant agencies, especially those in the health sector. It is crucial that we have robust supervision of social work practice by experienced senior staff and consultants who are accountable for the exercise of professional judgment. We know that the lack of good supervision was a significant issue in the baby Peter case.
If all those in the agencies that are involved in protecting and safeguarding vulnerable children are to be able to do so with the best possible judgments that they can make as professionals, they need to learn from mistakes that have been made in the past. We have heard about the horrendous cases of baby P and others, which have led to a number of serious case reviews. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to make sure that we shine a light on the mistakes that were made in those particularly appalling cases and learn those lessons from the past, it is important that we have full publication of serious case reviews, albeit anonymised in the appropriate places?
I am going to tread carefully on that issue. I am being advised to say yes by my esteemed colleague in the shadow team, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), but I recognise that that would be a change from the position that my predecessor took. I will undertake to look at it and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
Let me finish by saying something about the Government’s broader policy with regard to children and families. When the Secretary of State took over two years ago, he renamed the Department, removing the words “Children” and “Families”. I am a passionate advocate of innovation, rigour and high standards in our schools and colleagues.
I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am going to finish because I have spoken for quite a long time.
There is no contradiction between high standards and promoting the well-being of children; indeed, the two can and should go hand in hand. That was the core ethos of Every Child Matters, yet this Government have moved away from that. An internal DFE memo in 2010 said that reference to the five Every Child Matters outcomes was now forbidden and that the rather nebulous concept, “Help children achieve more”, was to replace it. Achievement is important, but so too is the broader well-being of children and young people. I urge the Government to think again on this. The principles of Every Child Matters are as relevant and powerful in 2012 as they were in 2004. Indeed, they are the principles that lie at the heart of this very important debate. It is a debate that enables the House to consider the Government’s proposals, gives Members in all parts of the House an opportunity to raise questions and concerns on behalf of our constituents, and, above all, should send out a clear, cross-party message that Parliament is determined to do all that we can to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children.
Let me first say what a contrast to the previous debate this has been—calm and measured, and about important things that are affecting our constituents and vulnerable children around the country but do not get the airing that they should.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on using an opportunity such as this, as I always did in opposition, to try to flag up these really important issues, which are not terribly fashionable in the press or among some of our colleagues but are absolutely crucial to many of our most vulnerable citizens. It is absolutely right that we should do that. The hon. Gentleman raised, in a very measured way, a lot of important matters, most of which I covered in my two-hour grilling in front of the Education Select Committee yesterday, and many of which I will cover in my comments today. Let me pick up just a few of his points. I do not want to speak at length, because other people want to contribute to the debate and that is very important.
I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Eileen Monro’s report, which was excellent. She had the time and space to come up with some very well-considered proposals instead of giving a knee-jerk reaction to the latest tragedy that had happened. Her report was universally well received. It is a great joy to me to be able to put into practice everything that she recommended. Some of the recommendations are a bit more problematic than others, and with some, just as she took time to consider them, we will take time to come up with the precise nature of the solutions.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the chief social worker. Before this debate, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), and I interviewed the four short-listed candidates; in fact, I gather that they interviewed us. There have been some very high-calibre candidates and we hope to be able to appoint that person shortly. I want them working alongside me and the Health Department as soon as possible. That key recommendation from Monro will make a big difference.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the family drug and alcohol court, which Nick Crichton runs. I have sat in it on many occasions. It is fantastic and a really smart way of dealing with very problematic cases. I want to see more of that rolled out. My own authority is looking at a joint venture with Brighton in east Sussex to see whether we can bring it to our part of the country, and there are other examples.
The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he praised Munro for wanting a child-centred system. The review was entitled, “The Child’s Journey”. We are all here not to make sure that the system works better or that processes are followed more efficiently, but to make sure that the qualitative outcomes—the impact that the system is having on children who need to be helped, safeguarded and put in a safe place—are improved. We often forgot that in the past, which has been one of the weaknesses.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned training. One of my continuous pushes is on continuous professional development, which he mentioned as well. It is crucial, which is why we put £80 million into social work reform in 2011-12, and why we have some good new social workers coming forward from other walks of life, as well as through training in our universities. We put £23 million into the local social work improvement fund in 2010-11 to support improvement on the front line. We have 3,700 newly qualified or first or second-year social workers who have joined the professional development programme. There are 400 extremely high-calibre people. I have met many of them. I am handing out awards to many of them from the Step Up to Social Work programme.
There is a great deal going on. Safeguarding children is not a partisan issue, but something that we all want to achieve, so I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement that a real momentum is building in efforts to make our children safer—although never completely safe. It is unrealistic, as Professor Munro pointed out, to suggest that we can remove risk and make every child absolutely safe. It would be complacent to think so. Our job in government and the job of those in opposition working with all the professionals around the country is to make children as safe as we possibly can.
The Minister knows of my interest in the subject and I do not want to upset the apple cart or the bipartisan nature of the debate, but this is not the first such debate that the Secretary of State has not attended. There is a crisis facing children. All the evidence that we have received over the past months suggests that many vulnerable children are in a dreadful situation in our country. We need the leadership of the Secretary of State, to show that he is interested in children’s issues as well as in broader schools and education issues.
The Secretary of State is hugely engaged in the issue. I have been around the block a little longer than he has. Having been shadow Minister with responsibility for children, having dealt with safeguarding since 2003 and having been appointed to this position, I perhaps have a little more experience of the subject. When the current Secretary of State took up his position as shadow Secretary of State, his interest and his knowledge of serious case reviews on some safeguarding issues was extraordinary. He has driven the programme and enabled me and others to carry forward the proposals from Munro and others in the way we have. I remind the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that the very first review that was established in the Department for Education under the new Secretary of State was the Munro review on child safeguarding. It was nothing to do with schools or education; it was on child safeguarding. That speaks volumes.
That is good to hear, but when both the Minister and his hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) said that this debate was much more important than the previous one, is it not fair to point out that the Secretary of State chose to attend the beginning of the previous debate, but not to attend this debate?
I am sorry that we seem to be descending into the village frippery of the last debate. This debate was announced yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to shift various engagements to attend the House earlier and is not able to attend this debate. He trusts me and my ministerial colleagues to speak about this issue from the Dispatch Box. He follows these issues very closely. The fact that he has put the resources of the Department into ensuring that we have safeguarding improvements that are working is the test of the commitment of this Government, this Secretary of State and this ministerial team to the subject in hand.
Let us get back to the important business of saying what we have done and responding to the points that have been made. I welcome this opportunity to debate safeguarding children. It is appropriate that we should have this debate now because, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, only yesterday we launched a consultation on revised statutory guidance, as part of our wider proposals to reform radically the child protection system in England. It is radical reform, and it is also about changing mindsets.
Before I remind hon. Members of the action that the Government have taken to keep vulnerable children safe, I want to pay tribute, as I am sure we all do, to the many thousands of professionals, social workers and others around the country who work hard to do just that, for which they receive little recognition and praise in the media or among our constituents. I often refer to social workers as the fourth emergency service. That is not an overestimation. Our reforms are designed to help those professionals to get on with their jobs better and to keep vulnerable children safer.
Although it is essential to tackle poor practice, I believe that we can and should do a great deal more to celebrate successes and to support those on the front line when they use their professional judgment to take tough decisions. I have met many hundreds of social workers over the past few years and spent a whole week in Stockport as a social worker a little while ago. They have to exercise the judgment of Solomon, often on a daily basis. It is not an exact science. They have to make difficult judgment calls, and we expect them to do so as part of their daily job.
As many hon. Members will know, the widely welcomed review completed by Eileen Munro last year laid the groundwork for a new approach to child protection. As I have said, it was the first review that we established. We are rapidly turning its recommendations into practice. Professor Munro found that the system had become overwhelmed by prescriptive bureaucracy and box-ticking, and that social workers were spending too much time on form-filling and not enough with families and vulnerable children. Endless procedures had been imposed on professionals to minimise risk, even though it is fanciful to believe that we can wish danger and insecurity away simply by ticking the right boxes. As a result, the professionalism and judgment of frontline staff had been undermined. The most important thing—the central focus on the needs of children—had been largely lost.
The answer that Professor Munro proposed was simple: we need to get back to basics of best practice. We need to allow social workers to spend more time with children and families, getting to know and understand them and responding to their particular circumstances and needs. As she put it, we need to focus
“not only on whether we are doing things right but whether we are doing the right thing.”
We accepted Eileen Munro’s findings and have been acting on them. We are beginning to see the fruits of the change of emphasis. We are seeing greater flexibility, with eight local authorities, including Knowsley and Islington, testing new approaches to the assessment of children’s needs over the past year. We have given them the freedom, through a special dispensation, to set their own local frameworks and to replace rigid time scales with professional judgments based on the needs of each child.
The feedback from the trials has been encouraging. Social workers are telling us that greater flexibility leads to more quality time with children and families, and better assessments, particularly for families with the most complex needs. Many also feel an enhanced sense of ownership over their work. We are, I hope, restoring confidence to the social work profession, which had taken such a knock.
Local authorities are telling us that with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. They have been reporting back to us about the need to monitor cases robustly to prevent drift. We are seeing a greater practical emphasis on multi-agency working and a drive towards transparency, which is essential in improving services and strengthening public confidence in the work that they do. We are seeing a stronger focus on supervision, with social workers having more time with their managers to discuss complex cases.
I am also encouraged to see an emerging greater emphasis on learning, another key point that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. Increasingly, the sector is taking the lead in sharing lessons from good practice and from when things go wrong. We can learn from mistakes only if we understand how and why they happened, hence our policy on publishing serious case reviews, which I am delighted to hear the Opposition have now come around to. We are also considering how we can improve serious case reviews to make them more effective tools for learning lessons that are widely shared and that lead to action and sustainable improvements. That could not happen while only very limited executive summaries were in the public domain.
Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we announced a further important step in our overhaul of the child protection system in England. It is a measure at the heart of the Munro recommendations: the revised “working together” strategy. That new statutory guidance for safeguarding children will help create a new culture of trust among health professionals, teachers, early years professionals, youth workers, police and social workers.
We have published three draft documents for consultation—and it will indeed be a consultation. Some of the points made by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, as well as others that the hon. Gentleman raised, absolutely need to be fed into that consultation. That was why we did not just plough ahead, much though Eileen Munro was urging us to do so. We want to get things right, just as she got her recommendations right. We want to ensure that we put them into practice in the right way so that they work properly.
Our three draft documents will replace more 700 pages of detailed instructions with 68 pages of short, precise guidance and checklists. They will be punchy but clear and give professionals space in which to exercise their professional judgment. The revised guidance proposes giving local areas more freedom to organise their services in a way that suits local needs. It will allow more face-to-face time with children and families, which is crucial, and provide a clear framework within which professionals must operate.
The first document, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, clearly states the law so that all organisations know what they and others must do to protect children. It does not tell GPs and other health professionals, teachers, police and social workers exactly how to do their job, but it provides a checklist setting out their duties and what is expected of them. It also sets out how the role and impact of local safeguarding children boards can be strengthened. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are crucial to the reforms, and they play an absolutely vital role in holding local agencies to account and getting all the key players around the same table and talking the same language.
The second document is new guidance on undertaking assessments of children in need. Informed by evidence from the eight trial local authorities, it proposes replacing nationally prescribed timetables with a more flexible approach. That approach will be focused, as it should be, on the needs of each child. It will absolutely do what the motion asks for—it will put the child’s needs, rather than compliance with inflexible time scales and recording processes, at the centre of assessment.
The third document is new guidance on learning and improvement, to help all services learn the lessons from serious case reviews. It comes from our strong belief that serious case reviews need to be much more strongly focused on learning, rather than process, and that the reports must be published so that lessons can be shared nationally and locally. In those reviews, we need to get to the heart of what went wrong and what action at what point by which individual led to a decision being made that might have contributed to a tragedy.
The approach behind those three new documents has rightly been welcomed. Professor Munro has said:
“We are finally moving away from the defensive rule-bound culture that has been so problematic. I believe an urgent culture change in our child protection system is now underway.”
Anne Marie Carrie, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, has said:
“We support changing the emphasis within the system to enable professionals to take responsibility for safeguarding the welfare of the most vulnerable children.”
At the same time as doing the work that he is undertaking to do, has the Minister given any additional thought to updating the legal definition of neglect? I believe that next year is the 80th anniversary of that definition as it is currently enshrined in law.
We had this conversation yesterday in the Select Committee on Education, of course, and I said that in response to the Action for Children report we had examined closely whether there needed to be an update to the law, which goes back to the 1933 definition. We were strongly advised that we did not need to change the law, which the courts and children’s services are interpreting in a contemporary way. As I was speaking yesterday, we were putting on the website a neglect toolkit, designed with Action for Children and the university of Stirling. It includes some practical tools for detecting, intervening and dealing with cases of neglect. That is a much more practical way to achieve real results now.
Revising statutory guidance is clearly not the only thing we need to do—far from it. The consultation forms part of a much wider programme of reforms that includes Ofsted’s new inspection framework, which began in May 2012 and has a stronger focus on the quality of practice and the effectiveness of help provided to children. It is much more children-centred. From June 2013, the planned new joint inspections will make a further important difference by looking at the contribution of all local agencies to keeping children safe. We are reforming inspection so that it makes judgments about the things that really matter, and so that it looks at how agencies work together to safeguard children more from the perspective of the qualitative outcomes for the child.
Does my hon. Friend agree that moving looked-after children from one local authority to another creates greater difficulty, namely ensuring that case notes are transferred and that the conversation between the different agencies is sustained? When children are moved, their longer-term safety is eroded because of the distance and lack of contact between the source local authority and the receiving one.
My hon. Friend knows exactly what I think about that—we have discussed it at length. She has become something of expert in this matter because it is an issue in her constituency, as it is in mine. As a result of her approaches and events in Rochdale and other alarming cases, we will announce shortly, as I told the Committee yesterday, the results of the additional work done by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner on how we ensure that children are placed out of area only when appropriate, and when they can be safely and appropriately looked after. That should happen at the moment, but it does not in practice. The sufficiency principle, which we have overhauled once, needs more work. I will be happy to make those announcements in detail within the next few weeks, because this is a serious matter.
I want to get to the end of this speech so that other hon. Members can contribute, so I am going to talk fast, as I often do. The motion calls for early intervention programmes
“to be promoted on the best available evidence”.
We know that the earlier help is given to vulnerable children and families, the more chance there is of turning lives around and protecting children from harm. We are therefore continuing to work with children’s services, police and the NHS to shift the focus on to earlier intervention and early help.
I was trying to get on, but I will be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.
We know that continuing such work will help to tackle childhood neglect, which is the most common category of abuse under which children become the subject of child protection plans.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend. I just want to be helpful. Does he agree that having more early prevention programmes—including, for example, psychotherapists to whom social workers could on-refer—would help to back-solve the problem of the overloading of social workers and health visitors? If we had such programmes, social workers and health visitors would have somebody who could deal with the problems, support them and enable them to release some of the burden of their case load.
I have known my hon. Friend for more than 30 years and she has never been anything but helpful. Her work on early prevention, which is germane to the Government’s work on neglect and early help, absolutely confirms that the sooner we can detect problems, such as detachment, deficiency and others—the work with troubled families is important in this respect—the more likely we are to step in at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner to avoid such problems leading to greater harm to a child. She is absolutely right, as she knows, and as she knows I know.
Understanding families and the experiences of children within them can be complex and signs of what appears to be low-level neglect can be misleading. Yesterday, as I have said, we published materials commissioned from Action for Children and the University of Stirling to help on that.
We are already seeing some notable successes from earlier intervention. I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is no longer in the Chamber, for his work on that. For example, the integrated access team in Suffolk is taking and handling quickly cases that would previously have been dealt with by children’s social care, with a £7 million saving on top of better social outcomes for those children. Tower Hamlets is operating a multi-agency integrated pathway and support team to deliver early help, reducing by 50% the number of referrals to children’s social care. That is happening in practice, and we now want more of it around the country.
As the motion indicates, it is important that professionals know what early intervention works best. To support them in that, the Government have recently invited bids for the establishment of an early intervention foundation and we expect the foundation to operate independently of central Government to support the needs of local commissioners and to build a solid evidence base.
I referred at the start of my speech to the importance of a high quality social work work force. Building on the work of the social work taskforce established by the previous Administration, we have focused heavily on improving the capacity and capability of the social work profession. In 2011-12 we invested £80 million in a national programme of social work reform to improve skills for social workers and tackle high vacancy rates in child protection. Together, all those reforms will shift the child protection system from a culture of compliance to a culture in which children and families are at the centre and social workers and other key professionals spend less time in front of their computer screens and more time face to face with vulnerable families and children, which is what we all want to see.
The motion rightly refers to the importance of young people understanding the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation. Tackling child sexual exploitation is a major priority for the Government and it has been at the top of our agenda over the past 12 months. Back in May last year, I made a speech at a Barnardo’s event in which I highlighted the importance of its “Puppet on a string” report. I said then that sexual exploitation of children
“is happening here and it is happening now”
and I went on to say that
“I think it’s a much bigger problem than it may appear now on our radar.”
I fear I was only too right and that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg.
For far too long, the issue was something of a taboo in this country. It was little spoken about, little appreciated and little acknowledged or dealt with. Few local authorities had much idea about how prevalent child sexual exploitation was in their areas and, as a result, there was a real and tragic failure to grasp the scale of the problem. The high profile verdicts in the recent Rochdale case and others show that the situation is changing. The country is at last waking up to the fact that child sexual exploitation is a real problem in this country, but although the issue has been extensively discussed and debated in the media, there is still a good deal of misunderstanding about it.
Much of the coverage of the case in Rochdale focused on the fact that the perpetrators were British Asian men and the victims white teenage girls. We must not shy away from difficult issues about culture—I have said that on many occasions—and the Rochdale case does raise very troubling questions about the attitude of the perpetrators, all but one of whom were from Pakistani backgrounds, towards white girls, but it would be mistaken, and dangerous, to assume that that is the form that child sexual exploitation generally takes. We know that perpetrators of that appalling crime and their victims can be found in all backgrounds, in all parts of the country and in all social and ethnic sets. As Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, told the Select Committee on Home Affairs yesterday, this is not just a crime that takes place in northern metropolitan boroughs. She quoted a police officer from a
“lovely, leafy, rural part of the country”
who told her that
“there isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited”.
We owe a debt of gratitude to several organisations and individuals for putting the issue on the map, such as Safe and Sound Derby and, in particular, Sheila Taylor, to whom I pay tribute. Barnardo’s also did an enormous amount to raise awareness through its excellent report and its continuing “Cut them free” campaign. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre carried out a major assessment last year and reported practitioners telling it
“if you lift the stone, you’ll find it”.
There are many others, including many local projects and voluntary organisations, with whom my Department continues to work closely. We acted, I brought together all the major players and in November of last year we produced the tackling child sexual exploitation action plan. That is one of the pieces of work in my Department of which I am most proud, and it is beginning to have an effect. It is intended to lift the lid on the true nature and extent of this crime and to set out practical responses to it, and as a result many practical measures are already coming into force, although we need many more to take effect.
We identified four key stages where we needed better intervention. We need better awareness among children and their parents. We need better multi-agency action to intervene so that we can help children and families who are caught up in sexual exploitation. Once they have been rescued from it, we need to help them get their lives back on track. Finally, we must secure robust prosecutions and improve court processes to ensure support for victims and their families, including ensuring that we do not retraumatise teenage girls and other victims, who have to go through the whole episode in court in front of a phalanx of defence barristers. That is why the Attorney-General’s influence and involvement are really important. We must and can do better and shortly we will publish a progress report on how a range of Government Departments and national and local organisations are implementing the action plan.
Hon. Members will also be aware that last month the Secretary of State asked the Deputy Children’s Commissioner to provide him with an accelerated report from her office’s inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. Although it is clear that most children who are sexually exploited are not in care, we know that children who are in care are disproportionately represented in the numbers of victims of this crime. The Secretary of State asked particularly for recommendations on how to keep children in care homes safe from this abuse. We have just received that accelerated report, and we will publish it within a matter of weeks alongside the updated progress report, into which some of the findings from Sue Berelowitz’s report will be factored and, as a result, some urgent streams of work will emerge.
We are already taking action on children missing from care, and it is clear that the figures the police and my Department publish are not consistent. That is simply not acceptable. We are now working with the police and local authorities to bring a more consistent approach to figures collected nationally and locally. We need to know the extent of the problem so we can challenge poorly performing local authorities and come up with the right solutions.
I am particularly grateful for the work the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) is carrying out through the all-party parliamentary group inquiry into children missing from care. I look forward to receiving its report next week and will consider its recommendations very closely. I have promised that it will inform the new guidance we are looking to publish in that area.
Of course, safeguarding children in care is only one aspect of our wider reform programme to transform the care system and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children. Key is ensuring placement stability and good parenting—as we have heard from hon. Members today—whether through adoption, foster care or children’s homes. We also want to improve the support given to care leavers, another group vulnerable to sexual exploitation. We must ensure that children who leave care live in good accommodation and are well supported.
The reference in the motion to multi-agency working has a particular relevance in relation to tackling child sexual exploitation. Local safeguarding children boards have an absolutely central role in overseeing much of the work set out in our action plan. There is growing evidence that LSCBs and local authorities are getting a better picture of child sexual exploitation in their areas and taking steps to address it. But it is clear that some are still not giving this issue the priority it requires. They need to do so without further delay.
There is one final area that I want to mention in particular. Improving the safety of children who use the internet is an urgent priority, including reducing the risk of harm through contact with strangers and the viewing of harmful content. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned a particularly horrific site that was raised yesterday. The Government are working, through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety or UKCCIS, which I chair jointly with a Home Office Minister, to help to keep children and young people safer online. The council is focused on practical action, both by individual members, and collectively.
We have made real progress across a number of areas. The four major internet service providers have signed a code of practice that will see by October 2012 all new broadband customers presented with an unavoidable choice of whether to activate parental controls. Major retailers and manufacturers of internet-enabled devices such as mobile phones, laptops and internet-enabled TVs are developing solutions to increase the availability and awareness of parental controls at point of sale. UKCCIS has also published advice and guidance for internet companies to use so that parents get consistent information about keeping their children safe on the internet.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hesitated to intervene, given the speed at which he was going, but I did not want to miss the chance to raise with him a very real concern for people in Darlington about registered sex offenders. At the moment, offenders are not required to register their online identities as a matter of course. Sexual offences prevention orders are used to do this job, but it is not a requirement as a matter of course. When people have a known history of child abuse and deliberate grooming, it is very important that they are required to register their online identities as a matter of course.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Rather than go into detail now and take more time from Back Benchers, I would be happy to look into it if she would like to have a conversation with me and send me some details.
This is a huge, complex but deeply important subject and one that must remain a key priority for the Government and the Department in particular. The documents we published yesterday are intended to help create the new culture that we are determined to see. It is a culture that is not overly focused on compliance and dependency on central prescription and guidance; in which front-line professionals who work to keep children safe from harm no longer have their judgment stifled by what has all too often been pointless—albeit well intentioned—bureaucracy, made up of unnecessary rules and targets; and which has the needs and well-being of the child at its centre. It is apparent from the motion that the Government and the Opposition share the same goals in relation to the safeguarding of children, and I believe that the important reforms I have outlined will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I congratulate again the shadow Secretary of State on bringing this important subject before a slightly reduced audience in the Chamber today, because it is really important to a much bigger audience outside the House.
Order. In view of the level of interest, I have had to impose an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, with immediate effect, and although it is not obligatory not to take interventions, some self-denial over the number and length of interventions would help us to achieve our objective of getting everybody in.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, to speak in this extremely important and timely debate on safeguarding children. I, too, welcome the motion, which is wide-ranging and will enable Members from across the House with different expertise and experience to contribute to what we all wish to do—protect children. I also welcome the timely statutory guidance that the Minister set out yesterday for bringing together the threads of the Government’s work on child protection. I must also declare an interest, having had 12 years’ experience as a family law barrister specialising in child protection, which although not making me an expert, has given me an insight into the work of child protection professionals.
Let us consider why the Government are prioritising child protection. A couple of startling statistics speak for themselves. Last year, 382,400 children-in-need requests were recorded and more than 600,000 referrals were made to social workers. Those are huge numbers that we all must reflect on. I know that all Members will be working with families and social work professionals, through their constituency casework, in trying to combat the problem of damaged children.
I want to cover early intervention, on which Members have already commented, the sexual exploitation of children, and the need to inform young people of the risks and to empower child protection professionals to provide the necessary support to vulnerable families. It is difficult to go much further, however, without mentioning the report by Professor Eileen Munro. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Minister for covering the report in detail—there is little to add to what they said. We all welcome the detail of this wide-ranging report, which I understand was the first to be commissioned under the coalition Government by the Department for Education. That sent out a clear signal that the Government intended to prioritise child protection and, in particular, to support the professionals.
I do not want to go through many more statistics, and certainly I do not want to emphasise the differences between the main political parties. So far, the debate has brought us together on this important issue, and I wish to continue with that. It is right, however, to give examples of why these changes are needed. In family courts over the years, I have represented hard-working social work teams, children themselves, through their guardians, and the parents, and too often I have seen social workers desperately trying to complete the paperwork necessary to facilitate a child’s move into care. At these crucial times, however, those social workers need the ability to exercise their professional judgment in weighing up the options for the children—possibly the division of a sibling group—and assessing the emergency situation.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of where a court has to consider a child’s future is the grave situation where there is a risk of harm right from birth. Such cases are extremely troubling and distressing for everyone concerned. They involve not just questions of logistics, but the exercise of professional judgment on the part of the social work team about how to plan and facilitate the removal of the child from birth, if that is required. Such cases require the ultimate exercise of judgment by professionals, at a time when they do not need to be worrying about the paperwork that goes alongside such decisions. I hope that the reforms will go a long way to change that.
Both Front Benchers raised concerns about child neglect. In my experience, the cases involving neglect are often the hardest to read—that is, to determine the chronology and the facts. That is probably because complex cases of sexual abuse are so far removed from the experience of most people in this country that they are difficult to relate to. However, unclean clothes, not being washed, a lack of love and care in the home, feelings of hunger—something I always try to avoid—and physical neglect are concepts that, on some level, we can perhaps all relate to, and we all know what they must be like for a young child with no ability whatever to protect themselves. The emphasis on child neglect and the need to empower professionals to sustain change within homes—not just to make referrals, but to keep supporting families—is extremely important. Tackling neglect is also about encouraging all adults across society and about not being frightened to make referrals. All of us can do more on this issue. I know that social work teams would rather have 10 calls about a family when there are concerns about neglect than have no calls at all.
That brings me to another aspect of this debate: the need for a multi-agency approach, which is also highlighted in the motion. In my experience, improvements have already been made, following the baby Peter Connelly case, to address the need to bring multi-agency work together at the earliest stage. However, we now need to look at sharing paperwork and information. Is there anything more we can do to make the system effective for the longer term? Neglect is also related to the need for early intervention, which has also been raised this afternoon. It is an issue that I have mentioned in the House on a number of occasions. We are grateful for our experience of addressing the issue and for the reports that hon. Members have prepared on it.
I see that time is against me. There is more that I wanted to say, but to conclude, I see genuine momentum in the safeguarding of children. We now have an evidence-based approach supporting the social work profession and the toolkit to move things forward, so that we can assist the professionals and parents in the community through early intervention. Ultimately, that will protect the children who need the help which all of us in this place are concerned about.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the shadow Secretary of State for Education, on initiating this debate. It is truly timely, not least because of the Rochdale grooming case. Indeed, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, following that case, the public would expect this issue to be discussed on the Floor of the House, so it is right and proper that we should be having this debate.
I have to confess that this is not an issue on which I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fair to say that in the last few months I have learned much about it. I want to concentrate on the Rochdale grooming case, how these horrific crimes came about, what lessons can be learned and how we need to go about learning them. It is right and proper that the starting point for any discussion on this type of issue should be the victims. Let us be clear: the victims in this case—these vulnerable girls—went to hell and back, in terms of what they experienced at the hands of their abusers and the court case that they had to go through. They were passed around the perpetrators and repeatedly raped. They were continually abused and treated absolutely appallingly.
It is interesting that, after the trial, professionals involved in the care of children were saying that the girls were from chaotic families, as though that explained why they had not been cared for. I accept that the parents of those children must take some responsibility, but the local authorities involved were those children’s guardians, and they failed to guard them. The perpetrators sometimes referred to the girls as prostitutes, and it was interesting that some of the social services staff referred to them in the same way. Those girls did not stand a chance.
Three weeks ago, two health workers who had been heavily involved in the case came to see me at my constituency office to describe their experience. They said that social services managers believed that the girls had been making life choices, which is why they were seen as prostitutes. Some of the social services staff who were dealing with the girls clearly had low expectations of them. The health workers told me that although one of the girls—their client—had presented with multiple sexually transmitted infections, the council would not intervene or escalate her care. They also told me that one 13-year-old girl had asked to go into secure care to escape from the abuse. Social services responded that she was too disruptive, and that it would cost too much. Let us be clear: those health professionals were working with children who were pressing for greater intervention, more action and more intensive care, yet none of that was forthcoming. The abuse continued for years. Vulnerable girls got pregnant by their abusers, and lives continued to be ruined. That is the reality.
Yesterday, we started to hear the defence—not the defence of the perpetrators, but that of some of the agencies involved in the case. Rochdale council and Greater Manchester police gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. I pay tribute to the scrutiny role fulfilled by the Chairman and the members of the Committee. We heard council representatives saying that there needed to be a change in the law, because data-sharing had been a problem in the case. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), a Committee member, pointed out that legislation in the late 1990s had enabled agencies to share all the data that needed to be shared in order to prevent a crime. In fact, such agencies are obliged to share information to prevent such crimes. Sharing data should not have been an issue. The health workers I met had made it clear that this was not about sharing data; it was about their concerns being ignored by social services. We do not need to change the law; rather, the council needs to change its culture.
During a conversation that I had with a senior officer two months ago, before the sentencing in the case, she described on-street grooming as a new phenomenon. It is no such thing. Senior officers also said that they had only just received guidance on this matter from central Government, as though they needed such guidance to intervene to stop those perpetrators abusing those girls, or to take more responsibility for them. The Select Committee also heard from the chief constable of Greater Manchester police. I want to put on the record that Greater Manchester police did an excellent job of prosecuting this grooming case. It should be noted that they have apologised for the errors they made in the attempted prosecution of 2008.
One of the chief constable’s defences for what happened—or did not happen—in 2008 was that he was concerned about these vulnerable girls going through the court system, as he thought it would be a harrowing experience. The problem with that argument is, first, that the girls were probably not consulted on whether they wanted to go through a court case; and, secondly, and more importantly, that they continued to be abused because they did not go to court. Which is worse: going through a court case or continuing to be abused?
The Crown Prosecution Service, too, clearly failed in 2008 and has apologised for it. It needs to be said that no thorough investigation took place, so we do not know who it was who took the decision not to prosecute and we do not know whether disciplinary action has been taken. This is a public body, and I believe that greater transparency needs to be applied to it.
A whole range of issues is at stake. Investigations by the local authority and by the local safeguarding children board are going on, but let me reassure the House and the public that any cover-up in this instance will not be accepted. I have been assured by the Minister and the Prime Minister that action will be taken to get to the bottom of this. I hope that that happens.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on his very good speech, much of which needs to be listened to and understood. It is not that we do not have the right laws in place; it is that the professional judgments made by practitioners are often basically not common sense.
Let me declare a declaration of interest on account of my involvement in the Justice for Families campaign. What I tend to see are the over-interventions, where the state intervenes improperly.
Returning to the issues of Rochdale, I raised a number of years ago the situation of a children’s home in Birmingham, where the practitioners did not mind if the children were prostitutes but did mind if they made toast for each other—because there was a health and safety risk to making toast.
I have made the effort to get the statutory guidance. If the motion supported the statutory guidance, I would probably have to vote against it, because it goes no further in looking at the definition of what is a risk of significant harm. It is quite clear that certain practitioners do not believe that being a prostitute is a risk of significant harm. [Interruption.] That seems to be the case, and it is not necessarily a UK-only situation. A family currently living in Wimbledon had similar problems in New Zealand where an under-age relationship was encouraged by the practitioners in that country because they thought it was right. That was on the New Zealand media last week.
In the Rochdale case and others I have read about, the abuse perpetrated against young girls has been so systematic and has lasted over such a prolonged period that the girls themselves did not see themselves as victims. In that scenario, who is going to look after them? We must think deeply about the implications of that problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent intervention, but I shall not take any more because of the Speaker’s advice.
Let me explain one of my concerns about the Government’s complacency on this issue. We have the SSDA903 return, which tracks what happens to children as they leave care. A number of possible destinations are listed: for example, adopted; died; care taken by another local authority, and so forth. There are also those who leave care for an unknown reason. In America, this is tracked to find out who has run away. These are children who have been abducted and trafficked. Across the country, we find that 5,950 children left care for unknown and other reasons. Of those, 430 were aged one to four; 350 were aged five to nine; 630 were aged 10 to 15, and there were many more at the ages of 16, 17 and 18. I have the detailed figures for my local authority, if anyone wants to see them.
What is sad is the fact that the Minister has refused to consider trying to gain more detailed information so that we know what happens to these children. If I were losing 5,000 children here, not knowing what was happening to them—rather similar to the situation in Rochdale—I would not be feeling very happy as a corporate parent or as a parent in any form whatever. The failure is in not having proper systems of checks and balances on the judgment of practitioners who operate on a daily basis.
There are some excellent practitioners. I know of one social worker who was recently suspended because she would not change her view that a child should go back to its parents. The management tried to bully her into agreeing that the child should be adopted, but she would not do that, so she was suspended. We should be looking at what those managements are doing, and establishing whether it is valid. We know that much of the evidence is unreliable as a result of the excellent work of Professor Jane Ireland, which is the only proper independent work that has been done to assess the quality of evidence in the family courts.
I have here a letter from the Health Professions Council, which is refusing to investigate allegations about bad psychologists. Giving the reference FTP04616, the HPC says that it cannot “progress the concern” because of the current law. I think that it misunderstands the law: I think that the 2009 changes enable it to investigate allegations about rubbishy psychologists without the permission of a judge.
We have a problem with checks and balances, and with the failure of quality control in respect of evidence and the family courts. However, we also need to look at the wider issues of why children are taken into care. The failure of the statutory guidance to go beyond “risk of significant harm” implies that there is a real problem. The care system is very complex and involves very subtle judgments, but the Government come along wearing big boots and try to kick it in a particular direction.
Puerperal psychosis involves extreme baby blues or post-natal depression. When a mother has given birth and is depressed it can be dangerous for the child, who may need to be taken into care; but is that the sort of case that should be driven towards adoption, just because mum was depressed after giving birth? Such action is likely to make mum even more depressed. The Government’s policy is, “We need to speed it all up: we need rapid decisions.” The flaw in their approach is that there is none of the individual judgment on cases that is really needed. It is a very simplistic approach to what is a very complex system.
Domestic violence is another example. Angela Wileman is writing a book about what happened to her. She has been to Spain, Ireland and all over the place to avoid the UK care system, which was persecuting her in various ways. She has been in the newspapers plenty of times. She was a victim of domestic violence, on the basis of which the system wished to take one of her children from her, put that child in care and have it adopted—but only that child, because she had had the other child abroad.
Ms Toni McLeod, who lives with her family in Durham, is thinking of going to Ireland because she is pregnant. It is a difficult situation. She was a supporter of the English Defence League. I hate the EDL. Three of my children are mixed-race, and I protest against the EDL. Toni McLeod says that she is not racially prejudiced, but that children were taken from her partly because of her membership of the EDL. It was
“felt that conversations and opinions may be expressed in the children’s presence.”
That is a “thought police” approach to care. The system intervened because of what Toni McLeod might say in front of her children. She says that she has many friends who are Muslims and Sikhs, and that she disowns the EDL nowadays, but whether that is true or not, we should ask whether it is appropriate for the state to remove a child because children may be radicalised by a parent. Is that an appropriate use of the phrase “risk of significant harm”? That brings us back to the statutory guidance, which makes no effort whatsoever to give any indication of what is meant by the phrase.
One of the biggest problems in relation to the accountability of the family court and the care system is insufficient proper, academic access to the details of the proceedings. We do not know whether we are achieving something for the children or not. An excellent report by Ruth Gilbert, published in The Lancet late last year, raised major questions about whether we are getting anywhere at all with the overall system. We have some extremely serious problems, and in my view the interventions are often damaging.
I work with a number of care leavers. It is important to remember that care leavers remain care leavers even when they are in their forties and fifties. As people get older, they gain the confidence that enables them to speak out about what happened to them when they were younger, whereas many people in their late teens and early twenties do not have enough confidence to explain where the real problems lay. We need to be very careful. Lucy Allan may be going to speak to the Minister about her experience. She was a Conservative councillor. The same psychologist wrote two different reports about her, which was complete nonsense, of course. If a specialist of some kind writes two completely contradictory reports about the same person, what intellectual value does any of that information have?
Although I have a lot more to say on this subject, I only have 54 seconds left, so let me just put on the record that the Education Committee has done an excellent job in listening to people on different sides of the argument. The family justice review panel included only people who operated the system. It therefore did not properly consider the views of those who are affected by the system. The Home Affairs Committee will kick off an inquiry that I hope will be run on a far better basis. The Munro report is quite good, but we need to look more rationally at the detailed ways in which things are operated and make sure steps are taken that actually benefit the children in the long term, not just hit Government targets.
First, I thank the Labour Front-Bench team and the Leader of the Opposition for choosing this subject for an Opposition day debate. I agree with everything the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), has said and with his recommendations. I also welcome the Minister’s comments.
I shall focus on one particular type of abuse: the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young persons. We all know that happens, but many people do not appreciate how often it happens, the numerous ways in which it happens and how many victims there are throughout the country. There are thousands of victims. That is not difficult for people like me to realise, because before entering Parliament I was a barrister practising the criminal law. I prosecuted and defended people, and I represented parents whose children were being taken into local authority care. Therefore, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said about what happens in care cases and, sometimes, the attitude of Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers, those appointed by the courts and all the establishment involved. There are always conflicts and sometimes local authorities do not put the best interests of the children first. They get too bogged down in rules and procedures.
I was pleased to hear yesterday’s evidence to the Home Affairs Committee given by Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner. She has conducted a two-year inquiry into the grooming and abuse of children. One of the first questions she was asked was about the Rochdale case. She was asked whether such cases were a particular issue for a particular community. Her answer was no, it was a question of a pattern of abuse. She then went on to explain that there are different patterns of abuse by different groups of people across the country. She mainly talked about men abusing young women, but there is also the issue of abuse of young boys, which we in society hardly ever talk about. That type of abuse is hardly ever weighed in the scales when we compare different types of abuse.
Such points are important to make in the context of the Rochdale case. We do not want people thinking, “It’s just one little issue involving one community, so we can forget about it.” Such cases have nothing to do with race or particular communities. The key point is the types of people who are vulnerable in any given circumstance. It is a question of who is available. If Asian or Afro-Caribbean girls had been available in Rochdale, they would have been just as likely to be abused. Sue Berelowitz also said:
“There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
“We should start from the assumption that children are being sexually exploited right the way across the country”,
“urban, rural and metropolitan areas”.
Sue Berelowitz gave an example of something that is happening in London. She said that there are parts of London where girls as young as 11 are expected to perform oral sex on a line-up of boys for up to two hours. She said that is was
“common for girls to be lured via internet chatrooms to meet a friend, only to be met by a group of boys and gang-raped in the park.”
She said that another group would then take part in the rape of those children. She said:
“I wish I could say to you that such things are uncommon but I’m afraid that they are quite common.”
She went on to say that
“what is being done is so terrible that people need to lay aside their denial”,
or that there was a risk of victims being disbelieved. She said:
“Victims number in the thousands not the hundreds.”
She went on to talk about the role played by the internet in the exploitation of children and abuse of young people.
Yesterday, Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre said in the Select Committee on Home Affairs that children are accessing the web at a far younger age. He said that he would score the public sector only five out of 10 on its ability to protect children from abuse. He claimed that, on average, one child in 20 was a victim of sexual abuse. From my personal knowledge of the cases with which I dealt for many years, that is a far more realistic statistic than people may think, as the problem of sexual abuse is rife.
We have discussed internet grooming, paedophiles going on the internet, street grooming and the trafficking of victims, although they tend to be adults, but we do not discuss sexual abuse in the home. People do not realise the extent of that type of abuse or that young boys are often victims of sexual abuse. Boys being boys, they do not come out and speak out about it and often do not want to discuss their emotions, either because they do not want to be accused of being cowards or of being weak. They may be ashamed or embarrassed. As a society, we talk about female victims, and do not often talk about male victims. I recently had a conversation with my chief superintendant at Bolton police station. I said, “Have the police done anything to educate or talk to chief officers throughout the country to urge them to look at the question of how to reach out to young male victims, talk to them and encourage them so that they know that it is okay for them to talk about their abuse?”
We have heard about some cases of abuse, and I have prosecuted people who have abused young boys, but there is a much bigger picture, so I urge the Minister—I am sure that there is joined-up working between different Departments—to see whether the police and other agencies can be asked to make a positive effort to engage with young males, ascertain their problems and let them know that they are recognised as victims and that they are just as vulnerable and need as much protection as young girls.
A prominent issue in the news and media over the past few weeks, perhaps because of the number of cases that have come to court, is children’s access to pornography. That seems to have been going on for a period of time. Does the hon. Lady think that it is time for the Government to take action to prevent that access and provide encouragement for parents?
I entirely agree, and I hope that the Minister has heard that. School teachers, head teachers, social services and the police and everyone else needs to be aware that this happens, and that it is a lot more common than we think.
I shall conclude with a case of sexual abuse in which the victim did not realise that what they were doing was wrong. Many years ago in Feltham a case of incest by a father on his daughter came to light, and it did so only when the father was working on his car in the front garden and the daughter, who was about 13, came out and said, “Do you want a quickie?” A neighbour who was entering his house at the time heard the comment and contacted social services, and as a result all the agencies got involved and the whole truth came out about how the girl had been violated by her father for many years, but she did not know that what had been happening was wrong and so was able to talk about it publicly. That shows the extent of the abuse that is taking place, so I really ask that much more attention is paid to the sexual abuse of children across all groups.
This issue is a matter of the most profound importance. From time to time it is jolted to the top of the media agenda in the most awful way, as happened with Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and the Rochdale case. Although it might top the headlines only periodically, its extent is vast and always with us. On the Select Committee’s recent visit to Doncaster, I was taken aback by the sheer physical scale of the call centre operation dealing with calls from the public and practitioners and data entry just for that local authority area and to hear about the huge number of households in the city that social workers call on regularly. We know that in the year to 2011 there were more than 600,000 referrals to children’s social services nationally and 49,000 child protection plans initiated. As for some of the other types of abuse, such as online abuse and child-on-child abuse, we can really only start to guess at their extent.
There have of course been positive developments, which it is important to acknowledge. A number of Members have mentioned what an encouraging sign it was that the first report to be commissioned after the change of Government was the Munro report, which contains a lot of useful material. The formation of the MASH teams—the multi-agency service hubs—is clearly a development that can hopefully deliver great benefits, but we must be careful not to identify a silver bullet and think that it will solve all problems.
I hope that the Government’s troubled families programme will also signal a further positive development in this area. People go on about the 120,000 families, but it is worth noting that, in fact, there are not 120,000 families who will receive additional help that is not available to others—the 120,000 figure is a statistical construct that comes from analysis done under the previous Government and the Cabinet Office report. The initiative is about encouraging local authorities to work together and having a lead person operating on behalf of each family to try to join up services.
The other thing I welcome is the motion and the way it unites both sides of the House. My only complaint, and a tiny one, is that with a little more notice we could have got more hon. Members here. I also want to pay tribute to social workers. Clearly, social work is not a job they do for the glamour, kudos or cash; it is a hugely difficult job, sometimes done in the most horrendous circumstances. Social workers should expect our constant support and acknowledgment for the difficult job they do. As Eileen Munro said, and as the Minister repeated today, their job is all about trying to predict the ability of a parent to bring up their child and to protect the child, and at the best of times that is an inexact science. I think that elevating the status of the profession in every way we can is vital, and that includes things such as the chief social worker and a properly founded college of social work.
There will always be a tension between trying to standardise approaches on the one hand and trying to devolve decision making on the other, and the pendulum will swing from one direction to the other from time to time. I think that most people would accept that it swung too far towards the template approach, so a reduction in the several hundred pages of guidance, which were well intentioned, to a much slimmer approach marks a further move towards trusting professional judgment. When the Minister appeared before the Select Committee—he called it a gruelling grilling, but in truth it was more of a walk in the park—he gave the example of what different GPs said they would do if a mother presented with a child who had bruises and signs of potential abuse. He said that the smartest and very best GPs said that they would phone the nursery school or some other professionals to ask if they had noticed something as well and, if so, they should proceed together. That is the kind of common-sense approach and professional judgment that we all want to see. One crucial issue is that there is somebody to report an incident to, and that one knows in all cases whom to report it to and one is confident that, as appropriate, it will be acted upon. That is why the issue of thresholds, which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) brought up earlier, is so important.
It is also important that members of the public know how to report such matters. I hate to use the word “brand” in this context, but trusted brands such as ChildLine and the NSPCC play a vital role. We heard from the head of CEOP the other day that there might be a plan to introduce a new phone number, 114, 116 or something, in order to report incidents and abuse, but it does not sound like the smartest move imaginable when there are already recognised, accepted and acknowledged channels through which people can report.
During the bulk of the time remaining to me, I want to discuss the abuse of young people by young people. I welcome the Government’s plans to extend the definition of domestic abuse to under-18s, because we really do not know the extent of these problems as they affect young people, so I also welcome the Home Affairs Committee’s focus on the area. We were all shocked to hear what the deputy children’s commissioner said the other day about the prevalence of violence and of sexual violence among young people in and out of gangs, and, as the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) said earlier, hearing that 11-year-old girls are expected to perform sexual acts on a line-up of boys makes one sick to the stomach.
One relatively new issue is sexting—a word that, when I became a Member two years ago, I had not heard of. One might have thought that it was some sort of wordplay, but now we know that it has a terrible ability to do harm and is not yet taken seriously in many different areas. When we on the Education Committee asked the head of CEOP how such matters were reported to the police, how they dealt with them and how many cases they had heard of, it became apparent that, although he obviously takes it very seriously, in many places its prevalence is not yet fully appreciated or acted upon.
A dangerous relativism can sometimes creep into this subject, even among people who clearly care and are very knowledgeable about it, and in the case of sexting, for example, one occasionally hears somebody say, “Of course, sexting can be a part of growing up and an important part of sexual discovery.” Call me old-fashioned, but I just think that that is wrong. I think that 12-year-old, 13-year-old or 14-year-old girls being forced into, coerced into or voluntarily sending naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves around the internet or on mobile phones is just plain wrong. In society, in government and in schools we have to be unafraid to say that, because if we do not, we put young girls in particular in a very difficult position at a vulnerable time of their lives, when they might be under all sorts of pressure to do all sorts of things that they do not naturally want to do. I think we owe that to them.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who as always speaks most perceptively and with great clarity.
It has been good to sit through the whole debate and to hear the strong cross-party consensus on tackling the issue of safeguarding children, an issue that we all know is of the utmost importance. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the shadow Secretary of State, on bringing it to the House, and congratulate previous Secretaries of State and Ministers and, indeed, the current Secretary of State and Ministers on their leadership. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who led for the Government in this debate, has an excellent record on the issue and has shown real leadership in taking the baton forward, as it is his duty to do.
I would have to say, as a professional in education, that safeguarding is one of the most difficult issues that we have to face. In many ways, it is more difficult than the challenges of attendance, retention and achievement, because it is more subtle and difficult to be clear about. For many young people, school is a point of stability in their lives. Many young people have massive challenges in their private lives outside school, and school provides them with solidarity and shelter in a storm.
Professionals, be they in education, health, the justice system or social work, need to get the balance right, and that is a difficult challenge to meet. I recognise the genuine progress that I have seen in my professional life in moving matters forward in relation to safeguarding. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State was right to emphasise the importance of the five outcomes of Every Child Matters. That was a real step forward in dealing with this difficult agenda. We trivialise the focus on well-being at our peril. The Minister is nodding, and I am pleased that he recognises that it is important to capture that in moving things forward. In its focus on safeguarding after the baby Peter Connelly tragedy, Ofsted perhaps swung a little too far the other way, but it certainly made everybody sit up and think things through carefully and sharpened up everybody’s acts. It is important that the pendulum swings a little, but also that the fundamental centrality of purpose is not lost.
In that swinging of the pendulum, I wonder whether my hon. Friend recognises two things from his experience. First, there is concern among black and ethnic minority families that there are still not the relationships that are needed. We have seen across London an upsurge in black and ethnic minority families in the care system. Secondly, young people in care who reach the age of 18 can find themselves very vulnerable when they are suddenly bereft of any services and have to make decisions about their future.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important and cogent point from a position of great experience in this matter. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in this area.
I would like to emphasise the crucial importance of local safeguarding children boards and applaud the comments of the shadow Secretary of State and the Minister about that. Those boards have greatly helped to bring together professionals across disciplines and across cultures. Cultures are very different, and making them work together with a focus on the child is a big challenge. I applaud and pay tribute to all professionals working in this arena, particularly, in my experience, the social workers in North Lincolnshire, who have always astounded me with their professionalism and done a very good job on behalf of local people.
As the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) pointed out, this is a difficult world in which there are new challenges to do with e-safeguarding. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) talked about the difficulties to do with child sexual exploitation. We need to get to grips with those difficulties and challenges. We do that best by working together, cross-party, in allowing the leadership baton to be moved on from one Administration to another, creating a unity that spreads down through the country to local children safeguarding boards. We must bring people together, focused on the child’s outcomes and continuing, all of us in this House and outside it, to work together to ensure that children are safeguarded as best they possibly can be as we move forward.
I am delighted that there have been some fantastic contributions from both sides of the House on this incredibly important issue. As we have so little time, I will not attempt to emulate them. Instead, I shall turn the debate to an aspect that we have not discussed so far. We talk about a child-centred service, but what has been lacking from the debate is the view of the children themselves. In the brief time that I have, I shall share a couple of perspectives on their experiences of the care system from children whom we as members of the Select Committee met, and what we learned from that.
The first thing that the children said, which is borne out in the recommendations, is that having one simple single point of contact where they could go if things went wrong was invaluable. I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) that the NSPCC and ChildLine do an excellent job. They provide a brand that is widely recognised and if we are to do anything, our resources would be well spent supporting their increasing caseload and making sure that those resources are spread as widely as possible. It is not worth trying to reinvent the wheel when we have such a good wheel already in existence.
The second thing that emerged from our meetings with the children was that their complaints were often not listened to. They felt isolated from a world of adults. That is particularly concerning when we consider the circumstances under which those children would come forward to make complaints. Abuse is sophisticated and complex. It is a deep psychological issue. Legislation needs to recognise that victims of abuse are often made to feel by their abuser that it is their fault, that they deserve it, that someone is going to come and get them if they tell anyone in authority, or that it is perfectly normal. So when a child comes forward with a complaint against the adult world, that should be taken extremely seriously. Professionals need to recognise that.
On the point about being told that abuse is normal and becoming acclimatised to what is, in fact, unacceptable behaviour, there is a case to be made to infiltrate into young people’s learning environments simple objective facts about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. Abuse takes place in the world of the subjective, where children, as well as partners in abusive domestic relationships, no longer know what is right and what is wrong.
Thirdly, we learned that key individuals can make a difference in lives, so the focus of the recommendations on the professionalism of social workers hit the nail on the head. A good professional can sometimes literally save lives. Fourthly, continuity matters. Often these children have been let down again and again, and trusted relationships have broken down. I very much welcome the Minister’s focus on more stable caring environments such as adoption and fostering. From the children’s perspective, that would make an enormous difference.
We should recognise that, in the continuous care cycle, the problem does not end the minute the victim is removed from the source of abuse. The horror of abuse is that it can result in a cycle of abuse, with the abused becoming abusers. The echoes of trauma and terror can reverberate a long way down the line. In our continuing care for victims, we need to look into the long term to make sure that that is recognised.
The recommendations and guidelines are massively helpful. The complexity of the issues that abuse and victimisation raise cannot be left to simplistic tick-boxing. Those issues should be the subject of sophisticated professional expertise and I am delighted that from across the House there is momentum to make that happen.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. I want to emphasise the cross-party support by saluting the promotion of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) from the Education Committee to the Opposition Front Bench. That is a signal that there is wide agreement on many issues today.
I shall make several brief points. First, Professor Munro is right to signal the need for a change of culture and for agencies to work together more effectively. That point was well made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), who was in effect describing agency failure and lack of co-ordination between agencies. He was spot on. He was describing a tragic situation, but Professor Munro’s approach to cultural change and agencies working together is excellent.
Secondly, I salute the fact that the chief social worker is to be appointed. I want to underline the importance of agencies working together by welcoming the fact that both the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), and the Minister present today were involved in the selection of that person. It is necessary for those Departments to work together.
That brings me to my third point, which is that it is critical to start thinking about young people in a continual line, from when they are born onwards. This is to do with the structure of the Department for Education. As I have said before, I think that it should be merged with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because people aged 15, 16 and 17 are abused and can find it difficult to express themselves about it. I think that the Department for Education should be bigger and should encompass all those matters.
Last but not least, I want to refer briefly to the social work college. It is imperative that it is established. We have to get the training right. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) was spot on in her description of the children whom the Education Committee met. I was horrified to discover that training is preventing proper relationship building between children and the people to whom they signal their complaints. We must get that right.
I will confine myself to making one point about this multifaceted topic.
Complimentary comments have rightly been made about social workers. For many social workers, it is not a question of whether there will be a difficult case when they go in each day, but of whether one of their many difficult cases will blow up overnight when they go home.
One of the safest places for young people, as we have heard, is school. That is not always the case, but particularly for those from dysfunctional homes, it is seen as a safe place to be. Although complimentary remarks have been made about social workers, we really need to listen to the concerns that educational social workers have. Local authority educational social workers regard their client, first and foremost, as being the child. I am concerned, as are they, about who the client will be as central budgets go down and are devolved out to schools. If the new academies and free schools, and even the maintained schools that are allocated central budgets, decide not to spend that money on educational social workers, they will be picking and choosing the children whom they have in their schools. Many of those schools think that the educational social worker should regard them as the client and not the child.
I am extremely concerned that we have not worked out the relationships between the Government and the new schools, and between the local education authority and the new schools. The Education Committee heard about that today. There is still a vital contribution to be made in supporting schools and monitoring schools, but also in challenging schools about their attendance policies. In particular, schools must be challenged if they are deciding whether or not to chase pupils who are not in school.
Recently, a mother came to my surgery whose young son had been out of school for 10 weeks. There had been a half-hearted attempt at a managed move and they were considering a transfer. If that child had been on course for five A* to C grades, he would have been in school. The truth is that the school was not too bothered about whether the child went in. An educational social worker would have been bothered. That is the big concern that has not been addressed since right at the beginning. It was mentioned when we considered the Academies Act 2010. Who is the client? First and foremost, it must be the child, not the school.
This debate could not be more important, because it concerns those children who most need and deserve our support. Many of them are children for whom parental care has failed, and in some cases the state has also failed them. These children have no choice but to rely on us to protect them, which is one of the heaviest responsibilities placed on the Government. There is an urgency to the situation that marks it out further still. For a young child, just two months represents 1% of their childhood. If we get this wrong, that is time that they will never get back. Every moment counts.
Whether we succeed or fail for those children will depend almost entirely on the quality of relationships that they have with the people who are charged with protecting them. That is the central point that must be recognised and not get lost in the welcome reforms that the Government are pursuing.
We have heard about the pressure on front-line professionals, but while the spotlight in the Department often falls on education, authoritative voices such as the former Children’s Commissioner for England and the chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have warned that the wider framework of support for children is being dismantled, with dangerous consequences for some of the children who can least afford to bear them.
Increasing overall resources is not an option, so Ministers must look carefully at their priorities. There are now more than twice as many staff employed in the Department’s free schools unit as in the safeguarding unit. Youth services, which were a lifeline for the most at-risk young people, are disappearing, while a national citizen service is being developed. That is an admirable scheme, but it is no replacement for ongoing support for the young people who need it most. For some of them, their youth worker is the consistent adult in their life, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) outlined so compellingly. They really matter to children among their other priorities.
I had the opportunity to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), before I came to this place, and I have scrutinised his work over the past two years as a member of the Education Committee. I am absolutely certain that he is passionate about his job and the need to listen to children, and he is right that we need to move away from a defensive culture in social work practice, trust professionals to use their instincts and encourage and enable them to be more proactive. However, I would fail in my duty to children if I did not address the real concerns that exist about the strain on the relationships that lie at the heart of effective child protection.
The professionals who make a vital difference to children at risk—their social workers, who do an impossible job day in, day out—are now dealing with unmanageable case loads, as the Minister’s own adviser, Professor Eileen Munro, has warned. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about the difficulties inherent in the task of social work, and he was absolutely right to do so, but do Ministers know that polling suggests that one in six social workers now have more than 40 cases? Speaking as someone who spent nearly a decade working with some of the most vulnerable children in contact with the child protection system, that figure is of real concern to me, as it is to many other people.
More than half of social workers believe that their case loads are unmanageable, and the children’s rights director tells me that children themselves are now starting to voice their concerns about social work case loads. Will the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), tell us urgently what she will do about that? If social work is the fourth emergency service, as the Under-Secretary said, greater flexibility on its own is not enough in the face of unprecedented demand.
The establishment of the social work college should help. It is based on the landmark recognition that relationships are everything in child protection, and that professional skills and judgment are worth their weight in gold and demand the same professional status in society as we accord doctors and other professionals. What progress has been made to resolve the disputes that have beset the foundation of the college?
Will the Minister of State respond to the concern that, one year on, there is still no chief social worker in post to stand up for the profession? I was grateful to the Under-Secretary for updating us on the fact that recruitment is currently under way, but can the Minister of State provide us with more details about how exactly the post will work and when somebody will begin the job?
I expect the Minister of State recognises why there has been such concern about delays in implementing the Munro review, and especially about the confusion over the impact that health reforms will have. There is a real danger that we will end up with more piecemeal reform, which is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Real strides forward were made in persuading agencies to work together to keep children safe after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié 12 years ago. This must not be the moment when it is allowed to unravel. Progress in child safeguarding is the last Government’s legacy, and many Labour Members can rightly be proud of it, but it can and should also be the current Government’s legacy. We will do everything we can to ensure that that is the case.
There is evidence that agencies are retreating into their core functions. I repeat the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) that in cutting out prescription, Ministers must be careful not to send front-line professionals whose daily work brings them into contact with children but is not restricted to them a dangerous signal that keeping children safe is not their responsibility.
Professionals need clarity, and it is our responsibility to provide it, so I invite the Minister to consider the impact of the shift of focus in the Department, which was formerly called the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The change of name that was not just symbolic; it was an important shift that provided results for children, which I have seen for myself. Its abandonment has left some children falling between Departments and teams, which too often focus on services rather than children. Ministers could never have intended this situation, which arose recently, but the Education Secretary learned from the Education Committee that another Department had started a trial that exposed children to ionising radiation against the wishes of the four Children’s Commissioners and the medical profession. He was not even aware of that, much less consulted.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for his compelling speech, which showed what can happen when the system breaks down and goes wrong.
There is a real risk that we will have such a debate in a decade’s time in a context in which some children have fallen further behind and others are still at risk. A unique opportunity to reform the system will have been wasted. We can and must do better. In a decade, I would like to stand here—or preferably at the Government Dispatch Box—when no child is constrained by their background; when no child is left in abusive or neglected homes; when no child is ignored when they raise serious concerns; when no child believes that they cannot do better; and when no child is passed around from pillar to post around the care system, forced to recount their harrowing experiences to a succession of anonymous adults. In short, in 10 years’ time, no child’s life chances should be determined before they are born.
Members on both sides of the House share that vision, so I want to extend an offer to the Minister to build a shared consensus on children above politics, and to work together to create a comprehensive strategy to keep children safe—one that involves the care and child protection systems as a whole; one that gives front-line professionals the tools, clarity and skills they need, and the freedom to exercise them; and one that, above all, recognises that we are operating in a new reality, in which agencies are under pressure. If we are not careful, the sense of shared responsibility that has been built up over the previous decade will be lost when children need it most.
Perhaps uniquely in this area, the quality of relationships is sometimes more important than the system. It is the job of professionals to do the best they can for children—many of them up and down the country do so on a daily basis, often against the odds—but it is our job to create a system that values and recognises their work, to support those relationships, and to support children through them. This is more than just a debate; it is an opportunity to break a cycle that, despite efforts by hon. Members on both sides of the House, still condemns far too many children to a life that falls well short of what they deserve.
I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on calling this debate; a debate that brings Members on both sides of the House together is welcome. We largely support similar positions, and we have managed to get away from the tone of debates in the House that cast more heat than light, perhaps including the earlier one.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on her promotion to the Opposition Front Bench, and on her excellent start. I respect her wish to stand at the Government Dispatch Box, but from my perspective, she should be careful what she wishes for. She said she hoped we might be able to work together. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), has told me that he has involved in his work the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the previous hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, Oona King, who is now a Member of the other place. He even said—tongue in cheek—that he has a Liberal Democrat councillor on one of his groups. [Interruption.] I thought that would be the most controversial thing I could say.
Government Members recognise that this issue cuts across party political boundaries. A number of hon. Members have particular expertise and some who have been lawyers have spoken from their personal experience, whereas others have spoken about experiences in their constituencies. Many of the Opposition Members who have spoken served as Ministers and continue to take a deep and profound interest in these matters.
The issue is a huge priority for the Government and it is one that we take seriously. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very grateful for the positive comments made by Members from all parties about his leadership on this matter. We have been particularly active on the subject right from the beginning. As he said, the first review that the Government undertook was the Munro review. Overhauling the child protection system to try to ensure that we place professionalism at the centre, recognising the vulnerability of children in the care system and tackling child exploitation are the three key areas where the Government have been particularly active over the past two years. In responding to the varied comments from hon. Members, I want to make a few remarks about our general reforms before I deal with the issue of child sexual exploitation, which formed the bulk of the debate.
The key principle behind our approach is a determination to restore a focus on the needs of children to a system that had become overburdened with bureaucracy and box-ticking. I think that everybody will recognise that although we would like to remove all risks to children’s safety, that is not a realistic aim and we must accept that no system will ever be able to ensure that a child remains free from harm. The important thing is that professionals are empowered confidently to assess and judge risks and make decisions in the interests of the child. The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) spoke from her perspective as a family lawyer about how she saw the enormous burden on many professionals on the front line who, if they had been given more freedom to use their professional judgment, would be able to do so better and in a way that is more in the interests of children.
It is important to state that the reforms made over many years were well intentioned. The work of many thousands of professionals has been incredibly dedicated, but the child protection system has continued to fail far too many children. Sadly, the evidence is only too familiar, with shockingly poor life chances for children in the care system, thousands of children left waiting for foster carers and adoptive parents, and high-profile cases of sexual exploitation, such as the one in Rochdale. I shall deal with that case in a moment.
Starting with the Munro review, we have proposed a new culture in child protection so that we have a system in which the needs of the children always come first and in which hard-working professionals have the time to spend with families. The hon. Member for Wigan asked what we can do to release more time for professionals. Of course, that is exactly what Munro is all about. We need to ensure that they have the power to make decisions and that the care system offers the most vulnerable children in our society real support and protection when they need it most. Most of all, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) said, we must ensure that children’s voices are heard because they have been too often ignored.
The three new guidance documents we announced yesterday for consultation are a significant step towards making that culture change a reality. By replacing over 700 pages of rules and instructions with 68 pages of short, precise guidance we are putting power back in the hands of front-line professionals. The documents aim to provide clarity while allowing scope for professional judgment and innovation. They set out the things that must be done and then allow social workers, police, health professionals and others to do their work based on the needs of the individual child and family without being hampered by unnecessary rules and regulations. They give local areas more freedom to organise their services in a way that suits their needs and is set to their own time scales. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) spoke about MASH as a prime example of where multi-agency working can make a difference, empowering professionals to work quickly on the ground when a referral is made.
Of course, it is vital that in all that work the local safeguarding boards continue to join up the work across professional boundaries, including in education, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said. Regardless of the school system, that is essential. The requirements of welfare are the same regardless of the school the child is in as the duty of care under the Children Act 2004 remains exactly the same.
In addition to freeing professionals from unnecessary rules and regulations, we are acting to support excellence in social work. This means attracting high-calibre people to the profession and supporting career development. Working with the Department of Health and the Social Work Reform Board, we have introduced new professional standards, launched the new college of social work, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) mentioned, and made more than £130 million available for social work reform and improvement from 2010-12.
We are in the process of appointing a new chief social worker to be a strong voice for the profession. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, we aim to appoint in July, which I hope answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Wigan. The number of qualified social workers has risen steadily from 96,000 in 2008-09 to 106,000 in 2011-12, which is a welcome step in the right direction.
Most hon. Members mentioned child sexual exploitation, which has a particularly high profile following the Rochdale case. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) spoke very starkly about the problem that many young people face of being treated not as victims, but as criminals, or as having somehow asked for it and provoked the abuse that has devastated their lives. They are treated as though they behaved in some way to bring it on themselves, only compounding the insult already done to them. The hon. Member for Bristol North West and others spoke about the particular difficulties for many young people in recognising that they are victims. It is not always clear to them that they are the victims in this situation as they sometimes mistake their treatment for love or affection, which can make it difficult to identify young people in that position and help them to recover from the abuse that they have suffered.
I know that the hon. Member for Rochdale has briefed the Under-Secretary on his experience in his constituency and has told me that he was grateful for the Under-Secretary’s interest in the issue. The hon. Gentleman mentioned out-of-area placements, and they are an ongoing concern for the Government.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) spoke about different patterns of abuse and made it clear that this is not specifically an Asian issue. In that area, there was that particular pattern, but different patterns occur in different areas, a point that Sue Berelowitz made strongly in her contribution to the Home Affairs Committee this week. Boys as well as girls can be abused, and it is often more difficult for professionals to pick up those problems. Such abuse is often under-reported and it is important that we get better at discovering it. The hon. Lady also raised the need to work together across different professional boundaries. On the child sexual exploitation action plan, the Attorney-General, the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice are all working together because we recognise the complexity of the issue.
The plan was published in November and we have now received Sue Berelowitz’s initial report. We intend to respond to that before the summer and we take the concerns that she has raised very seriously. The House will be aware that the Secretary of State asked her to bring forward some of her work to ensure that we pick up all the issues of concern.
Mothers and fathers have a big role to play in helping youngsters make healthy, informed choices about relationships and sexual health. All the evidence indicates that child sexual exploitation can affect any family. It is vital that we support families to make sure that they are able to pick up the tell-tale signals of abuse. There is some helpful advice available, for example the “Spot the Signs” leaflet which is available on the Barnardo’s website. It is important to encourage all parents to be the eyes and ears—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.
That this House notes the updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children published on 12 June 2012; and calls on the Government to ensure that the needs of the child are at the centre of all assessments and decision-making processes regarding safeguarding, that appropriate information and guidance is provided to young people so they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation, that all local authorities and decision-makers are upholding the highest standards when it comes to integrated care access and multi-disciplinary and multiagency working, and that early intervention programmes are promoted on the best available evidence, and to clarify who is responsible within Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance.
Business of the House
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day’s sitting, proceedings on the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to Sittings of the House (21 June) may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour, and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Mr Newmark.)
Question agreed to.