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Children in Care

Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

1. What progress his Department has made on steps to improve the protection of children in care from sexual exploitation. (118461)

Let me welcome you, Mr Speaker, back from the recess—without a tan. In July I published a report describing extensive progress on implementing last November’s “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” action plan. Although all children are potentially at risk, particular challenges arise for children in care, especially those in children’s homes. Accordingly, I announced urgent action to improve children’s residential care, including developing a clearer understanding of when children go missing, allowing Ofsted to share the locations of children’s homes with the police and examining out-of-authority placements.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that 45% of children who are in care and looked after are in homes away from their borough. They are removed from their networks of support and the familiarity of adults whom they can trust, which makes them more vulnerable and more prone to abuse. Does he agree with the report by the deputy Children’s Commissioner that children should be cared for as close to home as possible, and, if so, what steps are we taking to ensure that happens?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. That is why I launched the progress report jointly with the deputy Children’s Commissioner, picking up what I believe to be the scandal of too many vulnerable children—almost half, as my hon. Friend said—being placed a long way from familiar environments. We have set up a task and finish group specifically to look at the problem and at how we can keep children closer to home and familiar environments when that is in their interests. The group will report back to me within the next few weeks and we will take specific action as a result.

May I thank the Minister for including me, as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, on the working group on children’s homes? If we are to safeguard children in care from sexual exploitation, we need to improve the quality of care in some of our children’s homes. Does he agree that we need to move to more robust inspections that measure outcomes for children in terms of improving their well-being and safety?

The hon. Lady is entirely right and I thank her for her work with the working group. I should also mention that she joined me at the joint press conference to give the useful and detailed findings of her report. The third task and finish group we set up—into which I very much hope she will have some input—is looking at the quality of residential children’s homes and the quality of the work force working in them, where I think we can do an awful lot better. Inspection needs to be better and more appropriate, and we need to ensure that any authority placing a child in a home is absolutely convinced that the quality of care is appropriate and the best available.

On the protection of children, the Minister will be aware of the recent murder of Shafilea Ahmed and the link to honour violence. What steps are being taken in schools to help to tackle such horrific acts of violence?

My hon. Friend mentions a particularly horrific case that shocked the whole nation when it appeared in our headlines. It is very important that we raise the profile of this insidious force—which I am afraid is present in too many communities—and ensure a joined-up approach, involving the Home Office, police, local authorities and our schools, so that this is not happening beneath the radar and so that children are educated and know what to do to avoid such tragedies happening again.

Although Ministers are right to focus attention on the sexual exploitation of children in care, such children continue to face many challenges in their lives. Today’s report by the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers reveals that, shockingly, only 12% of children in care get five good GCSEs, despite efforts by two successive Governments to change that. Will he tell us why the important strategy on children in care, which was promised to us for this summer, has been delayed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she has failed to notice the fact that throughout the last year the Department for Education has announced a series of practical measures to help children in care in all sorts of destinations, to tackle the very scandal that her Government left of the huge gap of achievement in education between children in care through no fault of their own and their peer group. That is why, for example, every child in the care system automatically qualifies for the pupil premium. That is real, practical, tangible action, which her Government never took for those kids who need it most, and there are many more things still to come over the next few weeks and months.

Further to the Minister’s answer on reducing the number of out-of-area placements, will the Government do more to ensure that information is adequately shared between police forces and those who inspect homes and local authority departments, to ensure that any problems can be addressed?

My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to shout “House”; that is the full set. We have set up three task and finish groups, and the third is looking specifically at the anomaly left over from regulations in the Care Standards Act 2000, whereby the police are unable to access information about children in children’s homes who go missing or get into trouble, in order to co-ordinate the action that needs to be taken to prevent those children from ending up in the hands of sexual predators and others. That situation will be changed. The group will report its findings to me in the next few weeks, and urgent action will be taken as a result of them.