I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to take steps to help reduce the number of children entering the care system by bringing forward measures to support more children to remain safely at home with their family or extended family.
I am most grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place. The voices of children in care and their families are rarely heard, yet they are among the most vulnerable in society and have the greatest need of representation.
Over recent years, steadily rising numbers of children have been taken into care. There are now 70,000 looked-after children in this country. The rise began in response to the very tragic case of baby Peter Connelly in 2008, but has since continued. Some argue that an increase in the number of children in care shows that local authority children’s services are getting better at identifying those at risk of harm, and that it must therefore be a good thing, but we need only look at the outcomes and life chances of care leavers to realise that a childhood in care creates its own risks.
I could cite many deeply saddening statistics on levels of poverty, addiction, suicide, poor educational attainment, over-representation in the prison population, and higher levels of mental health difficulties compared with the population as a whole. However, perhaps the saddest statistic is the number of care leavers whose own children are then taken into care. There is a self-perpetuating cycle of loss, with wounds that never heal, when the bond between parent and child is broken. Children in care will tell us of multiple fostering placement breakdowns, the sense of being unwanted, unloved and abandoned, the loss of identity in being split up from their siblings and grandparents, repeat changes of schools and loss of friendship circles, and the feeling of never truly belonging.
The tragic, high-profile cases of child abuse and neglect have left professionals with an entrenched fear of getting it wrong. Understandably, they face significant pressure to take steps to secure the removal of children rather than finding the optimal solution for every child. I say that if the state is going to intrude in the private family life of an individual, it must guarantee better life chances for those children. Of course the welfare of a child must always come first, but in many cases their welfare is best served by staying with their parent, if that parent can be supported properly, rather than facing an uncertain future in care.
Instead of supporting a family when experiencing stress, the situation may be left until a crisis point is reached, and then the family experience compulsory state intervention. Inevitably, this is a time of scarce resources for local authorities, but it is hard not to argue that prevention is better than a life in care.
Will the hon. Lady join me in thanking and paying tribute to the many thousands of family members around the country who step in and support children when the parental relationship has broken down? Those kinship carers, as they are known, do a fantastic job, and we would like to see more support for them, perhaps on an equal partnership basis with those who adopt. They save the state an awful lot of money and give kids a life chance they might not otherwise have had.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come on to speak about the important role of kinship carers and the support they could be offered. She makes a very valuable point.
Yesterday, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, gave evidence to the Education Committee on early intervention and she spoke powerfully about the benefits. It is a vital stage in child protection and it can, in these difficult financial times, be in danger of being bypassed.
I am a Welsh MP and in Wales we have the Flying Start scheme for families with difficulties in areas where poverty is high. The scheme starts at the point of pregnancy and there is regular engagement with a midwife. Once the child is born, dedicated nursing services provide support by discussing play, talking, food and setting boundaries, as well as by tackling any drug and alcohol problems in the family. Is not that kind of holistic embracement the way forward for many families?
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention and I hope the Minister listened to what she had to say.
Instead of care proceedings being the option of last resort—which it really is intended to be under the legislation—many families find themselves on a track where too often there is only one outcome. Media, families and campaigners have been talking about that trend for a number of years, and I believe the message is starting to get through.
I should declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this subject, because this Chamber does not get to talk enough about children in care. I concur with her: the number of children in care in England is now the largest since 1985. On her point about early intervention, will she challenge the Minister later—alas, I cannot be here for the end of the debate—by asking him what has happened to the early help recommendation made by the Munro review of child protection, which I commissioned back in 2010 and which reported in 2011? It is exactly that sort of intervention that will keep families together wherever possible, but it seems to have gone off the radar. Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs to be very much back on the Government’s agenda?
My hon. Friend was an excellent children’s Minister. I remember talking to him about some of the issues and he makes his point very well. I am encouraged that there is growing acceptance that more can be done to help families stay together and to stay together safely. That has to be better for society and financially, and, most importantly, it is better for children.
My local council in Telford understands that. Its focus is on ensuring that children and families receive the right help at the right time. Its strengthening families programme supports families with deep challenges, which in turn ensures that more expensive and damaging interventions do not become necessary. Central to that successful scheme is the implementation of “Family Connect”, which is a single, multi-agency front door for children and families. There are other examples of good practice helping children on the fringes of care to stay out of the system.
Many MPs will have had correspondence from constituents desperate to keep their children out of the care system and to keep their family together. Usually, by the time families are in touch with their MP, care proceedings are under way and there is nothing we can do. Parents are frightened, angry and overwhelmed by the monitoring, the scrutiny and the building of the case against them, which is never intended to be supportive of or conducive to building stronger families.
The Family Rights Group provides free specialist legal advice for families caught up in what can be a nightmare. It helps families navigate the complexities of local authority child protection investigations, enabling them to have a more constructive and informed relationship with social services. Demand for the organisation’s services has doubled since 2010, and only four in 10 callers can be answered. According to the Family Rights Group, its Department for Education funding is due to end in March. I urge the Minister to think carefully about the benefit of the organisation and whether its funding can be renewed.
I do not accept that a continued increase in the number of children in care is inevitable. What sort of society would this be if we were to assume that state care would do better than parents? I believe—this is based on working with families caught up in the child protection system—that most parents, however difficult their circumstances or background, set out to do the very best they can by their children. The first step must be to help them to achieve that goal, but such a mindset is not necessarily prevalent in the world of child protection. In fact, sometimes the reverse is the case.
A professional—a health visitor, a teacher, a nurse, a GP, an A&E doctor, or anyone interfacing with a child—is encouraged to think the unthinkable. What do I mean by that? I mean thinking that any parent, including any of us, might be capable of deliberately harming their child. The net in which families are caught is being cast wider and wider. Today, one in 100 children in England is subject to child protection investigations, which is a 79% increase in five years. As professional anxiety rises and support services dwindle, the consequence is that more children are spending a life in care. A parent fleeing a violent or abusive relationship, one seeking help for mental health problems or those who themselves had a childhood in care may all be considered a risk of future emotional harm to their child.
I very much agree with the points the hon. Lady is making. Does she agree that this is a false economy? If we cut back on preventive services—the support services to which she is referring—we will end up spending more in supporting children in need, who have reduced educational outcomes and all the other consequences of being in care. From everybody’s point of view, it is a worthwhile investment to stop that happening.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very useful comment, with which I agree entirely.
A risk of future emotional harm is assessed on a pattern of potential risk factors—poor housing, single parenthood, poverty, an abusive partner—which all combine to create a risk that professionals simply cannot take. All too often, it is the most disadvantaged who are affected by this system.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that she is painting a rather malign picture of the child protection system, as if it were a bunch of child catchers wandering around the country and randomly looking for children to apprehend. Will she acknowledge that, notwithstanding the odd one that does not go the right way, the vast majority of child protection cases actually come to the right decision?
I will move on to my hon. Friend’s point with regard to the court system.
There will always be children who are not able to stay safely at home. It is a difficult and challenging task to identify those children correctly. As such matters are decided by an independent court, we are told that we should be confident that the correct decision will always be made. I must say to the House, however, that a court can decide a case only on the basis of the evidence put before it by child protection professionals and that that evidence is often dominated by opinion. The court does not have the discretion to disregard professional opinion in favour of a distraught parent who is desperately trying to navigate the complexities of the legal system or desperately trying to prove their innocence when up against the full might of the state.
The motion asks the Government
“to support more children to remain safely at home”.
There are many examples of good practice currently being undertaken by the Government, such as the troubled families initiative, the children’s social care innovation programme and the Pause project in Hackney. I will conclude by briefly asking the Minister to consider other alternatives to help children to stay safely at home with their families.
We know from recent research that when a mother has a child removed, the trauma and loss often results in multiple repeat pregnancies. Sadly, such children are almost always taken into care immediately. I have sat on an adoption and fostering panel to which a mother came back 10 times. Nobody ever addressed the mother’s issues, and those 10 children were taken into care. That goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) about the cost-effectiveness of dealing with the difficulties experienced by a mother in such a situation. I therefore ask the Minister to consider therapeutic intervention for mothers at the earliest opportunity, because that is cost-effective and because care simply is not the answer that the professionals would like it to be.
Before becoming a Member of the House, I represented parents whose children were taken into local authority care. One thing I noticed was that, when a baby was up for adoption, there was an unseemly haste, and local authorities did not try to work with the family or the mother to be able to give the child back to the family. I found that very disturbing.
I agree with the hon. Lady. There is a requirement to facilitate reunification and rehabilitation. I, too, have worked with those families, and often found that local authorities do not engage. Local authorities are required to consider those points but the preliminary steps are difficult and potentially fraught with risk. That is why they are often skipped over or dismissed. The words used so often are: “It would be inconsistent with the child’s timeline,” or, “It is not in the best interests of the child,” or, “It shows unmerited optimism to assume that rehabilitation and reunification is an option.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some families are under the radar, do not approach professionals for help and are missed. We must be extremely careful. That is why it is such a difficult judgment to make.
Kinship carers perform an invaluable role. Placing a child with a grandparent or a member of an extended family is, in my experience, often overlooked as an option. There is always a stronger focus on adoption. I urge the Minister to consider more support for kinship carers and to continue to encourage local authorities to see kinship care as often being in the best interest of the child. It allows the child to stay with siblings in a familiar context. Relatives are often dismissed as inappropriate because of their connections with the child’s natural parent who is found wanting.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that local authorities’ rush towards adoption makes it more difficult for grandparents to go through the process and demonstrate that they are properly equipped and suited to look after their grandchildren?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am delighted that he makes that point.
No family is perfect—it is about good-enough parenting and the sense of belonging and identity that is irreplaceable for any child. I urge the Minister to support the Family Rights Group so that parents can have access to free and independent advice at an early stage in any investigation against them.
It is some time since I placed children for adoption and some time since I have been involved in child protection work, but the guardian ad litem system is being disregarded. It plays a vital role in ensuring that all potential other sources of care are examined and explored before the case goes before a judge. I would like that to be examined and acknowledged.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point.
In conclusion, I am encouraged by what I have heard from the Minister and the Prime Minister. He has always been committed to strengthening families and sees families as the bedrock of society. He has recently spoken passionately and sincerely of his desire to see fewer children in care. He has said that the care system and the plight of children in care shames our country, and has spoken of his commitment to the life chances of the most disadvantaged young people. It might be that, with the motion, I and other Members who support it are pushing at an open door. I very much hope that that is the case, so that that sense of belonging and security can be part of every child’s life.
I am delighted to join the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) in sponsoring this debate.
To declare my interest, I am the patron of the Family Rights Group, the charity that works with parents in England and Wales whose children are in need, at risk or in the care system. May I follow the hon. Lady in this preamble to my speech and say to those on the Treasury Bench that the Family Rights Group provides the only free, open-access, specialist legal advice service for such families? Governments of all persuasions have recognised its importance.
The simple fact is that demand for the charity’s services has gone up and its funding has been reduced. That is bad enough, but if the Government do not pull their finger out, the service will cease completely on 31 March —just a few weeks from now. I hope that the Minister will say something on that in his response, because the need for the work that the Family Rights Group does and the advice that it gives underpin all the various elements that we will hear about in the debate on this huge subject today. Preserving it would be the first step towards carrying out the terms of the motion.
I do not claim to have changed the world in my short period as Secretary of State for Education, but together with my children’s Minister, now Baroness Hughes of Stretford, I tried to improve the situation for children in care through the measures in the “Care Matters” White Paper. We were driven by a host of depressing statistics, but the most scandalous of all was that children in care accounted for 0.5% of the child population, but as adults accounted for 27% of the prison population. We might as well, as a society, direct them straight to Wormwood Scrubs and the other institutions they are going to end up in.
We did much in government to address that problem, but after 10 years in power, which is when I became Education Secretary, and despite an awful lot of concentration on what we used to call social exclusion, that statistic remained. My point is that this is not a party political joust. This problem is so deeply entrenched that we need to work on the solutions together across this House and not deal with it in a combative way.
On that statistic, which is of course appalling, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it does not necessarily follow that it is the care system that meant that those individuals ended up in prison, and that if they had stayed with their families, they may well have ended up in prison anyway?
I do not concur with that at all.
All these problems are profound and multidimensional —of course they are—but I could sum up the problem in my time, although more recent children’s Ministers may sum it up differently: children are pushed into care too easily, moved around too much and kicked out too soon. That is the issue that we were trying to face in the “Care Matters” White Paper in 2007. I will focus on the first of those three problems—the fact that they are pushed into care too easily—and on kinship care.
On the point about young people being removed from care too soon, I congratulate the Government on the important step that they took in the Children and Families Act 2014 of insisting that young people in care who reach the age of 18 may remain in care or “stay put”, to use the terminology, with foster carers until the age of 21. In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), we used to kick them out at 16. Nowadays, children practically cling on to the door mantel when you try to get rid of them, if I may say so as a father. The average age when children leave home is 27. Kids in care—the most vulnerable children—were kicked out at 16. Of course that contributed to the pressing statistic on where they ended up.
I am fully conscious of that. When I was a councillor, I established the first leaving care service in the country at Westminster Council. It won us beacon status from the then Labour Government. I was trying to make the point that it does not necessarily follow that leaving those children in their families would lead to benign outcomes as opposed to the outcomes of the care system. I fully accept the failures of the care system, but I am not sure that the alternative would have been more benign.
I will come on to research that might help the hon. Gentleman because I believe that it is indeed the case, not in every instance of course, that a higher proportion of children who are left to be raised with families—and friends, incidentally—will not end up in the situation that I described.
The Government introduced the welcome change for children in foster care to be able to stay there until they are 21. Can the Minister tell us in his response whether there are any plans to introduce an analogous provision for children in residential care, as the Education Committee recommended in 2014? It seems ridiculous that children can stay in care with foster parents until they are 21, but that they get kicked out at 18 if they are in residential care.
The main issue that I wish to raise is kinship care. Kinship carers are grandparents, older siblings, other relatives and friends who step in to care for children. Ninety-five per cent. of the children in kinship care are not declared “looked-after” children by the local authority. By keeping children out of the care system, those carers save the taxpayer billions of pounds each year in care costs alone. All the research evidence demonstrates that kinship care has real and substantial benefits for children. They feel more secure, and they have fewer emotional problems and behavioural difficulties. On top of that, the latest piece of research, from last November, states that those children also do better in educational attainment than those in residential care.
There is another issue about the care system for the hon. Member for North West Hampshire to consider. It used to move kids around all the time. That was bad enough, but when they arrived in a new location, they went to the worst schools. They went to the schools that had the vacancies, which were generally the most unpopular and the worst. We introduced a measure that provided that schools must accept children in care as a priority, in accordance with what the children and their carers wanted. That is another example of how we can change the care system for the better.
Despite everything that has been done, the system neither encourages nor sufficiently supports the important alternative of kinship care. Yes, there is helpful guidance, but there is no statutory duty that requires local authorities to explore the kinship care option, or even to have the all-important family group conference—the FGC—which is a crucial way of involving the wider family early in the process. In the vast majority of cases, that does not take place until after the child goes into care. It should be held before that decision is made. One of the important aspects of the family group conference is the voice of the young person, which is crucial. It is vital to the process and central to the success of family group conferences. However, not only are they almost always held after a child has been designated as “looked after”, but their number is diminishing as budget cuts force local authorities to retrench.
As a crucial step towards realising the motion, the Government should place a new statutory duty on local authorities so that when they conclude that a child may need to become looked after, they must, other than in emergencies, first identify and consider the willingness and suitability of any relative or other person connected to the child to care for them. Secondly, they should arrange a family group conference run by an accredited FGC service to develop a plan to safeguard and promote a child’s welfare. They should also ensure proper funding for free specialist independent legal advice, as both I and the hon. Member for Telford have mentioned, through the Family Rights Group.
My final point concerns the need to recognise the problems that kinship carers face, and the need for the Government to avoid adding to them through changes to the benefit system. The largest survey of kinship carers in the UK found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently. That is often a requirement for taking a child into their care—the authorities insist that they give up work. Some 18% had to give up work temporarily and 23% had to reduce their hours. That creates a family income problem.
The recent Department for Education review of special guardianship and Sir Martin Narey’s imminent review of residential care provide a perfect opportunity to introduce a support framework for kinship care that includes a designated council official to contact when necessary. The Government should also consider extending to kinship carers the measures that are available to adopters, such as paid leave and priority school admissions. More urgently, kinship carers should be exempted from the limiting of child tax credit to two children, the benefit cap and the extension of work conditionality rules to carers of children under five years of age. Let me briefly explain why.
In respect of the benefit cap, many children arrive to live with kinship carers following a crisis. They are deeply traumatised and many have suffered prior abuse. As a result, the behavioural response hoped for by the Department for Work and Pensions, of staying in or returning to work, is just not an option. The relevant drop in income caused by the lower benefit cap will affect more kinship carers, who, as I said earlier, are saving the taxpayer a small fortune. Limiting child tax credit to two children will obviously make it financially unviable for some relatives to take on a larger sibling group to keep the family together. The daughter of a grandmother in my constituency died. By taking in the three children, the grandmother will be hit by the two-child policy. That is no way to run a civilised social service and welfare state. Incidentally, the cost of an exemption would be about £30 million. It would only require 200 kinship carers to be financially prohibited from taking in a sibling group of three or more, for care and court costs to outweigh that amount. The Government could therefore be making a saving.
The new work conditionality requirements that will be applied to carers of children under five will place obvious and substantial burdens on kinship carers. I say to those on the Treasury Bench that there is an important precedent for the exemptions. Kinship carers have already been exempted from work conditionality requirements for a year after they take on the care of a child. We are not talking about precedents here, but consistency.
This is an important debate, which allows right hon. and hon. Members to raise issues that are aired all too infrequently. Despite the benefits, kinship care is largely overlooked by the media, Governments of various persuasions, and the Prime Minister and his predecessor. In the past two years, there has been much attention paid to adoption. Rightly, it has been the subject of Prime Ministerial speeches, Government initiatives and newly announced funding streams. On kinship care, there has been radio silence. It is time we gave kinship care the recognition and support it deserves, and which children so badly need.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). This is a very important subject and they have done extraordinarily well to put it at the forefront of our proceedings in the Chamber.
I want to say how much I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle in his emphasis on the importance of kinship care. In my constituency, I have encountered situations where a kinship care solution would have been more appropriate than what actually happened. I fully concur with what he said and urge the Government to think very carefully about how they can encourage kinship care.
The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, frequently mentions the importance of strong family life, and I am pleased to note that in the autumn statement the Government significantly extended the troubled families programme. That programme, which began in 2013, is an important step because it signals what everybody knows: that good families are better than bad families and that families going through appalling experiences and heading towards crisis must be given the appropriate help. The Government are also right to make it easier for separating parents to go through mediation rather than a full-scale battle. That is another step in the right direction.
It is important that we have high standards of social work in order to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in recent years. One important element here cropped up when the Education Select Committee last visited the Department: the importance of leadership—not necessarily at director level, but at assistant director level—in ensuring high-quality and timely decisions in social work. The Government should think about the quality, nature and forward planning of social work in local authorities. Another big point is agency co-operation. I would like to hear from the Minister how the ministerial taskforce on child protection is getting on. One of its key priorities should be to encourage better agency co-operation and to make it easier for them to work together. That is an important direction of travel and one that I hope the Select Committee will be pushing.
The pupil premium and children’s centres, which are linked, are important aspects of this debate. The pupil premium is for children in poverty, but there are links between those children and children in troubled families, so we should be using the pupil premium to identify and help the children in jeopardy. The same logic applies to children’s centres, because they are really useful places. I have seen how important they are in my constituency: thousands of children in my constituency are going to well-run children’s centres and benefiting from some extraordinarily good services. We need to put a spotlight on the value of children’s centres, which, certainly in my constituency, are well run and well organised.
I want to make two final points. First, we need to think about having statutory personal, social, health and economic education. I have written to the Secretary of State several times, urging her to think carefully about that, and we continue to press on that front. Finally, I end on an observation made in my meeting recently with the Youth Justice Board. We heard earlier about children getting into difficulty—with prison, criminal activity and so on—so I want to repeat the key point about the need for strong, better and more transparent agency work and co-operation.
The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) is right to express concern about the rising number of children taken into care and to ask whether more can be done to keep families together, but perhaps consideration should also be given, particularly in respect of older children in care homes, to whether the care system could be more flexible in supporting relationships with families, if that is what the child wants. In European countries such as Denmark, there tends to be a much stronger focus on prevention and family support, and that is characterised by the care system operating more flexibly around the family. Residential care is likely to be more local, allowing work with the family.
In March 2015, there were 6,570 children in children’s homes in England. They are likely to have had more placements than children in foster care and to have significant emotional, behavioural and social difficulties.
As a children’s home visitor until my election here in May, I am very aware that, as my hon. Friend says, care homes are not the best environments for vulnerable young people, who often have mental health issues, to grow up in. I am sure she agrees that the best approach is to intervene before families go into crisis. Does she agree that unfair cuts to the most deprived local authorities, such as those in Manchester, make it much harder for the authorities with the greatest need to provide services such as Sure Start to the families with the most vulnerable children?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend, and the point he makes is absolutely right. To achieve prevention, funding is needed.
Children in children’s homes are more likely to have more significant problems. In October 2015, the Government announced that Sir Martin Narey would head an independent root-and-branch investigation into children’s residential care. The aim of the review, which I welcome, is to
“help put an end to a life of disadvantage for some of the most vulnerable children in care”.
The Minister will be aware that in 2012 the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair, conducted a joint inquiry into children missing from care. It looked at the incidence of children going missing from care homes and concluded that one of the biggest problems was the unequal distribution of such homes, as a result of which large numbers of vulnerable children were placed at a distance from their home area. Many placement decisions were last minute, driven by what was available at the time rather than by the needs of the child. This meant that the child was often not involved in planning. Children told our inquiry that they felt “dumped” in children’s homes many miles away from home. This increased their propensity to go missing and come to harm—from child sexual exploitation, for example.
An expert group on the quality of children’s homes was set up and reported to the Department for Education in 2012. The Government then published the first children’s homes data-pack in the same year. One of the key findings of the expert group was indeed that the pattern of supply of children’s homes was uneven across England. One reason for that could be that property prices were so much lower in some areas than others, leading companies to set up in low-cost areas to suit business plans rather than what is best for the children.
The latest figures show that 79% of homes are in the private or voluntary sector. In 2012, homes were charging up to £5,000 a week for children with complex needs. Some £1 billion a year is currently being spent by local authorities on children’s home places, and concerns have been expressed about the number of large private equity firms becoming involved.
The report from the Government’s expert group in 2012 made a number of recommendations to help remedy the unequal distribution in the market, and to mitigate the impacts of children being placed at a distance, but what has actually changed since 2012? In 2012, children’s homes were concentrated in the north-west, the west midlands and the south-east. For example, the north-west has 15% of the children’s homes population, but 25% of the children’s homes.
The 2014 children’s homes data-pack shows us that the picture has not changed in regard to location of homes and the number of children placed at a distance. In 2014, a third of children were still placed 20 miles or more from their home areas. It is disappointing that progress is slow. We still have the continuing problem of children being sent to where the homes are rather than the homes being where the children are. All this evidence paints a picture of a market that is run in the interests of the providers, not in the interests of children and young people.
I very much welcome the introduction by the Government of new regulations recommended by the expert group, particularly the need for a director of children’s services to approve a decision to place a child in a distant placement. However, I am not clear about how the effect of these regulations is being monitored for assessing better outcomes for safeguarding children, particularly those in distant placements. I would be grateful if the Minister provided some information on that.
The 2014 data-pack makes it clear that local authorities placing children far from home are not placing them in poor-quality provision, but that the main problem is one of distance. This means that the placing authority is unable to rely on any local knowledge or intelligence about the quality of homes or the suitability of their location. It also gives rise to significant travel times, limiting social work oversight, and the distance between the child and their family might limit relationships and undermine the scope of work with the family.
There are, of course, other issues, such as the quality of staffing, but it is the geographical locale of children’s homes that limits choice for social workers and for the child at the point of placement. Unsatisfactory placements of children only compound the difficulties that they may already have, adding to their distrust of the system and causing more to go missing, with the subsequent risk of harm involved.
Evidence continues to point to a failure of commissioning in relation to the unequal distribution of homes. After all, local authorities are the only buyers of these places, and commissioning cannot simply be the sum total of decisions made according to available capacity. It must be proactive, having regard to the longer-term needs of the children whom local authorities look after, now and in the future. As I said earlier, the European model, in which residential care is likely to be local, allows families to visit, which provides an opportunity for constructive work with parents. That approach aims to support the resources of the family. At present, families all too often feel that they have been identified as failing, and that all decisions have been taken away from them. Local provision is the key.
I commend the Members who proposed the motion. They did so for a laudable reason: they see the value of strong families and their irreplaceable role in raising children as the granite on which our society is founded, and their desire to work to help children stay with their families is to be praised. They also rightly recognise the severe limitations of our child protection system, and seek to keep children out of it. Early intervention, prevention, and encouragement and support for kinship care are intelligent parts of a coherent strategy.
It should be noted, however, that this debate is not about strong families, functional families, or even the care system. It is about families and households who all too often put the lives and well being of children in serious danger. It is about children in care who have been removed from their families because they are not safe, and because those families will not help them to grow up to be healthy, independent adults. For such children, stable families are already out of reach. When that happens, the solution is not to dither, apply half measures, or wait and see. It falls to the state to step in and protect children, and, if needs be, to remove them from danger.
That should never be done lightly, and it is, of course, far from ideal, but it is done none the less because we recognise that waiting to see whether parents can improve, or trying to improve the home, is often a very risky path to take. In recent years, we have seen again and again that the “wait and see” approach—the failure to act quickly enough—has had horrendous consequences. I believe that the cost of repeatedly failing to act frequently outweighs the potential upside of trying to enable children to stay with their families. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, most children in care eventually recognise that it was the right path for them. They recognise the issues that led to their being in care in the first place, and the fact that those dreadful situations demanded action.
Once it has been properly established that a child is in danger and there are no safe kinship alternatives, we have no choice other than to act. That applies to cases of severe neglect, but it applies especially to cases of child cruelty. In matters of cruelty to children, there are no second chances. There are no second chances for the child or baby who is at risk of being permanently harmed, or even, sadly, killed.
I recognise that, but, as I said to my hon. Friend earlier, I have the general sense—having worked with the care system when I was a councillor, and subsequently—that in the vast majority of cases this is the right decision for the children concerned. There are some cases in which the system does fail, but the fact is that most children are removed because they are in some kind of danger or peril, whether it be emotional or physical.
There should not be any second chances for parents who put their children at risk or deliberately harm them. I must emphasise that to make that case is not to argue for one minute that, ordinarily, the state is better placed than families to look after children. Nothing is, and it is not helpful or right that children in care are still so vulnerable, or that, in many cases, they have been destined for such miserable lives after they leave. However, the fact that we fail too many children in care does not mean that we have too many children in care, or that it is wrong to remove such children from the families who were endangering them. That simply does not follow. What follows is that we should be doing more for children in care and continuing with the practice of intervening quickly when the need arises.
My rejection, sadly, of today’s motion is in two parts. The first, as I have already said, is that given that the danger of failing to intervene is so strong, I actually think we should be intervening more. The second is that all this is predicated on a drastic improvement in the care system that the Government have also indicated they are determined to make.
The care system exists to keep children safe where their families have failed them. The burden of looking after these children falls on you, me—everyone. In arguing for special measures to help children stay with their families “safely”, proponents of the motion acknowledge that they are not safe with their family in the first place. Considering the degree of damage that abuse and neglect can inflict in a very short space of time, we cannot take risks or gamble with their lives. In many cases, children should be taken into care sooner.
I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. Nobody supporting this motion or sponsoring it does not believe that children who are in danger should be removed from that danger quickly. His whole contribution and opposition to this motion are based on a total misconception. What we are saying is there are many children who go into care—and their voice is important, by the way—who actually would be better placed, and happier, with family members. I suggest that that proposition should unite the House, not be defeated by some suggestion that people disagree that children in danger should be removed from that danger quickly.
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says and I have mentioned kinship care twice in my speech. I absolutely agree that if a safe alternative can be found in an extended family, that should be encouraged. I was pleased to hear his speech and I do think the Government could do more to support that. The motion, however, does not mention kinship care, and it laments the rise in the number of children in the care system. The point I am trying to make is that while we as a social care system seek to intervene with a family and try to make the family home safer, there is a child who is remaining in the home who may still be damaged. We have seen some horrendous situations where the social care system failed to act sufficiently quickly. My view is that if we hide behind the idea that we may be able to make some progress with the family, we are fundamentally gambling with the lives of young people.
In my opening remarks I referred to the fact that one in 100 children are subject to child protection investigations. It is no secret that my own son was subject to a child protection investigation, and often children in families who are not well-placed to protect themselves from that type of forceful state intervention end up in care when they do not need to be there.
As I said in an earlier intervention, my experience of the care system is not that the country is teeming with malign social workers looking for children to purloin from their parents and shove into the care system. These are professional people who investigate largely professionally. Errors are made, as in all bureaucratic systems; nevertheless their motives are good and right, and more often than not they see cause for alarm that requires action.
My concern about this motion is that the tragic case of baby P, which has been referred to, led to a rise in the number of children in care, and I think it was generally accepted that before that case the child protection system was not functioning correctly. I was tangentially involved in the Victoria Climbié affair. She came through Westminster’s hands for two weeks. Pleasingly, we did everything right, but that is another case where the care system had failed. My point is not necessarily that the system is operating incorrectly now; it may well be operating correctly. My concern about the motion is about the signal it sends to social workers about the desire of this House that they should attempt to leave children in possibly dysfunctional and perhaps damaging situations for longer while they attempt the much harder task of trying to turn the home around.
I support the motion wholeheartedly because one of the best things we can possibly do is to improve the prospects for children to be able to stay at home successfully with their birth parents. However, many things need to be done in order to achieve that, not least of which is to address the availability of support for parents who would otherwise be in a situation in which their children might be at risk. Some Members have already commented on the cuts to public services and the contribution they have made to undermining the ability of parents to provide good parenting. That is an important point, and this is one of the big areas in which the Government need to take a long, hard look at the support and resources available, not least in local government and the NHS.
Equally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said, the Government need to take a wider look at all the options available. A certain option might be right for many children, but it will not always be the right option for all children. This must be about putting the child at the centre of all the decisions that are taken. My right hon. Friend is right to say that kinship care is often not considered, but it should always be an option if members of an extended family are available. The motion makes it clear that we are trying to discuss that matter today.
We should do all that we can to avoid having such high numbers of children in care. The figure was 86,000 last year, and we should be trying to reduce it at all costs, but that involves significant early intervention and prevention work. It involves working with families whose children might be at risk and preventing the kind of neglect and abuse that leads to children being taken into care in the first place.
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, I should have mentioned at the outset my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am no longer a foster carer but I was one briefly recently.
One of the challenges is to ensure that we have the workforce to deliver the necessary services. We must support, encourage and celebrate the work of social workers and all those who work with children and with families in supporting them and trying to prevent the kind of breakdown that leads to children going into care. We should be supporting, encouraging, recruiting and training the very best people to become foster carers or to work in residential children’s care. We also need to support kinship carers and parents to enable them to provide the very best quality of care in these circumstances.
As has been said, we should look at children in care as though they were our own. The concept of corporate parenting is another fine example of something the Labour Government introduced, but I do not believe that it is practised to the extent that it should be in this country. We all have a responsibility to ensure that every child in the public care system gets the support, encouragement and opportunities that they would get if they were our own children, and that includes the extension of staying put to 21 and beyond, not just in foster care but in residential care as well.
We also need to learn from other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) talked about Denmark. Denmark has a long-term commitment to support for children through the use of social pedagogy and through the development and training of experienced residential workers who live with children over a long period of time to create family units. That is a successful model, and there are successful examples of it in this country. Perhaps the Government should look at those examples too.
Permanence for children is incredibly important, whether with their birth family, with kinship carers, in foster care or in residential care. Finding the right option for each individual child is the most important thing. We should learn from best practice in this country and around the world. Speed is also incredibly important when making these decisions, and any decision on whether a child should remain with their birth family should be made quickly and should always reflect what is right for the individual child.
I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate. My hon. Friend speaks from more direct and personal experience than any of us would like to have. Nobody could have a higher opinion of and greater respect for social workers and child protection officers than I do. At the time I was born, my mother was running a local authority children’s home in central Birmingham, so the first years of my life were spent living in that home. Even at that age, I was able to see daily the dedication, care, commitment and love shown by the workers in that children’s home, but I also know that even the most compassionate and dedicated social worker cannot possibly replace the care and love of a family. That is why we must do everything we can, where possible—where there is no threat of abuse or serious neglect—to help keep families together.
It seems that the pendulum has swung too far towards an assumption that where any kinds of concern are raised, one option on the table is to take a child into care. We desperately need to address that. Nobody would argue against removing a child from an environment where it is at risk of abuse or serious neglect, but in too many of the cases we see at our surgeries that is simply not the assessment that is being made.
Shortly before Christmas, I came across a constituency case which appeared to me, having read the magistrate’s report, to be based primarily on a chaotic lifestyle in an untidy house. Those issues clearly need addressing, but they were not serious threats to the welfare of the children or certainly to their safety. If more support could be put in place to help with those issues, it must be better for the families, particularly for the children, and much more economic for local authorities and for the Government.
One aspect of the care system that has not yet been referred to is how we approach the mental health of parents. A lot of extremely valuable work has been done by a number of Members, particularly the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), in establishing the principle of parity of esteem between physical and mental health. However, that approach is simply not being taken where the care system and assessments about taking children into care are concerned. Children are being taken into care when parents are suffering from mental illnesses, whether that relates to depression or other mental health issues.
Yesterday, a former Labour councillor in my constituency wrote to me to highlight a case that she had been involved with in the past. It concerned a mother of three young children who had nursed her husband through the advanced stages of cancer. Sadly her husband did pass away, the mother struggled to cope, as many of us would, and the three children were taken into care. Rather than making sure that the mother received the support she needed to look after the children or to find a temporary solution, the children were taken into care. The mother therefore lost not only her husband but her children, and not only did the three children lose their father, but in a short period of time they were taken away from their mother. They were put into care out of borough, so they were at a different school and they had, in effect, lost their friends, too. This really matters because, as has been said, on any metric we can measure, the outcomes for children in care are significantly worse than they are for the population as a whole. That applies in respect of employment, housing, the criminal justice system and educational achievement, and it has to be because of the thing we cannot measure: the enormous psychological and emotional impact of taking children away from their families. The safety and welfare of children must come first, but I do not think that always applies—
I agree with the focus of this debate. Sadly, our care system in Slough has not protected children effectively, and I am particularly sad that the Children’s Services Trust, which the Government set up to improve services, has apparently not done so very effectively. The Minister will be aware of a case involving a two-year-old, about which I have written to the Secretary of State. I would like to see better monitoring of Children’s Services Trusts from the centre.
I wish to shoehorn into this debate the issue of children who are not in the care system but who are not able to remain safely at home with their family or extended family. If we do not include those children, we will fail to address some of the urgent issues in this regard. Specifically, I want to raise the matter of trafficked children, particularly children who are trafficked across borders, as, according to a recent Home Office commissioned report, they are more isolated from protective networks than their internally trafficked counterparts.
The Government published that report as a result of the pilot they introduced on child trafficking advocates. It was only after intense pressure from Members that they agreed to introduce any system of protection for trafficked children. These are not guardians with legal powers, and the Government only had a pilot of the advocacy system. Unfortunately, despite the fact that a report by the University of Bedfordshire made it quite clear that the pilot had been successful, Barnardo’s has not been commissioned to extend its service, nor has any subsequent service been provided.
I urge the Minister to speak directly to his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that there is a continuing advocacy or better guardianship provision for these children. I gather that the excuse for not carrying on providing any protection mechanism for them that is worth the name is that children within the advocacy service still disappeared. It is clear from the university report that half the children who disappeared—overwhelmingly, they were Vietnamese children who were trafficked into cannabis farming—disappeared before they had been referred to the advocacy service.
There are clear examples in the report of how advocates worked very hard to protect children who were at risk of disappearing. The fact is that those advocates did not have legal powers and could be ignored by local authorities. In one case, they were unable to persuade the local authority to put a trafficked child in safe accommodation, and the child then disappeared into the hands of a trafficker. In another case, they were unable to persuade a local authority that a child was a child, and it was only because of the determination of the advocacy service that when that child re-entered the healthcare system they were discovered again and re-referred to the Home Office protection system.
I am very concerned indeed that this group of children is falling through the gap, and that the problem is being regarded as an immigration issue rather than a child protection issue. I urge the Minister, in responding to this debate, to say that he is not prepared to tolerate the one bit of the Bedfordshire report that suggested there was no enthusiasm for this process—certain social workers felt that they should have the money rather than child protection advocates. Will he also ensure that, within the month, he will speak to the Home Office about continuing to fund proper child advocacy services, preferably child guardians with legal powers to stop local authorities ignoring those children’s need for protection, so that they, like all other children in Britain, can be properly kept safe?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing the debate, because how we treat young people and children in our society is really important.
I want to bring to the Minister’s attention my experience of having represented parents whose children are taken into local authority care. I also want to say a little about when I used to represent young people charged with criminal offences and prosecute adults who had been abusing young people. I have worked quite a lot with young people and seen what happens in their homes. I want to concentrate on family law, which does not get enough attention, and especially on what happens in the legal process.
I agree with everyone who has spoken, bar the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—I do not agree with a lot of what he said. Nobody is saying that children should not be taken into care. We have heard about the case of baby P and the Climbié case, as a result of which I am concerned that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. When there is even a slight expression of concern about children, local authorities come in, take them away and put them with foster parents, and then they start dealing with the parents. They never look at kinship care: often, it is the family themselves, or maybe their lawyers, who talk to the wider family and say, “Would you like to put yourselves forward to be a kinship carer?” Then the wider family members come forward, and it takes about six to eight weeks for them to be assessed to see whether they are suitable. I ask the Minister to urge local authorities and social services to proactively find a family member who could look after a child they have taken into care. I assure him that a child will always feel happier with an auntie, uncle or older brother or sister than with a complete stranger, so maybe we need to change the emphasis.
Secondly, when I was practising in the field I noticed that children often have a guardian appointed—a lawyer—and social services are involved, but very rarely do people talk to the children about what they want. I remember a case where I was banging my head against a brick wall. I asked all the people involved, especially the legal guardian who was supposed to be representing the children, “Have you spoken to the child about this? Have you got any information from them? What do they think about it? Where do you think they would like to live?” I was met with a wall of silence. I was very frustrated, and I said, “You know, if you really want to do it, you should be asking these questions. You should be trying to find alternative sources.”
Thirdly, as the Minister probably knows, sometimes when children are taken into care they have an opportunity to have supervised access to meet their parents in a contact centre. However, that tends to be on an awkward date and time and in an awkward place, and the visits are not frequent. Again, we have to fight social services to increase the number of visits for parents, make the location more accessible and allow parents to have more quality time with their children. If that happens, it means that when the process is finished, six months or a year down the road, the child will not have forgotten his or her parents. I ask the Minister to urge social services to look at those aspects of the system.
Finally, I am sorry to say that there is unseemly haste to place babies in care. We know that most people who want to adopt are happy to adopt a little baby but reluctant to adopt a toddler or older child. Babies are therefore carted off to the adoption system before there has been thorough and proper work with the family to see whether they can help. There will always be situations in which children are vulnerable and their family will never be able to look after them, but in my experience those cases are a small minority. We hear about them in the media, but we do not hear about the cases that do not fall into that category. We need to talk about the thousands of cases in which it would be far better to work with the family at home and spend the money that we would otherwise give to foster parents on allowing the parents to improve their home and helping them to look after their children.
I shall make a brief contribution to the debate. If people wish to read the unabridged version of my speech, it will be on my website at the end of the debate. I declare an interest as the unpaid founder and chair of both the Rebalancing the Outer Estates charity and the Early Intervention Foundation.
I fully support the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). I may surprise colleagues by not taking the opportunity to speak again about the need to change from a late intervention philosophy to an early intervention one, the need for evidence-based policy making, or the need for a “what works” organisation for the victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. Today I want to speak to the need for local people—real people in the localities—to make a difference in places such as my constituency, Nottingham North. In doing so, I pay a specific and well-deserved tribute to those connected with the Safe Families for Children programme for the phenomenal work that they are doing.
Safe Families was brought to the UK and started in the north-east of England entirely as a result of the energy and personal commitment of Sir Peter Vardy. After I spoke to Sir Peter about my constituency, with typical generosity he put at Nottingham’s disposal his fantastic team led by the unstoppable chief executive, Keith Danby, and we began to work out how we could take things forward for unsafe families in Nottingham North. We had several planning meetings involving the community convened under the auspices of the Rebalancing the Outer Estates charity. Nottingham city council put its considerable weight behind the idea. Alongside our own 20-year early intervention plan, the programme works with the many other facets of Nottingham’s early intervention city programme and with the strategy of our far-sighted and talented team led by Candida Brudenell, Katy Ball and Kevin Banfield.
Put simply, Safe Families works with three levels of volunteers. Colleagues might wish to take this up in their own constituency. Those three levels are, first, family friend volunteers, who are trained to help the families directly to overcome their problems; secondly, host family volunteers who, after proper criminal record checks, can look after the children for one night, a week or whatever, giving the family the time they need to get it together again; and thirdly, resource friend volunteers who, like us perhaps, can contribute a little bit of time here and there to help with supplying or delivering much needed household and other items to families in difficulties.
Building the volunteer critical mass has been crucial. The wonderful Kat Osborn and the local Safe Families for Children Nottingham team have been brilliant. They have recruited, trained and approved 240 volunteers in Nottingham and throughout the east midlands—sadly, far too many to name, but I have met many of them—starting with faith-based communities and spreading to involve people of all faiths and none. Starting just a few months ago from the base in Nottingham North, the city of Nottingham has now made 32 referrals and 49 children have been supported to date. These include 32 nights of hostings, with more in the pipeline over the next few weeks.
The financial benefits are enormous. A very small upfront investment of resource, time and effort avoids costs of tens of thousands of pounds for every child who did not go into care The average cost of a looked-after child is estimated to be £48,000, excluding legal costs and council staff costs. We in Nottingham are close to making our own evidence-based savings prediction as we grow beyond the 32 referrals we have made so far.
The Safe Families for Children extended pilot became a joint venture between the Department for Education’s children’s social care innovation programme and Nottingham council. As with all the ideas we trigger in the Rebalancing charity, the idea was to pioneer Safe Families in one place and then grow it. Now, using Nottingham as a hub, all four of our east midlands phase 1 Safe Families partners—Derby, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire—have been up and running for over a month and all are now making referrals.
Will the Minister raise with the Treasury the possibility of using this as a social investment programme? Also, will he ensure that every council takes up a similar scheme?
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate on a topic that affects some 93,000 children who are in care across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I commend the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for introducing it and for their wording of the motion. How anyone in this House could have any doubts about its wording astounds me. What it says is very clear to me, and I believe to everyone outside this House as well.
I take this opportunity to commend my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly for recently passing a vital new law, the Children’s Services (Co-operation) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which will make a real and practical difference to the lives of many children in care in the Province by removing bureaucracy and putting the needs of the child first.
The figures really do speak for themselves. As of 31 March 2015, there were 2,875 children in care in Northern Ireland; in my eyes, that is 2,875 too many. Four per cent. of those looked-after children, or 112, were less than a year old; 20%, or 581, were aged between one and four; 34%, or 958, were aged between five and 11; 24%, or 693, were aged between 12 and 16; and 18%, or 530, were aged 16 and over. My reason for putting those stats on the record is to show the House that the majority of those in care in Northern Ireland tend to be older children or teenagers. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he is having discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly to see what its thoughts are on that. In the year ending March 2015, 72% of children adopted were four years old or younger, and 28% were aged over five. With figures like these, it is little wonder we find that the majority of those in care tend to be slightly older.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that children in care are four times more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties than those who are not in care—an extremely worrying statistic. The NSPCC claims that if children and young people do not get the help they need early enough, these problems can get worse. Such mental health issues can lead to children in care having challenging behavioural problems that may prove difficult for carers to deal with, which, in turn, causes yet further problems. If children’s placements break down, that can have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing and mental health. A placement breakdown can also mean increased costs to the system as a new placement has to be found, and as children’s mental health grows worse, they need increasingly more specialist placements. The whole thing gets worse and more complex; it is a Catch-22 situation.
Not only that, but the Department for Education has revealed that children in care are less likely to do well at school compared with their peers who are not in care. These figures cannot be ignored. The findings are further supported by figures from March 2014 showing that 34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at the age of 19, compared with 15.5% of the general population. That is another statistic that cannot be ignored in relation to the wellbeing of those in care. Clearly, more needs to be done to help those in care to reach their academic potential. I hope the Minister will explain what steps the Department is taking to address that. It is vital that we get it right for young people, whenever they need direction, and focus on their potential and where they are going to be in adult life.
According to the NSPCC, more than half of children are taken into care because of abuse or neglect, and an estimated 20% to 35% of sexually exploited children are in care. A number of charities—the NSPCC and many others—actively work to provide support and help for children in such circumstances, but again, much more needs to be done and much more action is needed from the Minister and his Department. I hope he can tell the House what they are doing to improve the support available for children who have suffered abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. More than 50,000 children are currently identified as needing protection from abuse in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it has been estimated that for every child so identified, a further eight are suffering from child abuse. If those stats are correct, then this is another enormous problem that the Minister has to respond to.
With these figures in mind, it is little wonder that so many of those leaving care struggle with mental health and/or behavioural issues. Instead of moving these children to and fro, we need to help them to deal with and overcome their experiences, bad as they are. We have to do more to help the vulnerable in society. This will not only help children to realise their potential and secure the very important employment they need for their future, but help to cut costs in the system. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am delighted to participate in this debate on such an important issue. Indeed, after the cities of Glasgow and Dundee, my own local authority of North Ayrshire has the highest rate of looked-after children in Scotland, with 2.1% of young people up to age the 17 currently being looked after.
By contrast with England, where the figure is rising, there has been progress in Scotland in recent years, with a 3% fall in the number of looked-after children since 2013. I make that point because it is important that lessons are learned and best practice shared in all corners of the United Kingdom. There are no easy answers, but much more can be done.
I listened with enormous interest to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who said that children are often, in effect, kicked out of residential care at the arbitrary age of 16. In Scotland, under the SNP Government and the provisions of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, young people in foster, kinship or residential care may extend their stay in such care until the age of 21. The SNP Government have also further committed to providing support for care leavers up to the age of 26, to help them move to independent living.
Several Members have pointed out that, in order to reduce the number of children entering care, the focus must be on preventive work and early intervention to support children and young people and their families. Importance must be placed on early engagement to support and build on the assets in families and communities, to prevent children from becoming looked-after, wherever possible.
I agree that one of the most effective ways of providing care is by way of kinship care. The work of kinship carers is not always fully understood, and all too often it is overlooked entirely. Indeed, kinship care is often far more challenging than many people realise, and it impacts enormously on the carer’s life as well as that of the child. For a grandparent, it can be a daunting task, particularly when they believe that their life is going to go along a different path from the one they had envisaged.
It is wrong to assume, as sometimes happens, that kinship care is simply a normal family obligation, with near seamless transitions from one household to another. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the need for kinship care can often be incredibly complex and difficult to deal with for both the child and the carer. It is important, therefore, that we do what we can to recognise and confront that reality and to support kinship carers as they manage in what are often very difficult circumstances.
In Scotland, the Children 1st charity, supported by the SNP Government, carries out vital work to support kinship carers through its national helpline and national kinship care service, which offers advice, support and information to kinship carers. Over the years, the SNP Government in Scotland have been moving in the right direction to provide additional support to kinship carers. Indeed, the current SNP Government were the first to introduce kinship care payments.
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act also provided, for the first time, specific legal entitlements to support kinship carers and eligible children themselves. Financial support is of huge importance, given the increased costs of raising a dependent child and the fact that 43% of kinship carers have to give up work to fulfil that role, undoubtedly causing a financial strain. By supporting those caring for our children, we support those children themselves, and that must be our focus.
I was delighted when the Scottish Government announced last month that they would provide £10.1 million to councils in Scotland to raise kinship care allowances to the same level as that received by foster care families, helping to alleviate financial strain and recognising the very important work that kinship carers undertake. The new funding will help to improve the lives of 5,200 children in kinship care across Scotland.
Unfortunately, despite assurances by the UK Government during the welfare reform process that they would exempt kinship carers from welfare reform changes—including sanctions, return-to-work interviews and the bedroom tax—for up to a year after they came into effect, many of them have been affected. I urge the Government to reflect on the assurances given to kinship carers during the discussions on welfare reform. I am very interested to hear what the Minister will say on that very point.
I therefore hope that Conservative Members will recognise the significant strain that the welfare reforms have placed on kinship carers. Those reforms are clearly hampering the Government’s ability to provide the necessary care to keep a child within the family unit. I hope that the Government will think again about the impact the reforms are having on carers and look at this situation as a matter urgency. I am very grateful to those who secured this debate. As I always say in such debates, I hope that we can share best practice across the border and across the UK as a whole.
I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate. It has been a short, but very thoughtful one. Our attention has rightly been focused on how we can best help and support struggling families and prevent children from entering the care system.
This debate is timely, given the research published at the end of last year by the University of Lancaster. The research found that one in four women return to the family court after previously having a child removed by court order, and that the number of new-born babies subject to care proceedings has doubled during the past five years. Those findings are backed by the Department for Education’s own figures, which show that the number of children in care has reached its highest since 1985. The total population of children now in the care system is 69,450.
The significant increase in the number of children entering the care system is seen by many, including the Education Committee’s report on child protection in 2012, as a reaction to the tragic death of baby P in 2008. That is supported by figures showing that the majority of children enter care because of neglect or abuse. This tells us that more must be done to support parents at the earliest opportunity to avoid situations such as those of Daniel Pelka, baby P and the many other high- profile cases about which we have heard in recent years.
We must have a serious rethink about the current strategy to support families and about how the huge social, personal and economic costs of children going into care can be avoided. Although it cannot be denied that there are circumstances in which the best-case scenario for a child may be to be taken into care, based on the risks of remaining in the family home, that does not mean that we as a society should not feel ashamed of this failure to support all families.
There are two areas that the Government must consider when it comes to reducing the number of children entering the care system—a more comprehensive early intervention and prevention strategy, and improving the support on offer to kinship carers.
There is an old African proverb with which I am sure all hon. Members are familiar: it takes a whole village to raise a child. That reminds us of our collective duty to offer support and help to those families who need it the most. When abuse and neglect are cited as the main reasons for a child being taken into care, it is clear that comprehensive early intervention and prevention programmes are needed to reduce the threat of a child’s abuse or neglect in the family home and to avoid the eventuality of a child being taken into care.
Addressing issues about nurture and early family life is championed in “The 1001 Critical Days” manifesto. The all-party group of much the same name is steered passionately by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He was in the Chamber earlier, but he is not in his place at the moment. The manifesto calls for more support to be given to families to help nurture and support a healthy family environment for children to grow up in. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to read this excellent manifesto. If not, I am sure his hon. Friend will send him a copy of it forthwith.
A National Audit Office report in 2014 cites one of the previous Labour Government’s greatest achievements, Sure Start children’s centres, as a key measure to help to reduce the number of children entering care. The family-focused vision of Sure Start centres brings together specialists, professionals and practitioners to provide parents with vital information on how to overcome the struggles of being new parents and how to cope with challenging family circumstances in order that they do not fall apart and descend into situations in which a child may be removed from the family home. However, according to an investigation last year by the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau, cuts to Whitehall budgets have meant that overall spending on early intervention programmes has fallen by 55%, or £1.8 billion, since 2010.
The short-sightedness of cutting early intervention budgets is detrimental to the vision all hon. Members share, which was laid out full well in “Early Intervention: The Next Steps”, the seminal report from 2011 by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). He highlighted the top 19 intervention programmes as a blueprint for government. The top of the list was the excellent family nurse partnership programme, which was piloted and which has since been rolled out a little—it needs to go much further to become universal.
Since 2010, almost 800 Sure Start children’s centres have closed. Many more are mere shells of their former selves—the “caretaker and bottle of bleach” model, as I like to call it, means that they are classed as open but not quite as we know it. The Government are sifting through the responses to their consultation on the future of Sure Start centres. In the light of the lack of progress since the my hon. Friend’s report, it is concerning that the hollowing out of Sure Start centres and the devastating cuts to intervention programmes that families rely on, such as parenting classes, drug and alcohol abuse support, and domestic violence services, have not been cited as causes when trying to understand the increase in children entering the care system.
Although a push for greater early intervention schemes is vital to addressing the increase in children entering the care system, there will still be situations when children must, sadly, be removed from the family home for their own safety. When a child is placed into care, all efforts must be made to ensure that they are safely placed with extended family members in a kinship care arrangement where possible, instead of within the care system.
It is estimated that 200,000 children are being raised by kinship carers across the UK. A significant number of children are being looked after by their grandparents or other relatives, but there has been little development in Government support for kinship carers that mirrors, for instance, recent announcements on adoption. Allowing a family member to care for a child instead of that child going into residential or foster care is important for the development of the child, but it can also help to reduce the strain on local children’s services, the budgets of which have been devastated by cuts. That does not mean that kinship carers should be seen as a cheaper option for providing care to children but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) made clear in his speech, kinship carers save the country millions upon millions of pounds by providing care to their kin.
Many kinship carers become so owing to emergency circumstances, which means that the costs of raising that child, such as the immediate cost of providing a bed for the child to sleep in, clothes to wear and uniform for school, are not factored into their household budgets. That is exacerbated when kinship carers must give up their jobs to look after their kin. The largest survey of kinship carers last year found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently. An analysis of the 2011 census found that 76% of children living in kinship care were living in deprived households.
The lack of joined-up thinking is laid bare when the same kinship carers who were told to give up their jobs are chased by the Department for Work and Pensions or ATOS and sanctioned for not looking for work, as my right hon. Friend said. I am gravely concerned about how both kinship and foster carers will fare when the Government’s proposed two-child policy comes into force. I echo what he said and plead with the Minister for exemptions for both kinship and foster carers if that policy goes ahead. That is why it is so important that the Government explore how the financial costs of being a kinship carer can be alleviated by allowing better access to funds and entitlements that are already available to adopted or foster children, who share similar adversities to children in kinship care, so that their development is not hindered or regressed.
The Government must also look at the process of placing a child with a kinship carer. Although new guidance for local authorities published last year is helpful in calling for more identification of potential family carers, there is still no statutory duty on local authorities to explore those options. That means that many local authorities look into kinship care only after a child is placed in the care system, causing avoidable upheaval for the child and the extended family.
There is a duty on all of us to ensure that every child, no matter what their circumstances, has a safe and nurturing home in which to spend their childhood. However, that is clearly not the case for tens of thousands of children who are currently in care, but who could have avoided entering the system in the first place. Continuing to fail those children is not an option. We cannot fail them; we are their village and we need to help raise them. I hope that the Minister realises that this is his moment to really make a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I hope that he makes it count.
I will begin by explaining why I am answering this debate in place of the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson). I am sorry to tell the House that his mother, Alex Timpson, died peacefully at home on Tuesday after a long illness. Many people in this House will know that, with her husband John, Alex fostered around 90 children over 30 years, as well as adopting two boys into their family.
My hon. Friend has always said that it was living with his mother’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm to give so much selfless love and support to so many desperately needy children that truly shaped who he is today. I know that he would very much have wanted to speak from the Front Bench about children in care, including those who were cared for by Alex. Our thoughts are with him and his family. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
This is an important debate. Much has been said about the role of kinship carers. A casual comment was made that suggested that they are somehow overlooked in the care system. I assure the Chamber that they are very much part of the Department’s plan. Issues have been raised about the welfare reforms and what needs to be done. The Minister for Children and Families will respond to the Members who raised those points in due course.
Enza Smith, the founder of Kinship Carers UK, was awarded an MBE for services to children in the new year’s honours list because of the important research it is doing into support mechanisms for kinship carers. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) has brought that issue to the attention of the Minister for Children and Families a number of times. I want to highlight the fact that kinship carers are very important and key to our thinking.
The decision to take a child into care and the decisions that flow from it—whether the child will return home at a future point, stay in long-term foster care or be adopted—are serious and life-changing. They affect not only children but their families, and are never taken lightly. That is why I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position in the brief time I have.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are determined that no child should be left behind. That determination is even more pronounced when it comes to the most vulnerable children in our society. It means taking robust action to support families and children so that the need for children to enter care is reduced. It also means improving the children’s care system, so that when children need to be taken into public care, they are well looked after and supported to fulfil their potential. When children enter care, the state is their parent. We should want the same for those children as we want for our own: the very best start in life.
The Family Rights Group and its excellent work have been mentioned in this debate. The Department has funded the Family Rights Group for many years and it provides a valuable service to many families who have taken on the care of children who are relatives. There is a strong evidence base for continuing to fund its helpline. We will take that into account in making forthcoming decisions about voluntary sector funding.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about the Munro duty. The Government acknowledge the vital role that early help can play in getting help to children and families as soon as need arises. I will say a little more about that in due course. The Government considered implementing an early help duty based on Professor Munro’s recommendation, but concluded that an explicit duty was not necessary as there was existing statutory provision under the Children Act 2004 for such support. The Government agreed to keep the matter under review and we continue to do so. However, we have strengthened our statutory guidance to make it clear that early help services should be part of the continuum of support to vulnerable children. The guidance sets out the need for teachers, health visitors and police to be alert to the indicators of abuse and neglect, and to work with families and children to undertake an early help assessment and agree a package of support to prevent needs from escalating.
More broadly, the Government are committed to ensuring that children are protected from the risk of abuse and neglect. We want to ensure that all those children are identified early and have timely and proportional assessments of their individual needs, and that the right services are provided for them. As many Members have said today, that does not necessarily mean taking them into care. Nevertheless, that is sometimes the right decision. Such decisions are never easy, and the systems in which they are made can always be improved.
To that end, over a two-year period to March 2016, we invested £100 million in the children’s social care innovation programme to support 53 projects in developing, testing and spreading more effective ways to support children and families who are in need of help from social care services. The programme concentrates on two priorities. The first is rethinking children’s social work to empower and support front-line decision making, ensuring that that focuses on the quality of work with children and their families rather than management arrangements, processes and compliance. The second is rethinking support for adolescents in or on the edge of care.
In a world where, far from a spending a lifetime in care, the average length of a care episode is 785 days, we are not talking about supporting children only once they are in care. Through the innovation programme, we have supported several projects to find different ways of supporting children in their families before matters reach that stage.
There are many projects about which I cannot go into detail, given the time. However, much of what we are considering draws together a lot of practical work that can deliver for children who find themselves in vulnerable situations.
Despite all the very good work, it is inevitable that there will always be times when local authorities are required to act by taking children into care. The Children Act 1989 requires us to ask one fundamental question: what is in the best interests of the child? That is why, in addition to all the preventive work that I have mentioned, we have taken important measures to ensure that, once children are taken into care, they are safe and well looked after.
In residential care in particular, we have reformed the care planning in children’s homes regulations to improve children’s safety, including strengthening safeguards for when children are placed out of area and go missing. We have introduced new quality standards for residential settings. Work is under way with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services review to ascertain how better co-ordination and planning can be achieved across our secure children’s homes so that there is better provision.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families has set out a lot of work over the past few months. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the other sponsors on bringing the debate forward. I look forward to working with hon. Members to make the world a better place for vulnerable children.
I should like to extend my condolences to my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families. I thank all hon. Members who took the time to make such thoughtful contributions to this important debate. I hope that today marks the beginning of our talking about the subject much more often. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for listening to all our ideas, thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, our discussion has been about enhancing the life chances of the most vulnerable children. We all share that common interest.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to take steps to help reduce the number of children entering the care system by bringing forward measures to support more children to remain safely at home with their family or extended family.