Cookies: We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. By continuing to use the site you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more
House of Commons Hansard
x
14 March 2018
Volume 637

[Relevant document: First Report of the Education Committee, Fostering, HC 340.]

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered foster care.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This subject is very dear to my heart, as I shall explain. The life chances of children in care—they are also referred to as looked-after children—are significantly lower than those of other children. That applies to their prospects of getting well-paid employment, their educational achievement and the chances of them being involved in the criminal justice system. Foster care is where 75% of children in care are looked after, so supporting foster-carers is essential to ensuring the best possible outcomes—the best life chances—for the majority of children in care. Ensuring that foster care is as positive an experience as possible, maximising its benefits and minimising its risks and downsides, and ensuring the best outcomes for looked-after children, must be a priority for anyone who is interested and for everyone in a position of authority with responsibility, be that in national Government or in local government.

The outcomes for looked-after children show just what a contrast there is. Let me take educational achievement at year 11. The Minister will be all too well aware of these figures. Some 18% of looked-after children achieved A* to C grades in English and maths, and 14% achieved five or more A* to C grades, including English and maths. The figures for children as a whole are 59% and 53%, so looked-after children’s achievement is something like one quarter to one third of other children’s. That on its own tells a story.

Children in care are around five times more likely than other children to find themselves convicted of an offence between the ages of 10 and 17. Former looked-after children have difficulty establishing and holding down good relationships later in life, many of them have mental health difficulties that continue right through their lives, and many find themselves with housing difficulties or homeless. In 2015, 39% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training. That figure is far too high for comfort. Given those figures, it is essential that we ensure that children in care and those who care for them receive the best possible support, so that as much as possible can be done to improve outcomes.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate on such an important topic. Although he is absolutely right to highlight those statistics, does he agree that we should also praise the work that foster-carers themselves do in seeking to provide a caring and loving environment, particularly when children’s services are under such pressure across the UK because of austerity?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. I know many foster-carers, and I am sure that other Members here do too. The vast majority do exactly as he said: they provide an extremely supportive, loving and caring environment. They do their best to deliver the kinds of outcomes he mentioned, in the face of great difficulty, due, as he said, to the cuts forced upon local government. I have nothing but the highest regard for foster-carers and the work they do.

I know from personal experience—as many Members know, I have two adopted children—that when someone adopts, they are effectively a foster-carer for the period until the adoption goes through, with all the same rights, responsibilities, restrictions and interventions from the local authority and social workers that other foster-carers have. I know just how challenging that can be. During that period and since, I have met many foster-carers and seen just what a good job they do. I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. The question is how we ensure that foster-carers continue to get support, not least given the scale of the cuts. I shall develop that point.

One of the challenges is delivering permanence for young people in care to ensure that they receive a long-term settled placement that is right for them. The Government have placed enormous importance on children being adopted. As I said, I have two adopted children. It was decided that that was the best outcome for them. They have siblings who were not adopted, and for the vast majority of children who go into care, that is not the way forward. Foster care is often a long-term option. It is really important—there are many dear old friends in the Chamber with whom I have debated this over the years—that we see adoption, fostering, residential care or kinship care not as better, but as the right outcome for the individual child. It is incredibly important to restate that.

One of the challenges right now is ensuring that we do not lose sight of putting the individual child first. My hon. Friend mentioned austerity. We have seen cuts in early intervention of 55% since 2010. It is predicted that there will be a £2 billion shortfall in the children’s services budget by 2020. The number of children on child protection plans has risen by 83% since 2010. Social workers’ case loads are rising. Local authorities have reduced the number of social workers they employ directly and have become more reliant on agency workers, who are more expensive. Although budgets have fallen, spending on children’s services has actually increased, which means that money has been taken from elsewhere, including early intervention. Many in child protection, in children’s services more widely and in local government, say that we are at crisis point in terms of both the social impact and the economic situation.

Yesterday, I was with someone from Northamptonshire County Council who is responsible for children’s services. He has been told that he cannot spend on discretionary services at all, so he will not be able to increase the number of social workers. What does that mean for foster-carers? It means that when a child comes to live with a foster-carer, there is no prospect of money for clothes or anything other than the weekly allowance, not just in Northamptonshire but everywhere. Foster-carers therefore have to pay for absolutely everything, whether new clothes for a new arrival, a holiday or any kind of additional support for the children.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I should declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on holding this unfashionable but important debate. He will be aware that funding of children’s services has increased, albeit in very challenging circumstances—particularly now—but there are huge differentials between experiences with different authorities. As a study by the all-party parliamentary group for children found, in one authority 166 children per 10,000 will be taken into care and, at the other end, at another authority the figure is 22 for every 10,000 children. There are similar big differentials for referrals to children’s services, child protection plans and so on. To what does he attribute the huge difference in experiences of vulnerable children in different authorities? It is not just based on funding pressures.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

That is probably more of a question for the Minister. The hon. Gentleman said that funding had gone up. It is true that spending has gone up, but funding from central Government for local authorities is significantly down, including in children’s services. Some local authorities have seen significant cuts and some have seen very few. That may have something to do with what he says.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I do not want to stop my hon. Friend because he is making some incredibly important points, but there is also a clear issue about cuts to services other than children’s services, which are putting greater strain on local authorities. In areas of high deprivation, where all those services are under significant strain, the result is much worse outcomes for children. It is essential to look at the whole picture of what is happening to these children every day in their communities.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot ignore the effects of the wider local government and public service spending situation. Numerous organisations who provided briefings for the debate pointed out that if the support is not there for families, it is difficult for local authority children’s services departments to act in anything other than a reactive way, intervening only in a crisis. That is an expensive way to operate. If the services, social workers and local foster-carers are not available, outcomes are more expensive. In a demand-led service, a crisis is invariably more expensive and, in the areas of highest deprivation that my hon. Friend mentioned, it is more likely that intervention happens only in such a situation.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My hon. Friend and I were in the same Home for Good seminar, which I chaired yesterday, on this subject. If we put the budget to one side for a minute, does he agree that what emerged from that seminar was an acknowledgment of the inconsistency of social worker support? If the social worker keeps changing and there is not continuity, the social worker will not know the person, their background and their problems and challenges. Is that not the real problem?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

Absolutely. It is well established that continuity and stability are vital to the long-term wellbeing and life chances of children in care. In foster care, that applies to the carer and also to social workers. One point made in the briefings is that there has not been continuity between social workers. A child and their foster-family need support from a social worker, but in far too many cases they rarely see one, either because there is not one there or because they keep changing. That is damaging, as my hon. Friend points out.

We have recently had two inquiries—the national fostering stocktake requested by the Government and the inquiry into fostering by the Education Committee— which have made several recommendations. I will not address them all them, but there is evidence—this also emerges from the briefings—that while overall there are enough foster-carers, there are regional disparities. There are also problems in providing foster-carers for some groups, whether those are ethnic minorities, sibling groups, children with special needs or disabled children, so a challenge is how we improve the number of foster- carers who have the specialisms and skills to look after children in those groups.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I apologise for arriving slightly late for the debate. We had a roundtable on faith and fostering yesterday, and I hope to get a chance to contribute on that later. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the challenges is that people of religious backgrounds feel that that is perceived as a barrier to their genuine intention to offer a home for good for children who need it in fostering, and that we need to get over the idea that in some way having a faith is problematic?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The answer is that in all cases the consideration must be what is in the best interests of the child. That has been my view for as long as I have looked at this.

Some of the briefings pointed out the need to recruit and retrain better, to deal with the shortages in the areas I touched on. To address that point, the stocktake and the Select Committee both recommended a national register of foster-carers. I also notice that the stocktake suggested that local authorities pool resources. There have been consortiums over many years, which I thought were part of doing just that.

On a national register, one of the challenges is that often needs are local. I think the Government have made the point that it is often desirable for children in care to be relatively close to home—although not in some cases of problems with their birth families—and a national register does not always address that. There are some real tensions around that recommendation.

The stocktake concluded that pay was not an issue. The feedback I have had is that that is totally untrue. Foster-carers have seen their allowances cut. I mentioned that there are not payments for additional support or for when a child arrives, and the money that foster-carers receive is not what it used to be and is under pressure. We must be wary about that and ensure that they are properly remunerated.

As to whether foster-carers should be regarded as professionals, I understand why the stocktake says they should not be—it does not want to take away from the fact that they are there to provide a family environment, and that is quite right. However, we also need to regard them as holding an incredibly highly skilled, professional role. There is a degree of professionalism, and it is wrong not to recognise foster-carers in that respect. There are, therefore, some tensions around what is being recommended.

The Government have not yet responded to either of the two reports. It is probably a little early to expect the Minister to respond today to all the issues in those reports, but I hope he will reply to some of the points raised in the debate. In reality, only 3% of children are adopted, and 75% of looked-after children are in foster care. The scale of cuts experienced by local government has clearly created challenges in providing the support and resources that are needed to look after children and improve the outcomes I mentioned earlier. Unless there is a step change in our approach, it will become harder to prevent children from entering care in the first place, and harder to provide support that puts families back together when that would be the best outcome for the child.

It is no coincidence that more children are in care than at any time since 1985. If those numbers are to reduce, the Government must intervene to ensure that local authorities, social workers, foster-carers, and everybody who is dedicated to supporting and improving the life chances of children who end up in our care system have the support they need to do the best for those children. Only the Government can take such action—the £2 billion figure is very significant, and I hope that the Minister will listen to Members from across the House who, I suspect, will raise similar points about the need to get this right.

I mentioned both social and economic effects. If it is not possible to do the best by a child, that is disastrous for that child, and also for their birth family, foster-carers, and others involved in their care. There is also, however, an economic cost, and perhaps the Minister—or another Member—will remind us just how expensive it is to provide lifetime support for someone who does not recover from the neglect and abuse that puts them into care in the first place.

I have not mentioned prisons, but a significant proportion of our prison population are people who were in care. We must act and intervene early, not late, if we are to address those concerns and support those children, and it is incredibly important for foster-carers and all those who assist them to have that support.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am grateful to you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to speak, and I repeat my apology. The late arrival of the Chubb security engineer detained me—unfortunately that is a feature of modern political life.

I want to share some of the findings from a roundtable that I chaired yesterday. It was arranged by the charity Home for Good, and attended by practitioners involved in all aspects of fostering. There were different representatives from different local authorities, including large authorities such as Lancashire County Council, and district councils such as West Berkshire Council. There were other charities that encourage fostering, private foster-caring organisations and—most importantly—some foster-parents.

The focus of the roundtable was the question of faith and fostering because, as I indicated earlier, a myth often abounds that people of faith are debarred from the opportunity to provide foster care. In reality, however, people often put themselves forward to be foster-carers precisely because of their faith and because their beliefs prompt them to open their home to those in need.

Other myths abound—for example, that it is not possible for a Christian foster-parent to foster a Muslim child. That is patently untrue. A Muslim child may have had an experience in their past that means that they wish precisely not to be fostered within their own religion, or the reverse could be true. As we know, the media have not done fostering a good service by sensationalising a particular case where there was an apparent mismatch between the faith background of the child and that of the family. However, that particular local authority has a good track record of going out of its way to try to provide good matches, and it shows remarkably good faith-literacy in trying to get the right answer for the child, with the child’s needs at the centre of that.

Some good points came out of the roundtable, including the need for greater faith-literacy in social work. I think it is increasingly accepted more readily in society that in order to understand different faiths and the differences between them, and the implications of that for the world we live in today, we all need to be more literate about other people’s faiths and indeed people of no faith. We must understand those things much better, and we will get better matching if we can do so.

I think we must also go out of our way to reach some minority ethnic potential foster-carer applicants, because in many cases they are even more fearful about the question of faith when it is raised. Tellingly, the director of Home for Good spoke about a “cool wall” that he has in his office, on which he pastes the first thoughts that come to mind among the social workers he interviews regarding people of different faiths. Intrinsically, people have an instinctive set of adjectives that they may apply to one faith or another, and depressingly, right across the piece, on the whole those adjectives were negative. That myth really needs to be dispelled. We are closing our minds to the opportunity presented by people of faith who are prompted to offer help in such a way.

When we were suddenly faced with large numbers of Syrian families who the Prime Minister had pledged to accommodate, there was an outpouring of offers from churches and others who wished to provide homes for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, or for whole Syrian families in order to keep siblings together. Sadly, however, it was difficult to capture the opportunity of that offer, and many of those who came forward to offer their homes temporarily, or for good, found that that was not followed through. In some cases, there was also anecdotal evidence of the view that said, “Well, they should put their names forward to offer their homes first to the existing large numbers of children in care who need a home.” The moment was missed, and I hope we can learn from that.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The right hon. Lady and I both chaired parts of the seminars yesterday. Does she share my concern that, in addition to the very dramatic calls that come out of the Syrian crisis, we need a much better campaign to identify the right sort of people who would be good foster-carers, and ensure that they are networked and trained?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I could not agree more. An important point that came out of the roundtable was that evidence must exist to help to support the fact that people of faith who offer their homes for good—for fostering—often prove to have greater “stickability”, and tend to stick with a child through thick and thin until they are launched into the world as an independent adult. I would like that evidence to be brought out in the open. It is collected; we know the data exists. There are data on the religious background of all the children in care, and of the foster-carers who come forward. It is about time that we used that evidence base to bust the myths.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My right hon. Friend is making a good point. Interestingly, the crisis point when Syrian refugees came to this country resulted in an increase in the number of families offering themselves as foster-carers or adopters for the long term. On her point about people of faith, we must remember that the Children’s Society was the Church of England Children’s Society. Barnardo’s was built on religious foundations. The important question is which family can offer the best and most appropriate loving home to a child in need of fostering or adoption. The Government had to change the law on adoption because of the prejudice against people who happen not to be of the same cultural or faith background, which excluded children who could have had a perfectly good, stable home with those parents—but it was not allowed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question is not one of cultural matching, but one of cultural sensitivity to a child’s background?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about this matter, makes an extremely valid point. The issue is about opening our minds, removing barriers and preconceptions about why people cannot foster, and looking at the best solution for the child.

I know that there is pressure on time, Mr Howarth, and I do not want to delay the Minister’s response to the debate, but I just want to finish by mentioning something by way of a case study. One of the foster-carers present at yesterday’s event spoke powerfully about the five children in her care. She is of white Caucasian background and is married to a Jamaican, and they foster some Muslim children, some children of Christian heritage and some of no faith. Things work well in her household, which has proved a good match for those children. I think that challenges all of us to be more open-minded about opportunities to increase the number of foster-carers.

Another important point is that often people of faith are in communities of faith. When parents in a church community, for example, come forward to offer their home as a home for good, there is a tendency for others in that church community to be prompted to think, “Could I do that? If they can, I should be able to.” Before long, two or three families in the communities are fostering. The amazing advantage is that they support each other in the community, and the children feel more comfortable because they find others in their position. I encourage the Minister to help with that aspect, which was missed in the stocktake. Perhaps it is a little unfair to say that the official from the Department for Education who attended the round table pledged to bring the point back to the Department. I sincerely hope that when, as it will have to, the Department responds to the two reports—this is why the debate is so timely—the point about faith and fostering will not be missed.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, it may not be fashionable, but it is critical. I could not agree more with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about the role of faith in fostering. The placement must be right for, and meet the needs of, the child. That means we must pay attention to the things that matter to the children who enter the care system.

I want to begin by asking why so many children are being taken into care in the first place. The Minister will be aware that I worked with children and young people for some time before I entered Parliament. I have never known the situation for children and families in this country to be as desperate as it is currently. We should be deeply concerned about the fact that the number of children in care is, as Barnardo’s says, at its highest point since the mid-1980s. The number of children entering the care system has increased every year for nine years. In the first six years of the coalition and Conservative Governments, the number of children subject to a child protection plan went up by 29%. The Minister will be aware that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services identified a £2 billion funding gap, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central mentioned, between the demand for children’s services and the available resources. Often when I have conversations with social workers they tell me that they are unable to take children into care when they think they need to, because of the resources available. That suggests that the situation is even starker than the figures lead us to understand.

The ADCS is clear about the reasons for what is happening. It has laid the blame squarely at the door of the coalition austerity policies that have continued under the present Government. It has blamed long delays for universal credit, and I recognise that issue from my constituency, which was a pilot area. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham shakes his head, but I spent Friday sitting with representatives of charities, primary school teachers, police and clergy in one of the poorest areas of my constituency, and some of those people were in tears because in 19 years of working with children in that community they have never known a situation so bad: it is to do with policies such as the two-child limit on benefits and the housing benefit cuts. In my area in particular the bedroom tax has been devastating. We never had the smaller properties, but we had big family homes; they were built on purpose because they were better for families. We placed families in them, and suddenly told them, “You can’t pay your rent, and it is your own fault.” The impact on those families has been devastating. There is usually nowhere to move to apart from the private rented sector, and we do not have a huge private rented sector, so many people are stuck in their accommodation accruing arrears and worrying every day how they will pay the bills and feed their children.

The situation has an impact on the profession, too. There are currently 5,540 child and family social work vacancies. That means that 13% of the children’s social work workforce is missing. Is it any wonder, then, that there are issues of continuity of care and support for children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has mentioned? During the time in question, support outside children’s services has been stripped away; 600 youth centres have closed in four years; there has been a huge loss of Sure Start and children’s centres across the country. The upshot is stark. As the ADCS found in a report last year, children in the poorest areas are 10 times more likely to be put on a child protection plan or be subject to care proceedings than those in the wealthiest areas. It is an absolute disgrace.

While I sat with frontline workers in my constituency on Friday trying to work through with them how better to support families in crisis, representatives of the secondary school—the academy—were absent. There were police at the meeting to raise concerns about the welfare of particular children. The academy tells me that it has not expelled them, but it has given them managed transfers outside the school—presumably because of the impact of some of the children on results. From 2010 onwards, many of the Members present for the debate have been coming to debates and Select Committees warning Ministers that if the children’s service workforce is fragmented—if that family of professionals who used to hang on to children and families in times of crisis is broken up—the result will be what is happening now. We see it in our communities; we see the impact on children.

I want to focus on what happens to children when they go into care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has said, there has been a lot of focus on adoption in recent years. I do not criticise the Government at all for wanting to look closely at what happens in adoption, and to make sure that the children for whom it is right get placements quickly—that they do not miss out and find that there are no suitable families to take them. However, as my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of children in the care system are fostered. There was a lot of anxiety, in the years when it seemed that the Government were interested only in adoption services, about the lack of attention being paid to pressing problems in fostering. That is why the fostering stocktake was greeted with such enthusiasm by the sector, but it would be wrong not to explain to the Minister the real sense of anger and frustration about the fostering stocktake and its inability to deliver on the promise it made.

Before I talk a little bit about some of the problems that have emerged with that report, I will say that one area in which it is particularly strong—knowing Martin Narey as I have for many years, I am not surprised by that—is the positive role that care can play in children’s lives. He is absolutely right to highlight in the report the fact that it is not primarily the fault of the care system that children often leave care with such poor educational outcomes. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central cited the figures on young people from the care system who get into trouble with the law or end up in prison.

In the vast majority of cases, the care system does a tremendous job in supporting and enabling children to go on and live better lives than they would otherwise have done. We cannot expect the care system to compensate entirely for every single thing that happens to children before they come into care. In fact, to see the most successful examples of children who have left care, we must look to the children themselves, their ambitions and aspirations, and the support we package around that, rather than telling them how to do it.

The concern about the fostering stocktake centres on a number of key areas. There is a real sense that it is dismissive of the shortage of foster-carers and therefore the numbers who are placed outside care. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is not that there are not enough foster-carers in the country, but that there is not enough spare capacity, so that when a child in one particular area needs a foster-placement that is available in that area. As a consequence, we are still seeing far too many children moved outside their area, stranded a long way from school, family members and friends.

In all the time I worked with children and young people, what stayed with me most was that the thing that sustains them through the hardest time in their life—being taken away from family and forced to confront a whole new life unfolding ahead of them—is relationships. Sustaining those relationships ought to be a primary goal of public policy for these children, because friends and family are their top priority. It cannot be right that, at the moment when they feel they have lost everything, they also lose the trusted aunt, the best friend or the teacher who cared.

The fostering stocktake does not pay anywhere near enough attention to that issue, or to the fact that one third of foster-carers are now being referred to look after children who lack any prior knowledge about them and whose needs are outside their approved scope, as the Fostering Network reminded me this morning. The stocktake does not reflect the real hardship that many foster-carers have to endure in order to care for children. The Minister will be aware of the “State of the Nation’s Foster Care” report that the Fostering Network undertakes every two years. The most recent one was published in 2016. Some 2,500 foster-carers were consulted and 42% of them said that their allowances covered the costs. That left 58% of foster-carers who had to dig into their own pockets to cover the full cost of foster care.

To me, that seems to be nonsense. It matters to all of us that we get this right for children. We should not be saying to those children or the people who step up to care for them that they have to suffer hardship to do it. There is an issue with staying put, which the Minister may be aware of; one third of foster-carers who did not continue with placements said it was down to financial hardship. He will know of the huge battle that many of us in this House fought to get that on the agenda. We were led by my right hon. Friend, the late Paul Goggins, who did such tremendous work for children. The former children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, rightly took that issue up and said, “We have to do right by these children; we have to make sure they have the same level of stability as we would expect in any other family.” The truth is that it is not working, and the reason is the level of allowances that are paid, or sometimes not paid at all, to those foster-carers.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I agree with almost every word that my hon. Friend says, but what comes out of both reports is the amateur basis on which we have run fostering for a long time. We do not have a national register or a national training system, and getting the balance between fostering as a calling and as a profession has not been addressed.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

As always, I have reason to thank my hon. Friend, because he brings me nicely and neatly on to my final concern, which I think is shared by many outside this place, about the fostering stocktake. The sense of professionalism that many foster-carers feel about the work they do is not adequately reflected in the report. I would really like to hear from the Minister a response to the concern that, while foster-carers foster out of compassion, love and a sense of duty to step up and care for some of the most vulnerable children in the country at a moment of crisis, foster-carers’ rights and children’s rights are pitted against each other in this report.

That is the problem with the report. In all the foster situations that I have had the privilege to witness or deal with over the last 20 years, I can tell the Minister that the needs and the rights of foster-carers and the children they care for go hand in hand. They are integral to each other. I would be grateful if he said something about the professionalism with which foster-carers conduct themselves, and the need for a formal structure around fostering.

What has disappointed me most of all about the fostering stocktake, and about Government policy in recent years, is that the voice of the child does not seem to be present in either. When we talk to children, as the Minister will know, they tell us that stability, security and preserving those relationships are central to them.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The hon. Lady makes a very persuasive point. I do not know whether she has read this book, but if colleagues have not done so, I was profoundly moved by reading “My Name is Leon”, which was turned into a film. It is told from the perspective of a child aged nine in the system. It certainly altered my understanding of what it feels like for them. The risk aversion that is built into the way we try to get it right for the children can end up causing incredible heartache for the child—the one we are most trying to help.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I have read that book. Before I came to this place I worked for the Children’s Society, and before that I worked for Centrepoint with young homeless teenagers. Almost on a daily basis, when I worked in those roles, speaking to children and young people surprised me. They said very different things about their own ambitions and aspirations, the way they perceived injustice and what mattered to them from what we had assumed, sitting in an office 200 miles away.

The absence of the child’s voice from the fostering stocktake is really quite serious. I would be grateful if the Minister, when he responds to the debate, said something about how the Department is making efforts to ensure that children’s voices are heard as the Government responds to the fostering stocktake. In all the time I worked with children and young people, the need for stability and security and to preserve those relationships was at the heart of what they felt mattered.

I will never forget sitting with a nine-year-old child who shook with anger, who did not want to talk to me or anyone in the room about her own experiences. The former Children’s Commissioner had set up the meeting with children and young people so they could talk to us about their experiences of care. After a while, the child said, “Well, why should I talk to you? Who are you?” She was right; why should she? She said, “And how long are you sticking around?” I asked her, “Have you had a lot of people in your life?” She had had six social workers in three years.

I say to the Minister that we must take that seriously for children, and one of the reasons we are totally unable to get to grips with it is the austerity policies this Government are pursuing, which are causing havoc in communities such as mine. I appreciate that he is the Minister for Schools—the Minister for Children and Families has to be at the Select Committee on Education and therefore, disappointingly, cannot be here—so this is slightly outside of his natural remit. However, he must see the impact of this on children every day when he talks to teachers and teaching assistants in his own schools. I say to him what one of the teaching assistants said to me on Friday: the biggest threat to family life in this country now is this Government. That has to be taken seriously.

I want to ask the Minister a particular question about stability for children. I am not sure whether he can answer it, but if not, I would appreciate it if he wrote to me. As he knows, there was a Westminster Hall debate before Christmas, in which the Government committed to ensuring that foster-children were covered by the 30-hours childcare pledge. That was extremely welcome, but the then Minister for children was, unfortunately, sacked in the reshuffle a few weeks later. I wrote to his successor, who kindly wrote back and said that the Government were still progressing those plans to ensure that foster-children were covered by the 30-hours pledge. However, his letter caused me some concern, because he wrote that the Government were developing plans to

“allow access to extended entitlement where foster parents are working outside of their fostering responsibilities.”

I would really like to know what happens if a child already has the 30-hours entitlement and therefore has a place at a nursery or other childcare setting, then goes into foster care where the foster-carer is not working. If the child were to lose that place as a consequence of going into foster care, it would cause all the damage that is done, as I have explained, when children lose not only their families, but their friends and everything that is familiar to them. I would also be grateful if the Minister clarified whether those plans are developing at sufficient speed, so that families will be able to access them by this September.

I am aware, Mr Howarth, that I have taken up a great deal of time, and I apologise to other Members for doing so, but I feel that this debate, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central, is absolutely central to a group of people in this country who do not have a voice. They do not have the right to vote and they are not normally heard in this place. However, they have every bit of ambition, optimism, energy, creativity and commitment to the future that each of us have—in fact, in my experience, they have more. Sadly, at the moment, we are lacking a plan that matches that. We have to do better.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I have been moved by some of the significant speeches across this Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech. I thank him for reflecting on his experience both as a foster-carer and an adopter. As someone who is adopted, I would like to personally say thank you, because the value of adopting is huge and I would not be here today without it.

There are many reasons why a child enters the foster care system—abuse, neglect, abandonment, incarceration and death or illness in the family, to name a few. Sometimes it is just because parents cannot cope. In short, children are placed into care because their family is in crisis. Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution on the path to building a safe and stable family. Children deserve to be raised in a home with kindness, with their needs met and with stability. It is also vital that we recognise and pay tribute to the role played by carers, whether that be in foster care or in care homes, on a professional or part-time basis, purely because they want to do better for children in our society and to provide secure, stable and nurturing homes for those children, without which many children’s lives would be a whole lot worse.

I appreciate that this morning’s debate is about care in England, but I also want to mention the progress being made in Scotland. Most children do not care which Government are doing best; they just care about being looked after properly, having the same life opportunities and feeling equally appreciated. As we heard, in January, the Education Committee published a report, which stated that there should be a complete root and branch review of the care system in England. The report made a number of recommendations to the Government. For example, foster-carers should be paid at least a national minimum allowance; that is a no-brainer. A national college should be established, working across England to improve working conditions for carers. Foster-carers should be provided with a resource for training support and given a national voice and representation—absolutely. A national recruitment campaign should be launched. There should be a free childcare entitlement for children in foster care. Any decent society would consider those the bare minimum standards.

While the Committee report is wholly focused on England, it also calls on the UK Government to undertake many of the actions that are already happening in Scotland, and highlights and references the work done by the Scottish Government, which I will now expand on. The Scottish National party Scottish Government are working hard to improve the conditions and life prospects for children in the care system. They are currently undertaking an independent root and branch review of the care system, and examining the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the care for our young people. It will be driven and shaped by young people themselves. We heard earlier how important it is to hear the voices of young people. The Scottish Government are committed to having a conversation during the next two years with 1,000 people who have experienced care, to inform improvements to the system.

Here are a few of the things we have committed to. First, all young people who have experienced care in Scotland will be entitled to full university bursaries, and those who fulfil the minimum entry requirements will have a guaranteed place. By 2021, we want looked-after children to be just as likely to be in college, training or a job as other children—quite rightly. In addition, a new improvement programme is to be launched, which will bring together services responsible for looked-after children, young people and care leavers, to test ways to raise the average age at which a young person leaves care. Not only that, but £10 million is being provided to local authorities to ensure that kinship care allowances are raised to the same level as allowances for foster care.

In November 2015, the Scottish Government published their looked-after children and young people strategy, which builds on existing improvements in care and calls on the sector to accelerate progress. The strategy’s priorities are to support families early, to prevent children becoming looked after—as we heard, those numbers have sky-rocketed in the last 30 years—to help children to have a safe, secure and nurturing permanent home, and to ensure that every child receives the best care and support.

I am proud to say that in Scotland we are seeing real progress. School exclusions are down and the number in permanent—rather than temporary—placements is up. However, we know that more still needs to be done and we cannot ignore the reality for children in care. Why? Sadly, the statistics are still horrifying and should horrify everyone in this Chamber. Of young people who have been in care, only 6% go to university and almost half will suffer mental health issues. One in two of the adult prison population lived in care when they were growing up—one in two. Lastly—I think this is the most horrific statistic of all—a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to be dead by the time they are 25 than a young person who has not. Let us pause for a few seconds to take that in. Many of us will have children or nieces and nephews. All of you have been children yourselves. Think about what is being said.

I would like to put it on record for the first time that I am truly grateful and thankful for the love, care and support that I got from those individuals who allowed me to call them by their first names, as I experienced both foster care and care in a home—Uncle Eddie, Uncle Pete, Aunt Nan and Aunt Lynn. I have to say to Auntie Rhona, who used to look after my hair, well, it didn’t work in the long run. I have never spoken about this publicly before, because often it is like an indelible mark, a stain of shame that we keep to ourselves, and that I find it difficult to speak about today, but I am proud to be able to stand here today and not be silent on the matter. I speak for the many thousands out there who are yet to have their voices heard.

I am one of the lucky ones. I know, from someone who has been touch with me over the years, that others have not been so lucky, and fulfil more than half of the shocking statistics I have just outlined. Sadly, as I have said, we carry this dirty little secret. It profoundly affects our relationships at home and with each other outside, our experiences and our life opportunities for the rest of our lives. So it goes without saying that the Education Committee’s report is hugely valuable and all its recommendations should be taken on board. An independent, root and branch review is vital to ensure that we get it right for every child across these islands. What is being done in Scotland is a huge step in the right direction. We should not play party politics on this. This is for all of us to get right.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing this debate. His practical experience and knowledge of fostering made for a formidable opening speech. I pay tribute to all other Members who have contributed, especially the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who it is a pleasure to follow. We are honoured that you shared your story with us today.

Since 2010 we have seen an exponential rise in the number of children coming into care. There are now 72,000—the highest since the 1980s. There is a wealth of evidence that the Government’s forced austerity measures are driving that increase. With the stream of referrals coming into children’s services departments leading to 90 young people entering the care system in England every single day, the implications for fostering are clear. That is why so many of us were keen to see the long-awaited fostering report, which was first announced in 2016 and released this February. Sadly, for some of us, that keenness quickly waned. Today I will focus on that report.

The report has received more criticism than praise, and is viewed by many as lacking vision about transforming the dire state of fostering in England. It makes assumptions based on opinion, not evidence. It makes a number of unqualified, sweeping generalisations. In my view, our children and foster-carers deserve better.

It is essential that there are enough foster-carers to meet demand. At present, there simply are not. The pitiful pay given to foster-carers, leading to some of them making the painful decision that they cannot continue in that role, coupled with the Education Committee’s findings that identified the Government’s lack of efforts in the recruitment of new foster-carers, suggest that we are on a trajectory where there will not be enough homes for the children who need them.

Foster-carers are deeply committed to every single child in their care. So it was disappointing to see that the stocktake claims that carers are not routinely underpaid, and that they are paid adequately. That is simply wrong. We know that a quarter of carers receive the equivalent of less than £1.70 an hour, based on a notional 40-hour week, and 90% of our foster-carers do not receive the national living wage. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who chairs the Education Committee, summed up its findings by saying that,

“it is clear that too many are not adequately supported, neither financially nor professionally, in the vital work that they do.”

Should it not be an embarrassment for the Minister and the Government that they are presiding over a situation where foster-carers, who provide an excellent standard of care day in, day out, report that they are struggling to support not only themselves but the children who are entrusted to their care?

Carers who are struggling are also being offered golden hellos from independent fostering agencies to leave the local authorities they work with. Those agencies then charge local authorities higher rates. The undercutting by independent fostering agencies is a pattern that has been identified by many social workers and the Conservative vice-chair of the Local Government Association. Yet, the review denies the existence of such a practice, claiming that the reverse is happening—that councils are poaching foster-carers from independent agencies. That bizarre claim is based on nothing other than the authors’ perception. I really hope that the Minister will look closely at the regulation of commercial fostering agencies, as the Labour party has.

I, with others, was aghast when I saw in the report a raft of recommendations that would require primary legislative change. The report recommended that carers be given prominence over the day-to-day decisions regarding children in their care—prominence over birth parents, even when the children are in voluntary accommodation. That is at complete odds with the current legislation on parental responsibility and is simply wrong. The report’s authors do not seem to realise that there is already provision in legislation to take account of parental disagreement.

A deeply worrying recommendation, based on very little evidence, was also made that local authorities should scrap independent reviewing officers. IROs are a fundamental part of the care system. They were created to protect the rights of vulnerable children in care, to advocate for them and to ensure that their needs are met. Without IROs, a child who is unhappy or—worse—being abused in their placement, could literally have nobody at all to turn to. Imagine being that child, who has been removed from a place of harm into a placement where that harm endures, when there is nobody to tell about it and no escape. I am sure the Minister agrees that removing such safeguards would be at the Government’s peril, and that judicial consequences will certainly follow.

In the report there is also a fixation on legal status. It claims that the priority must be to convert more fostering placements into permanent arrangements. Apart from the obvious fact that an emphasis on legal status, rather than a child’s individual needs, is at odds with good practice, it completely ignores the availability and benefits of other options, such as long-term foster care. Every single child in the care arena is completely different and has different needs. That is why there are a number of options for care. Decisions should always be made on a child-by-child basis. The cynic in me cannot help think that the authors’ predilection for adoption or special guardianship is a cost-cutting exercise. Once permanence in those forms is achieved, the state no longer has a duty towards those children or their carers.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am glad that my hon. Friend raises the point about the cost element of recommending adoption and special guardianship orders rather than long-term fostering. That particularly applies for those aged 18 and above. In my speech I did not mention Staying Put or the fact that the funding for it is lower than for foster care. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a big mistake and a big impediment to ensuring that children who go into foster care are given the long-term permanence of being part of a family?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I completely agree. I am also a keen advocate of extending Staying Put to children in residential care. It cannot be right that there is a two-tier system where some children are treated differently simply because of their placement.

The recommendation is also symptomatic of the Government’s obsession with adoption as the gold standard, to the detriment of all other forms of care. We need a consistent, overall strategy for children in care under this current Government. Rather than seeing the holistic picture and attempting to address issues when they first arise, their piecemeal approach has led to separate and unaligned strategies around early intervention, children in need of help or protection, fostering and adoption.

Can the Minister confirm that he will robustly refute those recommendations? I respectfully remind him that full adoption comes with the severance of birth ties. He knows as well as I do that that is not always right for those children in long-term foster care who enjoy continued contact with their birth families throughout placement.

The report deeply disappointed again when it came to contact. It stated that the well-established presumption in favour of contact was removed by the Children and Families Act 2014. It was not. The presumption remains as enshrined in the Children Act 1989. I again make a plea to the Government for parity in legislation between the rights that children have to contact with their parents when in care and those that they have for contact with their siblings. As passionately explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), relationships matter deeply to children in care.

I hope that the Minister will reject the recommendation that local authorities should not presume that siblings are best placed together. I acknowledge that it is not always appropriate, which is why the law states that siblings should be placed together as far as is “reasonably practicable”. This proposal, as with the false assertions about contact, is completely at odds with well-established practice and law, which is built on robust evidence.

The majority of organisations, charities, foster-carers and social workers are not only deeply concerned about some of the recommendations in the review, but disgusted by its shoddy nature. It makes assertions backed up with no evidence and at times contradicts existing research and evidence, which are coupled with an absence of children’s voices and a lack of understanding of the relevant legislation and policy in this field. Can the Minister advise when his counterpart will formally respond to the report, and will he pass on the request that, in doing so, he very seriously takes into account what has been said today and these misgivings, and ensures that our foster-carers and children are, once and for all, given the respect that they deserve?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

Before I call the Minister, I remind him of the convention that the motion’s proposer has a short time to respond at the end of the debate.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

Thank you for the reminder, Mr Howarth. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this important debate and on a very powerful and informed opening speech. There have also been powerful speeches from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), and a moving speech by the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law).

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the Government’s plans for foster care. The hon. Member for Sefton Central has taken an interest in the independent review of fostering from the outset, and he discussed its purpose and remit with the Department’s officials. I am glad we can revisit some of those concerns now the review has concluded.

In his excellent opening speech, the hon. Gentleman made an important point about educational outcomes for children in care, which is something that I, as Schools Minister, care deeply about. Of children in care, 17.5% achieved A to C grades in their English and maths GCSEs, compared with 58.8% of other children. The average attainment 8 score for children in care stands at about 22.8, compared with 48.1 for other children.

Alongside the independent review of fostering that the Department commissioned, the Education Committee conducted an inquiry into fostering. My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families is discussing the reports’ findings with the Committee at this very moment—obviously the right hand arranged that meeting, while the left hand arranged the timing of this debate. We are considering the recommendations set out in the independent review alongside those made by the Education Committee. I will set out the Government’s plan for a formal response to both reports, which we will publish in spring.

We recognise that not everyone will agree with the conclusions of the independent review, or of the Education Committee, but importantly, we have an opportunity to work together to improve the foster care system and to better support looked-after children and foster- parents. We cannot do that alone: not all the reports’ recommendations are for central Government. It is important that we work with local authorities, independent fostering agencies, foster-parents and, of course, young people themselves, as we develop and deliver the Government’s response.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central raised the issue of local government funding. He will be aware that the 2015 spending review made more than £200 billion available to local authorities for local services, including children’s services, up to 2019-20—the end of the spending review period. The Government will also provide additional council tax flexibilities in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Funding for children’s services is an un-ring-fenced part of the wider local government finance settlement, which gives local authorities the flexibility to focus on locally determined priorities and their statutory responsibilities. Local authorities have used that flexibility to increase spending on children’s and young people’s services to around £9.2 billion in 2015-16.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I appreciate that the Minister is not in his usual role. I asked the Minister for Children and Families a question yesterday that he was unable to answer, so I hope the Minister will be able to today. How does his Department square the circle with regard to local authority funding, when every other service that has an impact on children’s social care is being cut and completely depleted? Social work is a holistic profession; it relies on other services that are being stripped away, day by day, under this Government.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

As I said, the spending review made more than £200 billion available to local authorities for local services throughout the review period. In addition, we have introduced greater flexibilities for local authorities to raise additional funds.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The Minister gets out and about in the country, but has he been to children’s services in places such as Kirklees? In my time in Parliament, I have never seen such a crisis. We are in a ghastly situation where, because there is no money in local authorities—largely because of the time, money and resource that they are putting into care—money and resource is being taken away from our children, from child protection and from the fostering service. That is the truth, whether we like it or not.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The truth is that we have made £200 billion available for local authorities in the period up to 2019-20, as part of a balanced approach to public spending, to ensure we have a strong and stable economy that is delivering the lowest level of unemployment for more than 40 years. The Government have had to take difficult decisions in the last seven or eight years, but it is an important area of Government spending.

Our ambitions for children and young people, when they are being looked after and afterwards, are the same as for any other child. We want them to fulfil their educational potential, have good health and wellbeing, build and maintain lasting relationships, and participate positively in society. Of looked-after children, 74% are in foster care. Fostering provides stability, a safe and loving home and an alternative family environment. Children and young people in foster care have made it clear that they want to feel part of a family and have a normal life.

One of the essential messages from the “Foster Care in England” report is that foster care is working for many vulnerable children and young people. That needs to be celebrated. Research tells us that, for many children in foster care, the experience can be positive and life-changing. Coram’s “Our Lives, Our Care” survey found that, in 2017, 83% of 11 to 18-year-olds living in care thought their life was getting better. Research from the Rees Centre showed that stable, high-quality care can be a protective factor educationally, and children and young people in foster care perform better at school than looked-after children as a whole, and better than children in need.

The “Foster Care in England” report draws on the evidence of children and young people, foster-carers, social workers, fostering organisations and academics to set out a broad programme of possible improvements. It is clear from both reports, and from today’s debate, that we could and should do more to improve children’s experiences of foster care.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

In the writing of those two reports, how many young people did we have conversations with, listen to or take constructive feedback from on the reports’ conclusions?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

Young people were consulted, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on the precise number involved in the consultation.

Although there are areas of disagreement, there are three common themes. First, we need to ensure that enough high-quality fostering placements are available in the right place at the right time to meet the needs of children in the care system. Secondly, we need to ensure that foster-parents receive the support and respect they need and deserve for the incredibly valuable role that they play in looking after children in care. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that children and young people are listened to, that their wishes and feelings are taken into account, and that they are involved in decisions about their lives.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central also raised the issue of adoption. Stability and permanence are transformative for many children. For some children, long-term foster care will be the right choice. It is one of a range of options that includes adoptions and special guardianship, as he mentioned. The independent review asks the Department to put permanence at the heart of policy making, and we agree that that is the right thing to do.

Foster-parents play a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable children. They are essential for achieving high ambitions for the children in their care. They are uniquely placed to recognise the child’s needs and to respond to them appropriately. However, some foster-parents feel frustrated by the treatment they receive. We need to ensure that all foster-parents receive the support and respect they need for the incredibly valuable role that they play. The two fostering reports are clear that foster-parents are the experts in the children they look after and should be recognised as such. The statutory framework sets out that foster-parents should be listened to and included in decisions about the child’s care, but the evidence suggests that that does not always happen.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am not sure whether I heard the Minister correctly. Did he say that the Department puts permanence at the heart of everything it does? Does that not deny the wishes of children who want to go into residential care, long-term foster care or other forms of care? Why is the Department riding roughshod over the views of some children?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

That is not what I implied by what I said, which was that permanence was at the heart of policy making. Of course the views and rights of children are paramount in all the decisions that are made. The best interests of children will drive decision making for them.

We need to consider how foster-parents can be better supported so that they feel valued and empowered to parent the children in their care. For example, the independent review highlighted the need for greater delegation of day-to-day decision making. We will explore with the sector how we can improve guidance and practice.

Government policy is very clear that no foster-parent should be out of pocket because they are looking after a child. The Government set the national minimum allowance, and we are clear that we expect all foster-parents to receive at least that sum, but we need a better understanding of the national picture on remuneration. We will consider financial support alongside the wider package of support to ensure that foster-parents can continue to fulfil their valuable role.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central mentioned the professionalism and expertise of foster-parents. He is right that they should be treated professionally. He also mentioned the proposal for a national register of foster-carers. We are considering that recommendation. It is clear from both reports that more strategic sufficiency planning would help to secure better matches for more children. Some form of register may help to improve referrals, because it is hard to get a real-time picture of foster-parent availability. It is essential that we do not lose the insight from social workers in individual cases or the personal interactions in making placements.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden raised the faith background of foster-parents. The Government welcome anyone of any religion or ethnicity who comes forward to foster, provided that they meet the needs of children. However, she is right to raise the issue. We have heard and noted her concerns about faith literacy. We will consider how training can be improved for social workers and foster-parents in faith literacy and other matters. There are a number of misunderstandings about fostering in general, including about who can foster. The Government’s response to the reports will provide an opportunity to address the issues that she rightly raises.

The hon. Member for Wigan raised the issue of foster-carers’ 30 hours of free childcare. The child’s best interests have to be the paramount consideration. We are working with local authorities, and where childcare is in the child’s best interests, we expect it to continue even if they move to another placement. The hon. Lady also expressed concern about the high number of placements out of area. At the end of March 2017, 60% of children in foster care had been placed inside their council boundary and 80% within 20 miles of their home. However, the national availability of foster-carers does not always reflect local need. Local authorities have a duty to ensure the availability of foster-parents. The Government are working out how we can support councils to fulfil that duty.

The hon. Lady also raised the important issue of the voice of the child. The survey of children and young people by the Children’s Commissioner heard how important it was for young people to feel listened to and to have a greater role in decisions made about their lives. Several said that they felt that they did not have a say in anything and found that foster-carers and social workers dominated decisions about their placement. It is clear that the whole system needs to be better at listening and responding to the views of children and young people in its care. We are determined that children and young people have opportunities to contribute to the development of the Government’s response to the two fostering reports, so they are being supported by external organisations who have the necessary expertise.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sefton Central for this opportunity to continue debating the important issue of fostering. The independent review, the Education Committee and the many organisations and people who have contributed to the reports have given us a real opportunity to develop policy further and make a sustained change to the outcomes of children in care. The points raised today continue our important debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. As we develop our future work programme on fostering, we will continue to listen and work with all those who have an interest—not least young people themselves.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I am listening to the Minister with great interest, but I am astonished and appalled that he has not once mentioned the work done in Scotland, which has devolved responsibility in the matter. Is this not a perfect opportunity for Administrations to learn from each other’s experiences and draw the best conclusions? He has not even referred to the Scottish Government’s good works that I spoke about or the reports that we have been doing north of the border. Judging from what he says, the idea of our working as a family of nations has clearly been totally disregarded. Will he please address it now and say that he will consider it and take it forward?

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We will do just that.

Let me make a final point in the time available. The Government’s priority is that any changes must make a positive difference to the lives of the 53,000 children and young people who live in foster-families, and to the lives of foster-parents. We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable children have access to the best possible care to help them to thrive and prepare them for adulthood.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this excellent debate. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) made an excellent speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), as ever, brought huge insight to the debate, combining passion and authority and making some brilliant points. I also thank hon. Members who made interventions. I especially thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for having the bravery to tell his story. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for her speech too.

The Minister ended his speech by saying that the Government want to make a difference to the lives of all children in care. He made many very good points and accepted the arguments that have been made today, but that is only part of the story. I thank him for congratulating me on what he called my excellent opening speech, but if he is really serious about thanking me, he should use his influence in the Department to ensure that the Government play their part in supporting foster-carers, social workers and children’s services departments to reverse recent developments such as the 83% increase in children on child protection plans and the fact that the number of children in care is at its highest since 1985.

It is no good taking money away from early years and cutting early intervention by 55% and local authority spending by 49%, as this Government have done since 2010, without expecting an impact on children’s services, child protection and the number of children in care. By the way, it is no good cutting support for the police service without expecting an impact either—our police service in Merseyside has had the biggest cut of all. The Government have cut £233 million of funding to my local authority since 2010 and we face severe pressures in children’s services. It is a cut, not an increase. The Minister kept saying that there was an increase in the local government funding settlement in 2015, but there has not been an increase in the funding to local authorities under this Government since 2010.

The Minister is right that there are many wonderful foster-carers out there. There are many children who are given every possible chance when they go into foster care in this country, and who are provided with the love and support that they need and have every right to expect. But the Minister needs to listen to those children, to their foster-carers, to the professionals who have lobbied for this debate and to those who gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry and the stocktake. It is short-sighted and short-termist to do anything less than ensure that intervention is possible. It is failing the children and young people who need all our support.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).