Wednesday 5 September 2018
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
Care Homes: CCTV
I beg to move,
That this House has considered CCTV for communal areas of care homes.
It is a great pleasure to move this motion under your chairmanship, Sir David. I was pleased to be successful in the ballot, as the debate gives me an opportunity to raise with the House and the Minister my concerns about what more could be done to improve safety and security in our care homes. I hope it may also provide an opportunity to have in a more informal setting a sensible discussion about how we can take this forward.
There will be no Members of Parliament, I suspect, who do not have care homes for the elderly in their constituencies; in many cases, there will also be residential homes for vulnerable and disabled adults and children. The latest statistics available show that there are over 400,000 registered care home beds in the United Kingdom. With an ageing population, that number is growing, and those in care homes for the elderly are suffering from increasingly complex forms of physical and mental disability, particularly dementia. Some will exhibit challenging and distressing forms of behaviour. Looking after them properly is a demanding task—one that requires emotional skills that are not necessarily inherent in all of us. It is estimated that there will be 1 million people with dementia in the United Kingdom by 2021, unless medical science changes dramatically in its prevention or delay.
Care homes are not hospitals. The Minister and her Department will be aware that staffing in care homes ranges from highly medically qualified staff through to staff who are unqualified but have all the right life skills, and those who have little or no vocational interest in the work, which can involve long hours at relatively low pay. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the expansion in the number of care homes has been accompanied by a constant pattern of stories concerning instances of neglect and abuse. Such instances may represent a relatively small percentage of the overall population, but they are not insignificant. They also undermine public trust to an astonishing extent. One might argue that the public’s perception is too negative, but it cannot be ignored. A 2016 poll of a public sample group showed that 52% believed that abuse of residents was a regular event in care homes.
Although that level of anxiety may be excessive, I do not think it is entirely unreasonable given the evidence from the Care Quality Commission, which reported in October 2017 that every day more than 100 vulnerable and elderly people suffered serious injuries in care homes, and that reports of serious injuries had risen 40% over five years. That may be because there is more reporting—one has to factor that in—but it is a statistic that I am sure the Minister and anybody who looks at the report is concerned about. Serious injury notifications rose from 26,779 in 2012 to 38,676 in 2016. The CQC’s chief inspector of adult care said:
“People living in care homes and their families want to be reassured that those in charge are doing everything they can to support their health and wellbeing, including making sure their services are as safe as possible.”
In furtherance of that, the CQC requires notification of serious injuries, so that people may learn from and minimise the risk of such injuries and the quality of care can be constantly improved. In bad cases, it may also bring prosecutions, with the sanction of substantial fines if negligent actions are found to have occurred, and in some cases care homes have been closed down. The Minister and her Department need to ask themselves whether all that is sufficient to meet these problems.
I hope the Minister has seen the recent academic research conducted under the aegis of University College London’s department of old age psychiatry, led by Claudia Cooper, which consisted of an extensive survey of 1,544 staff in 92 care homes. The report made quite troubling reading: while most staff reported positive care behaviours, some, under the cloak of anonymity, were perfectly prepared to report practices that were not. Over 50% reported carrying out or observing potentially abusive or neglectful behaviours at least sometimes in the previous three months that they had been working in a care home. Some abuse of residents was reported as happening sometimes in 91 out of the 92 care homes that took part in the survey. Neglect was the most frequently reported instance. Making a resident wait for care was reported in 26% of homes; avoiding a resident with challenging behaviours was reported in 25% of homes; giving a resident insufficient time for food was reported in 19% of homes, and taking insufficient care when moving a resident was reported in 11% of homes. Perhaps most worrying, physical and verbal abuse was reported in 54% of homes.
Unsurprisingly, there was a clear correlation between abusive and neglectful behaviour and homes with higher rates of staff turnover and poor morale. A long series of studies have shown that carer stress, likely to lead to neglect or abuse of residents, is associated with low job satisfaction, long hours, low pay, physical demands, staff shortages, and minimal education and training—that will not be a surprise to any of us. Interestingly, contrary to the hypothesis the research started with, numbers or ratios of staff to residents, the environmental quality of the home and the severity of the neuropsychiatric symptoms in residents were not associated with a higher incidence of abuse. A common picture emerges: the risks are the product of poor management, low levels of training and low levels of staff motivation.
That brings me to what more might be done about this and whether the use of CCTV in the common parts of care homes, both as a deterrent to abuse and an aid to improving care performance might prove to be valuable. I was first approached about this issue several years ago by my constituent, Ms Jayne Connery. Ms Connery’s mother had been a resident as a dementia sufferer in a care home just outside my constituency—a care home that I know—where she suffered abuse through rough handling, which came to light only when a whistleblower among the staff informed Ms Connery of what had occurred. On being questioned by the police, the member of staff concerned stated that her behaviour was facilitated by the absence of any realistic safety monitoring of staff behaviour. Subsequent inquiry, before Ms Connery moved her mother elsewhere, also suggested that the lack of proper systems at the home led to, for example, unauthorised strangers being invited into the home late at night by staff. When Ms Connery raised that concern with the management, she was told that there was no proof of that having happened.
As the abuse and the illicit visits by strangers to the home took place in communal areas, Ms Connery was persuaded of the desirability of making the monitoring of common parts of care homes obligatory. She was also influenced by the fact that many cases of abuse had been proved—there are stories in the newspapers several days a week—as a result of relatives setting up hidden cameras when they had strong suspicions that abuse was taking place, and then being able to find the evidence of what was going on, even though the management denied that anything untoward was occurring. That has since led Ms Connery to set up an organisation—Care Campaign for the Vulnerable—with a mission to promote and introduce CCTV in the common parts of care homes.
When Ms Connery first contacted me, I was impressed by her determination and motivation, but I have to admit—perhaps it was the lawyer in me—to not being certain that her proposal was necessarily the best way to tackle the problem. I had a lawyer’s concern about the extent to which placing CCTV cameras in care homes might infringe privacy. Several rounds of correspondence between me and the Department and the Secretary of State followed, in which I gently pressed the Department to respond to the details of Ms Connery’s campaign, but while I am not suggesting that there was a lack of interest, it is right to say that the Department’s responses have been rather non-committal.
In July last year, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), wrote:
“I appreciate Ms Connery’s concerns… We agree that poor care, abuse and neglect are completely unacceptable. Everyone should receive high quality care, delivered by well trained, properly managed and compassionate staff. We are committed to making this a reality.
The Department believes that the use of CCTV and other forms of covert surveillance should not be routine, but should be considered on a case by case basis. The Department does not object to the use of CCTV in individual care homes, or by the families of residents, provided it is done in consultation with and with the permission of those residents and their families.”
Of course, I agree with that point. He continued:
“We want to make sure that people are held to account for the quality of care they provide, so we are introducing measures to ensure that company directors who consent or turn a blind eye to poor care will personally be liable for prosecution. In the future, they, and the provider organisations, could face unlimited fines if found guilty.
The Care Quality Commission is the independent regulator of all health and adult care providers in England. All providers of regulated activities, including the NHS and independent providers, must register with the CQC and meet a set of requirements governing the safety and quality of services. These requirements include areas such as cleanliness and infection control, the management of medicines, safety, the availability and suitability of equipment, respecting and involving service users and ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of suitably qualified skilled and experienced people employed by providers.”
The rest of the letter dealt with trying to raise staffing standards through the introduction of the care certificate for employees in the sector.
No one reading that letter could have any reason to disagree with its sentiments—I certainly do not—but it seems to miss the point that Ms Connery had been pressing, that CCTV in common parts could be a useful tool to achieve several important ends. First, it offers reassurance to residents and their families that any incidents that take place in communal areas can be recorded, and that if something occurs in that setting it will be possible to ascertain the facts. It is worth bearing in mind that in the last five years, the CQC has been coping with more than 100,000 allegations of abuse or instances of negligence leading to safeguarding referrals, at a significant cost in terms of manpower. In many cases, the inevitable outcome is that the causes of an incident remain unresolved, which is as unsatisfactory for the provision of care as it may be wholly unfair to the staff involved. Someone caring for an elderly and vulnerable person, who may have brittle bones, for example, cannot completely remove the risk of accidents if they are also trying to involve that person more generally in the life of the home. As I sometimes point out to people, there may well from time to time be accidents that are nobody’s fault, even if one wishes to try to learn from what happened.
Secondly, the presence of CCTV in common parts will act as a deterrent to people who might enter the care home for an unlawful and unauthorised purpose, which regrettably is not unknown. Some years ago in my constituency, I had an appalling case of a serious sexual assault on a disabled resident by a stranger who had gained access to a care home for the severely disabled as an apparent visitor. Nobody had challenged them.
Thirdly, the correct use of CCTV provides an opportunity for managers in care homes to keep problems under review and to help staff to learn from errors in delivering care that may have occurred in the course of their work. CCTV is sometimes seen as a spy, but that is not the intention here. The point is not just to catch people who may be doing something wrong, but to have systems in place that enable standards to be improved, which can facilitate the improvements that the CQC and the Secretary of State seek, as he set out in his letter.
Before being elected to the House, I was a lawyer practising mainly in the wide-ranging area of health and safety law. My experience was that people have to talk the talk and walk the walk, so I wanted examples, rather than just ideas, of the use of CCTV being beneficial and bringing about innovatory change. What swayed my opinion more than anything was the great deal of evidence that Ms Connery provided that responsible care homes are increasingly installing CCTV and are convinced of its usefulness. I have two examples that may be helpful.
Zest Care Homes, based at Yarm in Cleveland, is a long-established care home provider with several care homes. It was concerned that, despite best intentions and robust operational policies and auditing of services, it still had poor performance issues. It concluded that the principal problem was that, regardless of the training and induction of staff, there was a trend by staff to take shortcuts when carrying out their work and assisting residents. Accordingly, Zest Care Homes consulted all the relevant stakeholders and moved to an overt CCTV consent-based system that, interestingly, covered not only communal areas but, by agreement, bedrooms as well. I should add that it met the European convention on human rights standards of proportionality on privacy. Footage was viewed by professionally trained monitors from a separate company, which had been set up for that purpose and acted independently of the parent company providing the care, and which had a requirement to produce monthly reports based on two hours of sampling per day. The footage was not continuous but could be triggered by certain events, such as people going in and out of a room, moving around, or delivering certain sorts of care.
After installation, Zest Care Homes stated:
“We have noted very material culture changes such as how staff now position themselves when talking to residents, the practise of using mobile phones when talking to residents, the presentation of food etc, to more major issues such as the delivery of personal care, management of incontinence and manual handling consistency. Very significant events such as resident on resident violence, staff attempting to sleep overnight at times, drug near misses as staff are distracted when administering medications, staff rudeness, family abuse of residents etc. All have been noted because of the CP system and addressed immediately without any delay.
One real positive is the reduction of unexplained injury events and a reduction in unexplained safeguarded referrals. The CP system has assisted with preventing accidents as focussed training followed monitor notification of repetitive poor or casual practices. Families are very positive about system use...It is our view that whilst the regulator (CQC) operates under a very robust framework and has a challenging inspection regime, its findings are nevertheless a ‘snapshot’ in time. We believe that daily monitoring is much more effective and focus on care practises and the actual delivery of care should have priority over the presentation of care documentation as to whether care quality at any site is of good enough standard.
Providers have an interest in knowing that information. CP acts as a critical friend...shortcomings are no longer ‘perceived’ as images either confirm issues indeed are present, or they are not.”
Other reputable providers, such as the Priory Group, have adopted similar independent monitoring systems.
The second provider that I will use as an example is the Marbrook Centre in Cambridgeshire. It is slightly different, because it is a specialist provider of neurological care and rehabilitation. It stresses an awareness that CCTV can have drawbacks, as it can lead to staff watching screens rather than interacting with those for whom they care. Of course, if we go back to Zest for a moment, the whole point is that it is not the staff who are monitoring the screens; that is done somewhere else, so it is not such a distraction. However, the Marbrook Centre sees that drawback as wholly outweighed by the benefits that I have already cited. It says,
“the senior management team can access it randomly to watch snapshots of life at the home. This probably amounts to less than an hour of live footage a week being seen. As part of our audit and quality procedures we do randomly select perhaps three or four different shifts a month to look at retrospectively. We look at how our staff are interacting with residents and if staff at night are fully awake and attentive?...It is also used without hesitation when we have a suspected incident, accident or complaint which needs further investigation.”
I hope these examples will help the Minister understand why I think CCTV should be promoted in care homes.
Beyond that, the question arises whether, at some point in the future, CCTV should be made compulsory in the common parts of homes to which residents have access. From a legal point of view, this raises no privacy issues of any complexity, because many common parts of buildings have CCTV, including parts of the Houses of Parliament. As long as people are notified of the CCTV, there is not an issue, and it would provide a powerful tool for helping to prevent abuse and improve standards. It is clear that care homes with high standards are already adopting this form of technology widely.
I am aware that the Government will be concerned that any such change would impose a new cost burden on care homes, and I recognise that that is an important issue. As many of us know, care homes operate on very low profit margins, particularly in areas of high cost, and some are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the service—certainly at the rate that local authorities are able to pay, unless they can compensate for it by getting in privately paying and privately funded residents. I assure the Minister that I am mindful of the problems that she grapples with when she sits down at her desk in the morning. These are real issues that cannot be readily solved.
None the less, I believe that, in view of the likely cost of the technology and its widespread availability, providing an adequate lead-in time ought to enable the cost to be absorbed without a crisis. Even if the Government cannot move to that point, active encouragement and using Government systems to point out the widely evident benefits of using a CCTV system would be a powerful tool that would help the Government to improve good-quality care of the elderly and vulnerable, and ensure it is not inhibited by a failure to implement good practice. History shows that people may not be persuaded to move forward without being given a bit of a shove.
I am conscious that I have taken up the 25 minutes that I said I would speak for, Sir David, and I try to keep within my time limits, although I think I may be 11 seconds over. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response in due course, having heard from other hon. Members present, and I very much hope that she will be in a position to provide a positive message to those who are taking an active interest in this matter.
I just want to add a few comments to the excellent speech given by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and to offer him my support. Similar to the story that he has just related, a constituent of mine, Tony Stowell, came to see me after having problems with his mother, who had fallen in a care home and broken her hip. Since then, he has been incredibly concerned.
We talk a lot about CCTV offering reassurance. At one point in my previous life, I worked in a children’s nursery. One thing the nursery offered was CCTV cameras in all of the different areas. Anyone who has ever dropped a small child off at nursery or on the first day back at school knows that their child is in floods of tears when they are about to leave them. They go home feeling dreadful that they have abandoned their child and feeling that their child is going to cry all day, only to ring the school or the nursery and hear them say, “Oh, your child had a wonderful time. They stopped crying the minute you left.” By offering CCTV, the nursery was able to say to parents, “Sit down and have a look at your child. The minute you walked out of the door, they wiped their eyes and were off playing and having a great time.” It gave people peace of mind and reassurance, which is what is missing from care homes.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, it is not that we think everybody in care homes is going to be abusing the elderly or treating them badly, but if a person has an elderly relative with dementia who cannot clearly communicate how they are feeling or what is happening to them, having that reassurance—being able to look at footage and think, “Actually, they are okay. They are not really unhappy”—offers that desperately needed peace of mind.
I have written to the Minister and would like clarification on the reply I received. It said:
“As the majority of care homes are in the independent sector, the Department of Health and Social Care does not have powers to enforce the installation of CCTV. This would require a change in the law, which falls within the remit of the Ministry of Justice.”
I am a bit confused as to where this issue lies: does it lie with both Departments or with one of them? Clarity on that would be helpful.
More than 20,000 care homes care for more than 300,000 people. Two thirds of the people in our care homes are in their 80s and only 1% of our care homes are rated outstanding. Surely Members of Parliament and the Government should do everything possible to raise standards. I believe that offering CCTV would not only help to raise standards in care homes but offer reassurance, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the winding-up speeches, much as I would like to. I will have to depend on tomorrow’s Hansard to read the Minister’s response, which I am very much looking forward to. I have another meeting that I simply cannot avoid.
In the past, I spent some time working with a care home in an advisory capacity, helping them to deliver the effective and safe service that we all want. I was particularly involved with the development of an advocacy service for residents of care homes, and also a lay visitor scheme, which is hugely important. We are all aiming for the same result, as is today’s debate. We all want compassionate and effective care in our residential care homes that develops confidence for the people in them as well as a safe environment.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) not only on securing this debate but on his comprehensive speech. I unashamedly inform him that I shall take some of what he has said today and claim it as my own in future speeches. He put a very comprehensive case and I agree with all of it, so there is no point in my repeating any of it except to say how much I agree.
I have two issues in mind. One is CCTV in communal areas, for which the case is strong, particularly in terms of protection and the promotion of welfare for residents, and also for issues such as the identification of personal property, which is often helped by CCTV. It promotes a general air of confidence. However, everyone must sign up to it. That is key. Everybody operating under CCTV knows perfectly well that it is there, which in itself develops a much higher standard and awareness of the way in which everyone should operate. There is a danger of a loss of trust if everybody is not aware. An absence of trust and a feeling that there is surveillance that people do not know about can cause great damage.
Cost is a concern. In my constituency of Montgomeryshire, there is huge pressure on residential care homes, although the adoption of the minimum wage has made a big difference. Quite a few care homes will not survive because, although the local authority pays a certain rate, access to private care is not how it would be in a more affluent part of the country, so there is a big dependence on local authority provision. However, the fees simply do not cover the cost. We must be aware of that so that we do not impose anything on care homes that reduces the number of care places available.
The issue of surveillance in private rooms is much more complex and controversial, but the reality is that it will happen more and more. There have been high-profile cases in which individual families have undertaken their own surveillance. I think that will increase because there have been high-profile incidents that highlighted poor care—others will undertake their own surveillance. The issue is how we manage it and the circumstances in which we consider it appropriate in private rooms. My instinct has always been that there should never be surveillance unless everybody within its view knows about it. That would lead to confidence and not cause damage.
Everybody wants safe and effective care in our care homes. I share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield that introducing CCTV as a compulsory measure in all care homes at some stage would be a positive step in helping to achieve that.
I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) for securing this debate and for the considered way in which he set out his powerful case. Increasingly in recent years allegations of abuse in care homes have been the subject of television documentaries and newspaper reports, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out. They have even given rise to parliamentary petitions.
We heard today the case for the installation of CCTV cameras in communal areas in care homes. It is easy to see how cameras could help to prevent the abuse of vulnerable and elderly people. We have certainly seen in the past how hidden surveillance has exposed disturbing and serious abuse of very vulnerable people, much of it long standing, such as in, to name one example, the Winterbourne View hospital, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) pointed out. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) said, we do not want to let the shocking examples of poor care that have been publicised to allow us to forget that some care homes, perhaps the vast majority, provide excellent care to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities across the United Kingdom.
Some of the information set out for us today by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield is truly shocking, but we can all agree that there is a balance to be struck between protecting the vulnerable in care homes and protecting their privacy. There can be no doubt that CCTV can be helpful in some circumstances. The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland stated:
“There are serious human rights considerations in relation to the use of hidden surveillance, but we do not argue that it should never happen.”
The right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out that if CCTV is to be introduced purely in communal areas, the arguments about invasion of privacy become less urgent. If those receiving care have the capacity to consent to being filmed, they must also have the right to refuse, as suggested by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. No one should be placed under surveillance without their agreement, but if there is concern that a vulnerable person is being mistreated or abused in some way, the local authority can consider other adult protection measures.
Regardless of how well intentioned, there can be no denying that the use of CCTV inevitably intrudes upon a person’s privacy, even if it is restricted to communal areas. We also have to be mindful that care homes are people’s homes, and people need to feel safe, secure and supported in their home.
As for the suggestion that CCTV cameras in communal areas should become the norm, which might well be the case, I cannot help feeling that it is a sad indictment of our society when, across the board, staff as well as residents are subjected to monitoring. Some might say that that would afford additional protection to staff as they go about their duties as well as to residents, but it would be sad if such monitoring were to become the norm, although I accept the argument from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle about reassuring relatives who are concerned about their elderly loved one.
The reason we are debating this subject is the alarming cases of abuse of vulnerable and elderly people that have been exposed through secret filming. We must take those examples extremely seriously, but it is important that we do not allow ourselves to believe that they provide a template for what happens everywhere and for how all staff behave. My mother-in-law, a former Glasgow City councillor, has dementia and is cared for in an excellent care home—Haylie House in Largs. Its first-class staff are cheerful and good-natured, and the care provided is second to none. When we put our vulnerable and elderly relatives into care homes, often with great reluctance, we need to be able to trust the staff. That is an essential part of the care process. We cannot allow the reports of abuse to allow us to forget the good work in the vast majority of our care homes.
It would be wise at this juncture to take cognisance of the view of Age UK that we must take care that CCTV might provide false assurances in addition to potentially compromising the privacy of residents in care homes. The chief executive of Age UK, Caroline Abrahams, has warned:
“With all the media stories about abuse and neglect in care homes it can be tempting to see installing security cameras as ‘the answer’, but Age UK very much doubts this is the case.”
I entirely endorse that. CCTV cannot be a substitute for good quality care. The examples I gave showed that, in areas where there is an attempt at delivering really good quality care, CCTV has served to improve it, but clearly if a care home simply relied on CCTV as a failsafe, that might be even worse than the current position.
I absolutely agree. I will move on to address the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about high-quality care, but will first finish the point I was making.
Cameras offer some protection to vulnerable and elderly people in care homes—I do not think anyone would dispute that—but they cannot be everywhere on the premises, so their impact will necessarily be limited. It is important that relatives of elderly residents and those who work in care homes and seek to improve them do not see CCTV as promising more protection than it can deliver in reality.
It is important to remember that abuse and neglect can be subtle and disguised. Cameras might pick up such subtlety and studied disguise but they might not. To go back to the point I made earlier about trust between residents, staff and the families of residents, if care homes do not operate on trust they are truly lost. It is essential that care homes command the trust of residents and their families, whether or not cameras are in place.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle talked about raising the standards in care homes. We can all agree on that and it is why we are here. Returning to the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield made, we all understand that care homes find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain suitable staff. We need more effort and more support for care homes, because that is the most positive way forward.
The sad fact is that our elderly relatives are in care homes because they need good-quality and very patient support in their senior years, but too often those providing that support are underpaid and undervalued by wider society. Those who do the extremely challenging job of looking after our elderly relatives need more recognition for the demanding and challenging work they do. I am sure we all agree on that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman set out the challenges in staff morale, which demand our attention.
We agree that caring for people with dementia every single day can be extremely challenging, and those who do it well deserve to be applauded. CCTV may well have a place, but it is not and cannot be—I do not think anybody is suggesting it is—the answer to the important question of how we better support and care for our older people in their twilight years, with the best possible and most highly motivated support staff, who are suitably and appropriately valued by society. If we can achieve that, we will have done a huge amount to improve our care homes and the care experience of older people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate, and to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) for bringing this important subject before the House. I feel strongly about it, and I bring some personal experience over many years of sourcing care for grandparents and, most recently, for my own mother. I have seen examples of poor care in nursing homes and care homes, as well as examples of absolutely fantastic care in both. I pay tribute to the carers who have the skills, patience and dedication to do what must be one of the most important jobs, and probably the least valued by our society. We all should take note of that and value such people.
It should be a priority for any civilised nation to promote and ensure the safety and wellbeing of its citizens, and the provision of high-quality care in a safe environment for elderly and vulnerable people should be a given, and something that we can take for granted. Elderly people are the group I have the most experience with in this area, but I expect that it is pertinent to people in other groups who find that they need to move into a care home.
When someone is no longer able to live independently in their own home it is a big deal—for the person themselves and for their close family. Admitting that they, or a family member, cannot cope independently, giving up their home and moving away from familiar surroundings can be extremely traumatic and quite frightening. Having made the decision, everyone involved needs to be reassured that the care home is a safe and genuinely caring facility, adequately staffed by well-qualified, well-supported and well-supervised carers and nurses.
Sadly, that is not always the case, and there are well-publicised examples of poor care, neglect and, in some instances, wilful abuse. It is a shocking state of affairs that is totally unacceptable. There is, rightly and properly, a lot of agreement in today’s debate. We all agree that a single case of abuse or neglect is one too many, and I base all my comments on that point of view.
The combined findings of Care Quality Commission inspections and staff surveys seem to indicate that poor standards of care, delayed care and neglect are widespread, while instances of deliberate abuse are relatively rare. I have seen many cases of neglect and poor levels of care. I have not seen any outright, wilful abuse, but that is not to take away from the fact that it exists. The question for us today is whether the installation of CCTV in communal areas of care homes would eradicate such problems or lead to improvements. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield and other Members made a powerful case for the contribution that CCTV could make in some instances, but it is perhaps a bit of a search for a quick fix. This is a complex area with no quick fixes, and false reassurances, as has been mentioned, are a worry.
We are talking about introducing CCTV in communal areas, but the majority of care is delivered in private bedrooms, bathrooms and treatment rooms. Introducing overt surveillance into communal areas would only shift any poor practice to areas not covered by cameras. We therefore run the risk, as I said a moment ago, of providing false reassurances to family members.
More broadly, we all live in a world where CCTV is a part of everyday life. In every shop and on every high street, where we go and what we do is recorded—except, that is, in our homes. When we sit down in our lounge, family communal areas or dining room we have privacy. Is anyone suggesting that the routine recording of elderly residents while they sit in their lounge or eat in the dining room should be a requirement in every home in the land? Who among us would like to be filmed while we snooze in front of the TV or sit down to eat? If we are talking about the dignity of the residents in such homes, is that really what we want to see routinely?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. Equally, perhaps one has to bear in mind that if we move out of the total privacy of a room in which we sit alone, we are observed by other people. That is part of our lives. There is a strange irony in the fact that we are perfectly happy to say, “This is wonderful—the meal time is so well supervised by staff,” but if it is supervised remotely through CCTV, or if there is CCTV available to check whether something has gone wrong, we are troubled by it.
Of course, so much depends on the absolute effectiveness of maintaining the necessary safeguard that material is kept within private circulation. However, provided we have that, I confess that I find it slightly difficult to differentiate between a camera providing some degree of assurance that everything is all right and a person physically sitting there, to which nobody would have any objection.
I hear what the right hon and learned Gentleman says. There are no right or wrong answers here; it is about creating a balance. I would point out that not all residents in care homes have dementia. Many of them do not and have a very strong awareness of their environment. They would see this as an infringement of their dignity—a dignity that they are fighting to hold on to for the remainder of their life. I take the point, but I do not think the issue is straightforward.
A point was made about CCTV in this building. We accept it, but we do not live here. We accept it in our lives, but if we are to make care homes a genuine substitute home for vulnerable people, we have to bear such points in mind. CCTV may have a role in specific circumstances, for example where a concern has been identified, but it ought to be a last resort, implemented only with the knowledge and full consent of residents, families, staff and professional representatives, because this affects everybody, and observing would definitely affect the relationships in the home.
Acknowledging that it is unlikely that incidents of abuse and poor standards of care would be prevented by installing CCTV cameras in communal areas does not mean that serious problems can be ignored. Abuse of people in care homes, and/or poor care, shames us all. ln many ways, the issue of CCTV is more of a red herring than a solution. I accept that it may have a role in some areas, and there may be justification for using it in some limited ways. However, there is widespread agreement from a range of well-respected organisations that the blanket imposition of CCTV is not the answer.
As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has pointed out, Caroline Abrahams from Age UK said that it is more important
“to raise the quality of care in care homes across the board and ensure that all older people, their families and staff are involved...and are able to raise any concerns, confident that their feedback will be acted on.”
That is not always the case at the moment.
Dr Peter Carter, former chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing has said that the answer to better care is better recruitment, training and managerial supervision of staff; that would be a better way to deal with this. I agree.
The CQC said:
“We would be concerned by an over-reliance on surveillance to deliver key elements of care, and it can never be a substitute for trained and well supported staff.”
I agree with that too, and I know that other hon. Members do too—there is so much agreement in this place on this subject, which is quite unusual. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has initiated this debate in good faith, but if we are really serious about ensuring the highest standards of care in care homes, which I believe he and other Members here are, he will join me in urging the Minister to consider reversing some of the funding cuts to social care.
It is a sad fact, but a fact nevertheless, that in response to Government funding cuts local authorities have reduced spending on social care by £6.3 billion since 2010. The cuts are now having a huge impact on care quality—a quarter of all adult care services have the lowest safety ratings, 30% of nursing homes in England require improvement or are inadequate and a growing number of private care homes are handing back their contracts, citing insufficient funds. Many more are teetering on the brink of financial collapse, faced with no alternative but to reduce staff numbers and, inevitably, standards of care.
We have not talked much about the funding implications of CCTV. Given that the sector is short of funds to start with, I am not sure who exactly would pay for CCTV installation and the ongoing monitoring, if it were to become mandatory; if it were to have any value at all, that would be expensive.
Before this debate, the Department of Health and Social Care said:
“Closed circuit television should not be...a substitute for proper recruitment procedures, training, management and support of care staff, or for ensuring that numbers of staff on duty are sufficient”.
I agree, but proper recruitment, training and adequate numbers of care staff have an associated cost, which it appears the Government are not prepared to meet. Quality care for the elderly and vulnerable cannot be delivered on a shoestring by poorly paid and overstretched carers. Our old people, our parents and grandparents deserve better. I look to the Minister to bring forward the promised Green Paper, to embrace the points made in this debate and to ensure that we have the kind of social care and care for our elderly that we can all be proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) on securing the debate. I welcome his well-thought-out and measured contribution to this incredibly important agenda. At its heart is a focus on our shared interest in safety and quality of care for those in residential settings. I thank other hon. Members who have contributed. Consensus has broken out widely in the Chamber, which is not entirely usual and is to be warmly welcomed.
I begin as other hon. Members have by paying tribute to those who work in adult social care. They do a brilliant job often in quite difficult and demanding circumstances, and sometimes with very frail and vulnerable people. Social care professionals work with great compassion and resilience and the vast majority of them treat those they care for with enormous dignity and respect.
Central to the effectiveness of care and support services that enable living well is the quality of those services. Everybody wants the very best care for their loved ones, but we do not know for sure what takes place when we leave a residential care home, which is understandably a concern to many people.
I listened to my right hon. and learned Friend’s arguments with interest. He makes them in his customary reasonable, compelling and persuasive manner. I agree that there are cases in which CCTV could be seen to be of benefit. The question we need to answer today is whether, in the Government’s pursuit of quality care, mandatory CCTV cameras are the answer.
Currently, there is no obligation on care homes to install CCTV cameras, but are they able to provide reassurance that care assistants and other staff are looking after our relatives in the way that we would wish? I do not think there is a single answer to making sure that abuse is eliminated and care is delivered in the best way possible. Some providers may reap significant benefits from using surveillance. Certainly, campaigners such as my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituent, Ms Connery, have collected great examples of it working very well to safeguard vulnerable residents. I can see how surveillance systems can be used as part of the appropriate deprivation of an individual’s liberty. With appropriate safeguarding, CCTV could be used to monitor and identify whether a person living with dementia is attempting to leave a care home, for example.
I am grateful for the spirit in which the Minister is responding to the debate. As we have examples of what appears to be good practice—it is possible that one is being misled by the examples, which we have to bear in mind—I would be interested to know whether the Government, as well as the CQC, are assessing those companies that are voluntarily using CCTV in common parts and their results so that we can be better informed as to its success or otherwise.
We have not done that to date, but we would be very happy to see the valuable evidence that my right hon. and learned Friend says people have been collecting.
The hon. Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the concern that CCTV has the potential to be intrusive in people’s lives, not only for those who live in such homes but for their friends and families, the staff and people who come to visit. As they both said probably more articulately than I can, we have to keep at the back of our mind at all times that these are people’s homes. Given the huge rise in the amount of care that is delivered in individual homes rather than in residential settings, there is also the concerning question of whether there would be pressure to install cameras in the homes of people who receive domiciliary care if CCTV is made compulsory for care homes, which would be a step into a whole new world.
I move on to this part of my speech with some trepidation, given that I am speaking to a former Attorney General. There are complications with the legal aspects of his proposal. I am not a learned Member of Parliament by any stretch of the imagination, but there could be an administrative and financial burden on care homes, many of which are small businesses with very few administrative staff. In 2014, the Care Quality Commission published “Using Surveillance: Information for providers of health and social care on using surveillance to monitor services”. It was aimed at the public, inspectors and providers who are considering or already using surveillance systems. That guidance will be refreshed later this year.
The legal framework requires that any use of surveillance in care services must be lawful, fair and proportionate, and for purposes that support the delivery of safe, effective, compassionate and high-quality care. Providers considering using surveillance, particularly covert surveillance, must bear in mind the potential impact on the bond of trust with people who use their service.
I have to make it absolutely clear that I was not suggesting covert surveillance. I have been quite plain about this. As I understand it, the homes that have introduced it have done so overtly; the common parts are covered by CCTV and anybody who comes into the home understands that. I am not recommending a form of covert surveillance. I can see how that could be open to considerable abuse and lots of difficulties, and I strongly urge the Minister and her Department to steer well clear of that legal minefield.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that legal advice, which would probably have cost me a fortune in the outside world. I am grateful for that clarification. The provider should consult those affected on the use of surveillance wherever it is possible to do so. It would have to meet the cost not simply of the equipment and the monitoring of it if it is done by a third party, but of the training, staff time, legal advice and consultation activity. There is no point in having such a system unless it is monitored and routinely checked.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) spoke compellingly about early years settings. I have experience of that, not just as the former early years Minister but as a mother who has been in exactly the situation that she mentioned. It certainly rings bells with me—leaving children screaming their heads off, and five minutes later being told they are all perfectly fine. As she says, that can be very comforting for parents. CCTV is not compulsory in early years settings either, but there are many similarities between the two sectors: they are both predominantly run by private companies. I hope that early years and residential care businesses see the benefits.
I have an apology to make to the hon. Lady. She asked about the letter that we sent, which suggested it might have to be up to the Ministry of Justice to change the law. That was incorrect, and we have subsequently sent her a letter clarifying that. I apologise.
Ultimately, CCTV can have benefits, but it simply cannot be a substitute for well-supported, well-trained staff and excellent management. We have made it clear in statutory guidance to support the implementation of the Care Act 2014 that we expect local authorities to ensure
“the services they commission are safe, effective and of high quality”.
We also expect those providing the service, local authorities and the Care Quality Commission to take swift action where anyone alleges poor care, neglect or abuse. We have backed that up with more than £9 billion of investment in the sector in the past three years,[Official Report, 11 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 4MC.] which equates to an 8% increase in funding. That incredible amount of money highlights the challenge we face in the sector.
I accept that there were cuts to local government funding during the time of the recession that we all endured. That was incredibly regrettable, but was one of those very difficult decisions that Governments have to take.[Official Report, 11 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 4MC.] In the last three years, we have increased funding by £9.4 billion, which equates to an 8% increase. It demonstrates the challenge of this ageing population—people are living longer with much more complex needs, and many vulnerable people need an enormous amount of support and care. It is an enormous amount of money, and yet we still see the sector facing great challenges and stress, which is why we have a Green Paper coming out later this year. We hope it will help address the sustainability of the adult social care sector. Successive Governments have wrestled with this incredibly challenging issue, and we need to find a long-term solution.
We expect serious allegations of abuse and neglect to be thoroughly investigated and prosecutions to be brought where that is warranted. The abuse of people who depend on care services is completely unacceptable and we are determined to stamp it out. That is why we introduced the new wilful neglect offence, which came into force in April 2015. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said that we must get the very best quality of staff into this demanding and challenging profession. I could not agree with her more. We have made changes to help services recruit people with the right values and skills, and introduced a care certificate for frontline staff to ensure older and vulnerable people receive the high-quality care they deserve.
The Department for Health and Social Care has commissioned and funded Skills for Health, Skills for Care and Health Education England to develop a dementia core skills education and training framework, which is very important to me. There is also a fit-and-proper-person test to hold directors to account for care. Let us not forget that 82% of adult social care providers are rated as good or outstanding as of August 2018, according the Care Quality Commission. That is a testament to the many hundreds of thousands of hard-working and committed professionals working in care, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Surely the best way of building on that is not to say to them, “We’re watching you in case you do the job wrong,” but rather to say, “How can we support you to do the job better? How can we invest in skills training, continuous professional development, great management and more staff on better wages?”
I come back to my point: in the course of their life, a person might carry out a job under supervision—I used to as a pupil barrister—when somebody might watch what they are doing and tell them what they are doing wrong. One of the difficulties in some care homes is that that is not necessarily happening. I urge the Minister simply to factor in that the chain care homes that I cited were using CCTV not to pick up, punish and sack staff, but to improve the quality of the care. That is one of the things that impressed me the most about it.
My right. hon and learned Friend has made that point incredibly powerfully and I do not dispute for one second that there is value in that form of monitoring. Certain responsible employers might see that value and benefit from it. I still do not think that there is any substitute whatever for top-quality management carrying out that sort of monitoring and surveillance themselves, when done properly.
The Care Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to promote their local market to ensure that all service users have a choice of high-quality services available. In 2015-16, nearly two thirds of service users reported that they were extremely or very satisfied with their care and support, which was consistent with the previous year and is testament to the work carried out at local level to deliver quality services. We cannot rest on our laurels: if two thirds of service users reported that they were extremely or very satisfied, a third did not. That is why the Department for Health and Social Care is working with the adult social care sector to implement Quality Matters, a shared commitment to take action to achieve high-quality adult social care for service users, families, carers and everyone working in the sector.
The compulsory use of CCTV cameras in the communal areas of care homes would require a change in the law, and it is not clear that that blanket approach would be proportionate or respect the needs and wishes of everyone who lives in a care home. There are undoubtedly cases in which better monitoring of staff would produce benefits, but without fuller evidence, the decision to install CCTV should remain one for the care home provider. I have been encouraged by the stories told by my right hon. and learned Friend about companies that found that installing CCTV brought tangible benefits. I encourage other providers to look at those kinds of examples if they are contemplating installing CCTV, and would certainly support them if they wished to do so.
The Government are absolutely committed to providing high-quality adult social care for service users, families, carers and everyone working in the sector, but at this stage we do not intend to make installing CCTV in care homes mandatory.
I am most grateful to the Minister for the time and trouble she has taken, and to other hon. Members who participated in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) in particular.
The points that have been made are all valid. I emphasise that I am not putting this proposal forward as a panacea—there are no panaceas. One of the things that we should have learnt a long time ago—I hope most hon. Members know this—is that perfecting humanity is impossible. All we can do is to strive to improve what we do. The point I would like to emphasise is that, despite the fact that many care homes strive to be good, systematic patterns of failings are clearly creeping into the area.
That happens in many other areas of human activity but, for the reasons I gave at the start of the debate, I do not think that the failings picked up in care homes should be in any way surprising.
Looking after people who have complex physical and in some cases mental health-related issues is a very difficult thing to do. It will stretch and test human beings, especially their tolerance levels. I know from past experience in other fields that any deterioration in how human beings behave towards each other, whether that is neglect or abuse, usually comes not as a one-off but as part of a pattern of inability to manage the stresses and strains that people are under and then to respond to them appropriately.
I have a younger son who has just come out of Sandhurst. When he left Sandhurst, during a lunch to celebrate his passing out, he said to me, “The funny thing is, I went into Sandhurst far more confident about my capacity to be an officer and a leader than when I came out,” to which one of the instructor officers replied, “That is exactly what we intended.” It was intended to point out the areas where they were going to be put under pressure and would have to find the right discipline to respond. That is the fundamental problem.
Ultimately, the Minister is right: it is about management. If there is good management, whether that be in prisons, hospitals or care homes, or political parties for that matter, those places are likely to work better than without good management. The question is, “What are the tools which we can use to try to enhance that?” Of course, CCTV is not a panacea—it could be misused and just become mechanical. Admittedly, the examples I have given are only examples. There may be others I do not know about in which CCTV has been used and is not working well—I have not come across any because I can only pick up the bits of evidence I am given, which is why I have suggested to the Minister that doing an evaluation might be quite useful. The Government are in a much better position, as is the CQC, to see whether the results are sufficiently positive. Even if CCTV is not made compulsory, it should be more positively encouraged because it is such a good tool. The best examples I have heard about suggest that it works rather well.
Far from CCTV leading to terrible stories about sacking inadequate or brutal staff, it simply means that staff end up happier and deliver a much better service to residents in care homes, relatives are much more reassured and, if there is a problem, it can be dealt with more effectively. That is what I am talking about. It is not a binary choice that I am putting forward—we have far too many of those in this place.
If this debate has served any useful purpose, I hope it has highlighted that in CCTV we have a positive tool that can be used effectively. I encourage the Minister and her Department, which has lots of problems to contend with, to look at this carefully. Despite the drawbacks that were rightly highlighted—I understand privacy, an issue which can trouble me very much as well—when we look at the nature of the sort of homes we are talking about, there is a place for CCTV. If it is encouraged, I think it might prove very useful in raising the standard, which is exactly what the Minister wants to do. I am here to encourage her in that direction in any way I can.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered CCTV for communal areas of care homes.
Equalities Legislation: Guide Dogs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the enforcement of equalities legislation relating to guide dogs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Enforcement of the laws we enact in this place matters. Without a robust and credible enforcement system, statutes risk becoming dead letters and the whole legislative process turns into a cosmetic exercise. There are practical steps we can take to support better enforcement of equalities legislation relating to guide dogs, and to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
I sought the debate because of the troubling experience of one of my constituents. The more I drilled into what he told me, the more I discovered that his experience was not isolated but symptomatic of a wider issue. My constituent, who prefers to remain nameless, is blind. In March, he tried to walk into a restaurant in Cheltenham with his guide dog, but the owner refused him entry, citing health and safety regulations. Those objections were entirely spurious. That was, prima facie, a clear breach of the Equality Act 2010.
A video of the incident was posted to the internet and carried on the GloucestershireLive website. The response was enormous, reflecting deep and proper concern about the injustice among people in my constituency and beyond. In fairness to the owner of the restaurant, I should say that the subsequent apology was suitably full and apparently sincere. It is important to note that neither I nor my constituent are calling for disproportionate retribution. In some ways, I am calling for quite the opposite: a system of process-driven enforcement, without the need for trial by social media.
My constituent’s story is not unusual. There are more than 5,000 active guide dog partnerships and approximately 2,000 assistance dogs of other varieties—dogs other than guide dogs—working in the UK. A survey of more than 1,000 assistance dog owners conducted by Guide Dogs in spring 2015 found that 75% had been refused access at some point because they had an assistance dog with them; 49%—nearly half—had been refused access in the past 12 months; and 37% had been refused access to a restaurant in the past year. Those are sobering statistics. It is hard to communicate the impact of that to the extent it deserves. People affected feel humiliated, dehumanised and rejected by society. One guide dog owner in Hove said he felt “useless and…inadequate”.
What is the law? The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person with a disability and requires service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate people. Taxis and minicabs are often cited as the most frequent offenders for turning guide dog owners away, but such a breach by a taxi owner is a criminal offence, so police and local authorities are better able to take action. For non-criminal breaches of the Equality Act—where someone is refused entry to a café or restaurant, for example—the options are very different, and none of them is terribly attractive.
What are those options? The gov.uk website states:
“If you find it difficult to access a local service—for example, you cannot use a local takeaway or sandwich shop because the counter is too high—you should contact the organisation and let them know. It is in their interest to make sure everyone can use their service.”
In effect, the advice is, “Tell the perpetrator.” That is one option. The second is to issue proceedings in the county court. Not everyone will want to go through the hassle, expense and rigmarole of litigation in the county court. True, there is an equality advisory service, a legal advice helpline and help from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. None the less, given all the stress that comes with it, issuing legal proceedings is a daunting step, particularly where the breach is isolated. The third option is to report the breach on social media. However, in so doing, the victim loses control and may unleash a kind of digital vigilantism that they feel is disproportionate and inappropriate. The net result is that all too often justice is not done, and the options for the injured party are not palatable and not always appropriate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I concur with what he says about the expense of litigation and the other options available. Is not raising awareness about the Equality Act 2010 a far better option in trying to ensure that the law is enforced?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Raising awareness is crucial, but where efforts to raise awareness have been unsuccessful, we need a process that is proportionate, streamlined and victim centred to ensure that justice is done in a way that is not as hit-and-miss and patchy as it is now.
The other problem is that local authorities usually do not keep records. For example, in the case of an individual transgression on the door by an 18-year-old who has not been properly trained, one might understand that there are mitigating circumstances and that what is required is better training, but what if the same thing happens six months later? Surely, a record should be kept so that the excuses that were advanced first time around start to ring a little hollower.
The burden to enforce the Equality Act should pass to local authorities. They have the power to bring trading standards prosecutions for breach of copyright. If someone is selling dodgy DVDs on the Promenade in Cheltenham or perpetrating blue badge fraud, the local authority can intervene to take action, so why can it not bring proceedings for breach of the Equality Act as part of its licensing duties, thereby at least sharing the burden with the complainant? There should be a duty on local authorities to keep records of breaches so that those breaches can be put before the licensing committee when decisions are made about license grants or extensions. In that way, repeat offenders would be found out and such breaches could be taken into account when they applied for a new or extended licence.
The bottom line is that the Equality Act 2010 is a good piece of legislation, particularly in relation to disabled people, but it needs to be given more teeth if it is to fulfil its true potential.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I am here on behalf of all my constituents, but one particular constituent, who is visually impaired, contacted me to report that discrimination against guide dog owners when they try to access businesses and services is disturbingly common, despite being against the law. A Guide Dogs report showed that three-quarters of the assistance dog owners surveyed had been turned away because of their dog. As the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, taxis and minicabs are the most frequent offenders for rejecting guide dog owners. In one year, 42% of assistance dog owners were refused by a taxi or minicab driver because of their dog. The discrimination and confrontation that assistance dog owners face when trying to carry out everyday activities undermines the independence that those dogs bring them, leaving them feeling embarrassed and angry.
That evidence of the frequency of refusal of access shows that the law is still not well understood, which presents guide dog owners with significant challenges in enforcing their rights and making those rights a reality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that taxi and minicab services and drivers should be required to undertake disability equality training as part of their registration process, so that they fully understand the rights of assistance dog owners?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that full intervention. I agree with everything she says. To pick up that point, which was also made by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), training and awareness are critical, but there is a disconnect with the enforcement regime in respect of taxi drivers, where the police and local authority can intervene to bring a prosecution and a conviction can lead to a fine of up to £1,000. If the breach relates to a bricks-and-mortar premises rather than a vehicular premises, the enforcement regime is completely different. It seems to me, and indeed to those people with disabilities whom I have spoken to, that that is a distinction without a difference. It is just as humiliating and dehumanising to be refused access to a restaurant or a café, and yet it is far more difficult to seek redress. An individual who has been wronged in that way must be supported to seek redress that is proportionate and streamlined. It should not require an individual potentially to get legal advice or issue proceedings, at considerable personal cost, or to get witness statements, an allocation to the fast-track, defences and all that sort of thing, which is a stressful and time-consuming process. The system needs to be more victim-centred and streamlined.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I have been involved in these issues for over 20 years. Equality legislation is crystal clear that disabled people and guide dog owners cannot be discriminated against in a range of areas; unfortunately, it is also clear that since the 2012 changes about applying for an adjudication against discrimination came into force, the number of cases has dropped by 60%. I am keen to hear from the hon. Gentleman and the Minister how they think that should be addressed, so that the clear rules on discrimination, which would stop discrimination against owners of guide dogs and assistance dogs, can be properly enforced and those discriminating against them can be properly charged.
The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a wider point here about access to justice—a point made by Lord Reed in a recent Supreme Court case in the context of employment tribunals. He said that unless there is proper access to justice, the whole process of election of MPs to pass laws risks becoming “a meaningless charade”.
There is an issue about whether people can get before courts, but my point is slightly different: should that be the only credible remedy and recourse for the wronged party? I do not think it should. The system as it relates to taxi drivers recognises the fact that it is wrong to place the entire burden on the individual. With taxi drivers, the police can get involved; they can go along and say to an individual, “Did you realise that it is a breach of the Equality Act not to allow that person into your taxi with a guide dog? I may or may not decide to press this and bring proceedings for a £1,000 fine.” However, the police and, indeed, councils do not have that discretion when it comes to bricks-and-mortar premises. That strikes me as inconsistent, and it means that the individual is faced with the dilemma of whether they want to spend a considerable amount of time, effort and stress, and head off to the county court to issues proceedings, when ultimately the remedy may be relatively modest from a financial point of view.
In my experience, individuals want to seek justice—that is to say, the breach being marked, a record being made and advice or training being given as required. Crucially, if the premises becomes a repeat offender, it must be possible to make that clear and for consequences to follow for the business’s livelihood. That is what justice is.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. My local council, Angus, which incorporates my local guide dog training centre at Forfar, has been brilliant in adopting a street charter to ensure that streets are not obstructed and are accessible by all; it has also exempted local guide dog owners from parking restrictions. Does he agree that not only should we be making it easier for people to get justice, if they have been unfairly treated, but we should promote better practice in local authorities, to ensure that advice is readily available for local shop or restaurant owners?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I commend her council for taking those enlightened steps. The problem is that geographically the approach taken is a bit hit and miss. It is patchy, so someone with disabilities might find that one year they live in a local authority that is proactive and in another year they live somewhere where the position is markedly different. I agree that better training and awareness is important, but with the carrot must come the stick. Premises that do not want to avail themselves of the guidance and teaching available must be aware that should they choose to ignore it, there could be consequences for them. Too many may take the view that it is part of the cost of doing business: they might get a bit of flak on social media, but from a commercial point of view, ultimately there will be no comeback. We need to redress the balance so that there can be a proportionate comeback.
We should not be living in a society where the individual who has been wronged is effectively left with the choice of opening the social media gates of hell. They may be uncomfortable with the kind of vigilante response that that could elicit. The last thing the responsible citizen who was wronged in Cheltenham wanted was someone putting a brick through the window. He did not want to see the business close down. He recognised that sometimes people fall into error. What stuck in his craw—and in mine—is that there does not seem to be a middle way where the breach can be marked in a proportionate, process-driven way.
I apologise for not being here on time—I have visitors to the House today.
In Northern Ireland we have looked at opportunities for small businesses and start-ups to be given free training about the initiatives that are important in relation to guide dog legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that should happen not just in Northern Ireland—where it happens across all councils—but across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
Free training is an excellent idea, because it is not terribly onerous—the key tenets in the Equality Act could be summarised in about 10 minutes. If that were part of standard practice, that would be very positive, because in Equality Act matters, as in so much of public life, prevention is better than cure. The individuals I have spoken to want simply to be treated fairly and the problems not to happen in the first place. I entirely endorse that sensible call. This debate is about trying to pick up the pieces where, sadly, the message does not get through or the opportunities are not taken up.
We in the House are often encouraged—sometimes by social media or mainstream media pressure—to do something: to pass legislation, to show that we care, to show that issues are important to us. That is really only half the battle. Legislation without enforcement is a dead letter and risks bringing the legislative process into disrepute and tarnishing the reputation of this place. The good news is that there are steps that we can take to redress the balance where the Equality Act is concerned. It is within our grasp. There is an opportunity to make our society fairer and more decent for the people we should be seeking to serve—people of all abilities and disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Sir David, and to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is a tireless champion of his constituents and one of the best parliamentary speakers. Time and time again, he picks up incredibly important and relevant topics and champions them in Parliament, which genuinely makes a difference. This issue is predominantly covered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, but it is with great pleasure that I respond as a former Minister for Disabled People and someone who has been personally active in connected issues. It is great to see such a turnout of MPs from across the House who are determined to see improvements in this area despite this being only a 30-minute debate.
My hon. Friend has been active on this issue for a number of years, and it came across in his speech that he is aware of all the challenges and opportunities. He delivered his case in a measured way. He was proactive, and he recognised that such situations, which we all want to prevent, are sometimes complex and—more often than not—unintentional, coming from a lack of awareness and understanding, and there are ways in which we can look to make improvements.
During my time as the Minister responsible for disabled people I was asked to appear on “Watchdog”—I love it. I was very excited; I was star struck. I was not allowed to see the footage, but I was told it was to do with access to venues. I then saw the footage live on air, and I was shown examples of problems with access, such as when managers in restaurants had turned the disabled toilet into an office, with shelves of books and filing cabinets in the toilet that people were expected to use. There were also examples of issues with assistance dogs. I was horrified and pledged that we needed to do more.
I organised a roundtable with representatives of the hospitality industry, and the key message was about that lack of awareness, particularly when a company has a regular turnover of employees. There were some good organisations that did training, but their staff changed over very quickly and that awareness needed to be embedded in the culture. We were able to get senior representatives from many major chains to engage, partly because if they did not turn up I was going to name them—always a good way—but I was encouraged by their willingness to do that. I was also delighted to champion the campaign by Tourism for All, “Tourism is for Everybody”, which aimed to help tourism businesses ensure a positive experience for every individual. That is vital. Not only is it completely unacceptable in 2018 for disabled people with guide and assistance dogs to be turned away from shops and restaurants—unless there is a very good reason for doing so—but it is also unlawful and makes little economic sense.
One in six people in this country have some form of disability, and their combined spending power, referred to as the “purple pound”, is estimated at £249 billion per annum. Businesses need to start waking up to that and tailor their accessibility to the needs of disabled customers, not only because that is right and a legal obligation, but to maximise the business opportunities that that will bring. It is a win-win situation.
I entirely endorse every word the Minister says, and I have been saying such things probably for 20 years. Despite the fact that legislation has been in place for many years, I am genuinely shocked that the number of people with assistance or guide dogs who are turned away or discriminated against in restaurants or similar places has increased significantly over the past couple of years. There must be a reason for that, and I suggest it is because it is difficult for people to access legal remedies in such situations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which goes to the heart of some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham. The onus should not be on the individual to go through complex and difficult legal channels; perhaps that should be a given and should be enforced—I will cover that point later in my speech.
It is more than 20 years since Parliament first built on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 by introducing a duty on employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for employees and service users. That duty is now enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, and includes a requirement to provide or allow for auxiliary aids, including animals, for disabled people, to avoid their being put at a substantial disadvantage compared with people without disabilities. I very much recognise, however, the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and in interventions, and we must consider this issue.
Part of the potential solution, and one suggestion that has been put forward, is that we could, in effect, replicate the enforcement that takes place in the taxi trade. Such enforcement includes criminal sanctions in which the police will get involved, and a licensing team that will take such issues into consideration. I understand why my hon. Friend would like a more hard-hitting approach, because without that we would not be having this debate. The Government are absolutely committed to reviewing access for disabled people and, if necessary, to amending regulations to improve disabled access to licensed premises, parking and housing. We are receptive to the points that have been raised today.
There have been calls for the licensing of venues and premises by local authorities to include certain conditions that relate to the satisfaction of reasonable adjustment requirements, or for repeat offenders who have refused entry to people with assistance dogs on more than one occasion to have to change their ways to renew their licence. I believe the Home Office considers that there may be some challenges to doing that, but it has committed to improving disabled people’s access to licensed premises as part of the alcohol strategy currently under review. That work will include understanding the scope of the challenges facing disabled people, and possible practical solutions. Everything that has been raised today will be fed into that, and I will ask my Home Office colleagues to meet my hon. Friend and talk through his proactive and very measured suggestions.
On local authorities becoming more engaged and having more responsibilities, since 2010, Lewisham East has seen cuts to local government of £165 million, and we have halved the size of the council. Does the Minister agree that we need to invest in our local authorities and local government to fulfil duties such as the ones he mentions?
I strongly suggest that the hon. Lady’s local authority talks to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) about how it has been able to share best practice proactively. We can all learn lessons from that.
Part of the work of reviewing the alcohol strategy will involve engagement with the Office for Disability Issues, bringing in its expertise and network of support from various disability charities to scope out the work and understand how best to engage formally with disabled people’s organisations and other representative groups. I am very encouraged by the Government’s move on that important issue. We also welcome the current inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into enforcement of the Equality Act 2010. That is timely, as it links into our commitment to improve and strengthen the enforcement of equality laws, so that businesses that deny people a service are properly investigated and rightly held to account. In conclusion, this has been a constructive, helpful, timely and measured debate, and all suggestions made will be filtered through. It is a priority for this Government to improve the situation, and I thank all hon. Members for their support in this vital area.
Question put and agreed to.
Organised Crime: Young People’s Safety
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s response to organised crime and young people’s safety.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
Nine young lives have been lost to violent crime in West Ham since 2017. Nine teenagers and young adults, with their whole life ahead of them, needlessly and tragically stolen from us. Nine lost children, who are mourned by their families every single day. Although there has been relative calm in West Ham this summer compared with last, the reason for this spike in violence still haunts our communities and our streets. County lines, as we know, is organised crime. It is adults grooming our children—mostly our young boys—and sending them off to deliver and sell drugs all over the country.
These people have created a cruelly efficient business model to distribute and sell drugs, using our children as expendable, cheap labour to enable large profits. It is a cycle of grooming. It is a cycle of abuse. It is a cycle of exploitation that has become an industry. The children live a terrifying existence, witnessing depravity and violence almost day to day. It is a modern-day version of sending children up chimneys. They are disposable children, making big profits for the criminals who control and exploit them.
I know that the Minister knows this. I have had several conversations with the Government about these issues over the past year. I am sure the Minister will tell me that losing 21,000 police officers, and the fact that the Metropolitan Police Service has lost more funding per person than any other force in the country, has nothing whatever to do with it. However, as I understand it, we have completely failed to identify, arrest, charge or prosecute those at the top of these organisations—those who are making a small fortune pimping our children as drug mules and reaping a good living from the destruction of our children’s lives.
The police are doing their best. I hope the County Lines Co-ordination Centre that opened this week will help. In the past year, there have been almost 100 arrests in Newham of those young drug dealers who laughingly call themselves “elders”. I know they do not consider themselves to be on the bottom rung of the gang hierarchy, but they are not the people who are in control of the organisation.
I, and the people I represent, want to know that we are making more headway in our fight against organised crime, that we are going to get those further up the food chain and that those who are controlling organisations, controlling children and reaping substantial economic benefits are going to be caught. I am happy to take a confidential briefing from the Minister on this, because I am not interested in party political points, but I want reassurance that those responsible for the creation and running of this sickening business are in our collective sights and will soon be serving very hefty prison sentences. I hold them accountable for the deaths in my community, the premature and heartless deaths of many of our young children, regardless of who finally pulled that trigger or wielded that knife.
This is my first ask. I want to know that we are putting money into locating, charging and throwing the book at those responsible at the very top of these organisations. I want assurances that we are closing in on them and that they will soon be languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, all assets seized.
My second ask is about providing our children with resilience against the grooming techniques of these criminals and their minions. Many of us talk about the value of youth clubs and supported play opportunities, using sport to divert children from crime. It is not that we believe that the provision of a table-tennis table per se will divert a child from the wrong path; it is the professional adult who accompanies the table tennis table, who our children can relate to and confide in, who can offer insights and strategies for dealing with the groomers and the gangs and help our children to navigate the minefield that is their lives.
Children need to know how to say no. They need to be given the skills and tools to resist the manipulation of the groomers. That takes resources; the Home Office cannot provide all the resources on its own, but crime prevention and victim support funding have a vital role to play in filling those gaps in the short term. We also need to develop a joined-up, strategic safeguarding response to the criminal exploitation of young people, with schools, social services, community groups and detached youth workers all playing their part. Teachers, parents, police officers and social workers need to understand the real threat of exploitation and grooming by organised criminals and what is in their power to do to stop it.
The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. Is she aware of the work of Scotland’s violence reduction units, which take a multi-agency approach to young people who were offending and at are risk of offending, to divert them into more productive activities, and the success that has come from that, seen in the reduction in youth offending in Scotland?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. I certainly think the only way forward is a multi-agency approach. I hesitate to say that the co-ordinating role should be placed at local government’s door, given the swingeing cuts that it is absorbing, but there is already a legal wellbeing framework that this work could fall under. The Home Office has a responsibility to demand such strategies from local government and strategic partners, to ensure that they are in place and that there are resources to provide for them. That is my second ask: a strategy and the necessary investment in services that provide resilience for children. I humbly suggest that professional youth and play workers are essential to that activity.
My third ask is about training for those in the field, who may not understand the full malignancy of the beast we are dealing with and how it cleverly manipulates our stretched services and staff to keep a child within its clutches. My constituent—I will call her Deepa—was increasingly concerned about her son. He had fallen in with a bad crowd at school, although she did not know it, but she knew he was slipping away from her. His best friend had been excluded from school for drug-related activities, but she did not know.
Alarm bells should have started ringing at the school when Deepa told them that her son was starting to spend more time away from home without any explanation, simply going missing, sometimes for days at a time. He had clothes and a phone that she had not provided and that he had no resources to pay for. He was yet another child being groomed and drawn into criminal activity, vulnerable to violence; I am sorry to say that, two years on, that is still the case.
Deepa raised her concerns at school, but the groomers are very clever. They know how to manipulate the system. Her son told the school that parenting was the problem, that she was too strict; he hinted at abuse, and that was it. Not only could Deepa not get any information or help from the school or social services once the allegations had been made, but she was put under investigation. His absences were placed at her door. They were her fault. It is clear that the social workers and the school involved simply did not understand the nature of the crime or the criminals they were dealing with.
Deepa and her son have also, sadly, been let down by a charity paid for by public funds to provide mentoring for her boy, to do intensive work with him to help him exit the gang. He was up for it. Things had happened that terrified him, boys he knew were dead or injured, but this charity was only paid for three sessions and he needed more. Things escalated. He needed help. He phoned them, wanting to talk to his mentors, absolutely desperate, but they did not respond. They had done their three sessions and they had no more money to do others. Deepa wanted to pay for sessions herself, but she could not; they were way too expensive. Her window to exit her boy from a gang is likely to be closed because the services that she needed did not have access to funding.
How much more expensive will putting that child into custody—that is where it is going—and reccurring offending be over the years to come? The Minister must know that it is a false economy. It will be another life wasted. My third ask is for effective, up-to-date training for professionals who come face to face with the strategies that criminals employ, and to provide those professionals with the resources that they need to fund effective treatments and techniques to remove our children from the clutches of these criminal gangs.
As the Minister knows, in order to catch these criminals we need information. Those with the information in the midst or at the edge of the gangs live in absolute fear, convinced that we—the state—cannot or will not protect them. Our children have no trust whatsoever in the systems that we have created, so they do not engage. If we are to get the information that we need, we will need to find new ways for our children and our communities to report to us. Frankly, as the Minister probably knows, Crimestoppers is simply not trusted.
My young constituents absolutely believe that calls to Crimestoppers are traced by the police, and that callers are attacked for being snitches as a result. There is no doubt in their minds that Crimestoppers is not safe, and that the police will arrive at their doorstep should they phone it. It does not matter if that is real or not—that is what they believe. My fourth ask is for a trusted third-party reporting system that will pass information on with absolutely all identifiable details removed. Callers have to know that they cannot and will not be called or visited by officers, and that they will not be targeted as a result of providing us with information.
Information is not only about initial reports. We also need more people to feel safe when acting as witnesses. My fifth ask is for better protection and care for witnesses. Darren is one of those affected. His house was attacked by armed gang members because of rumours about snitching, and his neighbour’s door was shot through three times. It is a wonder that no one was hurt. Three months later, Darren still had nowhere to move, was afraid to leave his home, and was under the constant threat of another attack.
Maybe Darren was helping the police, or maybe it was just a vicious rumour, but the effect of the failure to protect and move him is the same. Stories like Darren’s are known in my community, and they erode trust. Constituents who have information—children who want to break out of their exploitative relationship with a gang—are afraid to do so, because that is what will happen to them.
As the Minister knows, witnesses are amazingly brave in coming forward, and they deserve our greatest respect, our protection and our help to give them a new, fresh start. However, far too many get the exact opposite. That is what happened to Ashley, who is 16, and his dad, Nathan. Ashley did an amazingly brave thing: he gave evidence against a criminal gang member in a murder trial. He has personally experienced serious violence and has been threatened with death many times because he provided the police with information and stood up and testified in court.
The continuing danger to Ashley’s life is clear, so he and his father were given new identities and were relocated. It is reassuring that this basic protection was offered, but I am sorry to say that it was not followed through. Ashley and Nathan have been badly let down. Before his son gave evidence, Nathan had a regular job and a regular tenancy in a housing association home, which they had to leave. It was a stable life of contribution to the community. However, in the months after the trial, their situation became the stuff of nightmares.
Nathan had to leave his job behind, along with his name. He is now unemployed. He was left without any income because he and Ashley were not given the documentation—simple things such as photo IDs—with their new names, leaving him unable to claim the benefits that he is entitled to and that he and Ashley need to support them through this awful, stressful time. Nathan has been repeatedly forced to reveal their situation to jobcentre counter staff to try to get help. Every single time he does so brings the clear possibility of their being exposed, as well as fear and anxiety that the information could lead to his son’s life being in danger once more.
I will get to the end of the story. Nathan has now accrued more than £4,000 of rent arrears through absolutely no fault of his own. The system did not work. It happened because he was stuck for months between landlords, agencies and a local authority—not Newham—that would not talk to other agencies, and because he was given appalling and incorrect advice. The housing association allocated him a new property, but it was not nearly fit for human habitation: it had no heating, no furniture and no cooker; on the other hand, it did contain asbestos. All the while, Nathan and Ashley were penniless, stressed and awfully anxious because Nathan still could not access his benefits.
It came to a head last year. At Christmas they had no money for food, let alone gifts, and no secure home. Nathan was on the brink of returning home to his family in the area that he and Ashley had fled. It would have put their lives at risk of revenge violence, but at least they would have had some food and comfort and some of the basic support, understanding and respect that they had had so little of.
I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend’s flow; I thought she had finished that story. She makes an incredibly important point. Does she agree that the Minister needs to respond fully to these points, particularly in the light of the Government’s policy now to use more children as covert human intelligence sources? The Minister needs to say something about that and to answer my hon. Friend’s points in full detail.
I absolutely agree. The system lets down young witnesses like Ashley and their families. It fails them at almost every turn, it puts them at risk and it erodes trust. That trust is necessary for us to get the information that we need, let alone anything else. Hearing these stories makes people in my community less likely to engage with the authorities when they have information that could help us. That has to change.
My fifth ask is for public bodies to have a duty of care placed on them to work together to understand and support families such as Ashley and Nathan’s, because without their help and co-operation, we will not get the information that we need to put an end to the blight of county lines exploitation. We need a national dedicated system of caseworkers trained to act as a single point of contact, working with statutory services; a named representative for those under threat because they have helped us, the police and the courts. They are trying to do the right thing. Nathan, Ashley and others like them deserve a genuine path to a secure future after the brave decisions that they have made.
Much of the violence is fuelled by social media, so my sixth ask is for stronger action against incitement online, whatever form it takes. In recent months, local people have been especially angry about one particular drill music video filmed in my constituency. It is effectively a celebration of gang murder. The rapper brags about killing with knives and guns and attacking people in broad daylight, and gloats about having killed one man by name and planning to kill his brother. He mocks other young men for just talking about murder and not acting. All of this was filmed by masked men in streets that my constituents recognise, because they live there, because they walk and work there every day and because their children play there.
The murders this video is about may be fictitious, but by looking at the online comments we quickly see many young people who believe it is real. They explain the murder references to each other and openly admire the rapper and his group for the supposed killings. The original copy of the video had more than 1 million views—that staggers me. It was taken down, but other copies have since been uploaded, and one has already had more than 120,000 views. The technology to remove those copies automatically exists, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has repeatedly pointed out. We need to understand why that is not being done.
The law may be unclear about whether such videos illegally incite violence, but I believe they are dangerous. They make the grooming of children easier by glamorising drug dealing and murder as a lucrative and exciting alternative to the hard and unrewarding work they see demonstrated in the lives of their parents. Presented as an alternative economic model, it is offered to children and made to look exciting. The videos do not just glamorise crime; they taunt and humiliate rivals. These are young, impulsive teenagers; there is so much pressure pushing them to respond, and the music itself tells them what response is expected: more knife attacks and more children dead. The Home Affairs Committee called for a wholesale review of the legislation on hate speech, harassment and extremism online to bring the law up to date. I think that that is sorely needed, and a better approach to online incitement should be one of the goals, so that is my sixth ask.
My seventh and final ask brings me back where I started—the nine deaths and the trauma caused in my community and how we can help the healing. After the appalling murder of Sami Sidhom in April, there was an immediate and powerful surge of mutual aid and support in his community of Forest Gate. As I have told the House before, his neighbours rushed to help him and gave him some comfort as he died. They were traumatised, but they received so little support. The trauma is not felt just by the families, friends, schoolmates and neighbours, although of course they suffer the worst. In Forest Gate, there was a palpable feeling that the community was in crisis after Sami died. There was a cumulative effect, though, as it was not just because of Sami but because of all the other young people who had died in the year before, especially CJ, who was just 14 and was shot in a playground in Forest Gate.
We need to provide support for whole communities who are traumatised in the way that I have described. The strong response that I saw in Forest Gate can help local people to cope, recover and heal. Community leaders have a really important role, but often they are volunteers; they give their time and energy freely, and it is simply unfair to expect them to take on all this without training, resources or professional support. I think that we need a professional response to assist communities with the trauma and mental health issues that arise after traumatic incidents, especially those involving young people.
Having spoken to people about what they feel would help, I would like to see the development of peripatetic regional mental health teams, consisting of people who can provide rapid, accessible support for communities after tragic events. My seventh ask is that the Minister works with the Department of Health and Social Care and find a way to make that happen. I would be happy to sit down and think about that some more with him or any other Minister in the Home Office team. I know that Marie Gabriel, soon to be a CBE and chair of the East London NHS Foundation Trust, is keen to support it as well. This is not just about crime; I am sure that all of us can think of other tragic events—some of them not physically very far away from this building—after which mobile teams like that would have been very helpful.
The deaths over the past year have caused so much trauma and pain in my constituency, and they have exposed our failures in this place over many years to prevent the rise of county lines grooming and exploitation, and to give young people the hope and opportunities that would make them safer. The problems cannot all be solved by the Home Office acting alone, but children are dying in my constituency, across London and across the country, and all of us have an enormous responsibility to act. I believe that the Minister could play a very positive role in ensuring that the cross-departmental connections and strategies that we need are created, implemented and sustained. I would support him in that, and I hope to hear that he is committed to making those things happen.
Finally, I place on the record my enormous gratitude to a group of women in West Ham whose children have tragically been caught up in the county lines operation. I have learned so much from those women over the past year. They have been so honest and so generous with their time. I hope that today I have done them proud and represented them properly.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) finished her speech by saying that she hoped that she had represented her constituents well, particularly the women to whom she was referring. Anyone listening to what she has just said and the way she has said it—with the obvious depth of feeling on her part—will absolutely think that she has done her constituents proud, but more than that, she has done the country proud by bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament and bringing the Minister to this Chamber to answer on what is a national crisis.
This is not a few people in one part of the country experiencing a particular local difficulty. I am pleased that this Minister is here, because he will know from all his experience in his other roles that it is a huge problem that requires Government and ministerial action all the time. What I want to say to the Minister is this. He is a Minister of the Crown, a representative of the Government. He will be speaking for the people in response to my hon. Friend, who spoke for her constituents but also the country, I think. We have to do better. We come here as parliamentarians, and here we are in this beautiful building, but just half a mile or a few hundred metres away, young people have been stabbed. Go to any of our constituencies and that will be the case. The report I read that caused me to come here today—I will refer to it in a minute—shows that every single area of the country, across the United Kingdom, is impacted by slavery, trafficking, county lines and organised crime, which are an enemy within. I know that the Minister will take this point. He has the power to demand action from the system, whether that is the police, local authorities, the devolved Administrations or, indeed, all of us: yes, write reports, and yes, discuss what we are going to do, but let us get on top of this.
Merseyside Police tell me that community intelligence from the ground is integral to fighting back on this, but we need to look at the cuts in the number of police officers—we have lost 1,000 police officers across Merseyside. Unless we tackle the problem of policing, we cannot solve this problem.
I agree. I am a Labour politician, and the cuts in policing and to local authorities have consequences, which we all refer to. The Minister has to accept responsibility for that, but however many police we have, however many things are going on and however many resources are put into local authorities, there has to be a Government drive to push them into tackling this issue as a major priority.
What caused me to attend the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham was a National Crime Agency report published a few months ago. It talks about an intelligence gap—we do not know what we need to know. I asked a parliamentary question, and the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said that the Government did not know. They thought there were many thousands of people involved, and there was an intelligence gap. That was just a few weeks ago. That report said nine or 10 months ago that there was an intelligence gap, and the parliamentary answer two or three weeks ago said that there was an intelligence gap. That is not good enough, and the system will not change unless the Minister gets civil servants and other people in, and demands that something be done. Otherwise, in the Minister’s constituency, my constituency and, indeed, all our constituencies, in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England and in all the regions, these incidents will continue and we will have to come to this Chamber again in a few months saying how appalling it is that young people have died on our streets as a result of their involvement in organised crime and their involvement in county lines. We do not even have the data, yet we see on our streets what is happening.
My hon. Friend is speaking with great passion. He strongly made the point that this is a phenomenon that is affecting the whole country. I completely agree with him. A young man was dragged out of his car, stabbed to death and left to die in a garden only a hundred metres away from my home in Cardiff, just a few weeks ago. That comes on top of many other attacks. This problem is happening across the country and we simply do not—as he says—have the intelligence needed.
I quite agree. To be frank, that is what has driven me to come here. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham described eloquently many of the challenges and the impact that has had on her constituency. I want to feel, as a Member of Parliament—in this democracy of ours—that the system somehow feels the emotion that she portrayed. I hope that the Minister, as a human being, will also feel it.
Why does the system not respond? People have different ideas. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) has particular views on drugs policy. That requires discussion. What is the most effective way of gathering intelligence? Why is it—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham says—that in all our constituencies young people cannot even get a basketball, a football, a kit or somewhere to go and play? We cannot even do that. We talk about diversion, we write a report and the next thing we know there is a 200-page document on the importance of children’s services and local authority provision to ensure that young people are not attracted to crime, because there are people working with them on the street. Goodness me! We don’t need a—I nearly swore there, Mr Evans. I will leave it at that. We do not need a report, do we? We must be able to do better on data and all of these things.
The Minister has a good briefing from the civil service. He has a speech prepared, and he will try to answer the questions as best he can. However, I want to know when we are going to be able to see, in each of our areas, that concerted and co-ordinated effort, in youth provision, diversion and dealing with these organised criminals. That is the main point I wanted to make.
Let me say this to the Minister, too. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 contains a provision that means that if children become involved in criminality as a result of coercion—through being duped, violence, threats or those sorts of things—they are seen as victims, not criminals. Many of these young people are victims—they are not criminals. I am not saying that we cannot hold people to account. I am not saying that saying sorry for murder is fine—do not misunderstand me. I am saying that many of these young people, who are very young, are exploited, frightened and terrified into doing some of the things that they do. It is about time that the people who are terrified are the organised criminals who are exploiting these young people. People are trying to help and work with the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, and I am sick and tired of criminals taking it upon themselves to terrify a community. It is not good enough.
I appeal to the Minister, when he goes back to his office, to call everybody in and say, “We have had one of the most serious debates that I have attended in recent years”—organised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham—“and as a personal mission, I will ensure that instead of writing a report, the system gets on with doing something about this national crisis.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who set out a fantastic action plan and spoke with great passion about the challenges faced by her constituents. The horror stories we hear, particularly from London, shame the whole country, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) just pointed out, represent a national crisis.
This is indeed a national crisis, happening in cities and towns up and down this country. This is a new phenomenon: we have not previously seen this level of violence and involvement of young people. That is borne out in the Government’s serious violence strategy, in the NCA report, in what we have heard from the Home Affairs Committee and in what I hear weekly from my own police officers and community workers. There has been a dramatic and very unfortunate shift in the levels of violence, grooming and involvement of young people over the last six years, while I have been the Member of Parliament for Cardiff South and Penarth. Sadly, many of us warned that that would happen because of the trends that we saw and because of the cuts that we knew were coming in the police and community services. I will come on to the point raised about youth services.
I too have a litany of horrendous cases just from the last few months. I will not say that each of them has the same characteristics. They are often complex cases, some of them ongoing. I mentioned earlier the case from just a few weeks ago in Grangetown, Cardiff, where an individual was dragged out of his car and stabbed in the street, and left in a garden to die. Just a few months ago, another constituent of mine, Fatah Warsame, was stabbed to death in Liverpool, having been involved in some sort of engagement between Liverpool and Cardiff, showing that this is an issue that crosses between cities—not only London, but other cities in the UK. Tragically, just a few months before that, in Adamsdown and Splott, Sean Kelly was stabbed to death, also in a drug-related incident involving other individuals. Those are three of the most serious cases, but there are many more to report.
Those cases sit with the national trends. The number of police-recorded crimes involving knives or sharp instruments increased by 22% in the year ending December 2017 compared with the previous year, continuing an upward trend since 2014. A lot of that increase is in the Met police area, but other areas are affected. Possession of an article with a blade or a point is up by 33%. Hospital data confirms that, with admissions related to stabbing and other incidents up by 7%. Trends involving firearms are also up. Those statistics are confirmed and acknowledged by the Government’s strategy.
This is not all to do with county lines, but that is a significant part of it. We need to be clear about what we mean by county lines. I had community workers come to me the other day and say, “What do you actually mean by county lines?” so I will read for the record the definition the Government use:
“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas…using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of ‘deal line’. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move (and store) the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.”
That phenomenon of grooming young people and the involvement of young people unfortunately has many of the characteristics—I have seen this in my own constituency—that we see in the grooming of young people to be involved in terrorism, extremism and other forms of criminal behaviour. It is often the same tactics, the same methods, and the same insidious exploitation of often young and vulnerable people.
I have been told about a phenomenon that goes on in my local area called “blessings”, where people are given small items—a pair of trainers or a bit of money—but not asked to do anything initially; later, people who are higher up in the system come back to them and say, “I gave you a pair of trainers. How about you keep an eye on that corner for me?” or, “How about you transfer this package to someone?” It is a slippery slope. People get involved in more and more dangerous activity.
The Government’s own strategy suggests that the drugs and county lines phenomenon is very much behind the rise in violent crime. They say:
“There is good evidence that these dynamics are a factor in the recent rise in serious violence.”
The Government’s report—again, this bears out what I have seen on the streets of Cardiff—talks about dealing in new psychoactive substances, such as spice, the increased involvement of young people, the rise in crack use since 2014, the surge in illegal cocaine production and the increase in the purity of cocaine imported to the UK from places such as Colombia since 2013. The changing nature of drug markets has led to what we see in the geography—the nationalisation—of the problem.
The Government’s report states that one of the most striking findings about the rise in serious violence since 2014 is that it has not been limited to the main metropolitan areas. We are seeing drug-selling gangs from major urban areas such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, perhaps driven by excess supply, by technology or by new opportunities, spreading their evil networks out to other cities and towns across the UK. The NCA report is clear that the majority of police forces are identifying that the involvement of vulnerable children and people is one of the key hallmarks of county lines activity. The trend has arisen in just the past few years. The problem is very new and politicians, the Government and agencies are struggling to catch up with the shifting trends and changes. As the evidence shows, a crucial feature, again acknowledged by the Government, is that drug-selling gangs are now generally much more violent than the local dealers who had previously controlled the markets.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham spoke passionately about the importance of multi-agency working. There are no easy answers. We often have to have localised and carefully calibrated responses to deal with local circumstances, but I want to put on the record my praise for the group of agencies in Cardiff and the Vale, particularly in Cardiff in Butetown and Grangetown. I praise our police commissioner, our local police officers and our local council. I particularly praise Councillor Lynda Thorne, a cabinet member on Cardiff Council, and Councillor Saeed Ebrahim, one of our local councillors in Butetown. He is a former youth worker who worked with many of the young people involved. Those councillors are really trying to get to grips with the problem and bring together all the relevant agencies. I look forward to meeting them again in the next couple of weeks to discuss the progress they have made on the various strategies in different areas that they are putting forward.
I am proud that the performance of South Wales police in dealing with violence with injury and other issues is strong, but like many other police forces, it is struggling to cope. I have spoken to individual police officers and senior officers who tell me about the strains that they face in crime demand and non-crime demand. We all know about the pressures from mental health and missing persons. The Government can argue about this all they like, but the reality is that the number of police officers on our streets has come down substantially in the past few years, as has the number of community police officers, PCSOs and others. In individual areas, we have been able to keep the numbers up. We have PCSOs funded by the Welsh Government who are doing a fantastic job in our communities, but unless we have police officers on the ground who have relationships with young people, with other agencies and with the families, and who have that crucial local intelligence that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling talked about, we will not be able to deal with the problem, which has been magnified by particular challenges in Cardiff.
We in Cardiff do not get the capital city funding that Edinburgh, Belfast and London get, yet we host major events We put huge strains on our police force when we host events such as the UEFA Champions League and the Anthony Joshua fight. Those wonderful things come to our city. We all love them. They are all great, but they have a knock-on effect on day-to-day policing. Although additional money is sometimes provided, we see a knock-on effect on our shift patterns and holiday time and so on, which has a direct result in the communities facing problems. I look forward to meeting the Police Minister shortly with our chief constable, Matt Jukes, and our police commissioner, Alun Michael, to discuss Cardiff’s specific needs.
Alongside the challenge for police funding is the challenge of other services facing cuts. We have done a great job of trying to protect services in Cardiff. We have a Welsh Labour council doing a fantastic job, but we need statutory youth services. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) has spoken out about this. We must have that resource going into community youth workers. My father was a youth worker and I have worked with young people. Unless we have youth workers outside schools, having relationships and knowing what is going on in the crucial communities, we know what will happen. We warned of this years ago, and unfortunately we are now seeing it on the streets of Butetown, Grangetown, Splott and other areas of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Lastly, I will re-emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said about social media companies. I have spoken a lot about such companies and their responsibilities this week in cases ranging from the Lucy McHugh case to terrorism and the abuse of public figures. The social media companies are simply not taking their responsibilities seriously when it comes to the dissemination and sharing of information online that leads to intimidation and grooming of young people. Young people have told me about the challenges of closed Instagram groups where music videos and threats to individuals are shared, and closed YouTube videos are shared, making threats back and forth. Language is used that perhaps we would not understand, but it is very clear to people of a certain age and disposition, and they see it as threatening or encouraging or dragging them in.
As a Government, as a Parliament, as local representatives, we must get a grip. Social media companies have a huge responsibility, and we need to provide the police with the training and resources to be able to treat the cyber world in the same way as the physical world, because there is a direct overlap. We heard yesterday in the Home Affairs Committee about a direct overlap between domestic violence, violence against women and girls and the cyber world and the physical world. Exactly the same thing goes on when it comes to young people, county lines and drug-related violence. We have to get a grip on this. I want to hear from the Minister what he is doing to bring in those social media companies and make sure they live up to their responsibilities. Again, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham for securing a debate on a national crisis. There should be more Members in the Chamber. I hope this will not be the last debate on this subject.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing this debate. Her constituents in West Ham should be very proud of her. She has done exceptionally well, so well done to her.
We have had a form of organised crime for many years in Northern Ireland in the form of proscribed organisations such as the UVF and IRA, with people fighting for their beliefs in a terrorist manner that was dangerous and harmful to communities and will take years to get over. Thankfully, we have moved away from the troubles, but, worryingly, we have moved towards the form of organised crime that is prevalent in the mainland, which the hon. Lady and others have referred to. We have young people joining organisations and being used as drug mules and pushers, doing the dirty work of those who will not get their hands dirty and who keep their names off police registers by abusing the trust and loyalty of young people. I see it at work in my community and it breaks my heart, as it does the hearts of the hon. Ladys and the others who have spoken.
Illicit tobacco seizures have prevented the loss of £1.25 million in revenue in Northern Ireland and £50,000 worth of cash has been seized. We had a seizure of £100,000 of illegal drugs in Newtownards on Monday. Local paramilitaries, as they call themselves—really, they are criminals—were involved in that activity. Detective Superintendent Singleton from the paramilitary crime taskforce said:
“When we look at these paramilitary organisations as organised crime groups we see a lot of similarities. The number one commodity for organised crime in Northern Ireland is drugs. 75% of our organised crime groups are involved in drugs either directly or indirectly. When I say directly I mean dealing them, when I say indirectly I mean extorting and taxing people that are involved in the drugs trade. Some of the Republican groups, like INLA or Action Against Drugs, we believe are actively involved in taxing drug dealers. If people don’t pay they are the victims of paramilitary-style attacks, if not murder or attempted murder. You also have the violence that’s associated with drugs as well as different organised crime groups who compete for their share of the market. That’s why we see the likes of paramilitary style attacks, attempted murder, and in some cases very serious violence within our communities.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem, in addition to what we have heard very powerfully throughout the debate, is that in some communities these activities are glamorised and young people’s eyes are not opened to the reality of what happens to them after they get involved? Do we not need to tackle that in a co-ordinated way?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I was going to quickly touch on that.
I have seen too many broken mothers in my office who tell me the same story. Their child was given a freebie—a joint or a little tablet—and the next week they are told that they owe for it; either they can pay immediately or interest will be added. What was £10 can rocket to £50 in a matter of days. They are then given the option to work off their debt: just lift a packet from a drawer in this house and deliver it to that house; just collect a parcel from this person and leave it in this place. Before the young people know it, they are heavily embroiled in the crime gang. Their parents are worried sick and wondering how it has happened, often trying to pay extortionate sums to release their child from the chains, only to have to repeat it in six months’ time. It makes me sick to my stomach to know that crimes are being organised by certain people who use young people with no criminal convictions as their hands and feet, and when the PSNI catch up with them, those young people receive a sentence and those in charge walk away laughing.
Organised crime is not glamorous. It is not the stuff of “The Sopranos” or other TV shows. It is the mechanism whereby too many of our young people become hooked on drugs and involved in things they do not want to be involved in, but cannot escape. Some are lured with mottos such as “God and Ulster” and they are in too deep before they realise that it is nothing to do with God or Ulster, but is about lining the pockets of disgusting men who are too gutless to do their own business, but run an empire that targets children and vulnerable people and destroys our communities.
I met the local superintendent last week in my constituency office to discuss the issues. We can and must do more to share intelligence. For the mothers who come into my office pleading for help, for the young people who are too frightened even to make eye contact with me and who are stripped of their bravado and facing imprisonment, and for my community which is crying out for change, we in this place must do more to help our police, our community development officers and our schools to protect our children and to reach out.
I know that the Minister has no direct responsibility for Northern Ireland, but he will understand my frustration because we have no functioning Assembly, and these issues are as apparent in my constituency as they are in others. We have an epidemic of massive proportions, and the lives of many families are being destroyed. Some 98,301 crimes were recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2017-18, which is a rise of 0.3% on the previous year. Crime is up, but the number of officers is down. We need better police co-operation, more funding for communities, and for schools and churches to do what they can within communities. As the hon. Member for West Ham said in her opening remarks, we must instil confidence in our young people that there are measures to protect them if they provide information. There are anonymous ways to provide the police with information that will get drugs and criminal gangs off our streets. We need to send a message, and it must be strong and effective and come from the highest level down in order to affect everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this important debate. It is a shame that more Members are not in Westminster Hall to reflect the severity of this issue, but that should not detract from how important it is.
As my hon. Friend said earlier, local communities play a vital role in tackling violent crime through mental health support, the offer of opportunities, and work with authorities. Across the country, violent crime has risen by 16% while police numbers are at their lowest since records began. Our police and frontline emergency services do incredible work, but at times they are over-stretched and under-resourced. This is a national problem. Our Government can turn away from the truth as long as they like, but the stark reality is staring us in the face.
Over the past 12 months, there have been a number of violent incidents in Tooting and Earlsfield, including some tragic fatalities. Local residents come to my advice surgeries afraid for their children’s lives—afraid that county lines are robbing children of their lives and tearing families apart.
As an A&E doctor at St George’s Hospital, I have treated teenagers who were once full of bravado on the streets, but who lay there, dying in front of my eyes, with tattoos emblazoned “Born to die” on their chest—children who were crying out for their mothers in their final moments. I have been with grieving parents who have arrived at the resuscitation room only to see their child die before them. The scream and echo of that pain—that audible anguish—never, ever leaves you. Once heard, it is never forgotten. Unfortunately it is a sound that we are hearing over and over again on our own doorstep and on our own watch. This has to stop, and I implore the Minister to listen to the arguments presented today.
As a Member of Parliament, I have listened to parents who cannot comprehend what has led their children to die before them. I am a parent myself, as are many in this room—imagine holding your dying child in front of you, knowing that they are dying not from some incurable disease, but from something that could be entirely avoidable but is part of an epidemic sweeping our country. Those parents cannot understand why they had to hear that their children died alone, why they went to work and came home to hear that the children they were raising died alone in their own blood on the streets, why the authorities were not there to support them through their grief, and why there was no way to prevent such tragedy. Enough is enough.
Just three weeks ago, I held a violent crime summit in my constituency of Tooting, bringing together the Deputy Mayor of London for Policing and Crime, the head of south-west London Metropolitan police, the chief executive of Wandsworth Council, and local community groups. It is imperative for local organisations that support young people and their families day in, day out, to be able to speak directly to the authorities and discuss how they can be a force for good and shape the way forward for young people in London and across the country. Only together, along with our communities, can we discuss the root causes of this rise in violence, and only together can we get weapons off our streets. Only together can we decide that this is not just another debate held day in, day out, on a number of topics that are discussed in Westminster, because only if this debate is treated with the respect it deserves can we truly save lives.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who spoke so movingly, as she has done many times. This is such an important issue.
In 2013, the coalition Government published their “Serious and organised crime strategy”. Prevention was cited as a key component of that plan to end gang and youth violence. As part of that strategy, the Government spoke about the utilisation of youth workers and youth services to identify high-risk individuals and help steer them away from crime. Despite the danger of sounding like a broken record, it will be no surprise to colleagues that I intend to speak about what has happened to youth services since then, and the problems that that has led to in our communities.
Despite the Government’s plan, a 2016 study—these are the latest figures we have—found that 600 youth centres in our country have closed, and that 3,500 youth workers, who were positive, adult influences on our young people, have lost their jobs. Some 140,000 places for the most vulnerable young people have been deleted. Those figures are two years old, but the cuts have got worse. That crippling effect has led to the collapse of youth services across our country, and there has been an increase in what we see as the exploitation of our young people.
To put a figure on this, in 2010 £1.2 billion was spent on youth services and youth prevention programmes, but last year just £358 million was spent. That is a 68% cash-terms cut: in today’s money, £1 billion has been ripped out from prevention—the very thing that the crime strategy said it needed to focus on. What has happened, unsurprisingly, is a jump in knife crime, which is up by 69%, and now the rise in county lines is affecting every corner of our country.
Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people’s board, recently said:
“Councils must be given the resources they need”
to stop just picking up the pieces and to start to tackle the problems. That highlights the current reactive approach as opposed to the positive approach that we have. In reality, if this issue was directly affecting your child, Mr Evans, or my child, or the children of people of influence, buttons would already have been pressed, strings would have been pulled, and rules would have been changed. However, the children and young people who are most affected often come from the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, and those with the least voice. We therefore see nice plaudits but—unfortunately—inaction, which is why we need a decent preventive strategy.
Last year, the Government slashed by half the budgets of youth offending teams. The principle was that a young person who got into trouble would have professionals to steer them away from that life. However, if the Ministry of Justice is cutting in half the amount of money that we are spending on that, we have to cut not only our preventive programmes but the programmes that pick up the pieces.
I ask the Minister to ask his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to restore the youth offending budget, to speak to the Minister with responsibility for youth services and ensure that those services are invested in, and to make sure that those buttons are pressed and those strings are pulled. We must ensure that there are no more unnecessary deaths and ruined lives on this country’s streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party. I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing the debate. What we have heard about county lines is undoubtedly alarming—the sheer scale of the problem should give us pause for thought. According to one estimate, 46,000 children in England and 4,000 teenagers in London are being exploited. The National Crime Agency notes that the evidence gap means that the true scale of exploitation remains hidden.
Reports have highlighted the link between violent drug gangs and the exploitation of vulnerable people in the north-east of Scotland, particularly around Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead. In line with what has been discussed in the debate, the experience there is of the threat or use of violence to exert power, particularly on vulnerable young people. In my constituency, drug deaths have more than doubled in the past decade.
The interconnected drug market that exists throughout the UK means that it is in all our interests to share best practice about how to combat this destructive force and to identify where Government policy is ineffective. That is a key point, because it is precisely our drug policies that have gifted a lucrative market to organised crime gangs who have the money, power and expertise to thrive in such an environment. The trafficking and exploitation of young people is simply an extension of their power.
Understandably, we seek vengeance. We want to see those responsible for the violence and abuse—those who exploit these vulnerable young kids—locked up, but experience tells us that whenever we incarcerate somebody for dealing, pushing or distributing, there is always somebody else in the background to step forward and fill their boots. Neil Woods was an undercover policeman for 14 years. In his book, “Good Cop, Bad War”, he outlines how he put his life at risk, day in, day out, with the aim of locking up drug dealers. Neil reckons that his actions locked people up for thousands of years, and disrupted the supply of class A drugs for a few hours.
Yesterday, there was a well attended meeting in Committee Room 10—better attended than this debate, unfortunately; where are all our fellow MPs? Most people there were serving cops or police and crime commissioners. A common phrase, repeated throughout that meeting, was, “We can’t arrest our way out of a drugs war.” That is from serving law enforcement agencies throughout the United Kingdom. We need solutions, not retribution. I understand it—if one of my kids was sold a tab at a music festival, and that tab could kill them, as we have seen time and again, I would want to hunt down the person responsible and nail them to a wall. That might make me feel good, but it would not stop the distribution, and it would not help the next parent going through the same agony that I had just been put through.
Anyone’s Child is an organisation set up by people who have lost loved ones to the drug war. Its stance is not retribution but that we need to change the legal framework and our drugs policy if we are ever going to make things better. I fully agree with Anyone’s Child and Transform that if we regulate the drug market, we will remove one of the financial incentives to enslave young people. That will also enable authorities to identify those children as victims of modern slavery, rather than criminalise them and drive them further into a criminal underworld.
In becoming involved in a life of crime, even unwillingly, those children are learning to become intimidating and violent. They have to, because the scariest dealers do not get informed on. We must be honest in recognising that that development is a direct result of the police pursuing those children. The more we try to clamp down on the drug problem, the more the violence will escalate. That is the reality on our streets. Indeed, the Home Office’s 2010 drug strategy recognised the unintended consequences of enforcement.
I completely agree with former undercover drugs detective Neil Woods, the chairman of Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK, who said:
“How do people think these kids get recruited? Do people imagine that they just get randomly approached by dealers or cold called asking them if they fancy a life of crime? They are recruited through the cannabis market with the most promising youths being recruited for a County Line, dealing heroin and crack. By regulating the market we separate the link between organised crime and teenage consumers.”
Neil Woods clearly understands that disrupting the supply chain is not enough. A drugs market in flux is a drugs markets of aggressive competition where violence and intimidation will become more common as competing interests try to maximise more lucrative profits. Expendable young people who are enslaved within the system will not benefit from even more violence and turbulence.
Neither are we helping children caught up in county lines by employing them as so-called child spies. That practice casts moral ambiguity on the UK Government at a time when they are criticising the exploitation carried out by others. I am at a loss to see how we can reconcile the UK Government’s responsibility to protect minors with simultaneously exposing them to abuse rings for the sake of intelligence gathering.
Do we fully understand the long-term physical and mental ramifications of using young people in that way? Is there a clear code of practice on how children’s welfare is protected while working with the police or security services? How does an authorising officer weigh the intelligence benefits against the potential impact on the juvenile source? A report published by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee suggests that the UK Government do not have satisfactory answers to those questions.
I am encouraged that the Scottish Government take a different approach to combating violent crime. As was mentioned earlier, a peak of 137 murders in Scotland prompted the formation of the violence reduction unit. By taking a public health approach to violence, the VRU and the Scottish Government have made significant headway in preventing such crimes. Instead of driving young offenders into prisons, they offer them alternatives—training, mentoring and employment opportunities—thereby breaking the cycle of reoffending. Since 2007, violent crime has almost halved in Scotland and crimes involving a weapon are down by two thirds. That did not happen by accident.
Likewise, I would like our drugs problem to be reclassified as a public health issue and regulated, as I mentioned earlier. If we were to take that road, it would reduce the burden on law enforcement and the NHS, and the saved funding could be invested in treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction instead. By taking the approach that I have highlighted on violent crime and drug addiction, we can make significant strides against county lines.
We should not be handing the market to violent criminals, and we should not allow the economic conditions to exist that incentivise gangs to exploit children. Legalising and regulating will put the Government in control and drastically reduce the illegal exploitation of children. Finally, I put on the record my appreciation for the work of Transform, LEAP UK, Release and Anyone’s Child, which continue to produce invaluable research.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate. It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. Over the summer, the Metropolitan police launched their 100th murder investigation, but it is not just a London problem. In towns and cities all over the UK, the dynamic of crime is changing, and the need to change attitudes to policing has never been greater.
County lines are a devastating crime tsunami, as I have seen first hand in my own city, where the excellent South Wales police are fighting what is, in many cases, an invisible enemy—faceless in appearance, but devastating in action. Last Thursday, I spent the evening on the streets of Swansea with the Safer Wales outreach bus, which works with victims of prostitution. I heard about two young ladies—their age is disputable—who had gone missing. It was assumed that they had been taken by drug gangs—county lines—because of debt. I heard that they were likely to be trafficked. It was explained to me what punishment they could expect, but it is too dreadful to repeat in this place. That is the reality of what we are facing.
We are losing cities and towns up and down the country to the devastating phenomenon of county lines. Drugs, trafficking, prostitution and community devastation are the dreadful consequences of this life-sucking social cancer. They are taking our children’s lives, both metaphorically and literally. We must stop thinking that current police numbers and the availability of social and community work are adequate.
The level of support, training and intervention that the Government are providing is far below what is needed. Serious crime is threatening to overwhelm our communities. I acknowledge that the Government are trying, but it is time to try harder. The number of children aged between 10 and 15 being treated for stab wounds has increased by 69% since 2013. More than half the crimes against children from that same age group are related to violence. At the centre of those rises are tragedies we should never forget. Far too many young lives are being senselessly lost.
The Children’s Commissioner has shown that a total of 70,000 youths aged up to 25 are feared to be part of a gang network. Too many lives are being wasted, too many families destroyed and too many communities devastated. The current surge in serious violence is a textbook definition of a whole-system failure, which Ministers must acknowledge. These children are the victims of austerity and rising poverty, and the figures tell their own story. Some 120,000 children are homeless. More than 70,000 are in care. Many thousands are excluded from school. The consequence for many hundreds of families is total devastation. Vital services are being pared back as a result of local authority cuts. Families arrive into the system when they are already at crisis point.
Violent crime has more than doubled in the past five years and is now at record levels. Last year, offences involving firearms increased by 11%, while those involving knives and sharp instruments increased by double that. I could regale the Chamber with examples from London, the midlands, Yorkshire or Wales—in fact, I could give examples from anywhere in the country. Despite the stories I could tell, the ending gang violence and exploitation fund, which is part of the serious violence strategy, will be just £300,000. That is hardly a commitment to tackling the reality of the serious crimewave engulfing our towns and cities.
I urge the Government to invest more in the battle fund and to meet this war—it is a war—head on. We cannot have any more families devastated. We cannot have any more lives lost. The time has passed for talking. We need to be fighting to protect our families, our communities and our children. It is time for the Government to invest the appropriate time and resources to tackle this demon head on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for securing this debate. I take the issue incredibly seriously, as do my colleagues. As the Minister for Security, my portfolio covers what we have just seen in the Chamber—the GRU, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism. However, the part of my portfolio that scares me the most, which I know I will see in my neighbourhood, my friends’ neighbourhoods and my child’s school, is serious organised crime.
One has to be very unlucky to be a victim of terrorism. One has to be even more unlucky to be a victim of an espionage event. The scale of organised crime and the empowerment of those networks in the past few years poses a threat not only to our young people of all classes through grooming, the growth in the use of drugs and the fuelling of that growth, but to all our communities. County lines have enabled crime to be exported into large parts of the United Kingdom that never had violent crime or serious organised crime. They might have had the local dealer or the local burglar, but they have never had the type of organised violence that is now wreaking havoc on their streets.
I heard the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), whom I have known over the years. He was a Home Office Minister in 2008, I think. What he said was incredibly pertinent. It was a well-crafted speech, if nothing else, and as ever I will horrify my officials by not reading my well-crafted speech or quoting endless facts about fund Y or fund B. I have been in this House long enough to know about listing funds—I have listened from the Opposition Benches to other Governments doing it. I am happy to write to Members with the list of funds for communities.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, to fix this problem, we will need to drive integration both horizontally and vertically. We need to integrate the community response, the local authority response, the healthcare response and the voluntary response with the vertical driving together of local policing, regional policing through the regional organised crime units, and national policing. We will need to do that to get some of the very serious gangsters at the top and bring to bear, where we can, the weight of the state to weaken them. That is not often going to be driven by the experts—the experts know what to do and are just all in different buildings in different parts of Government. It takes a ministerial drive.
One of the weaknesses in our system—I would be interested in whether the hon. Gentleman agrees—is the length of time we as Ministers have to drive the system. It might be one year in the Home Office. I have done this job for two years, and I happen to have a background in counter-terrorism. I went through all those lessons in counter-terrorism in the early 1990s in terms of sharing intelligence, ensuring we tackle permissive communities and supporting communities in distancing terrorists from that support base. I happened to start at a run, but I have been here for two years and who knows how much longer.
One of the strengths we have in our system is to drive through, to knock heads together and to box clever within Whitehall, but it is a challenge. How do I get the DCLG—I forget the new name; it is too long now they put an H in front of it—or the Cabinet Office to do something? How do I lobby the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that something needs to be done? We can sit here and talk about cuts and I can talk about debt, but it is also about priorities. If Opposition Members were on the Government side of the House, they too would be having discussions about priorities and where to spend money. We have to have stability.
The great thing about the work that the hon. Member for West Ham has done is that it is more collaborative. The way she has gone about tackling and highlighting the threat of county lines is an example to us all. We are all trying to find a solution collectively, both locally and nationally. If I may, I will address her points rather than those of other Members because of the short time available. She eloquently set out her asks.
First, there is an ask from me on social media and communication. What has accelerated county lines? What has gripped? Organised crime has existed for many years. Violence has existed in some pockets. What has accelerated county lines is social media and secure communication. There is à la carte drugs-buying from people who are posted. Sometimes they are groomed and abused, and sometimes they are willing. They go to other towns and boroughs and people order drugs à la carte through WhatsApp and Instagram. That is communicated safely to the drug barons and the drug buyers with end-to-end encryption. People can buy anything. There is an incredibly good documentary by a girl called Stacey Dooley on BBC—it is about kids buying drugs—that brings the issue home. She went to WhatsApp to show the research, and they would not even answer the door. The fuel on the fire has been that safe environment.
I do not have time. I remember Labour introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which is where Labour brought in youth covert human intelligence sources. It was not a Conservative thing—it has been going on since 1999. When I was in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National party did not oppose it either. Using young people as CHIS has been around for many years.
When we introduce legislation to try to seek ways into encrypted technology there is often a knee-jerk reaction from the likes of Liberty, and too many people go along with it. Legislation is vital if we are to get into the top of those drug gangs and find out what is going on. The head of a cartel was arrested in Glasgow, I think last year. He had military-grade encryption to order directly from cartels in central America. He even distributed to the cartels and then distributed drugs back into Glasgow. We have to tackle that because that has been part of the fuel.
We also have to tackle education. What do we need to spot? It is the cuckooing and the vulnerable people. It is about educating local people, especially those in the leafy suburbs who have never seen it, and who do not know that a young person who has suddenly appeared in a flat is the victim of trafficking. Human trafficking leaks into the issue. There are nail bars up and down the country often manned by Vietnamese people who take only cash. Those people are trafficked 99% of the time, but in middle-class areas everyone still goes in to get their nails done. No one says, “There’s something odd here.” It is in plain sight, and we are working with our local authorities—the regional organised crime units are also working with them—to improve spotting the signs.
On reducing violent crime, I asked my officials to go and see an interesting project in Glasgow. I do not pretend that there have not been cuts to police, but in Glasgow, even in environments where there were falling police numbers, knife crime incidence has been massively reduced, which shows that working better together can sometimes make a significant difference. Some great work has been done in the Scottish Government on tackling that, which is important.
It leaks into the wider grooming piece. I see it in Prevent and in counter-terrorism. It is the same method whether it is sexual exploitation, crime or whatever. We have to take on the social media. That is why we are consulting, including on introducing regulations in this House. I went slightly freelance at one stage and said, “The polluter can pay.” If we have to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on police, I know where I would get that money from. They need to step up to the plate. There is the technology and we can do more. We have to tackle grooming and put people in the category of groomers. They are not glamorous. They are the same as paedophiles. They are dirty little rotten groomers who are sacrificing young people.
I saw a very successful Merseyside operation that was brilliantly done. It goes back to how we are pursuing the organised crime. As the hon. Member for West Ham said, I want to see the bad guys at the top get it. A brilliant operation was done in Merseyside where county lines were coming up into Lancashire. The police went top and bottom and worked with local authorities. Good police forces have something called local organised crime panels. Chief Constable Mike Barton in Durham has used local authorities on a regular basis. On such panels are the Environment Agency and representatives from local government. A whole load of government agencies are on the panel, saying, “If we can’t arrest them for X, we’re going to make their life a misery. We’re going to do them for fly-tipping, and then we’re going to publicly expose them and take the glamour off them.” That is happening, and with good results. Other areas could follow suit better. Some do and some do not.
I totally agree with what was said about witness protection and having a trusted system. I worked in intelligence. If no one picks up the phone, we are flying blind. No matter how many neighbourhood policemen and women we have, if people are doing it in their bedrooms on secure comms we need someone to pick up the phone and to trust the system. That is really important.
This year and next year we are going to move witness protection away from the regions. It will be administered in the regions but it will be nationally co-ordinated by the National Crime Agency. However, the Met police has not opted to do that. I urge the hon. Member for West Ham, as a London MP—this is about working with everyone—to have a word with the Mayor of London about whether that is the right way to tackle it. Some of the biggest exporters of county lines are London into the regions and Merseyside into the regions. I can say that because my home plain is Lancashire. Between the two, we need to think with our Mayors about how we can tackle some of that permissive society—some of it is permissive.
It is not just the raw victims—there is a hard edge, which is why we sometimes have to use youth as CHIS. I can write to the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) with the many safeguards that we put in place around that risking. It is overseen by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford. It has been in existence since 1999. Sometimes—very rarely—we do it. We have to do it if we are to penetrate where encryption is used, and some of the county lines where it is not. It is not something we want to do, but sometimes it is useful and we have to do it.
I would be delighted to take up the case of Ashley and Nathan if the hon. Member for West Ham and I could have a meeting. How they have been treated is outrageous. That is not the message we want to send, and I will do everything to ensure that they are given the support that they should be given. I had experience of settling people who were under threat of death if they were caught, and some of them tragically were killed.
Finally, the hon. Members for Gedling and for West Ham asked what we are doing on the organisation to tackle crime. Some 128 tonnes of class A drugs were snatched last year. Thousands of people were arrested by the NCA and 628 guns were seized. As with the Contest strategy, which started under Labour and has been refined with mistakes learnt from and driven into the fingertips of Britain, we have got to a place over the last few years where the policing response is in the right place. We have regional organised crime units, we have the National Crime Agency above that and we have local forces. If somebody goes to visit their local regional organised crime unit they will see that collaboratively such units are bringing to bear some very good resource. I am happy to facilitate that for whoever wants to go.
The Met are not in the ROCU—it chooses to do it separately. I have lots of faith that the Met has the resource—it has much more resource per head than we do in Lancashire and Merseyside—but there is a plus and a downside to that. It is well worth exploring with the Mayor of London whether he thinks that that is the right apparatus. The regional crime units can bring specialists and specialist surveillance. We often find that county lines cross county borders and constabulary borders. That is why the regional organised crime units work. My one in the north-west is based in Warrington. I will visit it again, and regularly. I have been around all of them in the country. Part of what they do is about gathering better intelligence, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, and mapping organised crime groups. Individual forces have been pretty weak at finding a common denominator. Cumbria claims to have more organised crime groups per head than Merseyside or some other parts of the country. That is a bit different, so we have to improve the intelligence.
I am happy to facilitate visits to the NCA where we can. With the upskilling and the changes that we implemented last year to conditions to make them compete better, we are getting much better capability. We are starting to deliver and bringing to bear purely intelligence-led collaborative working. I am not deaf to concerns about neighbourhood policing or cuts to the police. I know that there have been cuts to the police—I do not deny that. We can sit here and argue all day about why that had to happen and whether our priorities are right, but I recognise that we have to do something about it and we are going to try. Certainly it is about prevention as much as arrest. That is true of so many crimes, even this one—we cannot arrest our way out of it. I will not go down the long path of legalisation, but we have to keep empowering local authorities. I will send hon. Members the lists of what we do in local authorities.
One thing that I see from my desk at the Home Office—the hon. Member for Gedling will have seen this—is lots of people not bidding for funds. Colleagues understandably come and complain, and I say, “But your force or local authority didn’t actually bid into it.” I am very happy to share that with anyone if they come and say that they have seen the fund and no one has got it in their community. I can find out about it, and we will go together. We will go to Brighton and say, “Why didn’t you bid for it?” Not everybody can have the funds, but it is interesting that there are some who always bid and get them and some who never bid at all.
Mr Evans, I will sit down now and let the hon. Member for West Ham wind up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Evans, and thank you to the Minister for sitting down and giving me the opportunity to wind up quickly. It has been a superb debate. Every Member who has spoken today has brought something special and unique. They are passionate about their communities and about keeping them safe. All the contributions have been excellent.
I thank the Minister for his response. I do not often feel like doing something like that, but I thought his response was excellent and his tone was right. I am so grateful that he did not read out the speech he was given. I take him up on all the offers that he has made today, and I will be happy to provide him with information about Ashley and so on.
The problem with funding is short-termism. If people are asking for money it is for only 15 or five months’ work, which is a problem.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Suicide: Coroners’ Courts
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir David, for this short debate on the standard of proof for a conclusion of suicide in the coroners’ courts. To say that any suicide is a tragedy is to state the obvious. It is a tragedy for the person concerned, who could see no way out other than to take their own life; it is a tragedy for their family and friends, left with an intolerable burden to carry; but it is also a tragedy for us as a society, because we have failed to offer them another way out and failed to support them through their illness.
Suicide is an increasing problem for us. The rates are now highest among middle-aged men and have gone up by 40% in 10 years. It is also the biggest killer of young people between 15 and 34. It is a real public health emergency, yet we are often prevented from openly discussing suicide by the stigma that surrounds it. Nowhere is that stigma more obvious than in a coroner’s court. Suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961, yet until very recently the courts held consistently that the standard of proof for a conclusion of suicide had to be the criminal one of “beyond all reasonable doubt”. In effect, the state, having decided that suicide is not a crime, still treats people in a coroner’s court as if it were. That is something we should alter.
It is settled in English law that there are two standards of proof—the civil and the criminal—but a coroner’s court is not a criminal trial. It is not even litigation. It is, as Lord Chief Justice Lane said,
“a fact finding exercise and not a method of apportioning guilt.”
A coroner’s duty is to investigate someone’s death and to find out and record the facts in the public interest. That public interest duty is important, and I will return to it later.
An inquest can find that someone died in a number of ways or it can record an open verdict, but its decision is not conclusive in any subsequent litigation. The rules of procedure prohibit a coroner’s court from any finding of fact that may seem to determine criminal liability. The coroner’s court no longer has a connection with a criminal court. It used to have, and could name a person who was thought responsible for a homicide, which committed them to trial, but that power was abolished in 1977. Why, when suicide is no longer a crime and when the courts no longer have that power, do we still stick to the criminal standard of proof?
The Minister will probably be relieved to hear that I do not have time today to go through all the cases that have led us to the current position, but it is important to note that it has come about through case law; it is not in statute or in the coroner’s rules of procedure. Many of those cases were decided some time ago, when attitudes to suicide were very different from what they are today. Many of them resulted from people challenging a coroner’s verdict on suicide. That was understandable prior to 1961, when suicide was a crime and when a conclusion, or verdict as it was then, of suicide could have significant financial implications for those left behind. For instance, insurance companies often did not pay out when there was a suicide verdict. That is no longer the case, yet we continue on that road.
The situation was probably set out most clearly in the case of R v. Her Majesty’s Coroner for Dyfed, ex parte Evans, where Lord Justice Watkins held that a coroner’s jury could not return a verdict of suicide based on the balance of probabilities; it is only permissible for a coroner’s jury to return a verdict of suicide if they find, upon evidence proved to their satisfaction, that the deceased intended to, and in fact did, take their own life. That is a very high threshold to meet.
Other cases that have contributed were not in fact about suicide, but about unlawful killing. In the famous one, ex parte Gray, Lord Justice Watkins, again, referred to an earlier case, ex parte Barber, which he said had held that a verdict of suicide was only permissible if proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Other cases established that the presumption ought always to be against a conclusion of suicide, and that intent was crucial. That was understandable when suicide was a crime—every first year law student knows that to prove a crime, both the mens rea and the actus reas must be proven—but it is not understandable when it is not a crime, and many of the key cases on intent were decided many years ago, when attitudes were very different and suicide was a criminal office—for instance, the case of Southall v. Cheshire County News Company Ltd was decided in 1912, and that of ex parte Lockley was decided in 1944. None the less, they still haunt us today.
This is a real problem that still has an impact on many cases. In the case I referred to earlier, ex parte Evans, and in a similar one, R (Jenkins) v. Her Majesty’s Coroner for Bridgend and Glamorgan Valleys, the challenges to the coroner were all based on intent. Family and friends gave evidence that the deceased were in a positive frame of mind prior to their deaths. That puts us in a position where we are returning conclusions that go against the facts. What we know about suicide now is that when someone has decided to take their own life, they often seem in a calmer and better frame of mind because of that decision. In those two cases, where people tragically threw themselves in front of trains, the facts of the case were very clear—those individuals intended to end their own life. We end up with conclusions that go against the known facts.
It seems to me that the current position is also legally unsupportable. We are basing our approach on cases decided a long time ago, when suicide was a criminal offence, and on some cases that did not even involve suicide at all. Other cases in the coroner’s court are decided on the balance of probabilities. In civil litigation, a court can decide based on the balance of probabilities, even when criminal facts are involved—for instance where someone seeks compensation for a fraud, or where people sue for compensation, perhaps following a rape or the murder of a family member, we decide on the civil balance of probabilities measure.
Given this situation, it is not surprising that there are other common law jurisdictions that have refused to follow these precedents. In Canada, for example, where the coroners’ court system is closely modelled on our system, the Supreme Court decided that suicide should be decided in the coroner’s court on the balance of probabilities. Until recently, we have had all these decisions in English courts that have gone the other way. That only changed recently, in a case, R (Maughan) vs. Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire, that is now subject to appeal—I have therefore had to take advice from our omniscient and helpful Clerks about what I might say about it—concerning a narrative verdict and the instructions to a coroner’s jury. The judges held in that case—subject, of course, to appeal—that it is no longer tenable to use the criminal standard of proof given that there was no connection with the criminal courts, and that cases, whether they involve a narrative or a short-form verdict, should be decided on the balance of probabilities.
It remains to be seen what happens in that appeal. The judgment may, of course, be overturned, but I believe it is time for the Government to end this situation and legislate to make clear that the civil standard of proof should be used in a coroner’s court for cases involving suicide. I believe that for a number of reasons. First, by continuing to use the criminal standard of proof, we are in fact maintaining the stigma around suicide, which prevents us from discussing it openly and dealing with it effectively. In the past, Ministers have argued that that is not the case, but Professor Louis Appleby, who knows something about this issue, told the Health Committee during its inquiry in the previous Parliament:
“There is a principle here, which is that that standard of proof is a reflection of a system that is full of prejudice and stigma, which we ought to dismantle.”
The second reason is that, in the current system, we may be hugely underestimating the number of suicides we are dealing with. Academics who have looked at this matter, such as Professor Pritchard at Bournemouth, have concluded that we may be underestimating by between 30% and 50%. The first step in dealing with the problem is to know how widespread it is. Currently, we do not know that properly. In the past, some Ministers have been concerned about making changes that may offend faith groups. As a born and bred believing Catholic, I say gently to the Minister that that is not the duty of the state. The duty of the state is to find out the facts, as was said in the recent case, without fear or favour. The view that any faith group takes of suicide is a matter for them, not for the Government.
The third, and understandable, reason is that coroners are often reluctant to reach a conclusion of suicide because they fear the upset it would cause to the family. I understand that. I have nothing but sympathy for families left to deal with the after-effects of a suicide. In fact, I think we should offer them more support than we currently do, but again that is not the courts’ role. The public interest in knowing how many suicides we are dealing with and how they are occurring overrides that concern. In the end, if we are not able to discuss suicide openly and if people are prevented from being honest about their suicidal thoughts and seeking help because of the stigma that attaches to it, we cannot design services effectively and we may lose the chance to save lives. That, to me, is far more important.
This is not a party political matter—the current position has prevailed under Ministers of different political parties—but it is time to get hold of the anomaly and deal with it. If the Minister did that, he would have widespread support from the National Suicide Prevention Alliance, from PAPYRUS, which works to prevent young suicide and is based in Warrington—it gave me a great deal of help in preparing for this debate—and from the Health Committee, which recommended this change in its report on suicide prevention in the previous Parliament. He would also have the support of the former Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton, who wrote to the chair of PAPYRUS in 2013:
“I am supportive of the change which would reduce the standard of proof for suicide to the civil standard and have expressed that view to the Ministry of Justice.”
He would also have support across the House.
In the end, this matter is too important to leave to the lawyers and the courts. It is a major public health issue, which we need to tackle. Unless we get it right, we will not be tackling it effectively. We will lose the chance to prevent more deaths in the future, and we will be culpable for that. Some things in politics are not easy, but they are nevertheless right. I strongly urge the Minister, who has seen coroners’ courts operating and is concerned about this issue, to do the right thing and make this change for the benefit of many individuals and their families in the future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this debate on such an important, complex and sensitive issue. I am grateful for her passionate and thoughtful views. Her erudite speech highlighted, if my recollection is correct, not only her distinguished time as a parliamentarian but her previous career as a distinguished solicitor, as was evident from her careful and clever deployment of her legal knowledge.
Coroners’ courts are the oldest part of the judicial system in England and Wales, but they have not stood still; they have continued to evolve their processes. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 set out a comprehensive suite of reforms to coroner law and practice, which was implemented in July 2013. The dedication and commitment of the Chief Coroner, His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft QC, and that of his predecessor, whom the hon. Lady mentioned, both in working towards continued improvement and in providing leadership, guidance and support to coroners, is second to none, and I am grateful to them both for their service.
In 2017, almost 230,000 registered deaths in England and Wales were reported to coroners—43% of the total number of deaths—and inquests were opened into 31,500 deaths by the 88 coroners’ areas across England and Wales. As the hon. Lady said, by definition bereaved families engage with coroners at an extremely difficult and stressful time in their lives. I believe that the coroner service does a wonderful job of working to ensure that its engagement is as respectful and caring as possible.
As the hon. Lady alluded to, I had first-hand experience of that when I recently had the privilege of visiting the Westminster coroner’s court to open a garden of remembrance—a personal initiative taken forward by the excellent Inner West London senior coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox. I was also able to observe an inquest into a suicide, and I saw for myself how deftly and sensitively Dr Wilcox handled the legal process, alongside sensitively handling a bereaved family and their feelings. I pay tribute to her and all her coroner colleagues for their dedication and professionalism, often in very difficult circumstances. It is a service of which we can be proud.
As the hon. Lady said, put simply an inquest is a court hearing held by the coroner to establish who died and how, and when and where the death occurred, but it differs from other types of court hearing because it is inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, and does not establish criminal or civil responsibility, as she said, deploying her legal knowledge. At the end of the inquest the coroner—or jury, where there is one—reaches a conclusion. Historically, the standard of proof for a conclusion of suicide has been established by case law, as the hon. Lady said. Although suicide was decriminalised in 1961, case law continued to apply the criminal standard—that is, beyond reasonable doubt—as opposed to the lower civil standard.
To go to the crux of the debate, as the hon. Lady said, there have been calls for the Government to address that situation, not least by campaigning organisations such as PAPYRUS, which she mentioned and which campaigns energetically not only on this issue but on the broader one of preventing suicide among young people. As she said, the Health Committee recommended lowering the standard of proof for suicide in the reports of its suicide prevention inquiry, published in December 2016 and March 2017. The Government made it clear in their July 2017 response that they had been considering whether to make such a change. Recently, however, the matter has moved on as a result of evolving case law, with the judgment handed down by the High Court on 26 July in the case of R (Maughan) v. Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire. Before continuing, I put on record my sincere condolences to the family of James Maughan on the sad loss of their loved one in difficult circumstances.
In brief, the case, which has been alluded to, was a judicial review of the jury inquest held into Mr Maughan’s death. The senior coroner invited the jury to record a narrative conclusion, rather than a short-form conclusion of suicide, which he directed should be determined on the civil standard of proof. The judicial review claim was made by the bereaved family on the basis that the jury’s conclusion was unlawful because it amounted to a conclusion of suicide reached on the balance of probabilities, rather than on the criminal test of beyond reasonable doubt.
That judicial review claim was dismissed by the High Court on the basis that previous case law applying the criminal standard of proof was incorrect and that the correct position in the opinion of the court was the application of the civil standard. However, the High Court gave the bereaved family leave to appeal the judgment, which they have now done. A date has not yet been confirmed for the Court of Appeal hearing of the case. Pending that hearing, I hope that the House understands that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the judgment of the High Court, other than the factual account that I have just put on the record, the forthcoming appeal, or any issues relating to or arising directly from either one, because that might impact on the case.
I realise that the Minister cannot comment on the case, but may I ask whether he has had discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about the impact of the existing situation on any assessment of the number of suicides and the design of services to meet them?
Such issues of suicide prevention are discussed regularly with the Department of Health and Social Care. I am about to come on to suicide prevention and the broader point that the hon. Lady made, in particular about understanding the scale of the issue. If she allows me one more paragraph, I shall come on to exactly that.
I appreciate that the point I made about being slightly limited in what I can say given the legal context will disappoint the hon. Lady. I hasten to add that my intention is never to disappoint her—
I hope not by me—yet. I can only assure the hon. Lady that I have of course noted the points that she and other hon. Members have made today and in the past. I will consider them very seriously, along with the Court of Appeal ruling when judgment is handed down in that case. I shall respond as appropriate at that point. Clearly, however, while the case is being heard I shall stray no further.
To come on to the hon. Lady’s wider point, I shall touch on the broader issues underlying the debate: the importance of preventing suicide, tackling potential contributing factors and understanding what it is that drives suicide in some cases. As she said, a verdict of suicide in a coroner’s court of course means that a tragedy has already occurred, and every death by suicide is a tragedy with a devastating effect on families and communities. That is why the Government updated the national suicide prevention strategy last year—to strengthen the delivery of its key areas for action, such as expanding the strategy’s scope to include addressing self-harm as an issue in its own right.
I am encouraged that data published by the Office for National Statistics this week show that in 2017 the suicide rate in England reduced for the third consecutive year. The rate is now at its lowest for seven years, which brings us closer to achieving the national ambition to reduce suicide by 10% by 2020.
As the Minister knows, evidence given to the Health Committee stated that apparent reductions in suicide are often linked to changes of practice in the coroners’ courts. Will he therefore look seriously at what the Health Committee recommended on coroners being given more training in how to construct their narrative verdicts, and on giving the Chief Coroner more resources to ensure similar practice across all the courts?
I am happy to look into both those matters. My understanding is that the suicide registration statistics, which are used to calculate the suicide rate, already include deaths by undetermined intent, where a suicide conclusion was not reached but where it is likely that the death was caused by suicide. There is a slight difference in the calculation of the rate, but I shall look into the points that the hon. Lady made.
I am encouraged that the suicide rate among men—the highest-risk group, as the hon. Lady said—reduced for the fourth consecutive year. That is of course a reason to do even more, because every suicide is a tragedy, and we must seek to do everything we can to prevent any suicide if at all possible.
To address suicide prevention in mental health settings, this year, the previous Health and Social Care Secretary launched a zero-suicide ambition across the NHS, starting with mental health in-patients but seeking to include all mental health patients. My opposite number in Health, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), has a personal commitment to that agenda. She is working extremely hard to ensure that the record levels of spending on mental health by the Government continue to drive improvement.
Clearly, suicide prevention must be a key Government priority. The hon. Member for Warrington North is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the issue is not a partisan or party political one; it is about doing what is right and improving the situation for everyone. I thank her for securing the opportunity to focus on such an important issue in the specific context of the operation of the coroners’ courts and system.
The recent High Court judgment has thrown a spotlight on a particular aspect of the national debate around the complex and sensitive network of issues involving suicide. I may not have been able to go into the level of detail that the hon. Lady might have wished, but I hope that I can offer some reassurance with my commitment: we await the decision by the Court of Appeal with keen interest, we will consider it carefully, and we will continue to reflect on the particular issue that she has highlighted so eloquently. Furthermore, should she so wish, I am happy to meet her to discuss it further.
Question put and agreed to.
Care Crisis Review
Before we begin the debate, I alert colleagues to the fact that a Division is expected at 4.48 pm, at which point we shall adjourn for 15 minutes if there is one Division or 25 minutes if there is a second Division. We shall still have the full hour of the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the findings of the Care Crisis Review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Minister for his recent announcement about the new exploitation unit. I know that he will continue to work closely with the Home Office on the exploitation of vulnerable children, and I am extremely pleased with how well he understands his brief. When he has appeared before the Select Committee on Education, he has been passionate about his commitment to children in care. He shares my passion, I know, to do everything possible to support and strengthen families. That is why he has engaged with the findings of the care crisis review. I would like to build on that and ask the Minister to acknowledge the scale of the problem, with alarming numbers of children being taken from their families and placed in state care. I would also like him to acknowledge the apparent lack of a long-term strategy to address the problem.
Although money is never the whole solution to any problem, I urge the Minister to commit to funding early support for struggling families and to ensure that the funding is ring-fenced so that it is not eaten up by statutory crisis interventions. The care crisis review was facilitated by the excellent Family Rights Group, which does so much important work in this area, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. It was undertaken in response to the unprecedented increase in the number of children being taken into care, as a way of finding a series of solutions to bring about change. It has come up with 20 solutions—I will not go through all the findings because the Minister is familiar with them, but I will highlight one or two that I urge him to take on board.
Over the last 10 years, in the wake of the tragic case of Baby P, there has been a dramatic and consistent increase in the numbers of children being taken into state care. The figures show something like a 151% increase in 10 years of children in child protection investigations, and 73,000 young people in care in 2017—those figures are higher for 2018, although the numbers are not yet out. That translates into 90 children a day being taken into care. That is not sustainable and it is not necessary. Often, taking children into care helps councils and social workers to be protected from any accusations of failing to act, but sometimes it is not necessary.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She makes a really important point about the number of children being taken into care, sometimes unnecessarily. Does she agree on the importance and value of kinship carers and wider family support networks? At the moment, there is patchy and inconsistent support for those families. Many do not get the financial support and counselling they need to take care of their children and to keep them out of the care system.
The hon. Lady has done wonderful work in Parliament promoting the role of kinship carers. She is absolutely right: the opportunity to explore other avenues before taking children into care is often overlooked. Too often, social workers say, “This person won’t be suitable,” but they have not actually done the due diligence to determine whether extended family can be supported to help keep a child connected with their identity, school, friends and network. All those things are so important to the stability of children. I hope that the hon. Lady will continue to do work on kinship carers. If I can assist her in any way, I would be more than delighted.
It used to be considered that increasing the number of children in child protection investigations or taking more children into care was a good thing. Thank goodness we no longer think that way. Clearly, it places intense pressure on children’s services and on the family court system. Too often, statutory intervention does nothing specific to help a family and is more punitive than supportive. Often, it is all that is available at the end of a long process. If all we can offer struggling families is care proceedings, of course they will not engage and work collaboratively with social workers.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on this timely debate, which in actual fact has been a long-running debate for a number of years. When we talk about problems that social workers have and criticisms of them, we tend to forget that a social worker probably has too many cases on their hands, which does not allow them to concentrate in the way that they should concentrate. Of course, there is a lack of resources.
Often, police are called to a house about an issue that has nothing to do with childcare, only to discover some appalling situation affecting children, and have to get on to the relevant authorities to try to sort it out. We have had one or two cases in Coventry like that. There is a need for a more joined-up approach. We can have as much legislation as we want, but if we do not have a proper joined-up approach, we will get nowhere fast.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the issues raised by the care crisis review was the intense pressure on social workers and the need to work in a problem-solving way rather than in the process-driven way that is so often their focus. They often find themselves in a blame culture where they are quite defensive, and therefore focus on getting the process right rather than finding the right solution for the child. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point.
Placing children in care or triggering forcible state intervention is never a solution to a family’s problems. Too often, it is evidence of our failure to support children before problems escalate so they can stay safely at home or, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) said, with a wider family network. Time and again we hear that action is taken only at the point of crisis, and often only in the form of assessment, judgment, monitoring or scrutinising a parent’s ability to parent. The action taken is not practical support for the drugs, alcohol or mental health issues that are the cause of the crisis, but simply saying that the parents are not really good enough, and all the state can offer is removing the children from the family. Meanwhile, people often overlook the role that the extended family and the community can play in supporting families.
For all those reasons, I invite the Minister to take very seriously the solutions that the care crisis review has put forward. There is an emotionally damaging cost to children, families and to society, as well as a financial cost to the state. That is why we must have an overarching long-term view on the problem—a longer-term strategy, rather than sitting back and saying that this is a local issue for councils to decide locally what is right for them. They are on very tight budgets that often are taken up with statutory measures rather than being available for early intervention and preventive measures.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. On funding, Hartlepool council’s children’s social care services have been rated by Ofsted as good, and outstanding in some areas such as children in care. Spending on that allocation has gone up by 27%, yet they face an overall council deficit of £6 million. Does she agree that there are long-term financial difficulties to resolve in local authorities’ funding?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that perfectly illustrates my argument about the duties of local authorities to spend on the statutory crisis intervention measures they are required to take by law. They have nothing left in the pot for the preventive measures that would reduce in the long term the need to spend on crisis funding. It is difficult for a local authority to have the flexibility to do what it knows would work in the long term, because it is a statutory requirement that it uses its budget primarily to meet the statutory needs of the most vulnerable children in the borough.
That is a big issue that we neglect. If there are tight budgets for children’s services, councils have to take an increasing number of children into care, which costs more, and there is less chance of reducing that number through early intervention and support. That is why we have to think and act for the long term. If we believe that families do a better job than the state, we must work with families to support them, not just judge them and find them wanting—that helps no one. The Minister will agree because, like me, he has a wonderful family. The greatest gift he could give to any child to secure their life chances is a strong family.
Anyone who works in the system will say that the short-termism that they are forced to work with is wrong, and that instead of being able to fund early help, most authorities have to proceed with the statutory interventions that so many families experience as oppressive and destabilising. My plea is to invest in early help to make long-term savings. I am thinking not just of the huge financial savings, but of the emotional cost to a child of being removed from their family and losing their home, their siblings, their friends and their school. We know that happens. The Education Committee hears too often about fostering breakdowns, which cause children to go through a whole series of placements. Time and again, children feel abandoned and isolated, and have to put their possessions in a black plastic bag to move from foster home to foster home. They never quite feel that they belong.
I know that every Member would want to prevent that from happening to any child if possible. That is why I believe that the Government could be doing so much more to set the direction and insist on a ring-fenced element of funding for early intervention and prevention. As a Conservative Government, we care about families. We care about people being able to help themselves. We believe in helping people to help themselves, but we are not doing that. We are simply saying, “The state will take care of this, because you have failed as a parent.” What message does that send about our vision of society? The number of children in care goes on increasing while everyone takes a back seat and says, “Well, it’s not really central Government’s problem, because local authorities have to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. It just so happens the numbers are going up.” We have to look at why that is, and that is exactly what the care crisis review did.
I declare an interest, which is detailed in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, although I take issue with some of her analysis. Does she agree that the early help recommendation of the Munro review back in 2011 was crucial to allowing more preventive work to be done to keep families together? Alas, that recommendation never became reality. She will also be mindful of the worrying finding in the “Storing Up Trouble” report by the all-party parliamentary group on children, which came out at a similar time to the care crisis review and to which the Minister contributed, about the huge differences in intervention outcomes between authorities. A child in one local authority can be seven times more likely to be taken into care than one in another. That causes great concern.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. He has a long track record of expertise in this area, not least as an excellent Children’s Minister. His point about different treatment in different local authorities is vital, because it demonstrates that with the right support for families there is less need to take children into care. With the right support, children are more likely to be able to thrive safely at home. That illustrates my argument.
All Members would agree that taking children from their families must be a last resort. Indeed, the Prime Minister said exactly that when I raised the care crisis review at Prime Minister’s questions a few months ago. However, if nothing else is on offer to support a family in crisis, it suddenly is not a last resort—in some cases, it becomes the only tool a local authority can deploy. As I said, that will be of huge consequence to children, society and the state if we continue down the path of saying simply, “Let’s not invest in the long term and enabling children to stay safely at home with their families.”
Had I not seen it for myself, I would not have believed the cost of care proceedings where parents object, or the agonies they go through to keep their child with them. I have seen cases where the legal process has cost the state millions. Just think of the difference we could have made if only we had been able to support such families before they reached crisis—not only to the children’s lives, but with the millions of pounds we have spent on the court process, which is the most awful process for any family to have to go through.
I pay tribute to Edward Timpson, another excellent former Children’s Minister, for the work he did and for his knowledge and understanding of this area. He initiated fantastic projects such as Pause, which works with women who have repeatedly had children taken from them and put into the care system. To deal with their loss and grief, women continued to have children, which the state simply took away from them one after another without doing anything whatever to help them get out of the situation they were in. The futility of all that anguish seems senseless, so I am grateful to Edward Timpson for his legacy.
The only thing I would say about such projects is that, admirable as they are, they too often tinker at the edges rather than setting an overarching, long-term view of what could be done differently. That is why I welcome the suggestions in the care crisis review. Yes, some of them are about funding, which I have touched on, but the review contains all sorts of other suggestions. The Minister is very familiar with them, and I urge him to consider which ones could be implemented and which he could put his weight behind. It is important that we do not just have debates in which the Minister says, “I’m going to consider it,” and then the proposal dies a death. I have seen that happen many times. This is a real opportunity to use work that has been done for the Government by experts in the field to look carefully at what the Government can do to improve the system and make things better for children and families.
The cost to the state of a child being in care is enormous. We all know about the outcomes for care leavers and the huge challenges they face when they leave the care system. We know the statistics about the make-up of the prison population. Too often, people who have children taken from them are care leavers who did not have a parenting role model. The state deems that in itself to be a risk factor when assessing their suitability to parent. In too many cases, there is a self-perpetuating cycle of misery, and the Government do not intervene in the way they could to do amazing good. We have seen from the great projects I mentioned how much good can be done, but there does not seem to be an overarching, long-term Government strategy. Instead, understandably, the point is made that local authorities have to act on a case-by-case basis and the Government cannot intervene.
The hon. Lady is being generous in accepting interventions. She has worked hard on issues such as child abuse, which are related to this debate. One of the big problems is that successive Governments—not just Conservative Governments—have passed legislation but have not provided the funding to see it through. That is why we often get situations where things are botched, for want of a better term. We all know that local authorities have been starved of resources. Whether we accept the figures or not, that is a fact, and it puts another burden on local authorities. If we are going to have a proper strategy, it will have to be properly funded and we will need cross-party consensus to ensure that whichever party is in power sees it through.
Timpson was one of the very few Ministers I knew who actually understood the problem. I met him many times because of the problems we had in Coventry. I hope the present Minister, whom I do not know too well, has the same depth of commitment as Timpson. If he has, I am sure he will realise what the hon. Lady advocates. That will be the test for him.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for echoing what I said about Edward Timpson’s contribution. He is correct about funding. I am not one who thinks the solution to a problem is just to throw money at it—never, never, never—but in this case, where local authorities do not have funding for early intervention, prevention and support for families, they will only be able to keep coming back to the Government and asking for more money for statutory services. There will be a cumulative effect. That will happen unless the Government step in and say, “Right, we’re going to ring-fence funding to ensure there is at least an attempt to provide adequate support, particularly where we can see a family is struggling.”
We know that if a crisis is not addressed it continues to escalate. We must be able to act. We must be able to say, “Okay, that’s no good.” People normally end up in court proceedings, where the judge says, “Ah yes, the mother needs to have therapy, she needs to go to counselling and there needs to be”—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before the Divisions, I was talking about a situation where a family was in court proceedings and the judge told them to get counselling, but it was too late, because the timeline for the mother is not fitted to the timeline for the child and therefore the child is going into care. My point is that acting sooner is for the good of all, and particularly for the good of children, who need to be brought up in strong families.
Before I conclude, I want to say something about the role of social workers and the local authority. As we mentioned, the care crisis review refers to the risk-averse blame culture and the focus on correct processes rather than a collaborative problem-solving approach. We have to understand the difficult challenge social workers face. If a social worker has little else to offer a struggling family, of course they will be more likely to conclude that a child would be better off being removed, because they cannot take the risk of doing nothing.
As a Government, we cannot just sit back and say that these decisions must be made by the local authority, because that is a little bit too hands-off. I am not usually one to say that Government should do more, but we recognise that all social workers have a professional obligation to adhere to statutory requirements and guidelines and they simply do not have the flexibility that we imagine they do. They also have their own professional reputation to safeguard and that of their children’s services department. The local children’s services department has to fund statutory services, which speaks to the point about there being nothing left in the budget.
One important point, which I hope the Minister will take away, is that we cannot just say it is someone else’s problem. We need clarity from central Government. There are alternatives to care proceedings and some local authorities use them very effectively; we have to look at what works and encourage other local authorities to implement it. The care crisis review has come up with helpful options for change. It has specifically drawn attention to the need to tackle root causes and address the issues that children and families face on a cross-departmental basis. I am sure the Minister agrees that we should have a Children’s Minister in the Cabinet, because that cross-departmental approach is really important. The Minister has been working effectively with the Home Office on child sexual exploitation and I am grateful to see effective cross-departmental working on that issue; I know there is more of that to come under this Minister. I want to emphasise the point about ring-fencing funding for early help. We do not want to lose all the funding for children’s services to cover statutory interventions when other activities could support the families and help children to stay safely at home.
I know the Minister will have listened carefully and that he has already considered the conclusions of the care crisis review. What plans does he have to adopt any of the recommendations? Will he ask his officials to take a long-term, overarching, strategic approach to the problem? If we continue to take more children into care, the funding gap will increase. It is a sticking plaster, which will not solve anything in the long term. I know it is difficult for a Minister who is only in his post for a year or two—I hope this Minister will remain a great deal longer—to think long-term. If he implemented the strategic direction, which is currently lacking, that would be a tremendous legacy.
I believe Government have to be active in formulating direction, because there are too many legislative restrictions on local authorities. There is too much that they have to do, so they do not have the choice to operate in a more flexible manner. I know we all agree that no child should be in care if they can live safely at home, and if the Minister agrees with that, I know he will take action to make it an objective for Government. I thank everyone for taking part and the Minister for listening to me on this subject, which I have raised with him many times.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing the debate and setting the scene. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility to speak out on behalf of those in Northern Ireland, but I think it is important that we get a perspective from Northern Ireland. The figures I will refer to will show that we do not have the same extremes that there are in parts of the UK mainland, but that does not detract from my support for the hon. Lady and others who have contributed to this debate.
As I mentioned to the hon. Lady, I had the joy of being raised by both parents in a strict but loving home, and raising my own boys along with my wife—although I can take no credit for that, as my wife reared them and I was rarely there. I now have the joy of seeing my granddaughters also living in a happy and stable home. My heart aches very much, therefore, when I hear the case made by the hon. Lady, of which she has persuaded me. I think of the children in the UK and specifically in Northern Ireland, who through no fault of their own do not have the life that we have, but live in care. In the short discussion I had with the hon. Lady beforehand, we were saying how fortunate we both are to have had a loving family home, but we also recognise the responsibility we have as Members of Parliament to make the case on behalf of those who need help. I do not do it in a judgmental way. I seek solutions for the problems and try to find a way forward.
The Minister has not been in his position long, but we wish him well. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is in the Chamber, was an excellent Children’s Minister. I also remember the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who was also Children’s Minister. We miss his contribution. He was really on the button with everything we were trying to put forward. The Minister has a hard act to follow, but we look forward to his response, which will hopefully be helpful.
In Northern Ireland, on 30 September 2017, some 2,325 children and young people had been in care continuously for 12 months or longer. The number of children in care was 5% higher than the previous year, but it represented a 57% increase from 2006. The increase over those 10 years was astronomical and put a lot of pressure on our system in Northern Ireland. Those 2,325 children represent a rate of 53 per 10,000 aged under 18, which is lower than the rest of the United Kingdom. Some 62 children per 10,000 had been in care for 12 months or more on the 31 March 2017. On 30 September 2017, 55% of those young people and children who had been in care for 12 months were male and 45% were female.
People say that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics,” but statistics prove a point. While they may not make good reading, they illustrate the issue. Similarly to 2015-16, 70% of children in care were pre-school age, some were primary school age, 26% were post-primary school age and 18% were 16 or older. There were minor differences in the breakdown between boys and girls. The rate of looked-after children in 2017 was slightly higher than that of 2016. The lowest rate occurred in 2006, when 34 children per 10,000 had been in care for 12 months or longer. We have had a consistent, long problem in Northern Ireland with children in need. We have tried to address that issue. Our health service has tried to address it fairly well within the confines of its responsibility financially, physically and emotionally.
Of those children, 18% experienced a placement change, which unfortunately can be particularly difficult. That has been the lowest number in recent years. If children whose placement move was for an adoption placement are excluded, the proportion of children with a placement change was 17%. As of 30 September 2017, more than 1,000 children in care for 12 months were placed in non-kinship foster care. The hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) referred to kinship foster care, which I have a particular interest in as well. Some 5% were in residential care and some 2% were in other placement types. Of the 1,055 children in non-kinship foster care, 71 were placed for adoption.
I have always tried to support adoption over the years—it is so important to get the right home and the right availability. Today there was a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and fostering that unfortunately I was unable to attend because of other commitments. I would have liked to have been there to give my support.
Of the 44 children in other placement types, 27 were living independently— sometimes that can happen—while the remaining 17 were in assessment centres, community placements, support accommodation, hospitals, juvenile justice centres and other placements not elsewhere described. Statements of special educational needs continue to be more prevalent among children of school age who are in care—some 24%—than the general school population.
I put to the Minister the importance of Health and Education Ministers working together, ever mindful that he is responsible for the mainland UK and that responsibility for care is devolved in Northern Ireland. When it comes to doing it better, we should be doing more in health and education together. Children in care for 12 months or longer do not perform as well as their peers in key stage assessments. Again, that tells us that the problems are not just about health and placements but about educational needs. While some of those children attain five or more As at GCSE, it is clear that many do not.
I was looking at how to describe this issue, and I wanted to give the stats and the figures in Northern Ireland to prove where the problem is. Now I want to ask everyone in the Chamber—I said this to the hon. Member for Telford beforehand—to do something different in illustrating the issue. For us, they are statistics—somebody that probably we do not know and may never know, but they may have come to our constituency office. However, we have read the pertinent statistics that highlight that our system is under immense pressure and we are failing these children. I believe we are, and the responsibility for that lies with elected representatives, with Government and with devolved Assemblies as well. We all agree that more needs to be done—the statistics speak for themselves.
I want everyone to take one of those people and think of them as their young son or daughter. Put a face, rather than just a number, to that statistic of 45%, 5% or 2%. In my case, my eldest grandchild is called Katie. How would I feel if Katie was one of the 25% who did not get their GCSEs? That is a statistic, but it is also a young person. What if Katie was one of the 17 children placed in a juvenile detainment facility? What if Katie was the child who slipped through the cracks and was one of the 127 children suspended from school in Northern Ireland last year? That is how we make statistics and figures real: we close our eyes and say, “What if that was my Katie, your John, your Jane or your Robert?” If it were my Katie, I would be doing more, so I ask myself, “Why, as an elected representative, am I not doing more now?”
I ask the Minister gently, cautiously and humbly to put his child’s face to one of those statistics, rather than see a figure. That makes it real and gives a perspective on what we are trying to say. We need to make changes to the system. Work must be done. We are not here to criticise or to point a finger; we are just here to make a heartfelt plea, as the hon. Lady did and as others did in their interventions. We urge the Minister to begin the work by making these changes, and not to simply accept or argue against the findings. The statistics are clear and they are not good reading. These children would not be abandoned if they were in our families—if they were our blood and kin—and they cannot be abandoned in our communities either. We must do more. I hope that today is the first day of acknowledging and working on that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate, and all hon. Members who have contributed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate on the findings of the care crisis review, which was expertly conducted by the Family Rights Group. She made some excellent and valuable points, as did other hon. Members who have contributed.
Sir James Munby, president of the family division, said:
“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis… What is to be done?”
The Minister and all of us should be alarmed that although those comments were made more than two years ago, the state of children’s social care has continued on that negative downward trajectory. The review notes
“the link between poverty and care”
“local authority spending in England and Wales is failing to keep pace with the steadily rising demand for children’s services, linked to rising family poverty.”
Those comments should come as no surprise to the Minister, as his Department’s figures show that children are 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan if they live in a deprived area.
Similarly, the Minister will know that local authorities’ early intervention grants—money that can keep children from entering care—have been slashed by his Government by up to £600 million, with almost £100 million more of cuts still to come. When the Minister was previously asked about early intervention, he said:
“early intervention is important and the Government take that very seriously.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 590.]
If that is the case, he should have no difficulty in committing today to the review’s request that he plug the estimated £2 billion gap in local authority budgets for children’s care by 2020. Services must be enabled to move on from an expensive crisis-led model to one of prevention, where there are enough resources for families to be supported and for children to remain with their family or return to their family’s care where it is safe to do so. In the prevention model, the focus on process and performance indicators changes to a focus on relationships and the absolute best way to meet a child’s needs.
As a practising social worker, I often saw the pain caused to children, their wider birth family and their new family when they were removed from their parents’ care, even when it was the safest thing to do. It is utterly heartbreaking. When opportunities to keep a family together have been missed, that heartbreak and enduring pain never leaves those involved. That is why it is vital to implement the recommendation to extend the problem-solving model of the family, drug and alcohol courts, which help to keep children out of the care system and save the taxpayer an average of £27,000 per family. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to halt their plans, which will lead to the closure of the family, drug and alcohol court national unit.
The Opposition very much welcome the report’s other recommendations to strengthen support for families, and its overall thrust. If implemented, it would result in a more child and family-centred social care system across the board. The recommendations are in stark contrast with the Government’s misguided efforts so far. The What Works centre has already cost taxpayers nearly £10 million and will not be in place until 2020. Partners in practice has had questionable results, with one council’s Ofsted rating falling from outstanding to requiring improvement under the Government’s scheme. The national assessment and accreditation system proved grossly unpopular, which forced a U-turn on roll-out, while gifting £23 million to private companies. The innovation programme has similarly bestowed £12 million on private consultancies, despite being time-limited and given only to certain local authorities, which exacerbates the postcode lottery. In total, £45 million has been spent on piecemeal measures that are not yielding long-term positive changes.
Three months ago, the Minister said about the very report we are debating:
“Across government we will consider its findings and recommendations carefully.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 589.]
He should be in a position today to say what he will implement from the report and detail the outcome of the discussions that have taken place so far. I look forward to hearing that in his response.
I would like to end where I began, with a recent comment from Sir James Munby’s successor, Sir Andrew McFarlane. He said:
“I, too, am clear that this is a crisis and I am extremely concerned to see that it is by no means abating.”
Coupled with recent reports in the press from members of the Minister’s own party that we are fast approaching a Baby P tragedy, it should be more than enough for him to act and put pressure where it is needed within government. I wait in anticipation and look forward to his response.
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. I know she is concerned about the number of children being taken into care and that she is a firm believer in early intervention and family support services as a vehicle for lowering care demand.
I acknowledge the increase in the number of care order applications and the number of children being taken into care in recent years. The Government are acutely aware of the impact that that has had and is having on local authorities and the courts. We are also very conscious of the implications for children and families. I am immensely grateful to all those who have worked in child protection and the family justice system, whether they are social workers, court staff, CAFCASS guardians, judges or those in other roles. We want every child to be in a loving, stable home that is right for them. In most cases, children are best looked after by their families. Children are only removed as a last resort, which is why my Department is continuing to deliver a comprehensive reform programme for children’s social care across England. I will say more about our reforms later.
I recognise the sector’s care crisis review and acknowledge the work that the Family Rights Group and others involved invested in it. The review is an important contribution to the work being done across the family justice system to address the pressures caused by rising public law volumes for local authorities and the family courts. I am pleased to say that tomorrow the Minister for family justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who also has an interest in the report, and I are meeting members of the review team—Nigel Richardson, who chaired the review, and Cathy Ashley, who helped drive it—to discuss its findings.
In advance of that meeting, I can tell Members that officials in both our Departments have been carefully considering the options for change set out in the report, and we have taken action. The sector’s report sets out two specific options for change in relation to our “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance. First, it states that the guidance should be
“reviewed and amended so that the principles underpinning the legislation, including partnership and co-production with families, are clearly expressed and the processes for managing individual cases reflect the messages from research on the effectiveness of relationship-based practice.”
Secondly, it argued that the same guidance should be
“amended to place greater emphasis on the role to be played by key partner agencies, in addition to that played by children’s social care, in assessing and meeting the accommodation, health and educational needs of children and their families.”
I am pleased to say that we have addressed both those issues in the latest version of the statutory guidance, which we published in July. I hope Members and those who took part in the review welcome that. It is particularly important to recognise that the sector’s review stated that
“there are many overlapping factors contributing to the rise in care proceedings and the number of children in care. This complex picture means that there is no single solution.
That is in keeping with the Government’s own analysis and is why, in addition to the many reforms we are seeking to deliver, including those I will talk about shortly, we are working across Government to consider what more we can do. It includes the work that officials from my Department and the Ministry of Justice are doing with members of national and local family justice boards across England, through which we are seeking to understand the challenges in the family justice system better and consider with sector representatives what can be done to address them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford has an interest in early intervention. I assure her that, across Government, we are addressing the root causes of children’s needs early—be it by supporting children with alcohol-dependent parents or in families affected by domestic abuse, preventing young people from being drawn into serious violence, or investing in early years and children’s and young people’s mental health. Our “Working Together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidance is clear that local areas should have a comprehensive range of effective evidence-based services in place to address assessed needs early. The Government have also committed £920 million to the troubled families programme, which aims to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple high-cost problems by 2020.
On the point that my hon. Friend made on funding for preventive support services, it is for local authorities to determine how to spend their non-ring-fenced income on the services they provide, including services for preventive support measures.
My hon. Friend is one of my excellent predecessors—hon. Members mentioned Edward Timpson, but the work that my hon. Friend did in the Department has been a high bar for me to attempt to meet. I have seen first hand the effectiveness of the troubled families programme, and when it comes to the spending review, I will be a champion in ensuring that we continue to commit. In many of the cases that were highlighted to me by social workers in Islington and other parts of the country, a whole support system is required to help those families deliver stability for the family and the child.
Since 2016, we have been working to implement the reforms set out by my predecessor, Edward Timpson, in the “Putting children first” strategy. They centre on three key areas: people and leadership, practice and systems, and governance and accountability. I fully support the strategy and am committed to implementing it. “Putting children first” set out a five-year reform programme for children’s social care in Europe, which includes developing the social work profession, supporting innovation and improvement and establishing a new What Works centre. I will say something about them and the impact that our reforms will have.
On the social work profession, our successful Step Up to Social Work and Frontline programmes have brought new people into the profession and promoted social work as a desirable graduate career. Recently, I was pleased to be able to announce a further £25 million for Step Up to Social Work to bring a further 700 talented future social workers into children’s services. Through investment in professional development at key stages throughout their career, and the new national accreditation and assessment system, which the shadow Minister effectively dissed—[Interruption.] Not at all. The very good social workers who have been through it show very high satisfaction ratings. Hon. Members will hear more of that in the future. We are really helping to ensure that the quality of practice is consistently excellent.
Innovation and improvements are at the heart of the Government’s vision for children’s social care. The £200 million Children’s Social Care Innovation programme has deepened evidence about what good social work looks like and about the potential for innovation. It has generated a portfolio of promising successful innovations, which we are rolling out more widely to understand the potential wider impact. I am also pleased to note that the sector-led report points out that many projects are doing effective and innovative work with families who are at risk of breakdown, including helping to reduce the numbers of children being taken into care. Information from the programme will form the wider bank of evidence going into the new What Works centre, which is currently in a testing and development phase, to improve outcomes for young people and learning for the sector. The What Works centre is pressing ahead with its research programme, including examining what works on reducing the need for children to enter care. We hope it will support the uptake of quality evidence in frontline practice in children’s social care.
I am conscious that the Minister is about to wrap up, and I am concerned that he has failed to mention anything about the links between deprivation and rising care numbers, which all the research says is a massive issue. I am interested to find out from him what exactly local authorities have done through innovation money that they would not have been able to do if they were funded properly. Would it not have been better if they were all funded properly so they could all innovate, instead of it being piecemeal?
Local authorities are spending a record £9.2 billion on children’s services. The hon. Lady raises an important point and I do not want to politicise this. Yes, budgets are tight, but where I have seen good children’s services being delivered, it is very much dependent on the quality of leadership and support offered to frontline social workers.
I was going to mention the point made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on kinship carers. I acknowledge the work that they do. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, we should remember to turn the statistics into real children and real families. The work that kinship carers do is incredibly important in delivering stability for those children.
We have developed an improvement strategy to identify local authorities at risk of failing and put in place targeted support to help them improve, so that the services families and vulnerable children receive get better faster. We have done that by working in partnership with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the LGA to test the new regional improvement alliances. We believe that that will complement the new Ofsted framework, enabling a new phase of continuous sector-led improvement.
In March I announced that more than £15 million will go to eight new partners in practice, expanding our local authority peer support programme to improve children’s services. We know that some of our partners in practice are looking at what can be done to address the increased number of children entering care—this addresses the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields—and are working with them to understand what might work and how it might be used by other local authorities.
We are confident that this comprehensive reform programme will lead to better qualified and developed skilled social workers who are able to make difficult decisions, more confident local authorities and social workers that manage cases themselves including associated risks, and a children’s social care system that learns what works from evidence and applies it in practice. Ultimately, that should all lead to the right decisions being made for children and their families.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, my Department is working with the Ministry of Justice, with which we share responsibility for public family law. We are committed to ensuring that local authorities and the courts have the resources that they need. For example, the MOJ has overseen a campaign to recruit more family court judges and to provide more court sitting days.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford for securing today’s important debate and express my gratitude for her ongoing interest. I want to address some of the points made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talked about social worker caseloads. Social workers have one of the hardest jobs in the world, and I am determined to do all I can to support them. We continue to attract high-quality recruits and we invest in fast-track and the frontline programmes. We are also establishing Social Work England as a new specialist regulator, which will set professional education training standards and provide assurances that those registered meet the standards.
The hon. Member for Coventry South made the point that the reforms came without additional funding. However, when new duties have been introduced, we have provided additional funding. For example, when the new “staying put” duty came into force in May 2014, we committed £40 million to help local authorities implement it.
It is important to address some of the questions asked by probably the most experienced Member of Parliament in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He asked about early help being deprioritised after the Munro review in 2011 recommended an early help duty and the Government decided that such a duty was not necessary. Instead, as I am sure he knows, we strengthened the “Working together to safeguard children” requirement for early help assessment, as I mentioned. We made it clear that early help services should form part of a continuum of help in local areas.
My hon. Friend made a very good point about the postcode lottery. The Government are committed to making the reforms to improve decision making for children and their families throughout England. Alongside that, part of the joint work that my Department is undertaking with the Ministry of Justice is to understand better the basis of decision making in different areas so that we can consider what Government are able to do. For example, can we learn anything from how different local authorities use the space that precedes care proceedings and share that among all local authorities?
I shall end there, other than to say that, ultimately, in my book, everything we do and all the reforms that we deliver need to do two things: place the child at the heart of the process and deliver stability.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this extremely important debate. I value in particular the reminder from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that these children are not statistics; these children are our children. I know that everyone present shares that view.
I am grateful and glad that the Minister will meet the Family Rights Group tomorrow. That is excellent news. The group will tell the Minister many of the things that I and others have said today.
The issue of funding is not one that can be so lightly skated over. I hesitate to say that, because I never think that funding is the solution to problems on its own, but the Minister may need to reconsider ring-fenced funding for early intervention. If nothing is left in the budget, there is no choice for local authorities to spend on early intervention. The LGA, Barnardo’s and Action for Children all say the same thing. He will listen to what I have said and to what others have said. Cathy Ashley will also put him right on that point tomorrow.
I am glad about the good news on children’s social care—there is lots of it, but I will continue to raise it with the Minister. There is a well of support for it on the Education Committee too, and he will be back before us to answer our questions. I am grateful to him, and I know that he has a passion for the sector, that he cares deeply about children and children in care, and that he will do everything possible to ensure that children have the opportunity to be brought up in a safe and strong family.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the findings of the Care Crisis Review.