[Relevant documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Fostering, HC340, and the Government Response, Cm 9662.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered children’s social care in England.
First, let me declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Secondly, let me say how delighted I am that we are actually here to debate this issue—the debate has been delayed twice, so this is our third attempt—and that we have some people here to listen as well. It is wonderful, after the stressful week that we have had, that we have two excellent debates this afternoon on really worthwhile subjects that affect all of our constituents on a daily basis. This is the sort of bread and butter business that this House should be spending more time on, but I fear that we do not spend enough time on it, and that has been a characteristic, over many years, of children’s issues in particular.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. This is a wide-ranging subject, and I am sure that there will be contributions on many aspects from children in care, to safeguarding, early intervention and so on.
I am not overstating the case, having followed this issue in Parliament for now more than 18 years, when I say that children’s social care services are currently approaching crisis point, if they are not already there in certain parts of the country. I am particularly concerned about the disparities and the differential outcomes between different authorities in different parts of the country. That forms the basis of the report “Storing Up Trouble”, which was published last July and produced by the all-party children’s group, of which I am Chair. The Minister very kindly contributed to that report and has spoken to our group in response to it. That followed on from the “No Good Options” report in March 2017, which really flagged up huge differentials in the way that our children are being looked after in the care system and beyond across the country. I thank the National Children’s Bureau and its officers for the immense amount of work that went into that very commendable report.
However, it was not just that report in isolation. I am afraid that, over the past few months, there has been a plethora of reports and many worthy organisations flagging up concerns about the state of children’s social care. Action for Children produced the report, “Revolving Door Part 2: Are we failing children at risk of abuse and neglect?”, which revealed that some 23,000 children needed repeated referrals before receiving statutory support to help them with serious issues such as abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. It found a further 13,500 not getting statutory support despite multiple referrals.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. There is certainly differential practice and this is an important issue. In my time in the Department for Education, we were really keen, as subsequent Ministers have been, that children in the care system should be at the heart of the considerations of what is best for them, but they actually have quite a good idea of what is best for them as well, so it is really important that they are brought into the decision-making process.
In my time as Minister, I made sure that every local authority in the country—with the exception of the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, where there were no children in care—had a children in care council, made up of children in the care system speaking directly to directors of children’s services and councillors about their experiences. I am really pleased that the Government have decided not to do away with independent reviewing officers, who are that important link, consulting children face-to-face and feeding into their care plans.
Let me help. I told the hon. Gentleman that he could speak for “around 15 minutes”, so I would not be too upset if he got to 20 minutes. What I am bothered about is when other Members are left with a very short time limit. Who is the hon. Gentleman giving way to, by the way?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue forward. From my research on the matter, it seems that there are an additional 15,000 children in need in England since 2017, so it is clear that there is pressure on the system. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—perhaps the Minister could also respond to this point later—that the fact that Northern Ireland has the fewest children in care per capita in the United Kingdom indicates that a dialogue should take place with the devolved Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly, to see just how those numbers have been achieved?
Yes, as ever.
I entirely take the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford. In fact, one of the weaknesses of the system is that we do not share best practice enough. When I was the Minister, I tried to get together the children’s Ministers from all four parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, we also have Children’s Commissioners from all four parts of the United Kingdom, and we ought to meet them and see what they are all doing more often because there are some really good aspects of the care system in Northern Ireland that we could learn from in England, and vice versa.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the major barriers to children and young people exercising their rights under the UN convention on the rights of the child to be involved in decisions around their own care is difficulty in accessing the content of their personal files, and that this issue needs to be addressed across the country?
Gosh. I am afraid that my hon. Friend has got me on to a subject that is an issue for an entire whole-day Adjournment debate in itself, so may I say that he raises a very good point but that I have quite enough to say without straying down that important, though slightly esoteric, pathway?
There have been other reports in recent months. The Children’s Society published its “Crumbling Futures” report, which highlighted that almost 60,000 children aged 16 and 17 are in receipt of support as a child in need, but that as many as 46% of those referred to children’s services did not meet the threshold for support. I am particularly concerned about those who are just below that intervention threshold, who do not feature in any of these numbers and are not getting timely support when they need it.
There have been numerous reports from the Children’s Commissioner, and we have had the Narey review on fostering. The Select Committee on Education has produced its own reports and we have had a Government response. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) secured a debate on the Care Crisis Review, which was published last year and raised some concerning things about the state of the care system. In October, a report from the Education Policy Institute found that the number of referrals to specialist children’s mental health services has risen by no less than 26% over the last five years, but that 24.2% of the children referred for support had been turned away.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the number of reports. In 2016, Bromley’s children’s services were judged to be “inadequate” by Ofsted. Following an inspection in November, the council has now received “good” in all areas and “outstanding” in one area. These improvements are no doubt due to tremendous hard work, particularly by frontline staff in Bromley. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the light of all these reports, children’s social care needs to be supported by continuous and comprehensive funding to sustain the current levels of service?
I will come on to that. Obviously funding is a factor in this. I remember that in my time Bromley was always an exceptional council. I learned many interesting things about volunteering with children in Bromley. There was a pioneering service where volunteers worked alongside social workers helping children who were the subject of safeguarding plans, child protection plans—or whatever they were at that stage—to stay out of the care system. There has also been some very good work in Bromley by former employers in the Department for Education to help to bring that about. There is a combination of factors, but as I have clearly said and will restate in a minute, there is a problem with resources.
The Education Policy Institute also estimated that at least 55,800 children were turned away for treatment in 2017-18, but that is probably an understatement due to the shortage of data.
I am particularly disappointed by a report from the Institute of Health Visiting, headed by the excellent Dr Cheryll Adams CBE, which states that
“despite the health visiting mandate having been extended, it is apparent that universal services for children continue to bear the brunt of public health service cuts”
The health visiting workforce continues to experience significant reductions, with NHS posts falling from 10,309 in October 2015 to 7,982 by April 2018. The report —it is absolutely right—states:
“It is both astonishing and extremely worrying that the visionary work of David Cameron’s government to increase the number of health visitors across England by 50% between 2012 and 2015 could have been undone so quickly. Especially as the evidence for the importance of the very early years impacting on individuals’ future health and wellbeing is now so strong.”
Health visitors are experienced frontline early intervention professionals who often get into the houses of new parents at an early stage and gain their trust. They have been an early warning system for safeguarding problems as well as offering parenting support classes and other mechanisms that parents so often need. We have allowed their numbers to decline, and that is a false economy. I hope that the Minister might pick up on that. Obviously it is a dual responsibility along with the Department of Health.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the first 1,001 days, which deals with perinatal mental health and the crucial first three years from conception to age two when a child’s brain is developing exponentially, I know how important it is to get that early support, particularly for parents who are lacking in some parenting skills. There are safeguarding issues, and it is a false economy not to be doing it. As our report, “Building Great Britons”, showed, the cost of getting perinatal mental health wrong is just over £8 billion a year, and the cost of child neglect in this country is over £15 billion a year. So we are spending £23 billion a year getting it wrong for new mothers and early-age children. That is a heck of an amount of money to be going on failure, frankly.
To put into perspective the importance of children’s services and the apparently relentless increase in demand, the County Councils Network recently reported that counties are responsible for 38% of England’s entire spend on children’s services, and that the councils in England alone overspent by £816 million on protecting vulnerable children just in the last financial year. The Local Government Association—I am grateful for the research that it has done—is predicting a £2 billion shortfall in children’s social care funding by 2020, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, and it could be as much as £3.1 billion by 2025.
There is good news. I do not want to be such a doom merchant, because the positive work by councils in helping our children and young people to have the best start in life has been illustrated by the latest Ofsted data on children’s social care. It shows that last year the proportion of council children’s services rated good or outstanding has increased, and that more children’s services departments have come out of special measures. I was delighted to hear in the past 24 hours that Birmingham, which has been problematic for so many years—I spent more of my time there than in any other local authority area—is no longer rated inadequate. There is still a steep hill to climb but there are good signs of progress in that huge authority that has all sorts of challenges.
There is a worrying trend in a recent report from the Nuffield Foundation, “Born into care”. It found that in 2007-08 there were 1,039 babies subject to care proceedings within one week of birth, but by 2016-17 this number had more than doubled to 2,447—an increase of 136%. That suggests to me that we are failing to do enough early to prevent babies from having to be taken into care because their parents are deemed inadequate or a risk to them. If we did more earlier on, those children may be able to stay with their parents.
At this point, I want to pay tribute to the family drug and alcohol courts, which were set up by Nick Crichton, a visionary district judge who did an amazing job of providing support and sensitive intervention services to people—usually single mums—who are at risk of a child or perhaps another child going into the care system and giving them an added chance. It was a tough challenge, but the success of the FDACs more than doubled the likelihood of those children staying with their parents and, more importantly, staying permanently.
That work carries on. There are 10 FDACs around the country, and we hope the Minister will be charitable in extending some funding for the FDAC co-ordination unit at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. He has been very helpful in discussions there. Nick Crichton sadly died just before Christmas, but his work has affected the lives of hundreds of children, and I want to put on record our tribute to him.
The Children’s Commissioner found in one of her reports that England now spends nearly half its entire children’s services budget on the 75,420 children in the care system in England, leaving the remaining half of spending for the other 11.7 million children, which includes spend on learning disability. The LGA reports that between 2006 and 2016, the number of child protection inquiries undertaken by local authorities rose by no less than 140%, while the number of children subject to a child protection plan almost doubled. More and more children are being taken into care. As I said, there were 75,420 children in care as of March last year, which is up 4% on the previous year.
Barnardo’s found in its report that 16% of the children referred to its fostering services had suffered sexual exploitation. There is increasing evidence—it is what police, teachers and social workers are saying—that there has been an increase in the number of particularly vulnerable children in the last five years. We have more children coming into the care system, often with more complex problems and requiring more intensive support, but we do not have enough going on—we have much less going on—to intervene early to try to keep them out of the care system. I do not think what I said earlier about a potentially impending crisis is an overstatement.
Barnardo’s also found that in 2010, roughly half of children’s services budgets were spent on family support and prevention, while the other half was spent on safeguarding work and children in care. Now, just under a third is spent on family support and prevention, while the remaining two thirds goes on safeguarding and children in care. We are building up problems for the future by not acting earlier.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is most gracious. Does he agree that more support should be given to families who are prepared to intervene, to help a child remain cared for by family members and prevent children being taken away from their home and support networks? Does he also agree that foster carers should not have less support and financial help simply because they are not related?
Again, the hon. Gentleman, who knows this subject well, makes some good points. We need to support foster carers better. We have overhauled the fostering regulations to ensure that foster carers get a better and fairer deal, as well as the foster children themselves. We have also tried to get more people to adopt and take on permanent responsibility for children.
There are also many voluntary organisations. Volunteers can work alongside vulnerable families, particularly where there is an absence of extended family members such as grandparents who, in another family, might be there to support parents or single parents through difficult times. To be fair, the Department for Education’s innovation fund and other funds have supported some really good work in the voluntary sector. We all need to work together on this, and it starts at home, but if some of the things that many of us take for granted are not in place at home, there are other ways of providing them before the state has to step in and become the parent. We need to be more flexible and imaginative. I am going to race through my remaining pages before you say I am out of time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am delighted by the extent of interest from colleagues here today.
Crucially, there is a good deal of evidence to show that funding pressures are having a disproportionate impact on some of the most deprived areas. I want to pay tribute to Professor Paul Bywaters of the University of Huddersfield, who gave a lot of evidence to our all-party group inquiry, for the work he undertook together with Professor Brid Featherstone of the University of Huddersfield and Professor Kate Morris of the University of Sheffield. If I may quote from some of his notes to the inquiry, Professor Bywaters said:
“Children in the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods in England…were over 8 times more likely to be either on a Child Protection Plan or be Looked After in the care system…than a child in the least deprived 20%.”
That absolutely concurs with the all-party group’s finding. He also said that he was worried about the paucity of data to provide solid evidence for what we need to do to address this problem. He said:
“The complete absence of any systematic national data about the socio-economic and demographic circumstances of the parents of children in contact with children’s services is a key problem in analysing the factors that influence demand for children’s services. Collecting such data should be an urgent priority to underpin policy, service management and practice.”
That is one of the key recommendations from the all-party group report.
It is a false economy not to be investing in children’s social care as early on as possible. As I have said, that starts at conception, particularly when there are vulnerable parents who have mental health problems or have had poor parenting experiences themselves. This needs to be addressed in the comprehensive spending review. It is a classic example of investing to save—to save financially, but also to save the social consequences of children growing up and not being fully contributing members of society.
Some children are at higher risk, and disproportionately so in certain parts of the country according to deprivation and, indeed, ethnicity. We need to get the data to research those differentials and start applying the proper solution. We cannot do so until we have the proper information. We need to return to a much more preventive approach. That was why we invented the early intervention fund when this Government first came to power, but I am afraid its effects have been dissipated and the amount of funds diluted.
I ask the Minister to do his best to make sure that the troubled families programme, the funding for which comes to an end in 2020, is renewed. I want to see a pre-troubled families programme that deals with the first 1,001 days, before such families get on to the radar of local authorities, because of the problems that come with that.
We need to go back to the Munro report—I am glad to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who took part in that report—and to the unfinished business around early help. We need to share better practice and share research data better. We need to work smarter and more collaboratively. We also need to look after children closer to home, in familiar environments and friends groups, and use kinship care much better than we are now.
This is not just about resources, but about changing the mindset and getting this back as a Government priority. That is why I absolutely welcome the initiative launched last night in this place by Children First to have a Cabinet-level Minister for children, bringing together all these factors.
This is not just something invented in this place. I am delighted to say that, at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last year, there was the declaration of an initiative for early childhood development. It said:
“We therefore launch the G20 Initiative for Early Childhood Development, determined to contribute to ensuring that all children—with an emphasis on their first 1,000 days”—
one day short—
“are well nourished and healthy, receive proper care, stimulation and opportunities for early learning and education, and grow up in nurturing and enabling environments, protected from all kinds of violence, abuse, neglect and conflict.”
This is an international priority. We have a great tradition of looking after the welfare of our children in this country, we just need to get back to making sure that we are doing it sooner and earlier, when we can have the most effect and the maximum benefit. I am sure the Minister will want to take up those challenges.
I wish to raise several issues today, so I hope hon. Members will bear with me. I am afraid the list got a little longer each time this debate was delayed—it is a good job it is being held today, as who knows how long I would have gone on for otherwise.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and the first part of my contribution will focus on the point he rightly highlighted about the lack of effective early intervention. Hon. Members who were in this place before 2015 may know that I have been a critic of the troubled families programme, but I sincerely believe in early intervention. Working closely with families and having a joined-up approach across different public services is the only way to go, and those were the principles that underlined the programme pioneered and implemented by the previous Labour Government before 2010. Those principles also lie behind the troubled families programme.
It is therefore concerning to know that funding for the troubled families programme and its work across our country—both the good and the bad—is set to end next year, with nothing to replace it in sight. I am sure the Government know that there is support across the House for early intervention if it is properly resourced, managed and measured. My only hope is that the looming disaster of Brexit does not distract from the creation of a replacement programme.
It is important to talk about early intervention, because funding for such programmes has fallen massively even as need is soaring. Some 72% of funding for children’s services is now spent on firefighting because children and families are already in crisis, but that funding does not prevent such crises from happening. Early intervention and universal support services have been cut to the bone, with cuts of 60% in each area according to the Children’s Commissioner for England. Those cuts include £1 billion from Sure Start and an additional £900 million from services that work with children and young people. Such massive cuts have meant that social workers find it much harder to work with vulnerable children and families early and effectively. Caseloads have undeniably and inexorably increased, leaving much less time available for regular contact and for building up relationships, trust and understanding with families. That exacerbates family problems, leading to poor child development, school exclusions, more children being taken into care, increases in antisocial behaviour and crime, and signs of abuse or neglect being missed until—sadly, sadly, sadly—it is just too late. Last month, Ofsted’s national director of social care, Yvette Stanley, pointed out that the cuts are clearly a false economy, and that slashing non-statutory services is
“storing up problems for the future”.
Let me remind the Minister about practical early intervention services that are being cut. They include debt and financial advice services, parenting programmes to help families address the causes of disruptive behaviour —programmes that we know are effective—support for victims of domestic violence, and help for getting mums and children out of abusive situations and allowing them to recover. That now all comes out of the children’s services budget, because funding from elsewhere has disappeared.
The list also includes mental health treatment and substance abuse programmes for parents. The Government cannot claim to be pro-family if they continue to remove those forms of support, and the absence of such programmes is driving more and more children into the care of the state. I always try to appeal to what the Government would see as common sense, so let me say simply that it costs more money to take a child into care than it does to prevent them from going into care. Even with a balanced budget approach, the cuts are a massive mistake.
It is bad enough that resources have been cut so much, but demand has also been rising rapidly. Social security cuts and universal credit are undeniably increasing poverty, and poverty leads to more insecurity and massive stresses within families. Some 1.5 million people in the UK are utterly destitute and unable to afford essentials such as shelter, food, heating or clothing, and that includes 365,000 children. The stresses and strains on families’ lives are getting worse because of the Government’s failed and continuing austerity policy.
According to the Government’s own statistics, 1.5 million more disabled people, 300,000 more pensioners, 400,000 more working-age adults and over half a million more children are in poverty than in 2010. The most shocking rise in poverty has been among children with parents in work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has worked out that there are 710,000 more children in poverty in working households than in 2010. In-work poverty has actually risen faster than employment in recent years. We are talking about working families, many with lone working parents. Many are working long hours and multiple jobs to get by on low pay, constantly struggling to make ends meet. That means that parents are stressed and that they have less time to spend at home and focus on their children, making sure that everything is okay and creating a family whose health is equal to their love.
The worst consequence of child poverty—child homelessness—has also increased massively. That is a huge difference from when I was a child. My family was cleared from a slum in West Silvertown in 1963. We moved into a beautiful, brand-new two-bedroom flat overlooking the dying docks in east London. It was that flat that gave me everything. It was from that flat that everything else stemmed. My mum and dad had stability. They both worked in local factories to provide for us. That home, however small I sometimes felt it was, gave me the ability to study and to grow with my community. It gave me and my sister the opportunity to thrive.
Today’s working class children in the east end have it very different. One hundred and thirty thousand children were homeless over Christmas, an increase of almost 60% in just five years. Ten thousand of those children are stuck in bed and breakfast accommodation, often with a whole family in a single room. Most of the other 120,000 are in temporary accommodation, torn from schools, family and friends, the places they recognise and the support networks they rely on. They often do not even know where their local library is, because they have not been in a place long enough to be able to work it out.
I see the effects of that in my own borough, where I grew up in that secure and safe council flat. Now, appallingly to me, it has the highest level of homelessness in the country. I hear about children having to travel hours each way to school from a different part of the city; families sleeping in dirty, cold, rat-infested rooms; families who have not had a secure, safe place to call a home for year after year after year. How is a child supposed to learn to trust others and feel safe under those conditions? How is a parent supposed to muster the time and energy to engage with a social worker over weeks and months, and how is that social worker supposed to create and maintain a relationship when the family is so insecure?
I believe there is a direct relationship between the crisis in children’s social care and the increase in extremely serious harm caused by criminal gang exploitation in my constituency and the east of London. If the Government want to reduce serious violence, funding children’s services properly is an absolute must. We know that gangs pick on vulnerable children the most. Studies show that poor emotional health at the age of seven is the best predictor of future exploitation by gangs. That means that counselling is one of the most effective ways to prevent children from being exploited. They need to develop resilience.
We know that these children often have undiagnosed special educational needs as well. We should be supporting them, but instead the children and their families are left to struggle on, often alone. Once they reach secondary school, vulnerable children are far more likely to be excluded or off-rolled, increasing the risk of exploitation even more. As we know, exclusions have sky-rocketed by 67% over the past five years. That is the research, but it is also real life. I hear about the consequences from local mums terrified of what has happened to their children. As their MP, I am their last resort. They have already tried everywhere else. I see the same things in the serious case reviews of children who have been tragically and appallingly murdered in gang-related violence. Every review I have seen tells the same story: a vulnerable child; escalating involvement in gang violence; the failure of local agencies to intervene; and opportunities to help not taken. I have absolutely no doubt that cuts to resources are part of the cause.
The case reviews are a statutory responsibility, designed so that lessons can be learned. In summing up, I hope the Minister will tell me the lessons that he and the Department are learning. I have talked about a replacement for the troubled families programme, early intervention, universal preventive services and the cuts, but let us be clear: the crisis in children’s services is systemic. It is just as much about the increased stresses and struggles that families are having to go through because this economy, this social security system and this Government frankly do not work for them.
It is a real honour to be able to talk in this debate and to follow the speakers who have already contributed, particularly my very old friend, the former Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), with whom I worked between 2008 and 2010. He did not blow his own trumpet enough in his speech. While I would not want to blow his trumpet for him, I might at least acknowledge that he has a trumpet.
The work that my hon. Friend did first as shadow Children’s Minister and then as Children’s Minister over a long stretch, between 2004 and 2012, created a Conservative policy on children’s social work where frankly one had not really existed before. During that time, children’s services, particularly children’s social work, were under considerable strain following the tragic death of baby P, Peter Connelly. It was clear that the systems governing children’s social work were not delivering for vulnerable families and were not enabling talented social workers on the frontline to give the care that they wanted to give to families and children in need. The work that he did exposed that and developed the idea.
My hon. Friend wrote “No More Blame Game” and, while I was working for him, he produced “Child Protection: Back to the Frontline”, which introduced the idea of the Munro review of child protection. That whole-system review was brought in following the 2010 general election and was brilliantly conducted by Professor Eileen Munro from the London School of Economics. It showed how we needed to take a new approach that allowed frontline social workers to be in charge of the work they did, and not governed by central systems, such as the integrated children’s system, which was put in place by the former Administration. I put on record my ongoing and continued admiration for the work that my hon. Friend did outside and inside Government. He continues with that work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for children.
I want to focus on something slightly different from the issues my hon. Friend has run through. Having worked for him, I went to work at Barnardo’s and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, the Centre for Social Justice and various places in Whitehall. I looked at fostering, children in care and the root causes of the problems that families in those situations face. It became apparent that, although a great deal of public policy had rightly focused on the needs of children who were in foster care and children who needed to be adopted—another great thing that my hon. Friend did was streamline the adoption process and rapidly increase the number of children who were going into good and loving homes—a large group of children were not in care, but were on the social services’ radar. The Children Act 1989 defines them as children in need. They are numerous, they are needy and they absolutely warrant the increased attention that the Government are now giving them.
There are about 75,000 children in care at any one time, but over the course of any one year there are about 400,000 children in need. Recent work by the Department for Education has shown that in any given three-year period there will be more than 1 million children in need at one point or another. Their GCSE results and future employment prospects are extremely limited: in fact, they are often as poor as, or worse than, those of children in care, for the simple reason that children in care have been taken out of their disruptive, dysfunctional homes and—hopefully—placed in stable foster placements or stable children’s homes and given a second chance, whereas children in need, many of whose families face acute problems, are left in those disruptive environments.
That group was ignored under successive Governments, which was a policy gap, but I am glad to say that this Government and this Minister have started to fill the hole. The review of children in need is starting to expose issues whose existence my preliminary research had led me to suspect, but which I had not been able to flesh out.
One of the most striking statistics is that 51% of young people who are long-term NEETs—not in education, employment or training for a year after they have left school— will have been either in care or in need at one point in their childhood. Such experiences have lasting scarring effects. If we do not deal with them effectively when we notice them, providing the early intervention services that are necessary to prevent children from slipping into these categories, we are storing up problems for the future: problems for society, but also severe problems for those individuals.
The solutions are complex, because the reasons why children and families find themselves in such circumstances are themselves complex. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made many important points, and she was right to identify the scarring effects of poverty, but there are issues besides money that are also important. Some are exacerbated by a lack of money, but some are not. Another striking statistic is that half the children in need in this country are not on free school meals.
Some of my constituents who are working are not entitled to free school meals for their children. They could well be poorer financially than those who are entitled to free school meals. Free school meals are no longer a proper measure of which child is in poverty. I should be happy to have a conversation with the hon. Gentleman about this over a cup of tea.
I should be delighted to take the hon. Lady up on that. I know that what she is saying is absolutely right. However, there are also many children in need who have one parent in work and whose other parent has severe mental health problems or an addiction. The difficulty in such families is not solely related to money; it is caused by the fact that an individual has a very severe problem that is not being adequately met by social services.
When we find a child who is in need and on the edge of care, we need to take a holistic look at that child’s family. In the past, children’s social care sometimes looked very narrowly at how the child was at any one time and not at the immediate environment in which they were living and what could be done to improve it. Indeed, sometimes children ended up in care without their parents being given—or even approached about—the services that were necessary in order to improve that family environment. I would much rather fix the family’s problems in order to keep that family together so that the child can grow up in a stable home.
In terms of what can be done, I am glad the Minister has undertaken this work, which is starting to flush out good practice in the system and areas where more work needs to be done. I venture to suggest some things on which we need to focus. We must look at those slightly older children who are moving towards leaving school. In my experience over the years, I have found that additional professional mentoring conducted in and out of school can be highly effective. There is a wonderful programme in the east of London called ThinkForward, which gives long-term mentoring to children in disruptive homes. The presence of a stable adult to give advice, be a shoulder to cry on and be a support in a time of need is invaluable.
Child poverty levels in my constituency are really high. We have also had the impact of the full roll-out of universal credit recently. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the impact that UC is having? It is exacerbating the problems that a lot of families are suffering from.
I am happy to acknowledge that, when families have less money, they can find themselves in debt, which adds to stress and can contribute to poor mental health. I do not know about the cases the hon. Lady is talking about in her constituency, but I have seen the consequences of people being trapped in problem debt for a long time and not being given help to get out of it. That can certainly be a major problem. That issue is slightly off the subject I was talking about. I hope that, if the hon. Lady is unaware of the ThinkForward programme in the east end of London, she will visit it and promote it.
I agree that programmes like that in my constituency make a difference, but may I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that additional youth workers and adults for my children to talk to who enable my children to have options and ways out of gang-related activity is what is massively lacking? I made a speech about this just a few weeks ago, if he would like to look at it in Hansard.
I will happily look at it. I hope that Opposition Members will realise that they are agreeing with me and perhaps take a slightly different tone when coming back on me on this subject, because what we are all saying is that it is important for families to have the support they need and for vulnerable children to have the support they need, ideally in home but, if it is too late for that or that cannot be made available, in school.
So what needs to be done? I encourage the Government, local authorities and schools to look at long-term stable mentoring projects for those slightly older children. For other families, as has been raised by other Members, the Troubled Families programme is of profound importance. It got off to a slightly bumpy start but has come to be the mainstay of a lot of local authorities’ earlier intervention plans.
When I was in a different job a couple of years ago, I went to see how Camden had completely integrated its Troubled Families programme as part of a spectrum of care running from health visiting all the way through to the most intensive work in children’s homes. It would be terrible if those Troubled Families contracts were not renewed in some way, and I have every confidence that the Government will renew them. As we do it, it is important to consider what we mean by troubled families. I would venture to suggest that this group of young people, classified under the Children Act 1989 as children in need, and this large group of families who suffer from poor mental health, addiction and other such strains, are, by definition, troubled families. As I say, many local authorities already take this approach, but I think it would add a coherence to Government policy in this area if the work being done with troubled families in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that being done with children’s social care in the Department for Education were brought together. Some local authorities are very good at merging these approaches. Some are less good. I commend those that are.
This is the last time. As the hon. Gentleman can hear, I am actually listening to his speech. That is why I am so engaged in it. He is absolutely right about the Troubled Families programme. Many parts of the country do it very well—Manchester, for example, has totally and utterly integrated its services and done it really well—but other local authorities game the money and take it elsewhere. We need to make sure that our next programme gets proper and effective results.
I could not agree more. The freedoms given to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority by this Administration have allowed it to become a Petri dish for new ways of doing things, breaking down silo budgets and taking a whole-area approach. I have absolute confidence that the lessons being learned in Manchester will eventually be taken and spread elsewhere. I feel that the hon. Lady made another point other than Manchester that I wanted to come back on.
Yes, that was it. Getting the data we need to prove effectiveness is one of those extraordinarily valuable holy grails. Successive Governments have found it very difficult to prove the efficacy of individual programmes, but there is a way forward. In New Zealand a few years ago, the Government brought together a huge amount of personal data through what was known as the integrated data initiative. They spliced together data from social services, housing, tax and so on, and then anonymised it and established ethical rules in advance, so that the data could never be used to find out whether someone had not paid their car tax, for instance. It could never be used against people and could only be used at a community level.
As a result, the New Zealand Government are capable now of effectively performing randomised control trials on all their social impact programmes. They know which programmes to give added investment to and which to wind down. Admittedly, New Zealand is a slightly smaller jurisdiction than the United Kingdom. The combining of data on that sort of scale in the UK is a bigger project, but one that would be unbelievably valuable. I have no doubt that we have the expertise in the Office for National Statistics to do it, and do it well, and I am sure the moment we have it, it will be one of those things we wish we had had long ago.
To conclude, Mr Deputy Speaker—I mean, Madam Deputy Speaker. How very nice to see you there, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was enjoying the company of the Opposition so much I did not notice that your colleague had left and you had arrived. We must consider not just the children with the most acute needs, important though they are and must remain, but young people on the edge of the system who may come in and out of that hinterland many times during their childhoods but might not qualify for the highest level of support.
Before I conclude my remarks completely, I want to dip into one more policy area that I forgot to mention earlier, and this goes back the issue that I was debating with the hon. Member for West Ham. About half of children in need are not eligible for free school meals, which means that about half of children in need do not receive the pupil premium. That has always seemed like a crazy peculiarity. It is laudable that a child whose parents were briefly unemployed six years ago receives the pupil premium, but I would question whether their need is greater than someone who lives in an abusive home and has been in and out of contact with social services, perhaps over a prolonged period of years. I am a full supporter of the pupil premium programme that this Government introduced in 2011, but as it reaches maturity after eight years it would be worth looking at exactly how that pot is allocated. I would always like it to be a bit bigger, but we also need to consider whether some groups have an eligibility that has not been recognised and could be brought into the system.
We have to think about children who are on the edge, we must consider the needs of their families, and we need to examine the Government programmes and local authority structures that can provide for those families and those children. I have high hopes for the local government financial settlement and for the comprehensive spending review next year, and I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), is here to hear my concerns. I am sure that he will take them forward with the same energy that he has brought to the children in need review in his time in office so far.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I must admit that I had to look twice as well, because I did not notice the change in Chair—[Laughter.] My point is that I did not notice that one person had left and another had come in. [Hon. Members: “Seamless!”] It was a seamless transition.
It is often said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. If that is the case, this Government measure up poorly when it comes to the treatment of vulnerable children. This Tory Government have created an entirely avoidable crisis in children’s social care. Last year saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010, and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day. Local authorities’ inability to cope with the increase in service demand is a direct result of this Government’s ideologically driven austerity programme. Since 2010, cuts to local authority funding have resulted in a 40% real-terms decrease in spending on early intervention in children’s services. Research by the Local Government Association has found that local government will face a funding gap of almost £8 billion by 2025.
Vulnerable children should never have to suffer because of the unjust political priorities of the Tory party, but the cuts have a human cost. In Lincoln, my postbag is full of letters and emails from worried parents and carers—I get them all the time. The support system is being pushed to breaking point, and growing demand for support has led to 75% of councils in England overspending on their children’s services budgets by over £815 million. As is always the case with Tory cuts to local authorities, councils have been forced to make cuts elsewhere and draw on reserves as a result. So, not only are children needlessly suffering from underfunded social care, but other services that people rely on are being squeezed as well. I think I mentioned earlier that Lincoln has a particularly high rate of child poverty, and that includes children of working parents, not just of those without jobs.
Budget cuts have also stripped away the capacity for early intervention, increasingly requiring child protection services to wait until a child is in crisis before intervening. LGA analysis again shows that Government funding for the early intervention grant has been cut by almost £500 million since 2013 and is projected to drop by a further £183 million by 2020. This Government are placing vulnerable children in dangerous situations that could have been avoided. I know we talk and talk about austerity, and sometimes people turn off, but this country would be a different place if this Government prioritised funding public services adequately over tax cuts for the rich and for big corporations.
It is particularly important that protection is provided for disabled children. Research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership shows a £1.5 billion funding gap for services for disabled children, and in the past few weeks alone I have had four parents of autistic children contact my office with concerns that underfunded and overstretched services are not providing adequate support. I see that in my postbag all the time. On Monday mornings, before I come down to Westminster, I try to make special appointments at 8.30 and 9 o’clock so that I can see and talk to some of these people, because people in Lincoln really are struggling.
Across the board, we see this Government neglecting the services on which children rely so that they can give people tax cuts. Austerity has not only decimated the provision of children’s social care but driven the rise in service demand. The strain put on parents and children is driving record numbers of young people into a social care service that this Government have cut to the bone.
It is not giving with one hand and taking with the other. When it comes to the vital public services on which working people and vulnerable people rely, this Government are taking with one hand and taking with the other, too.
I hope the Minister is actively listening to me, and I hope he can give me some reassurance. I stand up to say things in this Chamber and, sadly, all I get is empty words—party policy—quoted back to me. I would like to see some real action that actually changes something and makes it better.
I do not stand to speak just so everyone can see that it is me in the Chair, and not the Chairman of Ways and Means. I have been mistaken for many people in my time, but not for the right hon. Gentleman. I suppose we have similarities—well, we both sit in the Chair.
I will try not to set a time limit, especially as the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) was admirably brief in her remarks, but in order that there will be time for the Front Benchers to speak, it would be helpful if speeches were around eight minutes. We have four colleagues to accommodate, and around eight minutes would mean that everyone is honourable in their treatment of everyone else.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), and it is great to see such a strong Essex presence in the Chair and in the House.
The Children’s Society has been looking out for our most vulnerable children for 138 years. It has a long history in Essex, and its Essex headquarters are, of course, in Chelmsford. The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and other children’s organisations wrote to all MPs before this debate with a helpful briefing that particularly highlighted the importance of early intervention in helping to avoid problems for children.
Early intervention is the subject of a detailed study by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which particularly considered the issue in relation to childhood adversity and trauma. The study shows the importance of early intervention in tackling potential long-term problems. I urge the Minister to look at the report, which particularly points out that the increasing variety of early intervention programmes have been shown to improve life outcomes for those affected by childhood trauma. However, the report says that provision is fragmented and highly variable, and it encourages the Government to identify areas that are working well.
I am delighted that one area that is working exceptionally well is Essex, which is the second largest area of the country for children’s services. Essex is a significant provider of children’s services, and just last week it received the fantastic news of an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted for its children’s services.
The Ofsted inspectors said:
“Inspirational leaders, supported by good corporate and political support and strong partnerships, are tenaciously ambitious for children.”
Ofsted praises the work of the children and families hub, and the exceptional early intervention services. Ofsted says the social workers are
“passionate about securing and sustaining improvement”
in children’s lives. It mentions the joined-up approach to safeguarding, and the county-wide approach to addressing homelessness, whereby children and families who are at risk of becoming homeless are identified and problems are resolved before they become homeless. Ofsted refers to the work of the gangs intervention team; the private fostering team; the adoption managers, who work to keep families together; the support given to unaccompanied asylum seeking children; and the ongoing work to support children after they have left care and grown up, as it were. This really is an exceptional piece of work. We are very proud of this work in Essex and I wish to put on the record my huge thanks and respect to everyone involved.
I thank my hon. Friend for that.
It is important to recognise that this has not always been the position; in 2010, the council’s service was rated as “inadequate”. At that time, its spending was £148 million a year. The turnaround in Essex has not come as a result of pouring more money into the system—quite the opposite. The performance in Essex has been turned around despite the fact that £30 million less is being spent on children’s services. The turnaround whereby the second largest authority in the country for children’s services has gone from “requires improvement” to “outstanding” has been done despite funding coming down from £148 million to £118 million. It has been achieved because of a continual focus on early intervention and preventing children from having to go into care in the first place. In 2010, the number of children in care was 1,615, whereas the latest figure is 1,017—so 600 fewer children are in care because we are getting them support earlier. Essex is working with other councils to improve their local children’s services and I particularly wish to put on the record my thanks to Councillor Dick Madden, who co-chairs the LGA taskforce in this area.
The council has just written a lengthy submission to the Select Committee’s report, not only looking at what the council has achieved, but mentioning some of the challenges ahead: there is growth in demand for services; the county, like many others close to London, has experienced migration, with the children from London boroughs being moved out towards Essex; as some colleagues have mentioned, we are facing new phenomena, such as the criminal and sexual exploitation of young people by gangs via county lines; the casework the council is seeing is increasingly more complex; and of course the national shortage of social workers puts pressure on the service and on salaries. That comes on top of the pressure that many local authorities see in their budgets, partly because of the increased number of older people and then the pressure on adult social services. I hope that the Minister will look at this report that the council submitted to the Select Committee because it outlines the problems and makes detailed suggestions.
It is not only Essex’s children’s services that have just got an outstanding ranking. Just before Christmas the inspectors came in to look at our probation services, particularly the multi-agency youth offending team, who have also achieved an outstanding ranking. Essex social care services have just been awarded the best social worker employer of the year award.
Our children are our future. There are issues to address in children’s social services. The Government will be looking at how to plan for the future. I will leave with one plea to the Minister and to any members of the Select Committee: if they would like to learn a little more about how this works in Essex, they should just pop on the train to Chelmsford—we are only an hour away from Westminster—where they will be able to see it all for themselves.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). I am not usually here on a Thursday, but I must say that the Chamber is very good tempered—it’s lovely.
I am going to speak briefly on the issue of social care provision in England and, specifically, how families with disabled children in my constituency face huge battles, fighting for their children to receive the care that they should be entitled to.
Many disabled children and their families rely on support from social care, such as short breaks, personal care and adaptations to their homes. However, most disabled children receive no regular support from outside their own close family and friends. The shift in the balance of services provided by children’s social care has impacted adversely on services for disabled children and their families. There has been a reduction in the number of disabled children who receive social care, despite an increase in the past 10 years in the number of disabled children in the UK by more than one third, to about 1.1 million, and their needs becoming ever more complex.
We all know that 10 years of austerity has resulted in services for disabled children coming under increasing threat due to cuts to local government funding. In fact, the Disabled Children’s Partnership has identified an annual funding gap of £434 million. As the gap has grown wider, two thirds of families have, unsurprisingly, reported a decline in the services available for their loved ones. Every week my team and I talk to families who are under enormous emotional, physical and mental pressure due to the complete failure of the system to offer their children the resources needed to enable them to live their lives with dignity.
On behalf of all of those constituents I will explain exactly what they have conveyed to me, and I hope that the Minister will respond adequately at the end of the debate. First, people are struggling to access the services. The necessary interventions that these children should be entitled to simply are not there, or the wait is too long to access them. Many parents speak of their immense frustration, as they know that investment could prevent the escalation of future problems. By the time something is done, it is often too late.
Secondly, many existing services do not meet expectations. A survey by the Disability Children’s Partnership shows that two thirds of family members have experienced a decline in the quality of services in recent years. Training and development of professionals, staff shortages, increased demand and poor pay can all impact on the quality of the service that people receive. When I was teaching, a referral could take months and the support was often only available for a short amount of time and subject to availability.
Thirdly, families cannot access those services easily. I have worked with a number of families who are exhausted because of the system. They are run down and on the brink due to the constant battle they face just to get what should be a human right. I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “The thing is, Laura, what about those who simply can’t fight or who don’t know how to? What happens to them?”
Finally, services do not always work together or communicate well with each other. Fragmented systems that do not join up properly to work in the best interest of the child are more often than not exasperated by chronic underfunding and undervalued and underpaid staff. Families often speak of how their social worker changes and they go back to square one.
What does all of that result in? The quality of life of, and opportunities available to, disabled children and their families is unacceptable compared with those without disabilities. Why is that? Our Government will not provide the funding required because that is the political choice that they have made. Not only is investing in the services available to these children the right thing to do from a human rights point of view; there is also a strong argument in favour of the economic value of doing so. Support can mean that costly long-term residential care is not required and that potential cost to the NHS is reduced. Support can help not only the child, but the parents and carers as well, as there is more opportunity for parents to work if they know that their child is being cared for adequately.
I must make it clear that there are many in my constituency who are working with children with disabilities and are doing an absolutely remarkable job. Often they are doing so through a registered charity, and are unpaid or even working at their own expense. People should not have to rely on the good will of others to receive care that should be a fundamental human right. This Government are relying on the general public to pick up the pieces of their starved system.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to draw your attention to the Cheshire Buddies and the Broad Street Project, two remarkable charities in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich. I was lucky to spend time with them both over the Christmas period. Both go above and beyond to provide care and develop skills that these children desperately need. These organisations are largely staffed by volunteers. One thing that was made absolutely clear was that most of the children attending these charities receive no regular support from outside their own close family and friends and it is sheer fluke that a handful of good people are driving charities such as Cheshire Buddies and the Broad Street Project, so that these children at least receive some help, but that is simply not good enough.
If you do not mind, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will give you a typical example of what these people do: a child unable to walk with a number of disabilities started attending sessions run by Jane and her team at the Broad Street Project. They were told that the child would not walk. Jane being the determined woman that she is decided, as she has done with so many children, that she was not going to give up on this child. Against the odds, Jane taught this child to walk and to develop a number of other skills that will now remain with her for life. Without that intervention, that child could have spent her entire life in a wheelchair just because the support was not there to teach her how to walk. How many children do not get that opportunity because they do not come across people like Jane?
Before I conclude, I will touch on the issue of respite care for families—something that is probably top of the list for most of the families that I speak to. Everybody needs a break sometimes and nobody more so than someone who is caring for a loved one with complex needs. Briefly, I will mention Stephanie and her team at Cheshire Buddies whose scheme supports more than 95 local disabled children, 17 sibling carers, 27 disabled adults and more than 50 parent carers. The children have a range of needs, including learning disabilities, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and a range of chromosomal conditions. Many of those children come from low-income families and families with a history of special educational needs. Cheshire Buddies runs holiday clubs and day trips to give families that much-needed break. It manages to exist thanks to volunteer support. Without those volunteers, many of these families would be completely isolated.
I pay tribute to Mick Roberts who sadly passed away on 28 December and who will be missed by our community. He was a proud railwayman, a Labour councillor and someone who dedicated so much time and effort to the Seahorse Swimming Club charity in Crewe that helps and supports disabled children and adults to enjoy swimming.
These charities and many others in my constituency are constantly battling for essential funding. They are always in a process of bidding and fundraising and are always worried that their funds will disappear. What then happens to all of those people who rely so much on them? Families who have visited me in my surgery are often desperate. They do not know where else to turn. All that they are doing is fighting for their child—exactly what any one of us would do. They are experts in their children’s conditions—even if they do not realise it—and they are exhausted and mentally drained. One parent said to me recently, “I am a warrior, but I just want to be a mum. What happens if something happens to me?”
I urge the Government to put in place an interim funding arrangement to stabilise the crisis in early intervention services and to prevent more children and families reaching breaking point. They must address, as a matter of urgency, the £3 billion shortfall in children’s social care funding and put children at the heart of the forthcoming spending review.
Bedford Borough Council is very concerned that there is no regulation of accommodation for vulnerable young people who are 16 years old and over—often referred to as semi-independent living or supported accommodation. In Bedford and nationwide, there is a significant shortfall in available placements for children in care or leaving care. This has resulted in an alarming number of 16 and 17-year-olds being placed in independent living accommodation.
An investigation earlier this month by The Observer and BBC Radio 5 Live established that there has been a 28% increase in the number of under-18s placed in independent living accommodation by councils in England in the last eight years. This accommodation lacks living and staff support, and includes unsupervised B&Bs and accommodation owned by private landlords, who have no obligations to offer appropriate care to looked-after children or those leaving care. In the report, we even heard from children who had been placed in tents.
I wrote to the Children’s Minister about this issue recently and I am very disappointed by his response, which completely failed even to acknowledge the problem. The Independent Children’s Homes Association has raised this issue for at least two years with many agencies including the Department for Education, Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner, but there has been no action at all.
This is a scandal. Vulnerable children are being abandoned by the state and, worse, are put at risk by being placed in unsuitable and unchecked accommodation with adults who have drug addictions or a history of criminal behaviour, including sexual assaults. How many times must these children be let down by those who should be caring for them? Charities such as Every Child Leaving Care Matters and Just For Kids Law say that there has been unprecedented growth in the number of unregistered, unregulated units of multiple accommodation for children aged 16-plus, but of course we cannot be sure of the scale of the problem because they are unregistered. This must change now.
We must measure the problem and understand why it is happening in order to tackle it and ensure that no 16 and 17-year-old vulnerable children are left to fend for themselves in risky, inappropriate and often unsanitary accommodation. I am pleased to hear the Children’s Commissioner say in her interview with BBC Radio 5 Live and The Observer that she will finally be investigating the housing of vulnerable children this year; better late than never.
This is urgent. The Government must act now to introduce legislation that regulates such properties, and to reassure communities and local authorities that appropriate quality standards are achieved, in order to improve outcomes for vulnerable young people and give confidence to our communities.
I rise to speak about three matters in particular, but I first thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his dogged pursuit of this debate. Waiting for it has been like a game of pass the parcel; it has been going around and around, and I am glad that we have had it today.
Contributions from both sides of the House have helped to show the seriousness of this matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) said, cuts to children’s social care have reached crisis point. I have been asked to speak in this debate on behalf of the councillors on Plymouth City Council, who want to raise the seriousness of the crisis around children’s social care—an area that has not always got the attention that it has deserved. Rightly, adult social care has taken the lion’s share of headlines and funding in recent years, but the crisis in children’s social care has been growing because of a mix of austerity, poverty, cuts and growing demand. It is a poisonous situation that has left some of the most vulnerable children in the country in the worst possible state.
As we have already heard today, analysis from the LGA shows that we need further funding of £3 billion if we are to keep children’s services standing still by 2025. There are more looked-after children being cared for than ever before, and that number is only going to increase. Early intervention is so important, but funding for early intervention programmes is being cut. The expertise of our social workers and charities at a local level is being removed by slow attrition and cuts. People are losing faith and confidence that this system is one in which they want to play a part. But we need the system to work like never before. In Plymouth, as in many other councils across the country, councillors—of all political parties, to be fair—are putting more and more money into children’s social care because there is more and more demand. There are more children in care in Plymouth than ever before, and that will only continue to eat up more and more council funding. Plymouth City Council has lost £350 million in revenue support since 2013, and losing 60p in the pound of funding means that the urgent care needs of our children are sometimes being neglected.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) said, we need to do more to care for the children, particularly 16 and 17-year-olds, who frequently get left out of the system, being put in semi-supported situations where they are left to fend for themselves without the wraparound care and support that they really need. Many of those young kids are at a crossroads in their lives. If they receive the support that they deserve, there is the potential for them to lead full and productive lives. However, far too many young people who have been in care and looked-after children in semi-supported states will not go on to fulfil their potential, because of cuts. Far too many of them will enter the criminal justice system. We can stop that if we take serious steps to do so. I welcome the extension of local councils’ responsibility for people who have been in care up to the age of 25. That is exactly the right thing to do, but it cannot happen unless the funding goes along with it, because having additional responsibilities without additional funding loads more and more pressure on to an already pressurised system.
I want to raise an issue that has not been spoken about so far—exceptionalism in our children’s social care system. One reason why funding for Plymouth’s social care system has been sunk in recent years is the exceptional costs of funding care packages for a very, very small number of children. I want to choose my words carefully, because it is really important that in discussing and debating these issues, at no stage is any blame attributed to the children who need multimillion-pound care packages. Plymouth City Council has lost legal cases about how those care packages are funded. I know that the Minister will be aware of that, and I would be grateful if he could agree to meet the council to discuss how the huge number of those exceptional cases is basically sinking our budget. It is exactly right that the children with the most complex and urgent care needs get that care, especially in a region like the south-west where complex care facilities are not our doorstep and children need to leave the area and the support networks in their locality. However, we cannot defund the needs of the many just to fund those of the few. That is really important. I fear that in a funding situation where there is more and more demand, difficult choices will need to be made. When local councils have lost so much of their funding, exceptional care packages risk really undermining the quality of care that can be given to every child. The Minister is nodding—I am grateful that he will meet to discuss that.
There are so many good people working so hard in children’s social care, and they do not get the praise or the thanks that they deserve. Sometimes in this place it is not fashionable to praise local councils, but I want to thank them. I thank local councillors of all political hues, who are going the extra mile to support urgent children’s social care issues. I thank the care workers and the charities that we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith). I thank foster carers, who are the fundamental bedrock of this issue—I know that because my dad and my stepmother have been fostering children since I was at an early age. Since being a young boy, I have had around the house a constant stream of kids about yea high who have been beaten, abused, starved, neglected or ignored. We need to create a system where those children are given a chance to fulfil their potential. That can come only when the funding envelope for children’s social care is adequate for the urgent needs that we have, and when sufficient political priority is put on all aspects of the children’s social care debate.
There is an urgent need for us to continue this debate. I encourage the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to secure another debate, because we need to keep this in the headlines and on the agenda. If we do not, it risks slipping off. Adult social care takes the headlines and the need. As we have an increasingly old population, adult social care will take up a bigger share of the pie, and we need to ensure that looked-after children—some of the most neglected in our society—are not ignored by this place in favour of other areas.
I want to thank all the people who work so hard on children’s social care, including our local authorities, careworkers, charities and the individuals and families who are trying so hard, but we need to do better, and the best way is by funding this work properly.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his persistence in securing this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
Rarely does this House debate children’s social care, but it is clear from the strength of the speeches today that not only do such debates warrant more frequency, but more importantly, Government action is needed now, before the growing number of children and families being failed by a system that does not need meet their needs swells to even larger proportions.
The Minister is on record as being of the view that “good leadership”, not increased resources, is the key to improving outcomes. As someone who practised as a social worker, I have to say that that is simply not true, nor does that assertion resonate with the reality that dozens of organisations, charities and trade unions and a plethora of cross-party Select Committee reports and groups across the House are repeatedly telling him about.
The scale of the neglect of our most vulnerable children is colossal: more than 400,000 children in need; the largest number of children in care since the 1980s; care proceedings up by a staggering 130% since 2008; increasingly poor outcomes for the thousands of children leaving care; falling adoption rates; social worker recruitment and retention difficulties; a falling number of foster carers; and increasingly large private sector contracts focused on profit, not care.
More than 120 national organisations wrote to the Prime Minister last year stating that this Government are ignoring children. They cited compelling evidence that the services and support that children and young people rely on are at breaking point, yet they were ignored. The Local Government Association now reports that local authorities will face a £3.1 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2025, and 60% of children’s social workers have said that austerity and cuts have affected their ability to do their jobs.
There is now a wealth of research that highlights the links between austerity and the rising number of children coming into contact with children’s services and entering care. One study, by the Nuffield Foundation, found that deprivation was the largest contributory factor in a child’s chances of being looked after. Another, by the National Children’s Bureau, found that 41% of children’s services are now unable to fulfil their statutory duties. I know that the Minister is not too concerned about local authorities fulfilling their statutory duties towards children, as he recently argued that such duties are subject to local interpretation and disseminated a very dangerous myth-busting document advising local authorities to dispense with their statutory guidance in relation to the most vulnerable children.
The hon. Lady needs to correct the record. What she said about dispensing with statutory guidance is absolutely not true, and I urge her to correct the record.
I do not need to correct the record, because what I am saying is already correct.
Especially since the children’s rights charity Article 39 has written to the Secretary of State threatening judicial review on the matter, I again urge the Minister to withdraw that document and cease the repeated attempts to deregulate and wipe away hard-fought-for protective legislation for children. This Government tried to do so during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and they failed in the attempt to allow private services to take over children’s services. I politely suggest to the Minister that he should instead focus on the unprecedented rate of referrals, which stand at more 1,700 children every single day. The consequence of that is a tightened threshold for intervention, meaning that, last year, 36,000 children had to be referred multiple times before they received statutory support to help them with serious issues.
Worse still, there are an estimated 140,000 further children on the fringes of social care in England who are not receiving any support at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) said, there will be many more, because there are those who simply do not seek help or do not know where to go to for that help. That means that children in desperate need of help are being subjected to further harm because of a lack of resources and funding.
I have etched on my brain—and I wish I did not have—every single child and family I worked with prior to entering this place. I remember vividly the little boys and girls who had been so severely abused and neglected that they gouged their own skin, the children who had fled war zones who were stoic and motionless in playgrounds and completely unable to interact with their peers, and the adolescents who would severely self-harm after being subjected to sexual exploitation. Thankfully, I also remember being able to make a positive difference to those children’s lives.
However, ex-colleagues now tell me that, despite their absolute best efforts, the hollowing out of local government and the decimation of wider support services, mentioned so characteristically articulately by my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), have left many children waiting longer for help. Each hour these children wait, they are suffering significant and, for some, irreversible harm.
It is therefore not only misguided but dangerous that, against that backdrop, the Government have pressed ahead with slashing local authority early intervention grants, a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee); closing 1,200 Sure Start centres; decreasing funding to children’s centres by nearly 50%; removing funding from the very initiatives that help to keep children out of the care system, such as the family drug and alcohol court national unit; and actively implementing policies that make it almost impossible for foster carers, kinship carers and special guardians to care for children. It is little wonder that members of the Minister’s own party are warning in the press that we are fast approaching another Baby P tragedy.
In the case of children in residential care, why has the Minister ignored my warnings that many homes are facing potential collapse overnight due to the overnight levy? Why has he not addressed the shameful situation whereby children in residential care are locked out of the “staying put” arrangements afforded to those in foster care? Why has he not listened to my concerns about the number of children being placed miles away from their families? Worse still, he has not acted sufficiently on the use of state-sanctioned restraint that is designed to cause physical harm to children in the secure estate. Why has he not responded sufficiently to the recent news that increasing numbers of vulnerable children are being placed on their own, with no support, in hostels, bed and breakfasts and, in some cases, tents and caravans? That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).
In 2016, the National Audit Office reported that actions taken by the Minister’s Department since 2010 to improve the quality of services delivered to children had not yet resulted in improvements. Just last year, the Public Accounts Committee, after its examination of child protection, stated:
“The Department lacks a credible plan for improving the system by 2020.”
It is clear to everybody except this Government that their whole approach lacks any cohesive strategy and is consumed with piecemeal, misguided measures. Measures such as the What Works centres, Partners in Practice, the discredited national assessment and accreditation system and the innovation programme are not yielding any positive changes, but have so far have cost over £200 million, with at least £60 million going from taxpayers to private companies.
Labour would do things differently. We understand the holistic nature of children’s social care, which is why we are committed to looking at the care system in its entirety and giving equity to all forms of care. We are committed to stemming the tide of privatisation in the sector, because there is no profit to be made in good social care. We are committed to putting into domestic legislation the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. In short, we are committed to children. We will ensure that every child matters once again, because at the moment that belief could not be further from the reality.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate, on his expertise and on his persistence in ensuring that this debate was held—third time lucky. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Lincoln (Karen Lee), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), as well as others who intervened, including my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood), and the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). They brought valuable—indeed sometimes invaluable—insight to this vital issue.
Nothing is more important than our work to identify vulnerable children early and to give them the support they need to keep them safe. I applaud the all-party group for children for being vocal champions of that, and I give an assurance that the Education Secretary and I share that priority. As many colleagues pointed out, the importance of children’s social care too often goes unrecognised. Many colleagues said that today. It makes headlines only when things go wrong. We should value the contribution of social workers day-in, day-out in making a difference to children’s lives in sometimes very challenging circumstances.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, the challenges facing children in families, communities and beyond are many and varied. As we all know from our constituencies, there can be stark differences in the demographics, economic status and social problems faced by different communities—even between one area and its neighbour. That is why children’s social care is delivered locally within a national legislative framework for safeguarding and child protection in England. That long-standing principle is enshrined in the Children Act 1989 and it places on all local authorities the same duty to take decisive action wherever a child is at risk of, or suffering significant harm.
All 50 judges in the family courts must use the same law when making decisions wherever care proceedings are under way, but local authorities remain best placed to identify, assess and respond to local priorities, setting the criteria for accessing services that reflect the needs of children in their area. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham rightly reminded us, thresholds play an important part in allowing local authorities to do that work. Whether those thresholds are set appropriately and properly understood is scrutinised by Ofsted as part of its inspections, and factored into its independent judgment about the quality of local services.
What Ofsted tells us about quality corroborates some of the APPG’s findings, which suggest that the picture across the country is far from uniform—indeed, it has been described as a postcode lottery. Although some children and families receive good and outstanding services, the majority live in areas where those services are inadequate or require improvement. Some variation is right and necessary in responding to local needs, but such inconsistency in the quality of services is not. We must recognise that Government action is needed if all children are to receive the same quality of support that every child deserves. Addressing this inconsistency is a priority for me and my Department, through our wide-ranging national social care reforms and through strong action to drive up quality where services are less than good.
We will intervene every time Ofsted judges children’s services to be inadequate. Our intervention brings results: the first children’s services trust in Doncaster moved from inadequate to good in just two years. Just last week, Ofsted published an inspection report for Bromley—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is not in her place, but she rightly praised the team and the leadership in Bromley—showing that its services are no longer inadequate, but are now judged as good. Today I am delighted to say that, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded us, after almost a decade of deeply entrenched failure, children’s services in Birmingham are no longer inadequate. Ofsted published its inspection report for Birmingham this morning. It noted that the children’s services trust, which we worked with the local authority to establish, has
“enabled the re-vitalisation of both practice and working culture, and, as a result, progress has been made in improving the experiences and progress of children”.
In fact, since 2010, 44 local authorities have been lifted out of intervention and not returned. The significance of that should not be underestimated. We raised the bar for Ofsted inspection in 2013 to drive up quality for children, but by May 2017 20% of authorities had not met our new standards and had been found inadequate. That has since reduced by a third, from 30 to 19 today as a result of our reforms. This is not intervention for intervention’s sake, as the Labour Front-Bench team attempted to spin it, but improving the lives of children and families.
I am not complacent about the challenges. We have seen considerable improvements in some areas, but other areas, such as Wakefield, Bradford and Blackpool, have declined this year. That is why we are investing £20 million in regional improvements to get ahead of failure. As well as supporting every local authority rated inadequate, a further 26 are receiving support from a strong Partner in Practice local authority, with work under way to broker support for many more.
The number of local authorities achieving the top judgments under the new Ofsted framework is small but growing. In December, Leeds was rated as outstanding and, just last week, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, Essex received the same Ofsted judgment. I visited the hub she spoke about and I have to admire Councillor Dick Madden and his excellent director of children’s services for what they have been able to achieve. That example demonstrates that this is about not just funding, but real, good practice on the frontline and strong leadership. In total, five local authorities have been rated outstanding since 2018, setting the highest ambitions and showing that even within current constraints—there are financial constraints, as the hon. Member for West Ham reminded us—local authorities can deliver outstanding children’s services. My aim is that the improvements we are making continue at pace, so that by 2022 less than 10% of local authorities are rated “inadequate” by Ofsted, halving failure rates within five years and providing consistently better services for thousands of children and families across the country.
Service quality is a significant variable in what differs between local areas. Crucial to service quality is the social care workforce. The practice of staff locally, from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers, makes a huge difference to ensuring that the right children get the right support at the right time. That is why we have set clear professional standards for social workers, and invested significantly in training and development to meet those standards nationally—to ensure a highly capable, highly skilled workforce that makes good decisions about what is best for children and families.
I do not have enough time. I have a lot to get through and I am hoping to make lots of responses to colleagues.
Beyond the front door, decision making is especially critical at the high end of social care, recognising that, where children are at significant risk, these decisions can be life changing, and in both directions. Over-intervening can potentially cause as much harm as the consequences of leaving a child where they are. In most cases, children are best looked after by their families, with removal a last resort. That is paramount and it is important to strike the right balance between local support to keep families together and protecting children from dangers within their family. Where a child cannot live within their birth family, I am clear that finding the right permanent home and permanent family must be a priority, while always taking account of children’s own wishes and feelings. Sometimes the best place for a child can be found within the care system. Sometimes it can be with a new family through adoption and sometimes it can be with family and friends informally or through special guardianship.
A recent sector-led review found a complexity of many overlapping factors contributing to a known rise in care proceedings and entries into care. That is why the sector, my Department, the Ministry of Justice and the recently established What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care are all looking to understand better what makes a difference in supporting children to stay with their families safely and preventing them from reaching crisis point.
Some promising signs are emerging from our innovation and partners in practice programmes. We have invested almost £270 million in developing, testing and learning from new practice. From innovative projects showing real early promise, we have identified the seven features of practice that achieve impact and allow change to take hold. We continue to learn from what achieves the best outcomes for children and families and to support local authorities to adopt and adapt the programmes that successfully intervene. Early help plays a significant and important part in promoting safe and stable families. It is about intervening with the right families at the right time and, most importantly, in the right way. In doing so, the statutory guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children” is unequivocally clear that local areas should have a comprehensive range of effective, evidence-based services in place to address needs early.
Unfortunately, I am out of time. I would just like to remind the House that my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the Troubled Families programme. The three local authorities—Leeds, North Yorkshire and Hertfordshire—where we are going to scale up with the £84 million that the Chancellor backed us with at the Budget were asked how they have delivered effective children’s services. They all mentioned the Troubled Families programme as being a central pillar of their work. I will leave it there. I had much to say in response to many of the contributions today. Perhaps I will write to colleagues on the specific points they raised. I leave a couple of minutes for my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, to sum up.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have never questioned your gender. I do not think you look remotely like the right hon. Member for Chorley (Sir Lindsay Hoyle).
I thank all Members who have made this an exceedingly valuable debate. It is quite something when we almost need a time limit imposed on contributions in the last debate on a Thursday afternoon, on a subject that does not get nearly enough attention, as Members have mentioned.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart). He certainly was exceedingly generous in blowing my trumpet, but he has quite a large tuba of his own in terms of his achievements—a positive cornucopia—not only in this place, but before he became a Member, as part of Barnardo’s and in working for the Children’s Commissioner on the Munro review. It is clear he has extensive knowledge, from the east end to New Zealand. He makes a great contribution to children’s issues in this place.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who was inadvertently arguing with my hon. Friend at certain times. Actually they were agreeing over an awful lot. Many of the horrendous cases of knife crime that we have seen in her constituency can be traced back to poor attachment. The origins of those problems are exactly what we are all talking about. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). She mentioned the fantastic work being done by Councillor Dick Madden and by Dave Hill, the director of children’s services, who turned around Essex when he came in in 2009. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned disabled children and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) spoke about supported accommodation for vulnerable young people.
Let me end by echoing the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) to the social workers, whose praises we do not sing enough, and to the councillors and council officers who work with them. I am proud to be a trustee of the Social Worker of the Year awards, which recognise those benefits.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered children’s social care in England.