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Murders in Northamptonshire: Serious Case Reviews

Volume 661: debated on Monday 10 June 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the findings of two serious case reviews into the murders of two toddlers in Northamptonshire.

The deaths of Dylan in 2017 and Evelyn-Rose in 2018 were both tragic and, indeed, horrific. Separate serious case reviews were published on 5 June this year by Northamptonshire’s local safeguarding children board. The serious case reviews highlight serious weaknesses in child safeguarding practice and partnership arrangements at those times, and together make 16 recommendations for Northamptonshire and its safeguarding partners to implement.

These events have highlighted the serious systemic issues in Northamptonshire. I want to assure the House that we have already begun taking action. Since those deaths, and following an Ofsted focused visit in 2018 that exposed a more general decline in the quality of services, my Department has appointed a highly experienced commissioner, Malcolm Newsam CBE, to ensure that improvements take place, and has increased improvement support from Lincolnshire County Council—one of the best in the country for children’s social care. The commissioner has already identified six priority areas for significant improvement to effectively improve outcomes for children. He has identified the importance of learning from the tragic deaths of these two young children and others. I have written to Malcolm today to ask that he continue to put learning from Dylan and Evelyn-Rose’s deaths and the recommendations from these reviews firmly into his future work.

I have already set out my intention, on the recommendation of the commissioner, to create an operationally independent children’s service trust serving Northamptonshire to drive improvement in services. I can announce to the House today that I have issued a statutory direction to the council to work with the commissioner on the creation of that trust by July 2020.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question on these horrific and tragic cases. I thank the Minister for his heartfelt response. I also thank the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), for highlighting this issue to the Government during business questions last Thursday.

Last week, two serious case reviews were published in Northamptonshire on the deaths of these two toddlers. Both these very young children were systematically let down by the local authority, Northamptonshire County Council—an institution that was supposedly there to protect them. The reports examined the deaths of Dylan Tiffin-Brown, aged two, when he died of a cardiac failure after his father assaulted him in December 2017, and Evelyn-Rose Muggleton, aged one, when she died in hospital days after being assaulted by her mother’s partner in April 2018.

I hope that we will now see—I believe that we will—Ministers use everything in their power to ensure that this public institution does not fail children again and to prevent other tragedies from happening elsewhere.

I note that a serious case review into the death of a third child remains confidential. The review looked into the case of a boy from Northampton who was locked in a room, beaten and abused. The parents were jailed for neglect last month, with professionals describing it as the worst case of child cruelty that they had seen in 25 years.

The two published reviews highlight key misjudgements from staff about the level of danger posed by the men to the two children and failures to act on warnings that the children were at risk. Northamptonshire safeguarding children board said that there were “lost opportunities” leading up to the murders and that the two children’s safety was “seriously undermined” after the significance of the killers’ criminal past and history of domestic abuse was overlooked by agencies.

Dylan died aged two after sustaining 39 injuries to his face, neck, torso and limbs, including 15 rib fractures and lacerations to his liver. After a sustained beating at home by his father—a drug dealer from Northampton who was convicted of murder in October 2018—a post-mortem found cocaine, heroin and cannabis in the two-year-old’s body at the time of death. No social worker saw Dylan in the two months between his being discovered at his father’s home during a police drugs raid and his death at his father’s hands.

Evelyn-Rose, aged one, died three days after sustaining a traumatic brain injury from her mother’s partner. She had received multiple bruising and bleeding injuries, including damage to her spine and both eyes. Social care and health agencies that had been involved with the family had failed to recognise the neglect that was taking place. The safeguarding children board stated that two social workers had been allocated to the case, but that the case had started to

“drift, with little if any attention being paid to the children’s welfare”.

Sadly, Northamptonshire’s children’s services have been on the radar since the severe financial troubles at the county council overwhelmed the local authority. The county’s children’s services were said to have “substantially declined” when inspectors were called in during last October’s visit and that a “fundamental shift” in culture was required—something that the Minister acknowledges. Given that, can he assure the House that the financial problems at Northamptonshire are not further jeopardising or worsening the provision of children’s services across the county? If he finds that they are, what representations will he make to Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to ensure that Northamptonshire has the resources it needs? Is he assured—

Order. I am loth to interrupt, because the hon. Gentleman is treating of a matter of the utmost gravity, and I respect that, but I am afraid he has taken two and a half times his allotted time. I feel sure that he is reaching his peroration, which will be of formidable eloquence and brief.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. These are very serious matters. Is the Minister assured that the authority is able to finance improvements to children’s services both now and during the reorganisation, including the transfer to the trust that he mentioned, and to implement the improvements needed to put right these severe service failings? Lastly, will he intervene and ensure full transparency on the third serious case review, which remains unpublished? This matter is so severe and so serious that every opportunity must now be taken to act.

Let me take the last point first, about the third serious case review. Our statutory guidance is clear that local safeguarding children boards must let the independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel—the panel, as I will refer to it—and the Department for Education and Ofsted know of any decisions about a serious case review initiation and publication, including the name of any reviewer commissioned, as soon as they have made a final decision. The local safeguarding children board should also set out for the panel and the Secretary of State the justification for any decisions not to initiate or publish a serious case review. They should send copies of all serious case reviews to the panel, the DFE and Ofsted at least seven working days before publication.

There has been and continues to be a great deal of debate about the transparency of the child protection system in England, but there is a presumption that all serious case review reports are published. That is why local safeguarding children boards and the new safeguarding partnerships are required to send copies of all serious case reviews to the panel, the DFE and Ofsted within at least seven days, as I have mentioned. At that point, they would need to provide justification for any decision not to publish the report. The panel has not yet received the draft serious case review in relation to child JL.[Official Report, 23 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 13MC.] Once the draft serious case review is received, the panel will consider carefully if there is any justification for not publishing the report. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

On our work with the MHCLG, the hon. Gentleman can see that my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), is on the Front Bench, and we take our work together very seriously. We are working towards the spending review and making sure that funding for children’s services is adequate. Overall, if we look at England, local authorities have made some tough decisions, but they have actually protected the funding for children’s services. I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that working with Malcolm Newsam, with the recommendations he has made for me and the trust that we will be delivering for all Northamptonshire’s children, will be the best way forward.

I thank the Minister and, indeed, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for the way they have treated this matter in the House today.

It is with great sadness and a sense of shock that I and others have read these serious case reviews. I have been here since 2010 and, unfortunately, throughout that time I have been raising concerns and cases with the local authority—Northampton’s children’s social services—that have caused me great concern. I am going to see Malcolm Newsam, whose appointment as the Government-appointed children’s commissioner I really do welcome, next week to discuss a number of current cases that I have. Throughout the various reviews and reports we have had on these issues, a serious lack of challenge and reporting has been highlighted in every single one. Can my hon. Friend explain to my constituents why these lessons have yet not been learned?

My hon. Friend raises a very powerful point. All I can say to him is that my Department triggered our intervention powers immediately when those concerns in relation to children’s services were raised with me. I hope that, after his meeting with Malcolm Newsam, he will be reassured that we have the right commissioner in there. We are taking those steps, and I have mentioned the direction I have made to the local authority.

It is impossible not to be moved by these stories. As the saying goes, it takes a community not just to raise, but to protect a child. Surely, early intervention must also be at the heart of all these stories. In Oxfordshire, over 30 children’s centres used to exist; now there are just eight hubs, many of which are far too far away from the most deprived communities. Given how important these centres are and the fact that groups such as Abingdon Carousel have needed to raise funds from county and town councils to keep centres open for a very limited period, will the Minister robustly make the case in the upcoming spending review for why children’s centres are so important to prevent children from getting into this situation?

The hon. Lady raises the issue of children’s centres. I hope that she would commend the troubled families programme, which has reduced by a third the number of children needing to be taken into care. We have announced the strengthening families programme, in which we are scaling up the whole-system approach to children’s services and childcare from Leeds, North Yorkshire and Hertfordshire and investing £84 million to scale that up to another 20 local authorities. They have made it very clear to me that very much part of that whole-system approach is the troubled families programme work that they do.

The hon. Lady also mentioned children’s centres. I am looking at how local authorities make best use of their infrastructure, including children’s centres. Local government—local authorities, local leaders—is best placed to decide how it does that. Staffordshire, which chose to close more than 60 children’s centres, but keep 14 in the areas most promising for reaching the most difficult-to-reach families, has delivered much better outcomes because it has used that resource. It has not taken it away; it has used it for outreach, to go and knock on the doors of families who would never think of coming into a building run by a local authority. There are different models, but we are looking to learn from the best models, including some of the family hubs in places such as Westminster.

I thank the shadow Minister for requesting this urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. These are among the most serious issues that anyone in this House could discuss. Evelyn-Rose Muggleton was just one when she was murdered by her mother’s partner. She died in hospital. Evelyn-Rose and her siblings were well known to the local hospital, the local GP and other services, and this clearly was a family in urgent need of assistance from the local authority. Sadly that was not forthcoming.

Responsibility for this must rest with Northamptonshire County Council, which has been dysfunctional for many years, but particularly in children’s social services. This must never happen again, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to put those services into a children’s trust. That is welcome, but the public in Kettering will want to know who is going to take responsibility for this appalling tragedy, and I am afraid that the answer must be the local councillor in charge of children’s social services at the time. That individual now happens to be the leader of Northamptonshire County Council. He is a good man, and he is working very hard to transform the county council into the two new unitaries, but I believe, and my constituents believe, that the buck must stop with the person at the top. Will the Minister therefore join me in calling for Councillor Matt Golby to resign his position as leader of Northamptonshire County Council?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He spoke powerfully about the injuries that these poor souls sustained and about how they were well known to other services. We legislated in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to require local areas to establish new, much stronger multi-agency safeguarding arrangements, which I think will enhance the protective net around our most vulnerable children. That includes the police and health as statutory partners. Safeguarding partners in Northamptonshire must publish a plan setting out how they will deliver those arrangements by 29 June and must implement them by 29 September. My Department is monitoring compliance, and we will be asking those partners to work swiftly and collectively to ensure that lessons have been learnt and implemented.

My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not comment on the local political leadership. What I would like to see now is us moving forward with Malcolm Newsam’s recommendations and getting the trust up and running as quickly as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and the Minister for their approach and their responses to this horrific example of child abuse. The connections between the abuse of women and the abuse of children are unfortunately long known, and I am afraid that I could give several similar examples from when I was national children’s officer at Women’s Aid in the 1990s. I have heard previous Ministers and previous Governments say that lessons would be learnt and action taken, yet here we still are. I therefore ask the Minister respectfully, will he work with domestic violence organisations, as well as other organisations of course, to try to really learn the lessons that should be learnt about the connections between abuse by violent men of their children and abuse of their female partners?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful and well-made point. There is, if not causation, then certainly a correlation between people who abuse and hurt children and those who abuse and hurt women. I try to make sure that we learn as much as possible and that we act as quickly as possible, as I think we have in this case.

These cases are truly harrowing and nothing will ever bring back the young children who so tragically lost their lives at the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for them. I think we are all clear, both locally in Northamptonshire and here in this House, that this can never, ever be allowed to happen again. What steps are being taken to ensure that best practice from other parts of the country is being learnt as a matter of urgency in Northamptonshire to overhaul its children’s services? What ongoing monitoring of those services will be taking place to give my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire confidence that in future we will have first class children’s services that protect the young people in their care?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I hope he heard me say earlier that we have Malcolm Newsam. In conjunction with Malcom we have Lincolnshire County Council, which is one of our exemplars in delivering the best services and safeguarding children. The important thing to remember in this case is that we must always ensure that the safety of children comes first. We know that poor practice can cost more money, not less, in the longer term. The director of children’s services has been clear in her statements that funding was not the cause of these tragic incidents, and that system, practice and partnership was where it needs to be. The important thing is that we get on.

In Doncaster, I saw at first hand how children’s services can be transformed. They went from failing with very poor outcomes, to good outcomes for children when we put it into trust. I met the social workers on the frontline, and 70% of them are the same people who were there when the local authority was failing. I said, “I want all the directors out of the room. I want to talk to just the frontline.” I said to them, “What is the difference here? What have you done here that has transformed the service? You are the same people who were here when it was failing.” They said it was all about leadership: leadership that supported, trusted and nurtured them, and delivered that support for them. Those are the sorts of lessons we need to learn in order to be able to deliver the same level of success as Doncaster.

Funding may not have had a direct effect, but surely the Minister needs to recognise that, with the huge cuts to local authorities and a national shortage of well-qualified social workers putting enormous pressure on social services systems around the country, we are seeing a crisis in one area responded to by putting in extra money and bidding up social workers’ wages, allowing them to move to solve one problem but creating gaps in other areas. Surely the Minister needs to take a much more systemic view of what is going on in social services up and down the country, and recognise that funding is an issue.

I think—I hope—I have been clear in saying that I recognise there are funding pressures on children’s services. I am working with the director of children’s services and the sector as a whole in preparation for the spending review. However, to simply characterise this as a funding issue would be misleading. We have to do both things. We have to have a whole-system approach. We are learning from the best—Leeds, North Yorkshire and Hertfordshire—and scaling those models from those three local authorities to 20. We also have to look at the workforce, and by introducing the national accreditation assessment process and Social Work England we begin to deliver a system that really does work to protect the most vulnerable children and families in our society.

I speak as a former Minister who changed the rules so that SCRs are published. The regulations are clear that if publication would compromise the welfare of a surviving child or sibling, they should be kept confidential. From reading these serious case reviews, I feel that there is a profound sense of déjà vu when they talk about the lack of joined-up working and the lack of information, showing lost opportunities. Last year, the Minister announced that he was going to change serious case reviews and the local safeguarding children’s boards who commission them. They will be replaced by team safeguarding partners, which consist of local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and the police. The only agency that seems to have rung the alarm bells in this case was the schools attended by the siblings of the victims. Why are schools and education not part of those essential team partners in the new format?

My hon. Friend is absolutely passionate about work in this area. Schools and other local partners are involved and engaged, but the purpose of the legislation was to make sure that health, police and social services work together. However, he raises an important point about how we can make sure that schools are much more involved.

I am not attacking the Minister, but for years, his predecessors have come to the Dispatch Box and said, “We are going to learn the lessons. It’s not going to happen again.” Some years ago, I took a delegation to meet one of his predecessors and we were assured that resources would be available, but we are back at square one today, and I feel very sorry about what has happened to these kids in Northampton, as much as I do about some of the things that have happened to kids in Coventry. The Minister really has to get a grip on this now. It is no good talking about good practice in one authority as opposed to another. He has to face up to it: there is a shortage of social workers and a lack of resources in local government.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least not blaming this Minister, but nevertheless, he raises a very important point. One of our innovations is the introduction of a national panel, chaired by Edward Timpson, which has a remit to make sure that nationally we learn the lessons from such terrible cases. For the first time, it will undertake national reviews. The first of those reviews is on the criminal exploitation of children, so we are learning the lessons and putting the infrastructure in place to be able to do that and act upon it.

I have met Malcolm Newsam several times and will do so again shortly. I have a lot of confidence in him. The proposed children’s trust model seems like the right way forward and particularly the “children first” focus and the focus on the child rather than necessarily on the mother or other carers involved. We have heard about the role of the community from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). While the children’s trust model is welcome in many places, will the Minister provide assurances that local democratic oversight will continue to be involved in it?

It is very important that there is local democratic oversight. When I look at the areas that deliver the best outcomes and best practice, I see that it is a combination of very strong leadership at local authority level—so, the officer class—and strong political leadership, including from councillors who really understand their remit to protect children.

This is a deeply harrowing case and I appreciate the Minister’s focus on leadership; he is absolutely right about that. I hope that he can also see the connection between leadership and properly funded services. Surely it is very difficult for even the best leaders to lead adequately if they have an insufficient supply of skilled staff.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point overall about funding and the challenge of funding for children’s services. In this case, it is also important for us to understand the detail. Sally Hodges, the director of children’s services, told the Local Government Chronicle:

“It was because of the failure of a number of people through the whole system in respect of risk to those children. I don’t think financial matters had a direct impact.”

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point overall, but in this tragic case, it is not about simply saying that the money was not there.

Northamptonshire had the most expensive children’s services in the country, so funding wasn’t the issue, was it?

I am grateful for that powerful intervention by my right hon. Friend. As he rightly says, it is not simply about funding; the issue is much more fundamental in Northamptonshire, which is why we have made the right decision in taking it into trust.