Skip to main content

Children and Families: Cross-Government Strategy

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered developing a cross-Government strategy for improving outcomes for children and families.

First, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a serving councillor and unpaid vice-president of the Local Government Association. I also put on the record my thanks to the LGA and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, whose research I will draw on in my speech.

The NSPCC’s report, “Bringing the global to the local”, suggests that the UK continues to have a child protection system that is among the best in the world. However, a good childhood goes beyond effective protection from harm; we need to consider how we support children to thrive. Child protection is a good example of where cross-Government co-ordination is required. I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s recent comments about corporal punishment and hope that the Minister can press colleagues across Government to consider bringing England into line with Wales, Scotland and most of our international allies with a reasonable chastisement rule—something that is well evidenced in the research for another NSPCC report, “Equally Protected?”

However, the key thing for all Government policy is that it works well in practice. For most children, the key things in their life will be education and healthcare, and on the whole these things work extremely well at giving our children a great start. The challenges arise when we start to address more complex issues in areas such as public health, child poverty, enrichment activity, financial education and preparation for the world of work, and almost every Government Department has an impact on children and their welfare.

I particularly commend the Minister for her work on the programme to support children during school holidays. It has been a great illustration of both how complex but also how effective cross-Government co-ordination can be, with Departments, including the Department for Education, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, all having a direct stake in both the process and the outcomes for the children involved. This programme, as strong as it has been, has not high- lighted something that is simply a covid issue; it has demonstrated a challenge that has existed for decades, which covid has brought into even sharper focus.

So why is it timely to consider the cross-Government co-ordination of children’s policy now? First, this is an opportunity to consider how we articulate our ambitions—what we as a country want to achieve for our children. Secondly, today I will make the case for the boring but absolutely essential task of sorting out what one might term the plumbing of the system—the complex web of budgets, policies, markets and providers that we need to support our children as effectively and efficiently as possible. Many across the sector argue that we need to think about what our plan looks like for the future.

I will consider first the question of ambition. The purpose of this debate is to press the case for a clear sense of cross-Government ambition for children. All political experience shows that government—manifestations of the state such as local authorities, schools, health authorities and police forces—is very good at fulfilling the specific tasks it is given by legislation. That is why, for example, councils have prioritised their legal obligations under our child protection system in response to the tough choices driven by financial pressure.

However, the downside to that is that by keeping our policies for children in a state of “just about managing” across some parts of government, we forgo the opportunity to make the strategic decisions that bring about the long-term benefits we want to see, which I have heard the Minister and others articulate their desire for. Many of those things have lifetime cost implications for the state, as well as significant human consequences.

It is right, for example, that the Government have set out a cross-departmental strategy on the environment and climate change. The focus brought by COP26 has enabled us to see all parts of government thinking about how our actions contribute to achieving those climate goals and working with all kinds of stakeholders on the action that they need to take. In the same way, I call for a clear, cross-government strategy for children that sets out what we want to achieve for the health, education and wellbeing of our youngest constituents. On the whole, we have a system that supports children well, but it remains inconsistent in some respects. From early years health and nutrition to entry to university, we still have some distance to travel before we can say that our youngest constituents are able to make the best of the opportunities that our country seeks to offer.

I turn briefly to the specifics. Our children would benefit from a clear set of national outcomes—a list, perhaps—starting from consistent, high-quality antenatal support, as argued for by some, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) in her recent review, through to access to vaccinations, early education, the financial benefits from the Treasury relevant to childhood, accountable education providers with a restless ambition for every child, and a clear national offer on enrichment to engage all young people in the opportunities and responsibilities of our society.

That brings me to the heart of the issue. As the Local Government Association publication “Rewiring Public Services” highlighted, setting out ambitions is all very well, but unless we think through how to fulfil them, we are setting ourselves up to fail. The research base emerging from the network of What Works centres brings together a good deal of evidence in this respect. It highlights how the best value for the taxpayer is often achieved through programmes, such as the troubled families programme, that move away from specific, legislatively mandated actions to locally co-ordinated interventions.

We need to consider that schools are the one place where the state has eyes on almost all children. They have a unique opportunity and responsibility in all aspects of a child’s life. Too often, our system has prioritised institutional performance rather than the outcomes for every child. We need to think, across all life stages, how we maximise the achievement of every participant—something that remains a legally mandated responsibility of local authorities, but which currently relies on a complex web of often conflicting interests across different providers. We need to ensure that regulation supports the delivery of those national priority outcomes. Anecdotal examples of high-performing institutions are clearly not a proxy for the rigorous pursuit of ambition for all.

We need to bolster the power of our local authorities to fulfil their statutory role as champions for children. Public health is a clear example of this. In practice, many councils have been pushed to accept mixed-quality contracts passed on from historic NHS providers. We need to ensure that NHS bodies welcome the scrutiny of accountable local colleagues and welcome the opportunity to reconfigure services so that, for example, child protection and health visiting become a seamless experience from the point of view of a vulnerable child, rather than a process of navigating an internal market.

Finally, we need a clear process across government for driving these ambitions. Ofsted would not accept a local authority’s saying that it cannot fulfil a priority because it is someone else’s department. We must apply the same principle in Whitehall. A Government with a substantial majority, ambition for levelling up, the support of great Ministers with experience in the area—all these things are an opportunity for setting out a new ambition for what it means to grow up in the UK in the coming decades. That cannot simply be about addressing deficits and failings; it needs to be about having that sense of ambition. Too often, deficits and failings are patched up—with great, but often piecemeal initiatives—and long- term challenges still need to be addressed.

Growing pressure on the special educational needs and disability system is pushing education budgets to breaking point in many areas. Department for Education figures suggest that there is more than £1.4 billion in school surpluses, and many schools on the Department’s radar have excessive surpluses. Councils are criticised for spending on child protection rather than early intervention, but the law of the land makes this inevitable. In respect of refugee children, the Home Office owns the national transfer scheme, designed with the Department for Education and local authorities to improve capacity, but market failure in the system sometimes means a lack of placements for willing local authority participants to procure.

In conclusion, we need to apply the excellent research base that has developed—from many organisations, including those funded by the Department—to build on the depth and strength of the experience of our local authorities and our schools. We also need to set out across government that clear vision of our national priorities for our children, so that we have a system that consistently supports all our children to thrive and make the most of the opportunities that our country has to offer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for securing this important debate about how we work across Government to improve outcomes for children and their families. I am also grateful for the focus on this topic through the Lords Public Services Committee. The Secretary of State for Education is the lead Cabinet Minister for families and has spoken about the critical importance of families in ensuring the best start in life for children and young people. The Government have been clear that providing the right support for children and families is a priority across policy and decision making, particularly for those with vulnerabilities. We all share an ambition to ensure the system works and delivers the best outcomes.

Over the past decade, we have worked consistently to improve outcomes for every child. For example, I am proud that through the work of the Department for Education, alongside schools, the attainment gap has narrowed at every stage of education. However, we know the pandemic has thrown up additional challenges, and families and children rely on policies and programmes owned across Government. For example, that means being able to access a good school and early education place; the welfare support system being there when families need it; providing first-class child and family health provision through our NHS; and, where families need more support, ensuring that the right, targeted services are in place through children’s social care, early help, special education needs and disabilities services, and multi-service providers, such as family hubs.

Departments must keep families front and centre of all they do, and I am proud of the progress the Government have made in joining up services for children and families. I assure my hon. Friend that Ministers and officials have never worked more closely together than over this pandemic period. I have had frequent meetings at the Home Office with the Minister for Safeguarding, at the Department of Health and Social Care with the Minister for Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health and the Minister for Care, at the Department for Work and Pensions with the Minister for Welfare Delivery, at the Ministry of Justice with the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and Lord Wolfson, and at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with my the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). All these meetings have brought us together to better our approach to protect the most vulnerable children and young people.

At official level, Departments continue to partner to deliver the cross-Government vulnerable children and young people’s programme, which has reported to the Cabinet Office since April 2020—right at the beginning of the pandemic. This approach has cemented strong cross-Government working and includes both central Government Departments and agencies, such as Ofsted, Public Health England and NHS England. Cross-Government work has been essential to ensuring children and young people continue to have access to the critical services they need and deserve, even over the challenges of the past 16 months. These services have continued to operate, thanks to the dedication of frontline workers, including health visitors, NHS mental health service providers, social workers, school teachers and staff.

To support local services, we have co-ordinated across Government an increase to funding for councils. An additional £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funding in 2020 to 2021 went to councils for both children and adult social care, with another £1.5 billion-plus this year. My Department is providing an additional £3 billion for education recovery, which comes on top of investment of over £14 billion in schools over the three-year-period, compared with 2019 to 2020. The schools budget will be over £52 billion next year.

When schools were closed to most pupils, we provided £450 million for the national voucher scheme to support pupils eligible for free school meals when they stayed at home. However, many children missed out on opportunities to have fun with their friends, and parents had little respite from caring for their children. That is why we have also expanded our holiday activities and food programme this year and are making up to £220 million available to local authorities across the country to co-ordinate free holiday provision, including healthy food and enriching activities. The Department for Work and Pensions has provided more than £400 million in local authority welfare schemes, including the covid local support grant, which is to support families and individuals to stay warm and well fed. The primary focus of those grants is children and their families.

I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to enrichment, and I highlight the particular benefits that flow from that approach in policy terms. I am sure that, as constituency MPs, we have all heard from headteachers, school governors and parents in our areas that one of the striking features of the pandemic has been not so much the loss of learning, but the loss of learning skills. There is a real concern among those involved with education about the impact that will have on young people’s ability to return to full engagement. I commend the Minister’s position and promise to do anything I can to strengthen it and drive forward that approach to enrichment, which is absolutely crucial in making up for those lost learning skills.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Another thing that our young people have missed out on is having fun and gaining the confidence to meet new friends. They gained that in previous years, when we piloted our holiday activities and food programmes. To take him up on his offer, I ask him to please visit and support the holiday activities and food programme in his constituency and encourage others to do so. Perhaps I can encourage you to do so too, Mr Dowd.

This is about children getting confidence back when they have missed out on so much. They have been amazing and have given up so much. In doing so, they have saved the lives of others. We owe it to them to help them rebuild and have the fun that is such an important part of childhood and the teenage years.

Beyond the pandemic, there are many ways that Governments can come together to improve outcomes for children and families. Often, that is through the delivery of local services, which I have described already. That will be overseen by national Government.

We in national Government take an active role to shape and influence delivery, ensure it aligns with national priorities, and support co-ordination across departmental boundaries. For example, MHCLG’s supporting families programme helps families experiencing unemployment, domestic abuse and mental ill health, and supports other priorities, including school attendance and reducing crime. But it is not the only programme to use strong collaboration between services and Departments to help families with that wide range of issues. The reducing parental conflict programme works with all English local authorities to help them integrate help to reduce parental conflict in their local support for families. Violence reduction units are bringing together local partners in the 18 areas most affected by serious violence to deliver an effective and joined-up approach to tackling violent crime and its drivers, especially when it affects children and young people.

We are also tackling youth crime by addressing the risk factors for offending at an early stage. That includes boosting investment in local multi-agency youth offending teams, which provide holistic support to children who have committed offences or are at risk of offending. We must continue to work in those strong partnerships to improve outcomes for our children and families, especially the most vulnerable.

The pandemic has shown us just how important it is to get this right, but there is much more to do to ensure that families, parents and carers benefit from services, and that the services are seamless and built around their needs. That is why we are doing a SEND review and a care review, and are working with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) to support the implementation of the early years healthy development review and all those recommendations. That is why we are improving children and young people’s mental health support with significant reforms and investment.

The public commitments that we set out in the joint Green Paper are only one part of the story. I have been working with ministerial colleagues, the Department of Health and Social Care and across Government more widely to produce the covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan and to see that delivered. It includes extensive actions we are taking to support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

We are also leading a cross-Government approach to champion the family hub model, providing more than £14 million of investment and working with DHSC, DWP, MHCLG and the Ministry of Justice. Family hubs bring those services together and aim to secure greater impact from those services for children and families.

I welcome the Government’s initiative on family hubs. We often still hear that mental health is a Cinderella service, especially for teenagers at the point of transition to adulthood. I have had examples of constituents being told by the children’s side of the service that it is unwilling to take them on at the age of 17 because they will not be seen before they become an adult, and adult services saying that it will not see them until they pass their 18th birthday. Does the Minister agree that that is an example of the kind of area where rigorous accountability is needed, to ensure that the ambitions rightly set out by Government are fulfilled in practice?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for family hubs. I have a little bit of constituency pride—my family hub, the Essex Child and Family Wellbeing Service, which supports the mental health of teenagers and young people, was recently the regional award winner in the NHS Parliamentary Awards. I am very proud of them.

It is so important that teenagers can also access that type of support. It is exactly those sorts of transitions that we have been looking at most deeply, not only with the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, but also through the mental health action group, which brings together a broad range of expertise on young people’s mental health and is chaired by myself and my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities. We have been looking at how we can support young people through, for example, the transitions from primary to secondary school and from secondary education on into higher education. At key transition points, they need additional help, especially at this time.

As we continue to take steps towards recovering from covid, we must not lose any of the benefits that have come to us by the close working relationships that have been strengthened in the pandemic. I know I speak on behalf of all my ministerial colleagues when I say we are committed to continuing to work together to ensure that we grow those relationships further. Just before the pandemic, we made changes to multi-agency working. We strengthened the duties placed on police, health and the local authority to work collaboratively to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of local children. It is clear that multi-agency arrangements are needed.

The recent Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges was a prime example of bringing young people’s departments, local services, charities and parent groups together to identify the issues and deliver those cross-societal solutions to ensure that our children do not grow up thinking that harassment and abuse are just a normal part of their childhood. My Department, the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are all working really closely to ensure that we interweave our responses into the Ofsted review, the violence against women and girls strategy and the online safety Bill, to maximise the collective response and make that deep-rooted change. We have to reset the dial and we only do that by working together.

We have recently published revised statutory guidance on keeping children safe in education. We are working with local authority safeguarding partners and the sector on tightening the statutory guidance, to interlock all those wider efforts to best support our children and young people.

The pandemic has strengthened local partnership working between schools and colleges and local authorities with social care and other services to identify and support vulnerable children and ensure their regular school attendance. Those multi-agency safeguarding partners are continuing to work in their committed partnerships to keep children in care safe and to keep them well. Yes, there is a lot more to do, but I am so proud of what we have achieved to make life better for children and families.

I want to take a moment to thank all my colleagues nationally and locally for their efforts, and to reiterate my personal commitment to work across Government, across programmes and across initiatives in order to place the needs of children and families at the heart of everything the Government are striving to achieve, and to ensure that we work with our partners in local government to make sure that they also can help to achieve this.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.