With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement following the sentencing of the stepmother and father of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes on Friday.
The whole nation is distraught at Arthur’s tragic and horrific death. Across the House and across the country, we find it impossible to imagine how any adult could commit such evil acts against a child, particularly a parent or carer to whom the child looks for love and protection. I know colleagues and people outside this place are seriously troubled that Arthur was subjected to a campaign of appalling cruelty, and was murdered after concerns had been raised with local services.
I assure colleagues on both sides of the House and the public that I am as determined as they are to get to the truth, to expose what went wrong and to take any action necessary to protect children. To do so, serious questions need to be asked.
I make it clear that police officers, teachers, social workers, health workers and others go to work each day to try to make things better and to do their best at what are very difficult jobs. Those already serving our country’s most vulnerable children deserve our thanks, and I want to be extremely clear that no safeguarding professional should be the victim of abuse. The targeting of individuals is wrong and helps nobody, but that does not mean we should not seek to understand what went wrong and how we can stop it happening again.
The public deserve to know why, in this rare case, things went horrifyingly wrong and what more could be done to prevent abuse such as this from happening again. Since the horrendous deaths of Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka and, sadly, others, the Government have established stronger multi-agency working, putting a shared and equal duty on police, councils and health in local areas to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, alongside a role for schools. I am sure hon. Members across the House will recognise that improvements have been made from previous reviews, but the question now is whether that is enough.
In order to look at issues nationally as well as locally, we established the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in 2017 for cases such as Arthur’s. Given the enormity of this case, the range of agencies involved and the potential for its implications to be felt nationally, over the weekend I asked Annie Hudson, chair of the national panel, to work with leaders in Solihull to deliver a single, national, independent review of Arthur’s death to identify what must be learned from this terrible case.
The review will encompass local government as well as those working in the police, health and education sectors. Officials in my Department are already in close contact with the Solihull safeguarding partnership, which is grateful for the support offered and agrees that this approach is the best way to deliver comprehensive national learning and identify any gaps that need to be addressed.
Annie and her colleagues on the national panel, who come from the police, health and children’s services, have dedicated their lives and decades-long careers to bettering the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society. I have every faith that their review will be robust, vigorous and thorough. I have already assured Annie, as I assure you now, Mr Speaker, that she will be given all the support she needs to do the job properly.
The review will focus specifically on Arthur’s case and identify where improvements need to be made, but I also want to make certain we have looked at how all the relevant local agencies are working now, including how they are working together. For that reason, I have also asked Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation to lead a joint targeted area inspection. I have asked that each of these inspectorates be involved because of the range of local services that had been involved in Arthur’s and his family’s life during the preceding months.
These joint inspections are well established, but a new and ambitious approach will be used, with a sharp focus on the entry point to the child protection system across all agencies. That will mean we can truly look at where improvements are needed by all the agencies tasked with protecting children in the Solihull area, so that we can be assured that we are doing everything in our power to protect other children and prevent such evil crimes.
As part of this inspection, all the agencies tasked with protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect in Solihull will have their effectiveness considered, and be instructed on where improvements must be made in Solihull and where learnings can be applied in other areas around the country. The inspectorates met today to plan the work and the work will begin next week. I, as well as officials in my Department and across Government, could not be taking this matter more seriously. I have been working this weekend to bring everyone together to make sure the work can start immediately. Over the coming days, we will publish terms of reference and timelines for the national review and local inspection.
More widely, we are already investing heavily to help the legions of dedicated professionals on the frontline to deliver the care that we all know every child deserves. Since the spending review in 2019, there have been year-on-year real-terms increases for local government, as well as the unprecedented additional £6 billion funding provided directly to councils to support them with the immediate and longer-term impacts of covid spending pressures, including children’s social care. Yet we have also known that the care system needed bold and wide-ranging reforms, which is why we have the independent review of children’s social care happening now. I know that Josh MacAlister, who leads that review, will make recommendations on what a decisive child protection response needs to look like, given that that sits at the core of the system he is reviewing. Importantly, the review will look at how social workers, especially those with the most experience, can spend time with families and on protecting children. We all know that social workers do their best work with families, not behind a desk.
I look forward to receiving the review’s recommendations in due course. In any complex system, it is imperative to investigate thoroughly to learn and improve that system. My mantra continues to be that sunlight is the best possible disinfectant, because if we are to improve services where they need improving, we must share data and evidence.
I thank the prosecuting barrister Jonas Hankin QC, his team and the jury for their service in this troubling case. As the court heard, Arthur’s tragic death was the result of the cruelty of his father and his father’s partner. No Government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil, but we will take action wherever we can to stop this happening again, because we must do more. To do more, I end my statement with a plea to everyone in our country: anyone who sees or suspects child abuse can report their concerns to local children’s services or by contacting the Government-supported National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children helpline for adults or practitioners who are concerned about a child or young person. So if you see or suspect child abuse, report it. If you are worried about a child you know, report it. If something appears off, or you see something that troubles you, report it.
As we uncover what went wrong and what led to Arthur’s tragic death, we must also strengthen our resolve to make sure that we prevent these crimes as much as they possibly can be prevented. We must make sure that those who would do wicked acts to children face justice. We must do absolutely everything in our power to protect vulnerable young children from harrowing and evil abuse. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
This has been a truly horrendous case. My heart goes out to everyone who knew and loved Arthur and to all those involved in investigating and bringing to justice the depraved and wicked individuals responsible for his death. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the frontline workers right across children’s social care who work so hard to support families day in, day out.
I welcome the announcement by the Attorney General’s Office that the sentences handed down on Friday will be reviewed under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s clear determination to get to the bottom of what has happened and his action in ordering a national review and a joint targeted area inspection. It is right to put in place as soon as possible inquiries into not merely how individual agencies acted but how they acted together.
It is vital that whatever lessons can be learned from what happened and did not happen in Solihull are acted on as soon as possible. Searching questions must be asked about the way in which services operated locally, but questions must also be asked nationally—questions about how the services that should be keeping children safe are overseen and about why, tragically, cases such as this keep happening.
I know that the Secretary of State takes these issues just as seriously as I do. I very much hope he will urgently review the way in which services are inspected, challenged and improved. I ask the Secretary of State, who has not been in his post for too long, also to ensure that his own Department gets its house in order.
In 2016, the Department committed to a target, which was that by 2020
“all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support, and the best outcome for every child is at the heart of every decision made.”
The then permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee that this target was delayed until 2022 because the Department did not have a detailed plan in place to deliver it. The Committee found that the Department had made only limited progress in improving the quality of children’s social care services. In 2019, the permanent secretary accepted that having nearly 60% of local authorities rated lower than “good” by Ofsted for children’s social care was “terrible”. Indeed, he told the Public Accounts Committee:
“I am not able to sit in front of you and say that there will be no councils failing their Ofsted inspections in 2022. Clearly, there will be. Some schools fail, some hospitals fail and some councils fail.”
Failure should never be an acceptable outcome for any public service, and that is especially true when it comes to protecting children. For too long, this Government have tolerated failing children’s services and a failure to protect children. Vulnerable children are being failed, and that cannot go on.
The Secretary of State must now set out how he plans to tackle that culture—that failing services are acceptable in our country, acceptable for our children—in his own Department just as much as in Solihull. That is the challenge that he faces, and that is the standard by which he will be judged.
I have one final point. We have heard a lot in recent days about the unimaginable suffering that this little boy endured at the hands of two evil individuals who brought an end to his short life. I hope that we can remember also how, in better days, Arthur lived his short life. I hope that, while we do not hesitate to learn from these tragic events, we also, as far as we can, remember Arthur for who he was, not for what others did to him or for how he was let down. I hope that when we hear his name, we think first of a gentle, caring, happy child, the little boy who was remembered so movingly by so many across our country this weekend, the little boy with the beaming smile who should still be here with us today.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her words, and especially for her final few sentences about the way that we should remember Arthur, and the fact that there are family members grieving for him today.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about making sure that we continue on the path to improvement. Having spent a good amount of time as Children and Families Minister in the Department, I think that the team has really focused on those improvements in children’s social care. The hon. Lady said that we have a long way to go. I recognise that there are challenges, but it is also worth praising the teams both in the Department and in local government up and down the country. Not that long ago, only about 37% of local authorities had a good Ofsted inspection. The one thing I would correct her on is that it is not so binary as pass and fail, because, actually, it is very much about areas of improvement in children’s social care. That 37% has now risen to 57% of local authorities that have a good inspection.[Official Report, 16 December 2021, Vol. 705, c. 5MC.] Of course, we will have to continue on that path and keep going further. None the less, I am very pleased to see her supporting the course of action that we are taking today.
I strongly endorse what the Secretary of State has set out about the review, and I also welcome the comments, particularly the moving comments at the end, of the shadow Secretary of State.
As I understand it, Arthur was not in school—he had been kept at home by his father—when this tragedy happened. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that, putting aside the 200,000 children sent home because of covid, who are known about by the school system, there are another 100,000 ghost children, as I call them, who are lost in the system. They not returned to school for the most part, and are potentially subject to safeguarding hazards—county lines gangs, online harms and, of course, awful domestic abuse.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we are not discussing these issues again in this House following a further tragedy similar to the one that we have just heard about? Will he proactively make a real effort to work with the local authorities, the schools and the regional commissioners to make sure that those 100,000 children, who are mostly not in school, are returned to school and are watched by the appropriate authorities? We must get those children back into school, otherwise we may face—I hope not—further tragedies along the way.
My right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee, is absolutely right to raise this concerning issue, which is a focus for my Department; I am working closely with other Departments and agencies to work through it. He will know that we launched the See, Hear, Respond programme, which is aimed at supporting vulnerable children and young people whose usual support networks were impacted by the pandemic and national restrictions. The tragedy for Arthur is that he was never off the school register. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s point is a powerful one.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
It is unusual that we are here in this House with so much cross-party agreement on an issue, but the Secretary of State spoke from the heart and with a genuine desire for change, and I hope that we can be supportive of that. I join him in commending those who brought Arthur’s killers to justice, and offer my condolences and those of Scottish National party Members to Arthur’s family and loved ones.
This tragic death has affected us all. The footage of the little boy saying, “No one loves me” will remain with many of us; I think that parents hugged their own children a lot harder when they heard that. We are shocked for two reasons: first that these people exist and were put in charge of such an innocent little soul; and, secondly, that opportunities were missed that would have prevented this tragedy. The Government review is important, but if failings are found to be due to resourcing, will the Secretary of State commit to funding child protection services properly and directly? It is not enough that such services come through councils. If direct Government funding is needed, will he ensure that that happens?
The Secretary of State talked about agencies working together. How is he going to monitor how well that actually happens? There has to be cross-party working on this issue, so will the Secretary of State today assure us that he will genuinely listen to cross-party recommendations and suggestions for improvement? None of us wants to have another Arthur, Baby P or Victoria Climbié, so let us do the best of politics on this issue and ensure that no other vulnerable children are harmed.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for so generously offering cross-party support. I hope that she will remember that I always worked on a cross-party basis to co-operate and co-ordinate when I was Vaccine Deployment Minister. I hope that, through the Josh MacAlister review, we can ensure that we reach out across the House and share thoughts, as well as through the two reviews that are specific to the tragic death of young Arthur.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his engagement over the last 72 hours.
“No one loves me” and “no one is going to feed me”: those are the words that broke the heart of my town, and, it seems, of our country as well. A young lad who never had a chance; he experienced unimaginable brutality in his short life. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no stone will remain unturned and no difficult question unasked, that this investigation will proceed without fear or favour, and that at the end of it we will know clearly and publicly who failed Arthur and how he was failed? In addition, will he ensure that the investigation focuses on the clear breakdown in partnerships between the likes of social services, the police and educators? Why on earth were they not talking to each other? At the very least, we owe it to Arthur that every lesson from this horrific tragedy is learned and that no town has its heart broken like Solihull has had.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s words. The words of Arthur have, I know, torn the heart of the nation. I assure him that both reviews will be able to go wherever they need to. I hope that he agrees with me that transparency is the best disinfectant in this case. I thank and commend him for making himself available at all times when we needed to make contact and discuss with him and his office what we were planning to announce in the House.
Little Arthur’s murder has really affected those of us who have direct experience of working closely with abused children. It is a matter of record that when the Secretary of State was Children’s Minister and I was his shadow, I repeatedly warned him that pursuing this Government’s agenda of cuts, increasing bureaucracy, deregulation and privatisation of child protection would cost a child’s life. Like his predecessors, he ignored me. However, I know that the Secretary of State is a genuinely caring man, and I certainly do not have all the answers here, but will he please meet me so that we can at last work together to make sure that no other precious little life is so brutally taken again?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. I think her characterisation is slightly unfair in the sense that we work towards improving the system, and the teams both in the Department and on the frontline do tremendous work. We worked on Step Up to Social Work and Frontline, which delivered thousands of new entrants into the social care system. Since 2017 we have seen an uplift of 10% in the social care workforce, which I hope she will agree is to be commended.[Official Report, 16 December 2021, Vol. 705, c. 6MC.] But I am very happy to meet her because I know she cares passionately about this subject.
I stand with great sadness today. My constituents in Meriden who are served by Solihull Council have been devastated by the death of Arthur. My thoughts go out to those who loved him, and I pay tribute to that young boy with that beautiful smile.
I welcome the announcements of the inspection and the review today. I do not think any Member of Parliament ever wants to be standing here addressing circumstances such as this. I completely agree on the Attorney General’s review of the sentencing. I have to admit that many times over the past few days I have thought they should lock them up and throw away the key. Unfortunately we have been here before. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give to my constituents that the inquiry will bring meaningful change that will protect children like Arthur in future?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question. I reassure him that both reviews will be thorough and will be shared with the House, but will also feed into Josh McAlister’s overall review of children’s social care. I have to say that 29 years minimum for the murderer of Arthur, and 21 years for his father, is what the court could deliver, but I know that the Attorney General has had a request to look again at the leniency of that sentence.
The Secretary of State said earlier that he will do anything it takes to protect children, so can he assure the House that if it transpires that one of the main issues behind the horrific and cruel death of this child was not enough social workers and too much pressure on existing social workers, he will make the case to his colleagues in Government to make the right level of resources available?
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s question. I thank the 34,000 social workers who, today and every day, are out protecting young people. We continue to look to bring more people into the profession; as I mentioned, there has been a 10% rise since 2017. Whatever the reviews recommend—including of course the McAlister review—that is exactly the thing that we will look to implement.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am sure the Secretary of State shares my sense of déjà vu. This tragic case reveals familiar failings raised: 12 years ago, by Lord Laming in his report into Baby P and how we need to have better joint working; 11 years ago, when we started publishing serious case reviews so that we can all learn from them; and 10 years ago, when I launched the Munro review—crucially, not as a knee-jerk reaction to a recent tragedy—to free up social workers from the bureaucracy that was keeping them from eyeballing and face-to-face time with those vulnerable families. While definitely welcoming the Government’s determination to respond urgently with a review, may I suggest that first the Secretary of State reviews why the findings of previous reviews have not been acted on or why the system has not allowed the necessary changes to happen?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He has what I would describe as institutional memory of the children’s social care system. His work as Children and Families Minister in the Department has remained invaluable. He is right to challenge us on ensuring that what we intend to implement from those reviews, including the Munro review—the Department accepted the majority of its recommendations—then happens operationally on the ground to reflect that. That is equally important, and that is why the MacAlister review is so important. It deals with the operational challenges, so that we can turn some of this stuff into reality on the ground.
I thank the Secretary of State for the tone of his statement. As someone who once did this work, I am loth to start picking on individuals; I do understand. I want to say to him that leadership in this kind of work is very important, and I hope that some aspect of the inquiry will look at senior management appointments and the apparent senior managerial merry-go-round, which can allow someone to leave a failing department and assume an almost identical post in a neighbouring authority.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his important question. The reviews will look at all aspects of the failures in this tragic case. It is worth reminding the House that directors of children’s services work also very closely with chief execs and lead members. From my time as Children and Families Minister, I remember that it is that combination of leadership that delivers the right outcomes that we want to see, but the review will look at that as well.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a children’s doctor. Arthur’s case has shocked and saddened all of us, but as Members have already said, we have been here before with similar cases. In my career, I have seen and looked after far too many children who have been injured and hurt by those who are supposed to love them and care for them the most. I welcome the Secretary of State’s review and I hope it will successfully reduce the number of cases. I want to focus my question on justice in particular, because I have seen cases where we have identified problems, but people have been let down, either because the Crown Prosecution Service has accepted lesser pleas to avoid court cases—I remember in one case, the barrister did not know the name of the children he had come to represent in local care proceedings—or sentences have been passed that have been hideously too low for the severity of the heinous crimes committed. When the Secretary of State is doing his review, can he confirm that he will be working with the Ministry of Justice on these cases, too?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, the sentiments expressed within it and the actions he is taking. Like everyone else, I have found the details of this case harrowing, not least because Arthur was the same age as my daughter. It is just unbelievable, and my thoughts are with all those who knew and loved him. Given that we know that among the social worker workforce there is a high turnover rate, a 7.5% vacancy rate and a quarter of that workforce is due for retirement in the next 10 years, will the Secretary of State commit, whether through this review or the MacAlister review, to looking at the recruitment, retention and training of social workers? Given that their workload has gone up while there have been some £2.2 billion of cuts to social services over the past decade, will he commit to whatever resources it takes? We cannot put a price on a child’s life.
The hon. Member is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we continue to retain the more experienced social worker leadership, and I hope that the MacAlister review will make some operational recommendations on that. Of course, we had two successful schemes with Frontline and Step Up to Social Work, which resulted in thousands of people coming into the social care profession and the number of social workers going up by 10% since 2017. She is right that if we look at the system overall, we have far too many agency workers, which I think is her point. We want that experience and leadership to be working full time in a local authority system rather than on an agency basis.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his tone throughout. I know that he was passionate about child safeguarding as Children’s Minister and that children are in safe hands with him at the helm, so I am grateful for that.
This horrific case shows that fundamental reform of children’s social care is long overdue. Lessons learned and case reviews are not enough. Does the Secretary of State agree that the problems with children’s social care are systemic and that the challenges faced are not just about funding? Does he agree that scapegoating individuals, particularly inexperienced social workers, will not improve the care of the most vulnerable children?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we must ensure that we deliver better outcomes. We recognise that, which is why we made a manifesto pledge to have the MacAlister review. I am confident that the review will deliver recommendations that I hope we can be ambitious about and deliver rapidly.
My hon. Friend is also right that we cannot continue to have review after review. We have to learn from them and operationally implement the recommendations. I am passionate that, in complex systems, we must have thorough investigations, because that is how they are improved and made failsafe for those they protect.
When I was the Chair of the Education Committee for 10 years, we heard about some awful tragic cases such as this. My heart goes out to little Arthur and anyone who knew him. I like the tone of the Secretary of State’s opening remarks. When the investigation about baby P—baby Peter—went on, there was a hue and cry from the popular media that some politicians joined. I still have a guilty conscience about the way that Sharon Shoesmith was hounded out of office. We have never apologised for what happened to her.
The Secretary of State will know that good children’s services and good multi-agency working are expensive. We need the resources in local government to deliver. When I was the Chair of the Select Committee, one of the most worrying things was the reluctance to square up to the fact that we should know where every child in our country is. Home schooling has put a big question mark over knowing what is happening to children in the home environment. Does he share my concern and could we have a conversation about that at a later date?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his very important question. Just to unpack a little bit of it, I think he is right to say that we need to make sure we know where every child is. There are some excellent examples of home schooling with parents who really do a great job, but that is not always the case. I know that he cares passionately about the work of children’s social services, and I hope that he will continue to care about this when he leaves this place, as he has announced he is doing. He will be sorely missed, I think, and his input will be missed.
On the hon. Member’s point about local councils, in this year’s and next year’s budgets, they have about £51.3 billion of core spending power for their services. They have had a real-terms increase for what they can do, with the £6 billion to cope with covid as well. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we do not scapegoat anyone, and he is absolutely right that we have to make sure we allow both the panel and the review to take their course and report back to this House.
I would go back a little longer than other people, and refer to the Jasmine Beckford case, as well as the Victoria Climbié case, the Baby Peter case and now that of Arthur. The one common theme throughout this whole terrible series of events is that the opportunities to take a child to safety were missed. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that the message goes out to frontline children’s social workers that if they have a suspicion—a suspicion—of a child being abused, it will be thoroughly investigated, and if necessary that child will be removed to a place of safety?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right to remind us of the cases of Beckford, Climbié and now, tragically, Arthur. I think social workers are doing a tremendous job, and I think it is important that multi-agency work—for whatever reason, and we will find out through these two reviews—missed Arthur in this case and did not take him away. The father and partner were obviously evil and manipulative, but nevertheless we have to make sure, if there is any evidence, any inkling, any iota of harm to any child, that the child is taken away immediately.
Some 300,000 children a year are affected by parental imprisonment and, as I understand it, Arthur was one of them, so what this case highlights is the lack of a statutory mechanism to identify and support such children. The moment he was put in his father’s charge—I will not say his father’s care—that identification and support should have been there. I am due to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), to discuss this on Monday, but can I urge the Secretary of State that the issue needs flagging up within the review?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I know from my time as children and families Minister that she has been campaigning on this issue and I know she is meeting the Minister for children and families on Monday, but I will certainly take a very close look at what she says and feed back to the panels.
I must declare that my sister is a social worker. No one can understand how beautiful little Arthur died at the hands of the people who were charged with caring for him. I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, and I know that he will be absolutely determined in his passion to get at exactly why this happened and the learnings we can take forward. However, does he agree with me that it is now finally time really to look at and deal with the case load that these social workers have to deal with? Some of them have excessive case loads with very complex cases. Can we finally give social workers the confidence, the safety and the time to be able to do the job that they love and get up every morning for to keep children safe?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s incredibly important question. She will, I hope, remember that, when I was children and families Minister, I was the champion of social workers, and I will continue to be the champion of social workers as Secretary of State. I am very confident about the MacAlister review—hence why it was such a priority for us for it to be in our manifesto. It is so important that we now get this right, and case loads are very much a part of that, as she quite rightly identifies.
The most important job the state must have is to protect vulnerable children, but social care faces a mounting crisis. I know the Secretary of State, and I trust entirely that he will do everything in his power to get to the bottom of what led to this terrible tragedy, but will he please at least acknowledge that the 60% cuts to local authorities in the past decade are potentially having a dramatic impact on these services?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will always go where the evidence leads. The reason why we asked Josh MacAlister to conduct the review prior to the tragic murder of this innocent young boy is that we want to make sure that we deliver a system that is fit for purpose. We have made more funding available, but it depends what the review comes back with, and I will certainly return to the Dispatch Box and go through that with colleagues to make sure that we get this right.
May I say, as many have, what a relief it is that my right hon. Friend is at the helm on this issue? This has been a bone-chilling case. He was right in his statement to say that no Government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil, and we have seen evil in this case. We also know that hard-working professionals cannot be everywhere all the time.
Quite rightly, the campaign to end violence against women and girls has a high national profile and commands the respect of Ministers across Government. May I urge my right hon. Friend to begin such a crusade to combat neglect and violence against children, so that, as others have noted, the precautionary principle—the taking away of a child if there is a scintilla of a doubt—is at the forefront of people’s minds, the resources are available, and the law stands four-square behind them?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his commitment to get to the bottom of this. I associate myself with all the remarks made by Members across the House. Like many Members, I have two young children; I hugged my six-year-old and four-year-old that little bit tighter this weekend, in just so much sadness.
I have highlighted in the House before the shortcomings in the safeguarding system, which need to be addressed, but I would also like to draw the House’s attention to young girls and young children who are in vulnerable situations and, in some cases, are not known to the authorities. I have highlighted the problem with hidden gang-associated girls, many of whom are never picked up. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all children at risk of violence and exploitation are identified and properly cared for?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her moving words about her own children; I felt exactly the same way this weekend about my nine-year-old daughter. The hon. Lady highlights a very important point. The MacAlister review is very much about making sure that we have a system that is decisive when it comes to the protection of children.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I ask him to be mindful—I know he will be—of learning the lessons from other tragic cases, particularly that of Baby P, where we saw a massive increase in referrals and in the number of children taken away from the care that they were in. We need an increase in resources for social workers in the near term to handle that increase in referrals, and I do think that a balance needs to be struck between taking children away from their parents, or the home that they are in, and making sure that they are safe. Will he ensure that he sends that message to social workers?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question. She is absolutely right about how social workers identify support networks for children—I have seen them do that brilliantly. Of course, if there is a scintilla of doubt in terms of any harm being caused to a child, they absolutely should be taken away. She also makes an important point about learning from previous cases and the additional work that will now be placed on the social work frontline. We are cognisant of that, and I know that the Minister for children and families is looking at how we can continue to support the frontline.
Unfortunately, we are too good at setting up reviews and blaming others. This House needs to take some responsibility. In March 2018, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) published a report with me, based on consultation with children’s charities, local government and social work professionals. It said that, after £2 billion-worth of cuts, children were at risk and could not be protected. We put forward proposals for the Budget that year, in the following year and in the following year.
We have seen a 40% cut in early interventions on children. We all get emotional about this—I was on childcare for 15 years and dealt with children who had been abused, and I never, ever want to see it again. I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s sincerity—we have worked with him and in most cases he has done a good job where he has been—so this is a message through him to the Chancellor: we need an emergency funding package for children’s services now. We cannot wait months for another review. Social workers are overworked and, actually, underpaid and disrespected. We need them to be properly funded and supported.
I would respectfully say that I do not think anybody in this House would ever disrespect the social work workforce or any social worker. I also think that evidence-based strategy is important, and that is why the MacAlister review is so important. It is worth remembering that local government’s core spending is increasing by an average of 3% in real terms each year for the spending review period. So more money is going into local government, but, depending on what the MacAlister review delivers, I would certainly be the first to make the argument for properly resourcing children’s social care.
May I, like others, thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the tone of the statement? Does he agree that the Children Act 1989, which provides the main legislative and operational underpinning of children’s social care, is perhaps in need of updating? Does he have a view about how that might happen?
Further, picking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), does he agree that it is a weakness in our local safeguarding partnership model that schools and education are not a statutory safeguarding partner?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has deep experience in the area. He is right that we need to carefully consider all possible routes to help ensure that children’s social care has the powers that it needs to protect vulnerable children like Arthur. It is important that we wait for both reviews before we look to make specific legislative improvements. We obviously need to ensure that the national panel report and the findings of the joint targeted area inspection come back. Of course, we also have the independent MacAlister review. I will not rule out legislative changes if we need to make them.
May I also thank the Secretary of State for the tone of the statement? He keeps mentioning increases in local government core funding in the spending review period, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, that does not outstrip a decade of damage that has left a perfect storm for children’s services alongside increasing demand and ballooning case loads for social workers. There are massive pressures in the system. I ask him sincerely to go to the Chancellor, to make the case for children’s services and to get the additional resource that is so desperately needed so that no vulnerable child is failed as little Arthur was.
I am grateful for the hon. Member’s question. Funding is one important part of the equation—absolutely—but equally important is making sure that we look at what went wrong and why, and how we will fix that operationally. People such as Martin Narey, who I was speaking to during the week, would say to the House that this is about not only funding, but making sure we have the operational competence to support children’s social care and the frontline in doing their job. Social workers tell me all the time that the best place for them is working with families, rather than dealing with all the bureaucracy that sits behind this.
I have never met a social worker who does not go to work every day to make a difference to the people they serve. I fear that, in this nation, we do not always hold social workers in the high regard that we do teachers, police officers, nurses and doctors, and that needs to change. As a former cabinet member for children’s services, I believe fully that this is about local accountability and that local councillors, whether the lead member or the leader of the council, have a role to play in keeping children safe. This is not just about the directors of children’s services and the social workers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the Department for Education worked with the Local Government Association and other organisations in local government to ensure that cabinet members and council leaders really appreciate the role that they have to play in keeping our children safe?
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question; I touched on the answer a bit earlier. She is absolutely right—I have seen really good evidence of high-performing children’s services when the chief executive and the lead member work to support the director of children’s services and the frontline, and really understand how the system works in their locality. I can reassure her that I and the Minister responsible for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will leave no stone unturned in the work we do on this with local government.
I agree with the Secretary of State that our experienced social workers need to spend more time working with families and not be stuck behind a desk doing paperwork, but a direct consequence of more than a decade of cuts to local government is that experienced social workers have left the profession because of feeling overburdened by rising caseloads. It is also directly because of those cuts that they have to do more paperwork, and we can see that pattern emerging in 10 years of research by the British Association of Social Workers. I invite the Secretary of State to make time for a meeting with me, as an officer of the all-party group on social work, and the BASW to discuss the things that we can do to encourage the retention and recruitment of social workers, so that we can have experienced social workers working directly with families.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I will certainly make time for that, as will the Minister responsible for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. She raises a really important point. When I held that portfolio, I remember that we had What Works in children’s social care, which was an evidence-led approach to the issue. I am very happy to look at the evidence that she and the APPG can provide, as well as to bring the team that is leading on What Works in children’s social care.
Like many others, I found myself in tears at the weekend thinking about what happened to poor little Arthur. I welcome the fact that the sentences will potentially be reviewed, but we should not get over-optimistic. At best, we might see an increase of a few years, because sentencing practice in this country falls woefully short of what most people think of as justice in cases such as this. Every person I have spoken to and everyone who has contacted me wants to see both these despicable individuals locked up for the rest of their lives. I hugely welcome the changes that we are making on premeditated child murder so that someone should expect a whole-life tariff, but does my right hon. Friend agree that any adult who murders a child should expect to spend the rest of their life in prison, regardless of whether it was premeditated?
I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about the issue, which he and I have discussed recently. Quite rightly, he reminds the House that last week the Government announced that we will amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to include Tony’s law, which will increase the maximum penalty for child cruelty and for causing or allowing serious physical harm to a child from 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment, and the maximum penalty for causing or allowing the death of a child from 14 years to life imprisonment.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the thoughtful but determined way in which he has approached this tragic situation. He mentions the need for multi-agency working. I am sure he is right about that, but might I suggest that the review looks at the possibility of placing a duty on those agencies to share information, because that seems to have been a problem in this case, and of establishing a mechanism whereby information received is properly assessed to see what further steps should be taken? As others have said, we need the resources to make a system like that work.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a really important issue. Although there is a duty to work together and to share information, I want the investigation to look at how well that is working and how we can improve it. Clearly in this case it has not worked, which is why we have lost poor Arthur.
If it takes a village to raise a child, let us not make it the case that a whole village has to raise the issue before concerns are addressed. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the review will look at outcomes rather than following rules? Let us allow multi-agency groups to be bold, make bold decisions and have the confidence that we will support them.
My hon. Friend raises a fundamental issue, which is that the system needs to have the confidence and ability to safeguard, protect and build on relationships that a child may have with other family members via kinship care, if necessary, or otherwise. That comes through high-quality leadership, which is why that was so much the focus of my work when I was Minister for Children and Families. I know that the present Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, continues that work, but my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) is right that the review should look at it too.
I have 15 years of experience in children’s social care as a social worker. I thank the Secretary of State for saying that he will be a champion for social workers. The death of Arthur is absolutely tragic.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. However, it is not a new phenomenon that social workers are overworked and spend most of their time doing bureaucratic work. The Munro review, Louise Casey and Josh MacAlister have stated that social workers spend far too much time on the bureaucracy of their work instead of being with families. Social workers are overworked. What interim measures will the Secretary of State put in place now? What are the timescales for when the review will be completed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her 15 years of service as a social worker. She is absolutely right. In the first quarter of next year, there will be a reduction in that bureaucracy; that is coming down the line even before the review.[Official Report, 16 December 2021, Vol. 705, c. 6MC.] She is also right to say that there is too much bureaucracy. I will never forget going out with a brilliant social worker in Brighton who is a phenomenon, doing incredible work with the most vulnerable young people. She said to me privately, “I know I shouldn’t be saying this to you, because you’re the Minister, but I’m not good at using some of these technologies and this bureaucracy. That’s why I’m finding it so difficult, so I’m going to retire.” That is the sort of thing that I think the MacAlister review needs to look at very thoroughly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and his commitment to leave no stone unturned in this tragic case. In my constituency of Workington, teachers often find themselves on the frontline of social work; I put it on the record that I am the husband of a teaching assistant. Some of our secondaries are pilots for the social workers in schools project. We know that early intervention is key, so will my right hon. Friend look at rolling out the social workers in schools project to primaries across Cumbria as well?
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for the tone of what he has said this afternoon.
The tragic death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes has shocked and grieved our nation and served as a painful reminder that not nearly enough has been done to protect vulnerable children since the death of Baby P more than a decade ago. Lord Laming, who chaired the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, has warned that 10 years of austerity measures have seriously undermined the ability of social services to protect the young people most at risk of serious harm. Does the Secretary of State agree that urgently restoring funding lost since 2010 is essential if we are to stop any other child from suffering as Arthur so tragically did?
I think it important to note the £4.8 billion that local government will receive over the spending review period, but I hope the MacAlister review will give us an opportunity to look at how we can make the best use of funding operationally, and also to understand where the bureaucracy lies in order to free up the frontline and make social work an attractive profession. All that work will continue apace once we receive the review.
I want to offer my deepest condolences to little Arthur’s family and friends. As colleagues throughout the House have said today, this is a truly dreadful case.
I thank the Secretary of State for his tone and his commitment on this important issue, but I should like to hear more from him about his willingness to leave no stone unturned and do whatever it takes in exploring how we can support these vital public sector workers who need so much help and encouragement at this difficult time. Will he look into social workers’ pay, the numbers of social workers and the integration of different agencies, and will he indeed leave no stone unturned—which should include looking at his own Department?
I am grateful to the hon. Member, and I thank all colleagues for the input and the tone of these important exchanges.
The MacAlister review is looking at exactly those issues—how we can ensure that we deliver the best outcome, and the support that we offer the frontline. The incredible work that social workers do day in day out, week in week out, year in year out, does not receive much recognition, and sadly it only reaches the Dispatch Box when there is a tragedy like that of Daniel Pelka or, now, that of young Arthur. I want to place it on record that social workers are not on their own, that they are not forgotten, and that they will always be supported. I hope that both the review I have announced today and the MacAlister review will mean we can continue our support for the frontline to ensure that we secure the best possible outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families in our country.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I believe so, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In response to my question about resources, the Secretary of State for Education implied, certainly, that he would be willing to support any recommendations on finance made by the MacAlister review. However, the Secretary of State would have known perfectly well that his Department has signed a contract with MacAlister which says that he cannot “assume” any additional Government funding, that any recommendations about funding must be matched by savings elsewhere in Government over a period, and that any recommendations must be “affordable” to Government. How can the Secretary of State assure the House that he is willing to support recommendations of extra money when the contract that his Department has signed would seem to imply that any such recommendations would not be acceptable?
I thank the right hon. Lady, but that is not actually a point of order for the Chair. Obviously, it has enabled her to put her point on record and to seek any clarification on the details of the Secretary of State’s reply to her, on which he may wish to give further information. I am sure that he has heard what she has said, and I know that if he feels he has anything further to add, he will do so.