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Children and Young People: Local Authority Care

Volume 837: debated on Thursday 18 April 2024

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the continuing increase in the number of children and young people being committed into the care of the local authorities.

My Lords, I am very pleased that we have the opportunity for this timely debate on such an important subject, and I am most grateful to colleagues around the House who will contribute to it. Furthermore, we all know that the Minister has a keen interest in this subject. I hope it will help if, at the outset, I set out some points on which I feel sure we can all agree.

First, it is clearly a matter of great importance whenever the state decides to take over the parenting of someone else’s child or children. To remove a child from the care of its parents is not an action to be undertaken lightly. In each case, the decision must be soundly based on a careful assessment and with clear evidence as to why this most serious action is justified.

Secondly, it therefore follows that children must never be taken into care for what might be called trivial reasons; this action must be taken only after other possibilities have been carefully considered.

Thirdly, for these reasons, in the vast majority of cases the problems of the family and the threat to the safety and well-being of the child have been identified at a much earlier stage by one or other of the key front-line services. It is very likely that the child will have been thought at an earlier stage to be at risk and in need of special attention. Sadly, this information is not always shared. As a result, the opportunity for early intervention is often lost, resulting in a crisis and, inevitably, the child having to be taken into care.

Fourthly, once the child has been taken into care, the local authority has a legal and moral duty to be a good parent. That means that every subsequent decision and action taken should be seen to be in the best interests of the child. The law is clear that the well-being, safety and proper development of each child is of paramount importance.

It is sad to say, but the record of the state as a substitute parent all too often falls well short of an acceptable standard. This is partly because, over the last decade, many local authorities thought it a good idea to outsource their services. In a nutshell, this meant that they placed the provision of these much-needed local services in the hands of private companies and, in some cases, hedge funds. The 2022 report by the Competition and Markets Authority makes for sorry reading. The House magazine summed it up well when it stated that the report

“highlighted a highly fragmented, complex market, that means individual councils find it hard to plan for and therefore provide their own residential and foster care, leaving them at the mercy of private providers”.

One consequence of that is that, in some cases, the financial charges for the care of an individual child can be nothing short of breathtaking. In addition, because of these changes, in many cases children are being placed huge distances away from their home area, their wider family, their school, their friends and even their siblings. Even worse, many are being placed in unregistered accommodation.

The increase in the number of children being admitted into the care of local authorities must be a matter of great concern to us all. In brief, in 2010 there were 64,460 children in care in England; by 2015, that number had increased to 69,460; by 2023, it had grown to 83,840, and it is still growing today. I am sure we can all agree that we should question why that is so. What is happening in our society that is resulting in so many more children being placed in local authority care? There will be many contributing factors to be considered and I am sure the Minister will refer to some of them, but surely the first and most obvious reason is that over the past decade there has been, year on year in real terms, a marked reduction in the funding of local government services. That has resulted in the cutback of many preventive family and child support services.

Despite the recent allocation of additional funding to local authorities, for which I pay tribute to the Minister, the reality is that, while these recent increases in finance are welcome, the funding of essential services by local authorities has not yet got back in real terms to where it was in 2010. Yet, during that same period, there have been huge increases in demand for family support and child protection services. Indeed, there is a real danger, as we sit here today, that the situation could become much worse. According to the Local Government Information Unit,

“Over half of councils face bankruptcy within next parliament”

unless local government funding is reformed. To add emphasis to that point, the chair of the Local Government Association states that more than eight in 10 local authorities are expecting financial hardship to increase locally in the next 12 months. That is why in many local authorities the non-statutory services that are essential in the support of families and young people have been dramatically reduced, along with financial support to some outstanding charities operating in this field.

So the essential steps of early referrals, joint assessments and agreed action plans across the key services that enabled many families to overcome whatever difficulties they encountered are, in many parts of the country, no longer available. As a result, all too often, helpful early intervention in the family is delayed until the crisis has happened, and as a result there is no alternative to the child being taken into care.

The MacAlister review, commissioned by the Government, made clear that the social services care system is

“increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise”.

Thank goodness that in this country we have some remarkable foster carers who generously invite into their families a hitherto unknown child with special needs, as well as some outstanding staff in residential units.

I pay tribute to the Minister for all she is doing to address matters such as kinship care and the development of local hubs. The guidance issued by her department states:

“Local organisations and agencies should have in place effective ways to identify emerging problems and potential unmet needs of individual children and families. Local authorities should work with organisations and agencies to develop joined-up early help services … through a Family Hub model”.

I agree with that, but we must not delude ourselves. Services for children and families are far from where we would wish them to be.

Let me put this in a wider context, because it needs to be emphasised. It is not as if this country has been faced with a huge increase in the number of children being born. On the contrary, since 2010 the fertility rate in Britain has been falling below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. It now stands as low as 1.4 children per woman. The stark reality is that, while the birth rate has been going down, in contrast, the number of children taken into care has been going up markedly. It is surely time for us all to pause and undertake a careful, honest and well-informed assessment of the stark reality of the position of services for children and families and to decide on whatever way ahead can be achieved.

I end with a sobering thought. While there are almost 84,000 children in care in England, I am advised that, today, there are only 73,000 soldiers in the whole of the British Army. The reality is that it would be hard to squeeze all the children in care into Wembley Stadium. We are now on track to record 100,000 children in care in England. Surely this is unacceptable, and it must cause great concern to the whole country. Should not these figures give us all reason to think again? Children are our future. Each child is precious. Surely we can do better; surely we must do better for each of these children. We can do better for them, and I hope we will. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am very glad to contribute to a debate opened so powerfully and movingly by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, one of our country’s leading experts on social care—from whom, incidentally, I have received much personal kind encouragement about aspects of my work throughout my time in your Lordships’ House.

I have just one purpose in contributing to this important debate. It is to commend in the strongest terms the work being done to enable more children in care to find places in our nation’s boarding schools—schools which provide for so wide a range of achievements, including in sport, music and other arts subjects. I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association, one of a number of organisations in the independent sector whose members include schools with boarders.

It is important to remember that there are number of fine boarding schools in the state sector of education. As I have often pointed out in your Lordships’ House, this is a time of ever-increasing collaboration between schools in the two sectors. Huge encouragement is to be drawn from the enthusiasm with which, to a greater extent than ever before, they are working together to their mutual benefit, and our country’s gain.

Experience shows that some children in care thrive in boarding schools, loving the wide range of opportunities that they provide. It is equally clear that other children would not profit from a boarding education. Local authorities need to identify those children who would benefit, and to make suitable provision for them. In carrying out this aspect of their work, in recent years, they have had growing encouragement and support from this Government, offered not in any spirit of dictation, but out of a desire to ensure that advice and guidance are available for local authorities to draw on when they wish.

A highly regarded charity, backed by the Government, stands ready to assist local authorities in the discharge of their duty. It is called the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation. In its own words, the foundation works,

“with Local Authorities across England and Wales to identify children who are looked-after or identified as being ‘in-need’ who might benefit from the opportunities of a boarding school education, to broker placements in schools best placed to meet their academic, social and pastoral needs, and prepare and support them to thrive throughout their bursary placements”.

Is this not a service that everyone, whatever their political views, should welcome and encourage?

In the last four years, the foundation’s work has enabled more than 200 children in care to secure fully funded places in independent and state boarding schools. This has been achieved as a result of the foundation’s involvement with more than 50 local authorities and more than 200 boarding schools which have committed themselves to giving priority to children in care when filling up bursary places. These are important developments which should be noted by all those concerned to ensure that the varying needs of children in care are properly addressed.

Last year, the foundation got Nottingham University’s education department to provide an independent assessment of how children for whom boarding places had been provided were doing. The university’s exercise showed that such children were four times more likely to achieve good GCSE grades in English and Maths than other vulnerable children. They were five times more likely to study successfully for A-levels and to go on to university. Interviews conducted with the young people themselves showed that,

“in their view, such opportunities can be life changing”.

As for the cost, the Nottingham researchers estimated that:

“savings to the public purse from sending 210 children in the study to boarding school were in the region of £4.47m”.

Can there possibly be any argument against expanding these cost-effective, life-changing opportunities for children in care?

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for this timely debate—to use the cliché, The sad truth about our children’s care system is that it is always timely because the crisis just keeps going and getting worse.

The basic statistics, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Laming, referred to earlier, make very grim reading. Some 84,000 children are now in care—up 20% in a decade. Also, in the last decade there has been a tripling of the percentage of over-16-year-olds in care and a tripling of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The system is under increased pressure, particularly since the financial crisis, and these pressures are worsening month by month. The LGA has estimated a shortfall of £4 billion in our local government care system. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, pointed out, there has been a shift in spend away from early intervention, which has reduced by nearly 50% since 2010, towards late intervention, which has increased by nearly 50% in the same period. The result is a big shortage in local authority-funded placements. Sixteen secure homes have shut since 2002.

The real crisis, though, comes from how local authorities—purely through constraint and pressure—have been forced to respond in different ways. First, there has been a huge increase in private sector residential care, which is now 85% of all homes. Why is this important? It is important because this is when local authorities lose control of the type, location and cost of provision. It is when private equity involvement increases, often with up to 20% margins for the largest companies. This sometimes leads to dangerously high levels of debt, the risk of which is borne ultimately by the local authorities and the very children whom they are supposed to be protecting.

Secondly, hundreds of vulnerable children are now being sent to unregulated homes because of a chronic shortage of places. There has been a 277% rise in the number of children placed in unregulated children’s homes since the pandemic. Just think of that; the most vulnerable children of all are in illegal placements.

Thirdly, there has been a tripling of children living in supported accommodation without any care at all. NGOs such as the Family Rights Group worry that the Government’s new regulatory approach will unintentionally confirm this as the new status quo. There is also the greater use of placements that involve distance and separation from family. Over one-third of children in the system are separated from their siblings. The average distance from family is now 18 miles, and over 20% of children live over 20 miles from their families.

We also have the inadequate use of kinship care, although I applaud the Government and officials for taking steps towards rectifying this in recent months and years. Groups such as Become and Kinship, as many noble Lords will know, have championed this issue ferociously. At the moment, however, only 15% of all children in care are in kinship care. The care system has not traditionally explored these options early enough, nor offered enough help to those family and friends who might provide that kind of care.

On top of this, there are labour shortage issues, with a 20% vacancy rate in social worker posts, a very high turnover in children’s homes and a declining number of fostering households.

It is a bleak picture, but we should acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming has said, that the Government have taken some steps forward. Commissioning the MacAlister review was one, along with the development of local family hubs and the provision of more funding. Michael Gove and the Chancellor recently made some announcements on the children’s care estate. Of the percentage of funding that MacAlister envisages, something like 10% to 12% has been put in place so far.

Some of the things Government should do are not really about extra funding, although they will involve some extra funding. Take kinship care as an example. The organisation Kinship estimates that, for every 1,000 children looked after in well-supported kinship care rather than local authority care, the state saves £40 million and increases their lifetime earnings by £20 million. We also need stronger enforcement of the existing obligation for local authorities to have a kinship care policy. More than one-third do not have one, even though they are required to. We need more proactive strategic planning involving families—a shift to state support rather than simply increasing child protection inquiries, over 70% of which do not result in further action. We also need much better regulation of children’s homes to stop the debt problem and the leakage into the unregulated sector.

We need considerably more money, and I have a small suggestion of a down payment. Some £600 million per year comes from the carried interest loophole in the private equity sector. Many of the companies within that run these children’s homes. That would be a very small down payment to an increase in funding for this much-neglected sector.

This House and the other House have to make sure that we keep this as a priority. It is a sector that does not have the strong voices, sharp elbows or the champions that other children’s and health issues have. It gives us more responsibility to keep that voice strong.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on securing this critically important debate and introducing it so expertly.

Pressure on children’s social care is at an all-time high. As we have already heard, there are almost 84,000 children in the care system. In my view we are facing a perfect storm, with escalating numbers of young people coming into a system that has become increasingly focused on delivering late intervention services, in particular high-cost residential care placements. Councils are unable to invest in early intervention services that can prevent families reaching crisis point and children having to enter care in the first place.

The figures are stark. On average, the cost of a residential placement is four times that of a foster placement. In the last 10 years, spending on early intervention has almost halved, while spending on late intervention has risen by almost one-half.

We know that more children are entering care with complex or multiple needs. There has been an increase in the number of older teenagers entering care. School age children in care are more likely to have special educational needs and mental health problems. Children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods are over 10 times more likely to be in care or on a protection plan than those in the least deprived 10%.

I think we can all agree that children in care need stability to heal and thrive, yet for too many their experience of care is characterised by instability: being moved from home to home or school to school, being separated from siblings, being moved far away from their support networks, or facing a revolving door of social workers and other professionals.

Over the past decade, as we have heard, there has been a significant change in the way that care placements, particularly residential care placements, are provided. As of last year, private providers operated over 85% of all children’s homes. The Competition and Markets Authority has reported how this changing market has led to what it calls a power imbalance between private sector providers and local authority commissioners, reducing local authorities’ control over the type of provision that is developed, where it is located, and the cost. Little wonder that there are increasing concerns about the role of private equity companies in providing residential care, excessive profit levels among the largest providers and the rising sums that councils are having to spend on residential care.

A recent report by the investigative journalist Justine Smith in The House magazine, already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, provided truly alarming figures, including a 25% hike in prices in just two years, at the same time as 23% profit margins were taken by the biggest operators. The Competition and Markets Authority report also highlighted that the level of debt carried by some of the largest private providers presents a real risk to local authorities and the wider care system. A real concern is that studies have shown that for-profit children’s homes are too often rated of lower quality than other provision types.

We need to introduce a more effective children’s social care commissioning system as a matter of urgency to help reduce the reliance on private sector firms that are carrying large amounts of debt. I can put it no better than the words of Josh MacAlister, chair of the independent review of children’s social care, who said:

“When sovereign wealth funds are investing in your country’s children’s homes, you know there is something very wrong”.

Like the noble Lords, Lord Laming and Lord Wood, I am concerned about the use of unregulated care homes, which is the subject of another recent Observer investigation. It seems to me that something is going very wrong. I would be grateful if the Minister told me what the Government are doing about this.

Sadly, I do not have enough time to talk, as I would have liked, about the Government’s strategy for reforming children’s social care. As I have said before, it is a very much a step in the right direction but does not go far or fast enough to address the scale of the challenge. I would therefore like to finish by asking the Minister a couple of questions. First, the Government’s Spring Budget provided some welcome additional money for extra children’s home placements. It said that the Government were going to develop proposals to combat profiteering in the sector and look at new ways of unlocking investment in children’s homes. Could the Minister please spell out what these proposals are and how quickly they are likely to come into effect? Finally, could she also give a timetable for when the Government plan to publish a children’s social care Bill, which would provide a vehicle to bring forward many of the reforms of children’s social care that this Government committed to in their Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy?

My Lords, like others, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his introduction to this debate, which we all found as powerful as it was accurate.

My contribution is as a family lawyer who has been involved in public law care proceedings for much of my professional life, latterly as a judge in the family court, and as someone who has had to make care orders. In some cases, the outcome is sadly obvious and the process relatively easy, but in many cases the decisions required of the person making them are agonising, particularly when they may involve irrevocable changes for parents and children.

The increase in the number of children subject to care orders is not the result of any changes in the law. Most decisions are governed by the fundamental needs of each child for safety, security, stability and permanence. The courts have to consider all viable options and, particularly since the Human Rights Act, rigorous analysis is expected. Fortunately, this is one of the few areas where parents have automatic entitlement to legal aid, and vitally, the child is independently represented.

The system of children’s social care should, of course, offer support to families well before any crisis is reached and before the courts become involved. The reductions in financial and human resources, not least the curtailment of Sure Start, have meant that it is now often only a crisis that activates the system. Earlier and effective engagement with parents, overcoming their mistrust and gaining the involvement of the wider family in family group conferences are crucial in setting out the expectations of parents and avoiding the need for care proceedings. They must, in the same way, enable exploration of the prospects for kinship care. A recent initiative by the Family Rights Group called “Reimagining pre-proceedings” emphasises the structure and value of preventive work, which can and should be done to head off care proceedings and stabilise the family. That sort of work should be the norm, not the exception, serving to reduce high levels of late intervention.

The system depends on the retention of trained social workers who, as Josh MacAlister wrote in his 2021 report, have to make complex and challenging decisions every day. They require the skills and confidence to provide informed and robust assessments. Parents and children, as well as the courts, need continuity in the allocation of social workers. When, as too often happens, a stressed social worker leaves or moves on, progress can be halted; a familiar face vanishes, making a difficult case more difficult. If that happens after proceedings have started, there will be added pressure on the Cafcass children’s guardian to try to steer the proceedings forward in the right direction.

Not all cases are susceptible to pre-proceedings work. The other demanding category of cases concerns applications for care orders in respect of newborn babies whose mothers have avoided any antenatal care. They slip under the radar, yet 47% of newborns subject to care proceedings are born to mothers who have themselves been subject to such orders. The local authority becomes aware of those mothers only when they arrive in hospital to give birth, when it may have to make urgent applications for an emergency protection or interim care order. Very often that involves mothers who have used drugs during pregnancy; there is nothing more distressing than seeing and hearing a newborn baby who is withdrawing from drugs. If there is no reliable support in the wider family, the local authority has to struggle to find suitable foster care or specialist placements at short notice, then struggles to avoid changes of placement. The costly resort to private providers has been mentioned.

As the President of the Family Division has said, judges are being forced to perform functions that are properly the role of the state. I have stressed the importance of pre-proceedings work, and I wish briefly to point to other work that could and should be done, building on initiatives that deserve more than patchy support. First, more is required to ensure and underpin wide operation of family drugs and alcohol courts. They can divert parents away from conflict with social workers, towards the help and support they need to have a realistic chance of recovering and retaining their children.

Finally, much more is needed to support parents, particularly mothers, after a child has been removed. The saddest statistic is that at least one in four women will return to court having had a previous child removed. Too often they have reacted to the removal with an ill-considered decision to have another baby, with all too often the same consequences. They are truly wretched cases to deal with. Therefore, I certainly hope that the Government can endorse the intensive and expert work being done by the charity Pause to prevent this cycle of removals.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for securing this timely debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Meston, for his remarks just now, with which I strongly agree. Yesterday afternoon I attended the launch of the Child of the North APPG’s report, Children in Care in the North of England, and heard the compelling testimony of two young women, Rebekah and Kirsty, whose lives have been impacted by experiences in the care system.

The number of children entering local authority care is increasing nationally, but the north of England persistently records the highest rates of children in care. Local authorities bear the financial burden, with their budgets increasingly directed towards often unregulated private residential care providers, as other noble Lords have referred to, rather than long-term investment supporting families before they reach crisis point; a child in trouble can also be a family in trouble. We have a cycle in which cuts lead to reduced preventive services, resulting in more children entering care and budgets further spent on crisis intervention. As the Child of the North APPG heard yesterday from Amy Van Zyl, CEO of the Newcastle-based charity REFORM, there is a critical need for liberated methods of tackling systemic issues rather than overregulation, which can result in silo working, and a full recognition that deep-rooted issues of poverty are a major factor in the alarming statistics behind which are the lives of real people.

I want to highlight the use of family group conferences, which are mediated meetings involving parents and wider family members to help determine how best to support their children. This model originated in New Zealand, a country with which I am familiar, in response to the disproportionate number of Māori and Pasifika children being removed into state care. They empower families to make their own decisions for their children, placing children’s voices at the centre. A study published by Foundations last year confirmed that family group conferences reduce entry into care. However, unlike in New Zealand, UK local authorities are not obliged to offer them. Will the Government extend their preventive services so that every family, where there are concerns about the care of their child, is offered a family group conference?

The north-east also has the highest proportion of kinship care households in England, with one in 50 children living in the care of a relative or family friend. I welcome the Government’s publication of the national kinship care strategy, which marks a leap forward in recognising the invaluable contributions of kinship carers. However, the strategy does not go far enough to provide them with the financial, practical and emotional support they need. Some 12% of kinship carers are concerned that they cannot continue caring for their children in the next year if their circumstances do not improve, with most citing financial pressures as the reason.

The Government’s strategy announced a pilot scheme through which certain kinship carers will receive a financial allowance. With kinship care having clear benefits over other care arrangements, when will the sacrifices of kinship carers be recognised through the rollout of funding, equal to that of foster families, in all local authorities?

I finish by quoting the words of a care leaver featured in the Child of the North APPG’s report:

“The point of being in care is to be cared for”.

I question whether our current system can truly deliver this and urge the Government to consider a vision for long-term, sustainable solutions to this chronic situation.

My Lords, no one is better qualified to lead a debate on children in care than the noble Lord, Lord Laming, whom I first met 40 years ago when I was a junior Minister and he was already a colossus in the world of local authority social services. Since then, he has been instrumental in developing national policy on childcare and holding Governments to account.

I begin with a word of tribute to the statutory workforce and the voluntary workforce looking after children. As we have heard, they operate in very challenging circumstances and quite often they enable a child who has had a very difficult start in life to have a happy outcome. I want to focus my remarks on the role that adoption, fostering and kinship care can play in meeting the challenges we have been talking about. I declare a minor interest in that some time ago my wife and I did some respite fostering. I am grateful to Carol Homden of Coram for bringing me up to date.

I welcome some of the initiatives that this Government have introduced, such as the extra pupil premium, the adoption support fund and, recently, the kinship care strategy. In passing, I note that it shows what a Minister, Edward Timpson, can achieve if left in the same place for five years, ably supported by my noble friend on the Front Bench. But the country faces a demographic challenge. As we have heard, the numbers of children coming into care continue to grow and, within that population, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, there are more complex problems because the children who come into care are older.

On the supply side, the people who traditionally fostered and adopted are ageing, and they are not being replaced. The number of children in care who have been adopted has fallen from 3,590 in 2019 to 2,960 last year, and between 2015 and 2022 more fostering households deregistered than were replaced. The traditional families who adopted and fostered are increasingly having to look after elderly parents, and quite a few have grown-up children still living in their home because they have been unable to move on. This trend is reflected in the latest Ofsted figures, which reveal that in the year ending March last year there were 125,000 initial inquiries from potential foster carers, a drop of 9% on the previous year. This was confirmed by Ofsted, which said:

“As the number of children in care continues to grow, matching them with the right carers becomes increasingly difficult. This makes it more likely that very vulnerable children will face placement breakdowns and further disruption to their lives”.

A recent fall of 11% in local authority foster care households has meant, as we have heard, that councils are increasingly turning to expensive agencies, putting further pressure on their budgets. At the same time, they are losing the experience of the foster parents leaving the market. Part 1 of the Children and Families Act was meant to

“speed up the adoption process and enable more children to be placed in stable, loving homes with less delay and disruption”.

This was a worthy ambition, not least since adoption is the most stable form of placement, but adoption has fallen. We see the consequences of not getting this right. Some 25% of the prison population are former care leavers and 25% of those sleeping rough have been in care. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and others, children in care are moved too often, further away from home and away from their siblings.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that as a country we can do better. For example, we saw the response to the Homes for Ukraine campaign when a further crisis confronted this country. We need to encourage more people to adopt, to foster and to enter kinship care. That means looking at the low conversion rate of inquiries to acceptance; only 6% of the initial 125,000 foster care inquiries resulted in successful applications to become a carer. The journey needs to be better advertised, more user friendly and quicker.

We also need to look at the financial offer to the groups I have mentioned, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate, financed by savings on expensive residential care. Should there be such a black and white distinction between adoption and fostering, which discourages many from moving from fostering to adoption? Can we make better use of existing foster parents to recruit new ones? Can we broaden and diversify the fostering population? Crucially, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Meston, can we resource children’s services so that they can recruit and retain qualified staff to supervise the whole process? I hope this debate can build on what has been done and lead to better outcomes for children.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this important debate. He and I are kindred spirits in feeling compelled to highlight the urgent social care crisis facing children and young people in this country, and to set out overdue solutions that the Government must take to ensure that children grow up feeling safe, happy, healthy, loved and hopeful about their futures. That is what the charity Barnardo’s strives to achieve; I declare an interest as its vice-president.

The pressures on children’s social care are at an all-time high. There are now more children than ever in the care system—as we have heard, over 80,000. The growing number of children entering care is concerning, not least because children who grow up in care continue to experience a range of poor outcomes compared with their peers. They are more likely to end up homeless, in prison, or have mental health issues. The impact of having more children placed into the care of local authorities has long-term consequences for society, which will come back to haunt us if nothing is done urgently.

Over recent months and years, we have seen the resources of councils that have to care for children increasingly stretched, with many local authorities at financial breaking point, affecting their ability to meet the needs of children and families. Recent evidence from the Local Government Association found that nearly one in five councils is concerned about bankruptcy in the next two years. This means that the system has become increasingly focused on delivering acute and late intervention services, rather than early intervention services that help prevent families reaching crisis point.

Barnardo’s and other leading charities recently commissioned research on this very subject. In their report The Well-Worn Path, they found that early intervention services had been reduced by 45% in the last 12 years. The report also found that increased spending on children’s residential care, particularly private sector provision, is putting considerable strain on local authorities. Although spending on children’s social care increased by £800 million last year, £4 in every £5 of that increase is going on late intervention services rather than early help. Evidence has shown that if the Government increase spending on early intervention services, it would not only improve outcomes for families but be more cost effective long term. It is a false economy to cut early intervention services.

There is also the moral case: the Government should provide early help to families in need so that more children can remain living safely with their birth families. In turn, local authorities can focus on providing the highest possible level of care for those who enter the care system. Sadly, I know from my work with Barnardo’s on its Double Discrimination report that black children are more likely to be in care compared with their peers. They need our help and consideration more than ever, before they end up on a conveyor belt of crime and mental health issues.

We have seen some changes, including the extension of the children’s homes estate announced in the Spring Budget, but a children’s social care Bill was noticeably missing from the King’s Speech in November. I know the Government commissioned the independent review of children’s social care, which the children’s charity sector largely endorsed, especially its legislative changes. But although the Government are going to run “families first” pathfinders, looking at improved early help in 12 areas, most of the country will see no change until 2026. Children and families cannot wait that long; the crisis is on their doorstep right now.

We must keep children and families together to reduce the number of children placed into the care of local authorities. I ask the Minister, who has shown real commitment to this issue: will the Government commit to investing in early intervention and transform children’s social care by adopting all the recommendations set out in the independent review of children’s social care, and to having a children’s Cabinet-level Minister to bring cross-governmental policies together to benefit our children’s well-being?

All children, especially those in care, need to be nurtured and loved unconditionally if they are to grow up to be well-adjusted adults contributing to society, and positive role models to their children. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for bringing this important debate forward and for the very compelling case that he set out in his introduction. I am also grateful for the immensely valuable contributions made by other Members.

It is surely one of the primary tests of a civil society that, where it is necessary for a child or young person to be brought into care, the very best outcomes are made possible through the quality and consistency of that care, whatever financial constraints arise in the economic cycle. So many outcomes later in life are directly related to childhood experience. That is why it should be an all-party commitment that money for children’s services should be ring-fenced, including those that enable vital early help and intervention, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and other noble Lords expressed so well.

We cannot risk children’s social care becoming merely a blue-light emergency service only able to respond in a crisis. The current financial context is only getting worse, with the costs of placements for children in care now seen as one of the biggest financial risks across many upper-tier local authorities. Nottinghamshire County Council, a well-run and fiscally prudent local authority, expects to look after no more and no fewer children in the next year. Its looked-after numbers have been relatively stable for the past four or five years. However, the cost of looking after its 950 children will rise by around £7 million this year, with the average cost of a placement for each child now at £132,000 per annum compared to £119,000 a year ago. Local authorities need to know what plans the Government have to ensure that children continue to receive the right support at the right time.

There are two areas that I will bring to your Lordships’ attention: early intervention and support for foster carers. At this point, I also declare an interest as having been a foster carer for over 12 years. First, reduced local authority funding is already having a disproportionate impact on services that provide vital early intervention. The Stable Homes, Built on Love review and strategy recognised the huge value of offering help earlier, especially the value of support based in local communities, which often work with key agencies. One such community partner that has been working successfully in this area is Safe Families, a Christian faith-based charity that works with more than 35 local authorities across the country, including Nottingham. It is focused on providing community-based support networks that help to prevent needs from escalating and children needing to go into local authority care. However, in eight of the 35 authorities, Safe Families has had funding reduced or cut, because the local authorities simply do not have the finance to continue funding the service, even though they recognise the immense value of that work. Compelled to cut funding to all but statutory services, not only are we failing families but we will see an increase in costs as the numbers of children going into care continue to rise now and in the years to come.

Secondly, funding constraints lead to less support for foster carers at a time when there is an ever-growing crisis in recruiting and retaining them. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for highlighting just how serious that issue has become. Over the last five years, there has been an 8% decrease in the number of approved foster carers in England. Yet the independent review in 2022 recommends that over 9,000 new foster carers be recruited within three years. More concerning still is the number of carers leaving the service each year. According to figures published by Ofsted in November, during the last financial year there was a net loss of 1,050 fostering households, which we simply cannot afford. A bold national focus and campaign on recruiting new foster carers needs to be placed alongside a far more robust retention strategy.

In my work as a foster carer, I have met many dedicated carers whose contribution to the well-being of some of the most vulnerable children is inspirational. The difference they make needs to be celebrated and properly rewarded. In summary, I ask the Government to review what further steps can be taken without delay to ensure that there is a sustainable, equitable funding settlement for all local authorities, and to dedicate investment in early help services and multiagency support that is ring-fenced in order to reduce the number of children who need to be brought into care.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said that the state had a poor record as a substitute parent and often fell short. Every contribution that we have heard today has agreed with that. They agreed with the principle that, if possible, families should be kept together, and that is the statutory responsibility on local authorities. Too often, however, as we have heard, intervention comes too late and other things mitigate against that.

The independent review by Josh MacAlister, who was CE at Frontline when I was the chair of Frontline—I am currently the patron of Frontline—is really visionary. I congratulate the Government on putting some of that review on its pathfinder areas, but I feel that the radical reset that that report asks for is the fundamental answer to this question. It would enable social workers to work alongside a series of other professionals. It would enable us to get family help together much earlier. It also recognises the vital role that many kinship carers and guardians play. I ask the Government to accelerate their rollout of that programme because, as the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and others have said, to do otherwise really is a false economy. This is money you get back when you invest it early.

My other point is about the family drug and alcohol courts. These are a really impressive experiment that act as an alternative to conventional care proceedings. Where they have been tried, they have had quite extraordinary results. There was a recent evaluation that found, for example, that half the children in FDAC proceedings have been reunited with their primary carer, compared with only 12.5% in standard proceedings. Some 33% of parents have ceased to misuse drugs and alcohol versus only 8% in standard care proceedings, and only 7% of the FDAC cases have used external expert witnesses— some noble Lords will know that I have had a long-standing beef about that—compared with 90% in conventional proceedings. It is really a very impressive record.

What that project needs now is some commitment from the Government to provide a fairly small amount of ring-fenced funding. I have just heard that one project in Cardiff that was enthusiastically supported has had to be withdrawn because of lack of funding. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on that point because, as others have said—the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made the point very well—what we do today influences the outcomes for these children for the rest of their lives.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for securing such an important debate and for his insight based on a huge amount of experience and expertise in this subject. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, there is no person better placed to lead this debate. As my noble friend Lord Wood said, this debate is timely because, regrettably, it is always timely.

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of hosting an event with the charity Become, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. They brought with them a group of young people who spoke clearly of their experience in the care system and the need for change. As has come through strongly in all the speeches, there is no greater responsibility of any government at whatever level than to ensure that looked-after children get what they need to be happy, feel loved and thrive; and that these most vulnerable young people—now numbering, shockingly, around 84,000—are actually looked after and cared for.

As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said, it is the responsibility of a local authority to be a good parent. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, clearly children who are care-experienced can end up with a life-long adverse impact. They are disproportionately more likely to have special educational needs; they are disproportionately more likely to be represented in prison populations and disproportionately more likely to suffer from poor mental health and low employment rates. There is an intergenerational legacy of poor outcomes.

I want to make it clear that I recognise that Ministers have repeatedly made heartfelt commitments to dealing with the issues facing children in social care. I genuinely do not doubt the Minister’s concern to ensure that children and young people get the care and support that they need and have a right to. However, the fact remains that they are not currently getting this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said, we are facing a perfect storm. That is despite the Conservative Party’s clear manifesto commitment, the findings of the excellent independent review led by Josh MacAlister, which the Government commissioned, and the government strategy that is being rolled out.

There is still too little funding in the system to support the aspirations of the strategy. There are too few people—too few social workers, foster carers, and adoptive parents. That is not to say that we do not have phenomenal people working in this field or that every privately run care home is careless with those children in its care. However, the system is flawed. Children and young people are paying the price, with too many moved too far, in some cases up to 500 miles away; as my noble friend Lord Wood said, they are moved an average of 18 miles away from home. Too few children and young people are supported by foster parents or kinship carers, and too few are getting the consistency of care they need from social services or social workers. The model of provision is simply broken, and unless the Government provide the radical reset which the independent review they commissioned called for, the problems the review identified, both current and future, will not be addressed.

One of the key points made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Meston, was that leaving intervention to a crisis point is too late. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said, we should not allow children’s social care to become solely a blue-light emergency service.

Countless noble Lords raised the fact that rising costs of children’s social care placements and the pressures on local government funding mean that funding has been diverted away from early intervention and into services for children already in care.

A number of noble Lords gave some tragic examples of how a failure to intervene and support families can play out. With local government funding already at breaking point, how do the Government expect local authorities to deal with the crisis in children’s social care and invest in early interventions, and how soon will the DfE roll out the pilots intended to support early interventions, including family hubs?

The noble Lord, Lord Young, highlighted the continued significance of adoption in the context of falling adoption levels, and the government strategy has some welcome commitments on foster care, recruitment and retention, and support for kinship carers. The right reverend Prelate spoke passionately about foster care from his own experience, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, highlighted the fact that more foster carers are deregistering than registering, describing some of the reasons for this and the loss of experienced foster families that this causes.

My noble friend Lord Wood highlighted the benefits of kinship carers, in particular the cost savings to the state and the earnings benefit to children and young people later on in life. What is the Government’s assessment of efforts to provide greater support to kinship carers, and has their number increased in practice?

The Local Government Association highlighted in its briefing for this debate that the current vacancy rates of children and family social workers leaving during the year, and sickness absences, are the highest in the DfE’s data series. There are thousands of vacancies, and social care is reliant on agency workers. What impact has the Government’s strategy had so far on recruitment and retention of social workers? Does the DfE indeed have a children’s social care workforce strategy?

Children and young people who are care-experienced come disproportionately from the most disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, black children are also disproportionately represented in the care system. Once in care, around three-quarters of all girls are fostered compared to just over half of boys. What is the Government’s assessment of the long-term impact of this inequality?

I commend the comments from a number of noble Lords who highlighted the broken nature of the market model. The Competition and Markets Authority social care market survey was raised by several speakers, including the fact that resources are therefore diverted away from prevention to cope with rising costs. As my noble friend Lord Wood said, 85% of children’s homes are currently in the private sector. The Competition and Markets Authority also raised concerns about the level of debt carried by some private providers—that point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. What is the Government’s assessment of the viability of the sector, do they have contingency plans for market failure, and what conversations have the Minister or the department had with Ofsted about the failure to prosecute illegal and unregulated care homes in England, as highlighted by the recent Observer newspaper article?

This subject is worthy of a much longer debate. As I have been going through my speech, I have been crossing bits out because I do not have time to say everything I would like to. What is needed is not another debate but action. Good intentions and heartfelt words on a Thursday afternoon are not enough. Too many children and young people are being failed, and unless the radical reset called for in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, becomes a reality, the situation will not be resolved. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for securing this important debate. As your Lordships know, when one comes into this place, people tell you about the extraordinary experts who sit in the House of Lords, and I do not think anyone epitomises that expertise in relation to children more than the noble Lord, Lord Laming, which he manages to combine with greater humility than anyone.

In preparing for this debate, I was lucky yesterday afternoon to be able to talk to our Children and Young People’s Advisory Board, made up of children and young people with care experience, and our Care Experience Forum, made up of colleagues within the department who have experience of the care system, to hear first hand about what matters to them. I hope the House will bear with me while I reflect their thoughts. Of course, they do not talk in the language of system change, which all of us can agree is needed; they talked about what mattered to them personally, about the human elements.

They were such simple but powerful things, including the value of great communication. All too often they talked about the fact that they did not know what was happening to them or their siblings, they did not feel that the approach looked at the family in the round—whether that was through a family group conference or the work that FDAC does in a more rounded way—and they did not feel that they were listened to. That was from those who were in the care system but, possibly most troubling, I also heard about a remarkable young woman who had not been taken into care and was desperately unsafe in her family. Then, there is a feeling that it all stops when you get to 16. Similarly, they talked about stability, which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, picked up; the numerous social workers and the need—why is it so much to ask?—for a reliable adult whom they can trust. The noble Lord, Lord Meston, also reflected on that turnover of staff.

They talked about the need for greater wraparound support for kinship arrangements. One young woman talked about her and her two siblings going into kinship care with her aunt, who was a single parent with three children of her own. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was not sustainable, but she felt that with more support it might have been. I hope very much that our work through the Children’s Social Care: Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy shows our commitment to laying the foundations to address those very human issues as well as all the structural change that needs to happen to make that a reality.

Our strategy recognises that the number of looked-after children has increased by 23% over the last 10 years and, as a number of your Lordships noted, now totals 83,840. This rise is due to two key factors—the number of asylum-seeking children entering the system and children spending more time in care. Since 2019, if one takes unaccompanied asylum-seeking children out of the picture, the figure has gone down for non- unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, from 27,950 children going into the care system in 2019 to 25,910. None of us knows what a right number would be, but I am trying to put some of this in perspective. This is reflected in the number of children coming into the system aged 16 or over having risen sharply by 40% since 2019 to almost 9,000.

Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, talked about the issues of children living over 20 miles from home. I thought that figure might have gone up but surprisingly, it has remained relatively stable. It was 20% for children in 2019 and 21% in 2023. However, I am not questioning for a second that we want children as close to home and to their connections as possible.

Almost all your Lordships spoke about the importance of early intervention. We know that families need support before crisis point. We know that early intervention can change the lives of families and help them to overcome challenges before they reach crisis point. We have already invested in this area. We are testing how the multidisciplinary family help teams can provide targeted support through the “families first for children” pathfinders. Overall, we have announced over £1 billion for programmes to improve early help services from birth to adulthood, including through the family hubs.

The tension that we face is whether we can go faster, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, also challenged in that regard. We are genuinely trying to strike a balance, checking that we get the implementation right before we scale up more rapidly. I accept that other noble Lords may have different views on that, but there are too many examples of individual pilots that have been very successful in this area and then, when they get scaled, the impact is diluted. Therefore, we need to be sure that we are building on solid foundations and understand how to deliver at scale. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked whether I would commit to all the recommendations in the independent review. She will have seen the Government’s response setting out what we accept wholly or in part.

A number of your Lordships rightly focused on kinship care. We believe that where children cannot live with their birth parents full-time, it is best for them to live with people whom they already know, trust and love. That is why we are championing kinship care arrangements through our first kinship care strategy and the launch of a financial allowance pilot in up to eight local authorities. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle asked about financial support for kinship carers. Of course kinship carers are incredibly important. We talked about just over 83,000 children in the care system, and the data is not as up to date; we have estimates for 2021 of 121,000 children living in kinship care. That figure alone is greater than all other forms of care put together.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, asked about family group conferencing. We are implementing a family network pilot to trial family group decision-making in kinship care settings.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham picked up the issue of adoption. Adoption remains the best stable, permanent option for some children, particularly younger children, and can provide them with a loving and stable family for life. Adoption orders have increased slightly this year, for the second year running, but there has been a decline in recent years of children under five coming into care, and we know that most children who are adopted are under five. However, the main focus of our adoption strategy is to improve the speed with which children are matched with families. The number of children waiting to be matched with a new family has fallen from 2,800 in June 2019 to 2,210 in June 2023.

I turn to fostering, which was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, my noble friend Lord Young and many of your Lordships. Over two-thirds of children who are in formal care are in foster care. The numbers of children in foster care again are roughly stable—55,760 in 2019 and 57,020 in 2023. We are investing £36 million to deliver a foster care recruitment and retention programme, and we are working with more than 60% of local authorities to do this. My noble friend Lord Young questioned the effectiveness of this. Our first regional recruitment support hub—Foster with North East—went live in September last year, and the second in the east Midlands in March. We have eight more regions going live this month, so it is a little early to report back on progress.

My noble friend Lord Lexden talked about the important work of the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation. We fully support its work and value it greatly.

Many of your Lordships, led by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, spoke about the importance of children’s home reform. We are committed to resolving the issues which your Lordships raised. The Government are allocating over £400 million to local authorities for children’s homes, increasing both open and secure facilities. The noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, raised the issue of unregulated children’s homes; of course, it is not acceptable that unregistered provision is being used. Running an unregistered children’s home is obviously an offence and Ofsted has the powers to prosecute those involved.

We heard from your Lordships about the huge financial pressures on local authorities as a result of the use of private children’s homes. Your Lordships also referred to the review of the Competition and Markets Authority, which we have accepted; we are implementing all the recommendations to reshape the system.

Obviously, one of the impacts of shortages in that area is the placement of children far from home, so we are introducing a new regional model of regional care co-operatives. We are designing two pathfinders this year with health and justice partners, which will be supported by £5 million of funding. We will announce the successful areas later this year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked about funding for the workforce and whether we have a workforce strategy. We do, of course, and we have committed £50 million annually to that. The noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Benjamin, asked when we would introduce legislation. In our reform of social care, our focus in these first two years is very much on addressing the most urgent issues.

I close by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for initiating this debate, all your Lordships for contributing, and all those who support locally, nationally, within charities, within local authorities and in the department for their support, so that we can help deliver the change that children and young people who are or have been in care deserve and so that they can thrive.

My Lords, I hope all noble Lords agree that this has been a terrific debate. I am most grateful to every contributor because of what I have learned: every contribution shared new information and expertise with me. It means that there is a whole new agenda developing, which needs to be addressed, along with a continuing range of issues. I am grateful to the Minister, and I very much hope that, together, we can take this debate forward for the interests of children in our society.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 4.32 pm.