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Children in Care

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to address the issues relating to children in care raised by Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection in their report on the second round of annual performance assessments which was published on 1 November.

My Lords, we set out for consultation wide-ranging proposals for transforming the lives of children and young people in care in the Green Paper Care Matters, which we published on 9 October. The proposals directly address the concerns raised by Ofsted and CSCI about the educational attainment of children in care. The Government’s reforms aim to improve services for all children, and this vulnerable group must not be left behind.

My Lords, the proposals in the Green Paper are very welcome, but the Minister will know that the quality of the service given to looked-after children by authorities across the country varies considerably. I have two questions. First, what are the Government doing to find out what factors make one local authority so much better than another? Secondly, what are they doing to share best practice, to bring the worst of them up to the standard of the best of them and the whole lot up to another level?

My Lords, one particular concern has been the recruitment of foster carers, which, as the noble Baroness knows, goes to the heart of the provision made available for children in care. Earlier this year, we introduced national minimum allowances for foster carers, which now apply irrespective of local authority area. That has helped to spread more widely the best practice of those authorities that paid higher minimum allowances. There are a whole set of proposals in the consultation paper for spreading equivalent best practice, including having different tiers for the recruitment of foster carers and paying salaries to foster carers of children in the most difficult conditions. We look to directors of children’s services to continue to collaborate closely and we facilitate that collaboration so that best practice is spread widely.

My Lords, the Green Paper is very welcome, but how will young people be consulted about it, in particular in responding to the consultation form in the report? Secondly, how will the children’s care councils that are proposed work at a local level?

My Lords, we have published a separate version of the Green Paper for young people and will take full steps to involve them in the consultation process. For example, we will hold a series of regional and national consultation events aimed at engaging young people, in partnership with organisations such as What Makes the Difference? and the Children’s Society, as well as with the Children’s Rights Director for England, Roger Morgan, who has an established reputation in this area.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that there is collaboration with the Home Office and the youth justice boards in view of the very high proportion of young people in prison who have had the experience of being in care at an earlier stage in their life?

My Lords, I can give the right reverend Prelate that assurance. If he has looked at the consultation paper, he will know that a whole section of it is devoted to the interests of children who are in custody. I draw his attention to pages 81 and 82, which set out a series of measures to improve provision for children in care who find themselves in custody, in particular the arrangements that are made in respect of them when they leave custody, which has been a particular weakness of the regime until now.

My Lords, given that 49 per cent of local authorities rate retention of child and family social workers as difficult or very difficult, given that 5 per cent of looked-after children in care last year were not even assigned a social worker—which is up from 2.7 per cent two years ago—and given the concerns of children in care about the turnover of their social workers, will the Minister ensure that the concerns about the development of the social care workforce are very clearly recognised in the Comprehensive Spending Review? When is the welcome proposal for a newly qualified social worker status likely to be implemented?

My Lords, I can give the noble Earl the assurance that he seeks. We believe that there are strong arguments for the newly qualified social worker status, which, as he says, the Government have put forward as an option for further consideration. It would mirror the equivalent status available in the teaching profession. It comes with a substantial price tag attached, which will feature in our consideration of our priorities in the Comprehensive Spending Review, but he has my assurance that we are taking the proposal very seriously.

My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, the report rightly criticises the number of children in care without a named social worker. Part of the problem of ensuring that every child in care has a named social worker is the shortage of specially trained social workers. Does the Minister agree that this is an area where volunteers could work alongside professionals—that is, if they are not put off volunteering to work with children in the first place?

My Lords, with regard to improving the educational performance of children in care, what measures have been taken to make sure that they have good access to computers and the internet?

My Lords, the first priority is to see that they have access to good schools, on which there are a whole set of proposals in the consultation paper. The particular issue of access to the internet will depend on the care setting and the provision made within it. We would expect, for example, foster carers to be able to provide such access—the revised and increased allowances that are made available to them will make it easier to do so, if they have not been doing so already. If there are other specific measures about which I can inform the noble Baroness, I will do so in writing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is somewhat disappointing that the number of days at school missed by looked-after children has remained static? What extra steps will the Government advise to increase the number of days that they attend school?

My Lords, engaging young people in care more fully with their education by having schools that take their interests seriously is the key objective to be secured if we are going to see those young people turn up at school more. That is why the stability of placements is important and why it is vital that young people who move between care placements have the opportunity, if the distances allow, to remain in the school that they were in previously. The consultation paper proposes that there should be free transport for them so that they can do that. It is also why we have introduced the new powers, which the House agreed to through the Education and Inspections Bill, to allow children in care not only priority admission to schools at the beginning of the school year, but similar priority during the course of the school year, so that one of the biggest problems faced by children in care—not having a school place for periods while their care placement moves—is overcome. I hope that all those measures will help to meet the concerns that the noble Baroness rightly highlighted.