My Lords, I am delighted to have the chance to open this debate. I am delighted, too, that so many distinguished and experienced speakers have chosen to take part. We will certainly benefit from their collective wisdom, as is customary in your Lordships' House.
I should perhaps declare some interests in that I have in the past been a teacher, an education administrator, schools inspector, local authority chairman of education and social services, health authority chairman and magistrate. More recently, I have had relevant ministerial responsibility. All in all, I have been involved at the interface of health, education and social services for the best part of 40 years. In the whole of that time, I have consistently believed that although structural change in public services is sometimes imperative, it is at our peril if we heap change that is too frequent, ill thought-out or introduced for its own sake on to the professionals on whom ultimately all public services depend for their functioning. If we do that, we risk also undermining their self-confidence and expertise.
The tragic case of Baby P in Haringey, which was reported last month, shocked the nation. It was all too reminiscent of the equally tragic case of Victoria Climbié, who died, also in Haringey, in February 2000 from torture at the hands of her carers and in the full view of social services, health services, housing agencies and the police. The Government responded swiftly and with all-party support to the Climbié case. They appointed the noble Lord, Lord Laming, to conduct an inquiry into what had gone wrong.
The inquiry report, which was published in 2003, was exemplary in its insight, thoroughness and expertise. It found evidence in Victoria’s case of failures in accountability, leadership, management, communication between agencies, and professional skills. It proposed, among much else—I will be brief on this, because I know that it is familiar to noble Lords—setting up at national level a children and families board and a national agency for children and families, and at local authority level an interagency committee for children and families and a management board for services to children and families, chaired by the council chief executive and with a director accountable to it. It also proposed that:
“The relevant Government Inspectorates should be jointly required to inspect the effectiveness of these arrangements”.
The report did not propose a wholesale reorganisation of local government. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is markedly cautious in the report about structural change. He said:
“I am convinced that it is not just ‘structures’ that are the problem, but the skills of the staff that work in them … I am satisfied that organisational structure is unlikely to be an impediment to effective working. What is critical is the effectiveness of the management and leadership”.
However, what we got after the Climbié case was structural change and the reorganisation of local government on a huge scale. The Government were determined to respond not only rapidly but visibly to the inquiry. The Children Act 2004, following the 2003 Green Paper, Every Child Matters, required local authorities to set up children’s services departments by merging their education and children’s social services functions with some health functions. Authorities were also required to set up children’s trusts and local safeguarding children boards and to appoint a director of adult social services, thereby splitting social services. It was a thoroughgoing, costly and energy-consuming reorganisation of local government, although I am bound to say that it was never acknowledged as such. I think it was called restructuring, regrouping, re-emphasising: anything except what it was—a reorganisation.
Despite all that, I really do want to be fair to the Government, because such was the emotion surrounding the Climbié case that any Government would have wished to do, and to be seen to do, as much as possible to prevent a recurrence of such horror. The Government had all-party support. No other political party would have wished to impede what was a sincere attempt by the Government to encourage—indeed, to enforce—effective interagency working to protect children.
There have been improvements in joint working and communication, but we now need, in the light of the Baby P and Shannon Matthews cases and the recently reported Doncaster cases, to ask whether such enormous structural reorganisation was justified and whether there might have been adverse effects on other services and on the effectiveness of the professionals involved.
Some things are already clear. First, 150 authorities now have children’s departments. So far, in 10 of these there has already been a reorganisation of the reorganisation; namely, the creation of mega-departments including, within their children’s departments, adult and children’s social services. The rationale for that is professional in that many have argued that if you are looking at the interests of a child, you have to involve yourself in the child’s family, who may fall into the remit of adult social services. Of course, I see that. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, who is in her place, writing in the Guardian on 25 November, said of these arrangements that,
“two things concern me. First, the size of the departments that have been created and second, the danger of forgetting that it is individuals, not structures, who make decisions”.
How I agree with the noble Baroness who, as ever, is full of common sense. That is one of the first results of this reorganisation.
Secondly, children’s trusts were meant to facilitate interagency working. But they were described by the Audit Commission last month as getting in the way of such working. The commission report found that there is,
“little evidence that children’s trusts have improved outcomes for children … There has been a lot of legislation and guidance, but a failure to communicate the changing emphasis effectively has led to local confusion”.
Thirdly, last month, Ofsted reported that thousands of children are at risk because the number of local authorities that are failing to protect young people has doubled in a year. All this follows that huge reorganisation, which was meant to solve many of the problems. Fourthly, and even more worrying, the number of children dying from neglect or abuse seems to have increased. On 19 October 2001, replying to my adjournment debate on the subject in Westminster Hall, Hazel Blears said that one child per week was dying from abuse. Obviously, that was already an appalling figure. But in uncorrected evidence to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee on 10 December 2008, the chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, stated that between 1 April 2007 and 31 August 2008 210 children died from abuse. That is more than three a week. Those figures, even if they refer to an atypical period, which they may, are nevertheless extremely alarming, especially if we consider the effort and the cost of putting the Children Act reforms into place.
Fifthly, Ofsted has been the subject of enormous upheaval. In 2007, it was already responsible for the inspection of childcare providers, maintained schools, FE colleges, provision for children and young people in secure settings, and services for children and young people. After the Education and Inspections Act, it took on the work of three other inspectorates, and now has responsibilities ranging from social care inspection to adult learning and FE, from fostering and adoption agencies to children’s rights. Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, said in another place that there is a feeling that Ofsted,
“might have grown too quickly and that assimilating all those responsibilities is a bit too much for one organisation”.
I also agree with that, although time is young.
Following the Baby P case, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, has been asked by Ministers to produce a further report. His remit is to examine good safeguarding practice and its application across the country, professional development and key legal and other barriers to progress. No one could bring greater expertise to the task. But the remit is not wide enough. We need a far wider review, which will in the first case examine the effects on public service professionals of the unremitting number of policy initiatives, directives and reorganisations heaped upon their heads by this Government. In the past 11 years, there have been no fewer than nine NHS reorganisations and 17 Acts of Parliament requiring some form of reorganisation in education and social services, while three more await in the gracious Speech. Even as we speak, councils are devoting hours of time to discussing the requirement to reorganise yet again, this time to become unitary authorities. Sadly, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was unable to give the House of Lords Library a list of the White and Green Papers published in these policy areas since 1997. The Minister may have more luck in getting the information, although since according to my research there have been 69—surely a record—the department may be too busy producing the next dozen or so to answer the question. She might like to check this.
The bad professional practice and incompetent management that failed to prevent the tragic deaths of these children is obviously totally indefensible, and indeed no one here would seek to defend such practice and management. But Ministers should beware of confusing activity with action, and above all, ask themselves if overloading professionals with new initiatives and upheavals is the best way to encourage good professional practice. It is already obvious that social worker morale is at rock bottom. We need to realise that in practical terms and on the ground, constant reorganisation means while teachers, social workers and other professionals are delivering the services, those who should be leading, appraising and monitoring them are tied up in meetings.
It is high time for an appraisal of the effect on education—its ethos, standards and rigour—of the abolition of local education authorities. Some will argue that the new children’s departments enhance understanding of the whole child, but that is not the problem faced by education services today. Rather it is how well our children will be equipped by their education to face the challenge of competing in today’s tough world. Rigorously high standards and qualifications have never been more important. What effects will the enormous change of emphasis created by children’s departments have on those? We do not know, nor, as far as I know, has the question even been asked. The professional cultures of education and social services should overlap, not coincide. We have made some gains from children’s departments and we now need to ask what we may have lost.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on introducing the debate so vigorously. Her commitment to getting the best for children is well known and we have much in common on that. It is always a pleasure, even when difficult issues have to be faced, to discuss children’s welfare in your Lordships’ House. There is unfailingly across the parties a deep concern for the welfare of children, and between us we have significantly influenced legislation on many occasions. I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children and I will be referring to the outcomes of one of our meetings later in my remarks.
I want to address two specific issues in relation to children’s services. The first is the importance of collaboration and co-ordination across the diverse interventions focusing on children and families, which was the basis of the creation of our new children’s services. The second is in relation to children in the youth justice system and how that relates to the new children’s services. But as an introduction, let me say that I am proud that this Government have put children so firmly on the agenda. In the debates following the gracious Speech, I quoted the Children’s Commissioner for England—no government lackey, he—who said that more has been done for children by the Government in the past 10 years than in the previous 50, and I think that that is so. There have been terrible examples of child abuse, revealed most recently in Haringey and Coventry, but simplistic blame is not a solution. I look forward to the progress report by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on the implementation of effective arrangements for safeguarding under the children, skills and learners Bill in this Session of Parliament, which will strengthen children’s trusts arrangements. We must keep trying, but we must not keep revolutionising in panic mode—the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made reference to change earlier. After the Climbié case, reformation and reorganisation were essential.
A significant recent statement from Barnardo’s said that there is no need for further reform of children’s welfare policy, and it is worth quoting:
“The key to keeping children safe is to assist local authorities and partner agencies through local safeguarding children boards … to continue to develop services and processes in line with Every Child Matters and to enhance practice skills and support staff in frontline services”.
How true. The Local Government Association identifies the recruitment and retention of high calibre individuals, particularly in children’s social work, as a key issue. Of course nothing will work if the individuals in a system on the front line are not of a high calibre and prepared to talk to each other.
Inspection should be not simply about performance indicators but about the quality of interventions and the identification of support and training needs and the follow-up. It is a matter of looking at processes within the services, not just outcomes, because the processes will influence the outcomes. That is one reason why I, among others, am concerned and somewhat doubtful about Ofsted inspecting children’s services.
It is still early days for the new children’s services, and much has been achieved. Every local authority must now establish a children’s trust board and bring together a range of front-line providers into the duty to collaborate to improve children’s well-being. This collaboration is essential for the improvement of services: health through PCTs, education in all its forms, social services and, where necessary, the youth justice system need to be talking to each other at a front-line level.
I shall give an example of how a determined individual in all this can make a difference. A wonderful head teacher from Woolwich attended one of our All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children meetings. She described her school as being in an area of high deprivation and a crime hotspot. When she arrived, the school had low expectations and major behavioural problems. She says she was driven to breaking point but decided that she must do something drastic. She put together a plan for the school, collared the local director of children’s services on his way to work and went through her plan. She got the local authority on board, she got investment in the school and she involved extended services including Sure Start, parenting classes provided by the local college, a drug awareness programme, family therapists, sports organisations, drama, music and art, ICT, health, social services and so on.
The result has been an excellent recent Ofsted inspection, good staff retention, a lack of complaints and what she described as “a real buzz” in the school as a centre for the community. She believes that the success of the scheme is down to working with all the partners and giving ownership to staff, parents and pupils. The school in Wandsworth where I am a governor has a similar story. That is how services should work together, talking to each other—not necessarily based on schools, of course.
Now, a word about youth justice. Many children’s organisations, including the National Children’s Bureau, Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society, express appreciation that the DCSF and the Ministry of Justice are taking a joint approach to youth justice. I, too, applaud that. There must be a relationship between the children’s trusts and the youth offending teams. Once the youth offending team becomes involved, children’s services sometimes seem to become disengaged, believing that the child will be catered for. Some young people, of course, remain outside the integrated children’s services structures. Young people who are seeking asylum, for example, should surely also come under the remit of the DCSF and of truly integrated services in order to receive care and support.
Justice has to be linked to welfare. Many children who offend have had difficulties in early life and can pinpoint the trigger for when things have gone wrong—the death of a parent, for example. Intervention has to come early, and at crisis points. The use of custody for 10 to 14 year-olds has increased by 550 per cent since 1996. More children are being locked up for less serious offences. Custody is expensive, at almost £186,000 a year per person. Children who offend or are at risk of offending and their families respond well to early interventions such as family therapy, restorative justice, and support through education, housing and mental health services. Custody is so often ineffective and expensive. Nearly 80 per cent of 10 to 14 year-olds will reoffend within a year of release. The recent Barnardo’s report, Locking Up or Giving Up—Is Custody for Children Always the Right Answer? is well worth a read on this topic.
There are, of course, good intentions. The youth crime action plan has proposals to improve access to education, training, health services and planning for resettlement. I should like reassurance from the Minister that youth offending will be approached in a more holistic and rehabilitative way than simply through punishment. It is good that her department and the Ministry of Justice are working together and that youth justice is being taken seriously by the DCSF, but can she assure us that this will be an effective measure to help these young people in the youth justice system? I look forward to her response and hope that this important debate, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, will be a focus for future action.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for initiating this very important and timely debate. My interest in children’s services departments stems partly from the fact that my noble friend Lady Walmsley and I were involved in the passing through this House of the Children Act 2004, which set up children’s trusts. We expressed at the time some reservations about the composition and restructuring that was necessary for children’s trusts. Furthermore, I live in Guildford, in Surrey, and in this past year, Surrey has been named, along with Haringey, Doncaster, and Milton Keynes, as an authority that failed its joint area inspection of children’s services. I gather from my honourable friend Bob Russell that Essex has joined this infamous quartet.
In addition to being involved with the Surrey issue, I became interested in this area because last spring I became the special educational needs governor at the local primary school where I serve on the board of governors. The school serves one of the more disadvantaged areas of Guildford; some 30 per cent of pupils are judged to have some form of special educational need. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, indicated, behaviour in school is a key warning sign of problems at home. That is why it is so important that there is integration of the education services with health, social services and the youth offending teams, something that has been implicit in the setting up of children’s services departments.
I have for a long time been a firm advocate of the view that if only we can get help to some of these children early, we can prevent many of the problems of school failure, dropping out, drugs, vandalism and youth offending down the road. This cumulative building up of risk factors over a child’s life is now well documented and underlies the preventive strategies implicit in the Every Child Matters agenda and the Children’s Plan. To quote just one statistic, the KPMG Foundation last year calculated that the average cost to the taxpayer of a child failing to read by the end of primary school is between £48,000 and £53,000. By these standards, the £2,000 a year required for an Every Child A Reader programme, or the £26,000 required for an extra teacher to run nurture groups or a placement in a school, is insignificant compared to what could be saved.
Last spring, wearing my newly acquired hat as a special educational needs governor, I spent some time with the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator, or SENCO. Talking through the issues with the SENCO, I was shocked to discover how little help the school received from the local education authority, Surrey County Council—indeed, how the lack of support from the local education authority was positively constraining the help that the school could give. That was mainly because such help depended on an assessment of the needs of each child, which the school could propose but which had to be verified by the county experts—the educational psychologist, the behaviour management people and the language and learning experts. Here, we had a tale of missed appointments, constantly changing personnel—and therefore having to go back to square one with explanations—repeated suggestions of actions already taken by the staff and buck-passing between the child and adolescent mental health services and the LEA. The overall result was that some half a dozen children who needed extra, specialist help were not getting it. The school was doing its best, but where children needed, for example, extra speech therapy or specialist psychological help, they were just not getting it. This view was cemented a little later in the summer term, when I participated in hearings for exclusion of a nine year-old whose behaviour, which in all ways seemed to indicate some problems in the autistic spectrum, had led to a permanent exclusion. That would probably not have been necessary had his problems, flagged up by the school throughout the time that he had been at the school, received the attention that they needed.
I was not surprised, therefore, when, in July last year, Surrey failed its joint area review in relation to children’s services. The findings rang bells: poor completion of SEN statements with target timescales; insufficient analysis of needs; key shortages of health specialists, especially educational psychologists, occupational therapists and speech therapists; inconsistent and high thresholds for access to services; and high rates of permanent and fixed-term exclusions.
Perhaps more worrying, though, were failings in safeguarding, which ring bells in relation to the Haringey failings. They included: lack of robust procedures for checking that staff had CRB clearance; high and inconsistent thresholds for intervention by social services; poor quality and timeliness of initial and longer-term care assessments; high numbers of cases waiting for assessment; inappropriate closure of social care cases when another agency—for example, the NHS—got involved; significantly high numbers of special case reviews and a failure to learn lessons from them; poor management and limited auditing of case files; inconsistent provision for mental health needs; and major problems in recruitment and retention of staff.
These are major failings, but it is important to keep the issue in perspective, both in relation to Haringey and Surrey and to other local authorities. There has been extensive reporting following the Baby P and Karen Matthews cases, but I was much moved by a quote in the Guardian of 8 December from the team leader of social services in a northern city. She said:
“Our thresholds are now terribly high, compared with 15 years ago. We get literally thousands of referrals every month, and we have to check them all out. Huge numbers of children, for instance, are living with parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. We want to help the parents access services, drug treatments, things like that. But—depending on the impact—it's not enough reason to give the children a protection plan. We have to decide how resilient the children are. It's hard to assess. Sometimes, 10 or 20 years on, you see the impact was much harder than you thought at the time”.
“Worst of all … is the effect of government targets. Councils that assess a lot of children quickly score … highly. But there's a correlation between speed and the danger of superficiality. Councils also score worse in performance indicators if there is a rise in the number of children taken into care. They lose points … if they keep children on the equivalent of the at-risk register for more than two years. All the pressure is to get children off the system and to downgrade their needs”.
One has to be sympathetic to those who are at the front line and have to deal with these issues.
A number of lessons arise from my experience, along with the experience in Surrey and generally, looking across the whole perspective. First, staff recruitment and retention is a key issue and needs to be given priority. In Surrey, for example, the person in charge reckoned that she had 30 to 40 vacancies, but she was confronted by budgets being cut and staff vacancies being frozen. Then there is the sheer difficulty, given housing costs in an area close to London, of recruiting young graduates without experience, who need to be housed and kept in such an area, when there are many jobs available for them elsewhere. Staffing is a key issue.
There is a need for social services departments to link up with universities and perhaps offer apprenticeship places. We need graduate apprenticeships, so they can grow their own and develop their own social services. Then there is the using of key worker housing, and so forth, and what are called golden handcuffs—offering big bonuses for those who stay within the department for a certain length of time.
Another issue is the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard—the avoidance of permanent revolution in departments. It is extremely bad for staff morale for staff to have to reapply time and again for their own posts, as has been happening. In Surrey, that was exacerbated by the fact that the county council itself went through a major restructuring review. You have to recognise that departments work much better when there is evolution and not revolution.
I wonder whether we are really making the best use of our resources. In special educational needs teachers and many head and deputies, we have a wealth of experience. Would it not be sensible to devolve more of the decisions down to the school level, or perhaps work as schools now do, within federations, to have an accreditation procedure within the federation, rather than constantly having to go to the local authority expert?
Finally—and this has been a general picture across many social services departments—there has been quite good integration between education and social services in many cases and with the youth offending teams. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. But there has been constant failure to work with health services, in particular the children and adolescent mental health services. That is so important. Could the Government not help to get the integration of those structures?
There are so many gains to be had. Children’s social services are important because they are an important slice of our future lives. The gains from earlier intervention and preventive action are so obvious and great, and the losses from the continuing fudge, muddle and making do so huge.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us this opportunity to talk about the functioning of children’s departments, where I believe some very serious errors have been made. We are just beginning to count the cost of those errors, both in the lives of children and the functioning of local authorities themselves.
It is inevitable that ghastly cases like that of Baby P grab the headlines. Investigations by the press and the Select Committee in another place have focused on how the reorganisation of children’s services has impacted on the social services and their care for deeply disadvantaged children at risk.
I should like to spend a few minutes thinking about the other side of the coin, which is the impact this reorganisation has on education and its knock-on effect on social services. As a former civil servant, I have great sympathy with civil servants who look at the problems that arise. Some were highlighted—failure of communication between social services and education, and, indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, between health services. Then they say to themselves, “It is all about children and there has been a failure of communication, so why do we not put them all together? Let us move social services and education into one great big parcel, and that will surely get them talking together”.
That is just not a correct way to think. Apart from the difficulties that creates and the time it wastes, you do not necessarily get people communicating better with each other simply because you have created different structures for them to do so. The real problem, which I have seen at close hand in my work with two local authorities in the past 12 months, is that these two specialisms of education and social services come from totally different cultures, quite rightly so, and speak entirely different languages about children, quite rightly so.
Social workers deal with some of the most distressing and difficult cases within our society. Their focus is on rescuing children who are in the extreme danger that we have seen, alas, in so many recent headlines and heartbreaking stories in the press. Educationalists think about things like the shortage of science or maths teachers, or the need for a revision of examinations to allow the brightest as well as the least bright in our schools to perform better.
The two bodies have different cultures. Bringing them together causes enormous difficulties in getting them to talk to each other. I do not for a moment say that of course they should not be talking to each other, but I repeat that simply slinging them together into one department and trying to mix them up in the way they work—and we shall come to the issue of inspection in a minute—is not how to solve the problem of communication. After a reorganisation like this, a lot of time is wasted in trying to get new ways of working, with endless meetings discussing how the new department should operate and who should do what, and there are the hard feelings of people who have not been promoted or who have lost what they saw as their importance.
I remember the days when departments of education and directors of education were huge, towering figures nationally. Their concern and knowledge of what was going on in their schools was a priceless gift to their local authorities and the children in those schools. That has now been so downgraded that it is sometimes difficult to know. Most heartbreakingly, many local authorities appoint only social workers at the head of the new departments. I have worked with one local authority where all three senior posts in the new department were given to social workers. Then they wonder why the head teachers find it difficult to communicate with them, and why the teachers feel neglected, unloved and uncared for by their local authority. It is just a wrong way of going about it—mixing them up and trying to get them all to work together, instead of using the huge specialisms of education and social work, and all that they bring in their experience and expertise to the problem.
The issue is not only at local authority level, although that is what we are concentrating on today; it is just as disastrous at national level. The Department for Children, Schools and Families no longer even contains the word “education” in its title, after over 100 years—from the early days of the Board of Education onwards. We now have only children, schools and families, which is not the totality of course. Further education and adult education feel left in a limbo. This is not just about schools. Vocational education and 14-to-19 issues are, in their own ways, just as pressing as the issues of child neglect. Just because there is a direct link between the issues of disadvantaged children and the way we shape our curriculum, it does not—I repeat again—mean that we have to deal with them in one department, either nationally or locally.
I find it difficult to understand why part of the reorganisation had to put together the two inspectorates, the children’s department and Ofsted. That seems to one of the key issues that has caused the problems of the past couple of years. I have enormous respect for the chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, who has dealt as well as she possibly could with the difficulty of bringing these two different cultures and ways of working together. But what a terrible indictment of the new climate of box-ticking it was when the chief inspector herself admitted to the Select Committee that the officials in Haringey had been able to hide behind the data. Less than a year before Baby P was so horribly tortured to death, the authority’s children’s services department had received a golden assessment of excellence from Ofsted because it appeared to have ticked all the boxes. Only when the inspectors went back after Baby P’s death and looked at what was actually going on did the faults and deficiencies become apparent.
I was struck by the fact that Christine Gilbert herself, in giving evidence to the Select Committee, said that when she had been a chief officer in a local authority she had not relied on Ofsted. She had gone and looked for herself. Well, right on! Absolutely! Surely we need an Ofsted that goes and looks for itself and does not just rely on box-ticking for every other assessment that it performs.
We need people conducting inspection into the social services aspects of children’s lives who are expert and experienced in that field. A criticism levelled was that an educationalist was in charge of the inspection of the social services for children in Haringey. Equally, how ridiculous it is to put a social worker in charge of an inspection of schools. I know I sound nostalgic, but thank goodness we still have HMI in Ofsted. There you have people who have been successful and senior in the job themselves, which is what you need. They go in and look at the teaching of history or physics, and understand whether it is being done well or badly from their own professional knowledge. They look at how a school is being managed and governed and know from their own experience whether it is successful or not. These are the kinds of people who should be conducting inspections, not this extraordinary mishmash—this amalgam—of people from different disciplines and with different expertise, all of whom can bring an enormous amount to bear if they are allowed to work in their own specialism.
The merger has distracted the attention of both the social workers and the educationalists at all levels: government department, local authorities and in the inspectorate. I ask the Minister whether it is too late to put this right, and to concentrate on ways of ensuring good communications and collaboration while leaving the experts to work in their own field of expertise for the benefit of the children we all care so much about.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on securing this debate. Indeed, she has cajoled me and insisted that I should be here today and, out of my huge respect for her, I am. However, I say to her and to the House that my speech will be more from the heart than from my intellect. Having no time to restructure your speech gives you time to realise how you feel about something, rather than what you think about it. I thought that today the House might for once benefit from my feelings rather than my thoughts.
I declare my interests. Having been the deputy chair of CAFCASS for five years, I am now its chair. I have been a director of social services and consider myself a social worker of 40 years’ standing. I was an inspector in the National Care Standards Commission and am connected to a number of voluntary organisations.
Two professions now work together under one department, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, so clearly outlined. I wish to compare the roles of teachers in schools and social workers on the beat. Usually we do not expect teachers to have classroom sizes that are beyond their capacity to teach. We expect them to have a planned training programme to develop their skills and they usually work in a school environment with colleagues around them giving an element of security. With government initiatives, the teaching profession now has a highly skilled workforce with measurable levels built in. The latest initiative is to award £10,000 to teachers who are prepared to work in the most challenging schools. I commend the Government for taking those initiatives and for making sure that our children have the best possible teachers, but contrast that with social work. At 25 you can have a totally unmanageable workload. If you are lucky, you can fit in your own training to meet the General Social Care Council requirements. You will be out alone, knocking on the door of the dangerous and the vulnerable. When things go wrong, few people will support you and the media will eat you alive—all this with hardly a living wage. Do the Government seriously consider that any able, thoughtful, intelligent young person will want to become a social worker? No wonder there are problems with retention and there are vacancies in most of the social work services. If you talk to anyone involved in social care, they will tell you of the extreme difficulty of maintaining a consistent service when the one thing that you need in social work, working with people, is consistency.
When the departmental changes were first suggested—I saw through the Act, alongside my colleagues—I spoke against them, not because I am against change but because it was the wrong change at the wrong time. I said at the time that structural change is always disruptive, with more concentration on the place to sit or job security than on the relationship with those allocated for help or intervention in family life. What was needed was a programme of change in practice, driving through professional development and changing image. We can learn much from the education and police programmes in this regard. The departmental changes came at the wrong time and, I believe, for the wrong reasons.
As I often say, however, we are where we are, which is waiting for yet another Laming review. If I were the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I would ask what had happened to my previous report. Why did the Government initiate this change rather than dealing with some of the other issues that he raised concerning practice, bureaucracy and leadership, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard? There might be virtue in giving the new children’s directors more focus in the social care area. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, mentioned that some education leaders are social workers, but I have to tell your Lordships that almost 80 per cent of leaders are educationalists. Just think how that makes those involved in social care feel.
One of the things lost in the reorganisation and in the universal safeguarding approach of the Every Child Matters agenda, which on all other fronts I support and applaud, is child protection. The issue is in the language. I could not have put it better than the British Association of Social Workers, of which I am a founder member. It states:
“It is our contention that the current safeguarding agenda does not assist practitioners to identify individuals who pose a serious risk to children. The assessment framework is a clear example of this, given that it is based on identifying and assessing children in need, rather than children at risk. Even the recent updating of the Working Together guidance seems to have dispensed with terms such as child protection and risk assessment, which we think is detrimental to effective practice in this area”.
I might add that although one of the dimensions of the assessment framework is safety, it is not a domain in its own right. In Working Together, the differentiation between referrals for need and those for protection is blurred into one for referrals. While there is good theoretical justification for this approach, reports from around the country suggest that it has made the system less safe. Will the Government look again at this guidance?
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that there are many ways in which the situation facing vulnerable children has improved with the years. However, the problem is much more the lack of consistent implementation of sound practice and processes by some practitioners in some places. There is an increased focus on partnership working across services for children, although the health agenda continues to leave gaps and frustration. Increased focus on prevention, in the development of services such as Sure Start children’s centres, has benefited many children, as this is a universal service. But these services need to be sustained long term, as does the funding provision for third sector services, which are still bedevilled, despite many central and local government reassurances, by short-term funding arrangements. What are the Government doing to improve the continuity and consistency of support services, especially those provided by the voluntary sector for children?
I want to spend a few moments talking about complexity. As the chair of CAFCASS and previously as its deputy chair, I am acutely aware of just how difficult it is to move from the relatively simple concept of skilled practitioners, working at a high level in a demanding system with good supervision and leadership, to achieving that on the ground. The day-to-day work wears people down and all this has to be achieved in addition to heavy workloads and constant change.
Take the present situation that we face in CAFCASS in public law. The new Public Law Outline, which was not about cost, despite the rise in fees for pursuing care proceedings, but about good assessment and early intervention, had some impact on referrals and, I believe, on work with families. However, since the Baby P case, figures have shot up way beyond anything that we have known previously. The question for CAFCASS is how we manage this increased workload and the continued improvement programme. Extra funding from DCSF has been welcome, but it may well not cover both. It is a problem often faced by local authority children’s services, which also have fluctuating demand.
Time is running out, so I am not going to be able to say what I would like to have said about the complexity of the cases that I see day in, day out, which sometimes absolutely befuddle and bemuse one’s thinking in terms of behaviour and the family structures in which parents and children find themselves. Nor will I have time to speak of the problems of training, where we seem to have lost in our courses the capacity to teach people about emotional interaction. One of our workers who recently did a course talked about how she had a lot of tick boxes to finish her course, but the course never talked about her feelings and the feelings of those for whom she was responsible.
The temperature in which social work is carried out needs to be calm and measured, but the environment is becoming noisier and more threatening. Social workers are more fearful every time they leave their homes to visit another. It is clear that, if there were a health and safety test on social work, it would fail. However, this complex, emotionally draining and dangerous job has to be done. Child protection is everybody’s business, so whichever department the social worker ends up in we all have a responsibility to promote and support the best work possible. Even if we do not owe it to the social worker out there on the street on our behalf—and we do—we owe it to the children whom she or he is trying to help.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, on this important topic. The two of us go back to the years when she was deputy director of social services in Lambeth and I used to sit as the juvenile court chairman—when I was not sitting with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who was part of yesterday’s debate. There are many in this Chamber whose experience and understanding go back many years. The comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about juvenile justice and taking the opportunity to reinforce a more enlightened approach to juvenile justice and the rehabilitation of children and young people who have usually faced appalling circumstances, are important for us all.
Above all, I commend my noble friend Lady Shephard for initiating this enlightened, thoughtful and timely debate. It is a critical subject. Her comments, like those of my noble friend Lady Perry—both of whom come essentially from an education background—chime so strongly with my own perspective, which is based very much on a social work background. I know what it is like to visit families on the North Peckham estate at 9 o’clock at night. I know what it is like to have some of the most difficult conversations with a family, where you have been trying to maintain a therapeutic optimism that that family can be a good parent but somehow those bruises do not go away. Once you have challenged that family about the reality of the bruises, you have broken a bridge of trust and confidence.
Teaching is a completely different skill. Teachers teach; social workers listen. Papers from the Children’s Society are urging again that children’s voices should be heard. This involves persuading children to articulate the most embarrassing, sensitive, taboo events that may have taken place in their family. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, could have spoken for another 10 minutes about her experiences as the director of Childline, an organisation which performed an extraordinary service by helping children to begin to say the words that they could not articulate. I remember visiting Childline and being told that they would often have a false call. In other words, a child would ring and put down the phone, then ring and put down the phone, but then, gradually, be able to articulate the words they knew would light an explosive device. Once whatever taboo and cruel behaviour had been taking place in the family became public, then—in their imagination, their thought, and maybe in reality—that would be the end of their family life as they knew it.
Teachers are quite different. No one will ever thank a social worker, because social workers come into people’s lives at a time of wretchedness and misery. Imagine being the social worker trying to assist Victoria Climbié’s family, Shannon Matthews’s family, or Baby P’s family, and initially not knowing whether this is a family that is so psychopathic, disturbed and sadistic that it would be completely inappropriate for those children to remain there. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, heard the case of the children where the view was taken that the social workers had removed them without remotely appropriate justification or evidence. Families had been broken up and the damage could hardly be restored, leaving them with a sense of shame, humiliation and distress.
I am concerned about the changes that have taken place. During my time as Secretary of State for Health—and I know there is a danger in this House that, in our anecdotage, we might crack on too much about our experiences—I spoke to the Chief Inspector of Social Services every week at my top of the office meeting. I spoke every week to the Chief Medial Officer, Chief Nursing Officer and Chief Inspector of Social Services. Sir William Utting, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and Denise Platt all had privileged access to the Secretary of State. Can the Minister tell us how often the current Secretary of State speaks to the chief social services inspector? Indeed, who is that person now that the responsibilities have been so divided? Who says, “This is how it really is. This is what we need to do”?
It is not only that Secretaries of State, at the top of government departments, lack this informed advice, opinion and judgment; most MPs and politicians do not really understand the reality of being out there at 9 o’clock on the North Peckham estate. On one occasion my Mini was turned over and set on fire, and it is a lot worse now than it was in those days. At the same time, what does this issue mean for people in the profession? There are all sorts of grand doctors; some may even end up in the House of Lords. Psychology and teaching are certainly well-regarded professions. But who are the champions of the social work profession? How can we ensure that social workers are heard and respected?
In Haringey—Victoria Climbié’s local authority—a quarter of social work jobs were vacant. There are, as has been said, no £10,000 bonuses there. This is a hugely important subject. It was therefore to my great surprise that, thinking I should do my homework before speaking today and ask what the Conservatives have been saying on this subject recently, I turned up a paper by Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing, my noble friend Lady Morris, and Terry Butler, former social services director in Hampshire, on whom I used to rely a lot, which says that we need a chief social worker. I believe that we do need a chief social worker alongside a Chief Nursing Officer and Chief Medical Officer. I was delighted by this document, No More Blame Game, and its enlightened and thoughtful view on social workers and their views, reputation and leadership.
There is another professional group which, extraordinarily, has not yet been mentioned. The first Private Member’s Bill that I tried to introduce after coming to this House addressed the issue of who had the opportunity to see a child without their clothes on without a great deal of difficulty. Who is entitled to remove a child’s clothes? I do not think that a teacher or social worker is. However, the person who can just whip a child’s clothes off with no trouble at all is the health visitor.
I am again pleased to tell noble Lords that my enlightened, new Conservative Party colleagues—who are doing all the work now that people like me are doing other things—have written an absolutely brilliant paper about the importance of health visitors. More older and professional women are having children now and they need health visitors, too. It is a lonely business. They lose their flexibility and are isolated from their families. For the most deprived families, however, health visitors are the ones who can say, “I wonder if there is nappy rash?”, or give a wonderful medical reason why they want to see and weigh the child. In no case of a child who has died of child abuse would the abuse not have been absolutely obvious if they had had a preliminary medical inspection in the final three months.
For some reason health visitors have been lost by the wayside. The figures are appalling. It has been estimated that there should be no more than 300 children to each health visitor. I am delighted that in Hull—I can never speak in this place without mentioning Hull; I am chancellor of the university there, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is in the Chamber—there is one health visitor for every 200 children. However, in Hackney, Camden and Newham, there is one health visitor for roughly 531, 551 and 565 children respectively. The noble Baroness spoke about Surrey, for which I was privileged to be an MP for quite a while. When I first became the MP I went out with a health visitor there and asked how many children were on the at-risk register. She said, “I think we used to have one in Chiddingfold, and there might be one in Godalming”. When I used to work with health visitors in Peckham they had 20 children on the at-risk register. We desperately need health visitors, and we must ensure that they are recognised.
The worry about the structural change is that it will affect the most vulnerable families. It was easier to create an integrated approach when mental health services, children’s health services and all the social work services were delivered alongside health services. But the change has happened and we must learn from it. A moment ago I saw the noble Lord, Lord Myners, who has been talking about banking and other financial institutions. Many think that when the Bank of England was made independent, the fault lay not in the announcement of the new initiative involving the Bank, Treasury and FSA but in the integration. In the commercial world—and many noble Lords here are from that world—what matters is not the acquisition but the integration. We have to look again at how these changes have been integrated.
I must pass on one brief further comment from my professional life in search. There is a real concern about who these directors of children’s services departments will be. As has been said, the evidence is that education is winning over social services. However, we are not training a cadre of directors with the competence and skill to manage these services. I urge the Government to look again at real management training programmes. If they are going to stick with the structure they have set in place, they must be sure that they are investing in the leadership of the future. I again congratulate my noble friend.
My Lords, I join other Members of the House in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on introducing this timely debate. From the comments that we have heard, there seems to be a range of views. Although the reorganisation of the departments and children’s services is three years old, the debate about how the reorganisation is going and the next stages should go on for a long time. I very much welcome the opportunity to speak.
I suppose that what we are discussing affects every person in the land. There is not one family who is not touched by the actions of people in these services, either through education, social services, health, the juvenile justice service or all of those. I was discussing this with the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, in the Library; she informed me that departments of children’s services now account for 8 per cent of local authorities’ budgets. This is big-time stuff and the issues that come out of it are vital.
I will be honest: I am not sure whether I would have been persuaded about this structural change if I had still been a Minister. I was a Minister in DCMS at the time and did not get involved in the Bill, as others did. However, I would have asked some real questions and I do not know what my conclusion would have been. It is no good speculating, because I did not go through that process of discussion. However, I might have been persuaded. I am now wholeheartedly behind the change, because we have to be, and I am conscious of what the reasons for change would have been. I accept them and, despite my reservations, I shall go over them today.
People have talked about child safety, but two other issues have not been mentioned as much. If we are not careful, we talk as though the relationship between old education and old social services was good. It was not. There was huge fragmentation. There was huge failure to work together and to talk to others. There was a huge inability and unwillingness to create a shared agenda and a shared culture.
I remember an example from when I was a Member of Parliament. A junior school head in my constituency called me in because she had a child in care who was top and in front and with whom she had made much progress after much hard work. The foster place was about to be changed and the child was to be moved to the other side of the city. In Birmingham, that is a large move. When I looked into the case, I found that there was nothing on the social services agenda or the housing agenda that put the need for continuity of education in the same school anywhere near the top of the considerations. Each was doing his job. Those in housing looked at the housing needs of the child and those in social care looked at what was available and what would match the child’s fostering needs. She just wanted continuity but nothing brought that about. Therefore, we must not pretend that we had a system in which the needs of the child and the family were always at the centre of considerations, as they were not.
Secondly—a point that has not been mentioned—we have to accept that, no matter how brilliant our schools or teachers or how good our pedagogy or education system, sometimes barriers outside education get in the way of a child’s learning. That could happen in early years learning or in care, or it could be down to parental aspirations or the breakdown of a family. It could be anything. We cannot ask schools to deal with those matters as well but we ask them to carry the consequences when those things are not right.
One pressing force in children’s services is that of removing the barriers to achievement in schools that are not the responsibility of schools. In that way, children’s services can be an agenda for closing the education gap between children from advantaged backgrounds and those from less advantaged backgrounds. To me, that is the case for this change, and it is a powerful case. The challenge that lies ahead is to achieve that aspiration and prove that it can work.
Perhaps I may set out what I see as the risks. Many of them have been mentioned but I shall quickly go over them again. One is the size of the organisation. There is a real risk that it will be so big that the best minds spend their time ensuring that it runs smoothly rather than ensuring that it delivers effectively. There is a difference between the two. Leadership in depth is needed but I do not think that we have taken that on board. Some of the team leaders and junior middle managers will now run organisations with budgets as large as those of directors of education in small and medium-sized local education authorities. We have not yet heard enough about leadership in depth.
Another risk is that in big organisations local knowledge gets lost. Professor Alan Middleton, formerly of the University of Central England, has done some good work on this. His analysis is that you get strategic decisions by the top management, local knowledge by the person on the front line, and someone in the middle who fails to bring the two together. Having, in my former roles, helped to put the focus on education, another point that I worry about continually is that that focus will vanish. If it did, that would be a great tragedy.
However, let us move on. There are cases for and against. Now that the decision is made, the challenge is to ask what we need to do to move on to the next stage of reform. There are five areas that I think the Government now need to address. They are looking at all of them but I take this opportunity to raise them.
The debate about the new shared agenda is happening here, and Ministers are having the debate, as are directors of children’s services, but I am not convinced that the debate is happening in depth. Is it taking place in staffrooms or in the equivalent of staffrooms for social workers? It is no good the leaders having a shared agenda and integration if those are not at the heart of the agenda of the people delivering the service. Therefore, my first point is that we should get the agenda to delivery level and move it on from strategic level.
The second area concerns training for leadership in depth. I particularly welcome the decision by the department to ask the National College for School Leadership, under the excellent leadership of its chief executive, Steve Munby, to prepare a series of training programmes for directors of children’s services. That needs to happen, but my message here is a need for leadership in depth.
The third and, for me, key point is that the trick will be to keep individual professional skills and not lose them in a soup where the view is, “Let’s integrate everything”. The trick will be to develop an ability to work together. We do not want teachers being social workers again in the way that they were in the 1970s and we do not want social workers pretending that they know about teaching. We need each person to enhance his or her professional skills but also to learn a new skill—that of working together. That has not been the case but perhaps this new structure provides the opportunity for it to happen.
My next point is that evidence of successful practice is all around us, and children’s services and the Department for Children, Schools and Families must become evidence-informed. We do not have to reinvent things. Just because something is given a new name, that does not mean that it needs to do new things. Any director of children’s services who thinks that he has to go out and discover new practices is starting from the wrong end; he should seek out the people with a proven record of success. The challenge to leaders is to see how effectively they can move throughout the system.
I conclude with my fifth point, which is to remind the House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and others have done, that this is a marriage of professions at different stages of their development. By raising teachers’ morale, their standing in society and the levels of their pay and training, this Government have helped to raise standards. I give credit to the previous Government for setting the accountability framework for schools. Both Governments have concentrated on teachers and the results are there to see in terms of time, money and priority. However, that has not happened with social workers.
I should like the Minister to reflect on what we can learn from what has been done with teachers in relation to raising the status of social workers. I have some questions. Where is the equivalent of the academies programme for social workers? Academies are a brilliant way of attracting some, although not all, of our best teachers and leaders to the areas of greatest need. There was the £10,000 incentive for teaching maths but where is the offer of £10,000 more for becoming a social worker in Haringey? It is great that two people were made knights in the recent Honours List, but how many heads of social services were at that senior level in the Honours List as a sign that society is beginning to recognise their work? Teach First is a brilliant initiative but where is “Social Work First”?
All those initiatives and the resources that have been put into them, which have helped to raise the status of teachers and to get our best teachers into the most difficult schools, now need to be repeated for social workers. It is doable but the challenge is immense. I hope that today’s comments will assist the Minister in taking this vital agenda further forward.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for asking me to speak today on education and social services. The Harris Federation has seven academies: three in Peckham, three in Croydon and one in Bexleyheath. One academy is shared with the Church of England, six special schools and four primary schools. These account for 18,500 children in south London sponsored by the Harris family.
I should like, first, to talk about a school that was failing in 1992. It was one of the worst schools in the country. Then, its pass rate of five A to C grades stood at 9 per cent; today, the figure is 93 per cent. Back then, the number of applications for 180 places at the school was 45; this year, the number is 1,920. Attendance in 1992 was 70 per cent; today, it is 96 per cent. This school has changed to become one of the top 100 state schools in the country. People say to me that the principal picks only the best pupils, but that is not the case. Fifty-six per cent of our pupils come from the ethnic society and 25 per cent from the Caribbean society, and they are the most difficult children to teach. Their pass rate over the past four years has been between 85 and 90 per cent.
I am dyslexic, and every year at this school we take 20 per cent of the pupils to the dyslexic centre. The same woman, Dorothy Hart, has taught these children for the past 18 years, and her pass rate last year was 84 per cent.
We are very proud of our sixth form. Last year, out of 92 students, we got 81 to university. We had two of the top 10 students in art and design out of 6,000 pupils throughout the country. In modern languages—noble Lords should remember that we are teaching pupils from all over the country with different first languages—over the past four years we have had a 100 per cent pass rate.
Our vision for all our academies is to have the best principal and back them 100 per cent, the best teachers—we use Teach First, which supplies us with very good teachers—and, more important, the right support staff, who never get talked about. They help the schools very much and can tell the teacher and heads what is going on.
Every pupil from our school has to wear a uniform, which we pay for when we take over the school from the state. The uniforms have to be worn from the time the pupils leave home in the morning until they get back in the evening. We have pretty strong discipline records. People are not allowed to fetch telephones in; phones are confiscated until the end of term. We are very strong on attendance and seeing that children get to school on time. Children who are not in school within half an hour of opening time are phoned at home or at their carers’. Motivation is one of the most important things in schools and we are motivated by the belief that all can achieve. It is not only about work; it is about wanting to work and wanting to come to school and do well. Sport plays a very important part in our academies.
Attendance in all our academies is 94 per cent. Across the federation the average increase in the number of students gaining five A to Cs including maths and English was 7.5 per cent. This is more than eight times the improvement made on average by other schools in the country last year. The applications for 1,290 places was 5,686, so on average our schools were four and a half times oversubscribed.
I shall refer to two schools that we have taken over in the past two years. Since becoming an academy in 2006, Harris Academy Merton has improved its added value from the bottom 72 per cent in the country to the top 3 per cent. That has happened in less than two years. The school has 29 per cent of its students on free meals, 68 per cent ethnics and 24 per cent with special needs. In the past two years, the proportion of students receiving five A to C grades has gone from 29 per cent to 74 per cent, and in English and maths from 23 per cent to 38 per cent. The average attendance has gone up from 78 per cent to 95 per cent.
Children want to be motivated to go to school and will do better if they are so motivated. There were 682 applicants for 180 places this year. Last November we were classed as “outstanding” in the Ofsted report and the school became the fastest ever to go from special needs to outstanding. We congratulate the head, teachers and staff on changing the lives of many children in the Merton area.
The Bermondsey academy is an all-girls school. It has a first-class principal, excellent staff and teachers. Sixty per cent of its students are on free meals, 74 per cent are ethnics, 36 per cent have special needs, 148 are known to social services and a large number are under police protection. Many of the students live with people other than their parents. We monitor students’ behaviour; should it suddenly change, we have people to step in, as it usually means that there are outside problems. In the past two years, the achievement of five A to Cs has gone up from 47 per cent to 58 per cent; in English and maths, the change has been from 26 per cent to 41 per cent. Attendance is now 93 per cent. This year the school had 453 applicants for 180 places and was the top school in Southwark as parents’ first choice. In the past year the academy in Bermondsey has created a special centre, the Apple Centre, where students receive a bespoke education programme tailored to their needs.
The Harris Academy Merton now offers a full-support education special needs department, which provides a range of support and evening classes. Local crime figures show that burglaries have reduced in the area now that the academy offers after-school community activities. Four of our academies provide safer school police officers, who are welcomed and respected by the staff, parents and students and who provide a confidential link for reporting matters of concern. In the next 12 months, we will be opening two new academies—another one in Peckham and one in Croydon—which we hope will be as successful as the others. We believe that every child deserves the best possible education.
My Lords, we have had an extraordinarily well informed debate with many speakers who have enormous knowledge of the inside workings of children’s services. I regret that I cannot compete and can only call in aid the fact that I am chairman of the All-Party Group on Families and Children as an excuse for talking a little bit about the role of families in working alongside professional workers from the social services and education departments.
We all recognise that the number of problem families has increased in recent years and is still growing. Children’s services departments are overloaded and even present levels of service may not be sustainable without major injections of long-term funding. We all know that the welfare of children is not well served when staff are overstretched. Many previous speakers have referred to staff being overstretched and stressed. Lack of experience and good leadership are also real problems, which the Government will not solve by tinkering only with structure and procedures. Either children’s services will need a great deal more money in order to be able to train the right people and have the right ratios or we must find creative new solutions.
One such solution must be to reduce the demand for social services. There is a case for doing more to encourage and empower families to do the job that they can do best—to provide their children with a secure and supportive family life. If more families were providing their children with the family life that they need, it would relieve the current pressure on social services and allow them to concentrate more on the difficult cases. We need to rebuild commitment to stable family life for this nation’s children. It is high time that we as a society took a long hard look at the state of families in our society.
The majority of families give their children the family life they need, and they deserve more help and encouragement than they sometimes get today. At the other end of the spectrum a relatively small number of disadvantaged families will never succeed in delivering family life unaided. They are the ones for whom children’s services are essential. In the middle is a group of families who might be persuaded to do more if they received more encouragement and recognition. Let us look a little more closely at that group.
Modern research increasingly shows that some kinds of family structures are more likely than others to lead to relationships within the family that are advantageous for children. We should be doing more to recognise, encourage and empower, and less to discourage those parents and families who try to provide the kind of family life that their children need. Such families are providing, or potentially could provide, an important service to the nation.
The Government’s policies on families are ambivalent. On the one hand they urge parents to do more to accept their responsibilities, and rightly so, but on the other they fail to state clearly what those responsibilities are or to offer much encouragement to those who accept them. For example, government policies on tax and benefits are seen as penalising young parents with a child who want to live together. If a parent decides to leave full-time work to provide childcare for their child they are disadvantaged. Housing policies, too, are unfriendly to couples who want to build a family life together when they have their first child and government policies largely ignore grandparents.
In the past 50 years, major changes have taken place in our society's perception of the responsibilities of parenthood. In particular, there has been a change in our perception of the importance of parental commitment. Fifty years ago, parental commitment was usually expressed in the commitment of marriage. Today we are in the 21st century, and it may be right that marriage may not be the most appropriate structure for committed parenthood for everyone. For those who reject marriage for whatever reason, there ought to be alternative ways for parents to make a public commitment to their child and to one another. What matters from the child’s point of view is the long-term loving commitment of, preferably two, adults, the adults who are going to care for him. Parental commitment should not be regarded just as a moral value, as it used to be 50 years ago; it is a social issue of the greatest importance.
The Government have stated from the Dispatch Box on many occasions that they do not believe that it is the job of Governments to interfere in the way that adults choose to live their lives. I do not believe that that is a tenable position for any Government today, now that research shows clearly that parental commitment and quality of family life can seriously affect a child's chances in school and in later life.
I hasten to say that I am not suggesting that this or any other Government should try to lay down all the ways in which families should be run. Fortunately, today there is a growing body of research showing that prohibitions and punishments may not anyway be the most effective way to change public behaviour. It seems that the establishment of positive social norms, linked to recognition of those who comply with those norms, can often be more effective. If our society were to place a higher value on stable, supportive family life, more parents and more families would be likely to make the sacrifices involved in giving their children the kind of family life that they need.
We as a society perhaps need a change of heart. There is a strong case for some sort of contract between parents, families and the state. Frank Field recently suggested that that might take the form of a sort of Highway Code for parenting, a guide to be studied, learnt and respected by all parents and by all those involved in supporting them. In a perfect world—I speak from the Cross Benches—I should like cross-party agreement to promote stable family life and to encourage long-term commitment to their children by both parents and families.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Shephard on initiating this important debate. In the time available, I shall raise two points. The first reinforces what several noble Lords have already said, albeit with an eloquence that I cannot match; as the noble Lord just mentioned, we have heard some very powerful speeches in the debate today.
There are clearly problems with the structure and operation of children's services departments. As we have heard, recent tragic cases have highlighted serious problems. I do not propose to go over those. Other problems, which do not make the headlines, derive from the incapacity of departments to cope with the responsibilities placed on them. They go down to the level of basic routine functions. The Ofsted annual performance assessments of last year showed that, although there were councils that were outstanding in the provision of children's services, in most cases, there was the capacity to improve.
There have already been various proposals for changes, coming not least from the Audit Commission and the Government. Those changes focus primarily on improving the overall structure and processes in respect of child welfare. A particular problem has been identified with interagency co-operation. I do not want to take issue with the proposals but rather to reinforce the point made by my noble friend Lady Shephard that although they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, identified, structures and processes are dependent for their effectiveness on the people who operate or work within them. One can create processes that look splendid on paper but which are useless if those responsible for them are not prepared or not able to make them work.
As we have heard, children services departments are large bodies. As my noble friend Lady Perry so eloquently described, they are also extremely disparate in nature. They require strong leadership as well as highly qualified staff to deliver services. The problem was well expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, in her article in the Guardian last November, when she noted that some of those who work with our most vulnerable children are the least qualified and the most poorly rewarded. We need to acknowledge the relationship between those two points.
The problem cannot be tackled solely by revising structures. There has to be investment to ensure that we have highly able and well motivated professionals dealing with the welfare of children, professionals who are sufficiently well motivated to remain in post. Retention is crucial; that is clear from several of the speeches that we have heard today. There must be leadership in depth; I very much endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said. I also endorse the observation of the General Social Care Council that more needs to be done to encourage employers to offer their staff opportunities to undertake post-qualifying training.
I emphasise, reinforcing what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was arguing, the need to recognise that the need for professional development applies across the board, encompassing not only children's care services but those responsible for education. Local government now finds itself in a difficult situation. It has to cope with a range of responsibilities, some of them—as in this case—allied with structural change, at a time when the resources available to fulfil those responsibilities are declining. My fear is that, given limited resources, the focus will be principally, possibly exclusively, on those services that are the cause of controversy and hit the headlines. The danger is that services that are essential to the development of young people, but which are less contentious, may be neglected, or at least not receive the same attention and requisite level of support.
I therefore contend that while we must respond to immediate and obvious concerns of the sort that have arisen in places such as Haringey and now Doncaster, we should not lose sight of the problems that result from failing to ensure adequate leadership and professionalism in delivering services in all parts of what now constitute extremely large departments. The enormous challenge that that poses is clear from the speeches that we have heard today.
My second point is different and concerns evaluation. There have, quite rightly, been calls for inquiries into how the child protection system is working. I put the need for review in a somewhat broader context.
The Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, in its 2004 report, Parliament and the Legislative Process, recommended that there should be systematic post-legislative scrutiny. In response to the report, the Government invited the Law Commission to examine the proposal. As a result of the commission's report, published in 2006, in March last year the Government published their proposals in Post-Legislative Scrutiny—The Government's Approach. They accepted the need for reviewing Acts, typically three to five years after enactment, to ensure that they had fulfilled their purpose. I understand that reviews are now under way and that the first has just been completed and submitted to the relevant departmental Select Committee in the other place.
The Children Act was enacted in 2004. Its provisions have been subject to commencement at different points. Those that we have been discussing today took effect in 2006. I therefore presume that a review of the Act will be undertaken in the not too distant future. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? When the review is undertaken, it is important both that it is not too narrow and that it is published. I gather that the first post-legislative review to be submitted is rather legalistic in approach and has been submitted as an unpublished paper, rather than as a Command Paper, as envisaged in the Government’s 2008 paper. It is essential that reviews are thorough, not overly narrow and legalistic. It is also important that they are published, or at least made available to Members in both Houses. There is a danger that if they are sent solely to the appropriate Select Committee in the other place—which may be extremely busy and not able to pursue the matter further—others, including Members of your Lordships' House, may not be aware of it.
My point has applicability that goes beyond the Children Act but has particular force in relation to that Act. One particular aspect that will be important is that relating to reviews undertaken under the provisions of Sections 20 to 24. When the Constitution Committee published its report The Regulatory State: Ensuring its Accountability, it drew attention to the need to review those who engage in regulation. In essence, it raised the question of who regulates the regulators—or, in this case, who reviews the reviewers. Ofsted, as we have heard, assumed a new existence on 1 April 2007, bringing together in one body four previously separate inspectorates. As has already been mentioned, it is a remarkable burden. In its first year, it carried out more than 45,000 inspections and regulatory visits.
The annual report of the Chief Inspector for Education, Children’s Services and Skills draws together the results of Ofsted’s work but is not in itself an evaluation of Ofsted. Ofsted cannot be expected to review its own performance. There is a need for external evaluation of its work. Post-legislative review of the Act may be sufficient for this purpose, but I put in the Minister’s mind the possibility of a separate evaluation of how well the new review arrangements are working. I am less concerned with the mechanism and more concerned with establishing the principle that a review is desirable.
To conclude, the 2004 Act created new structures, the rationale for which is clear, but structures have created the problems that have been clearly adumbrated this afternoon. We should focus not just on individual cases and generalise from those; we need to look at the new structures holistically. We also need to bear in mind the need to ensure high standards throughout and that delivering such standards has resource implications. Saying, “Do this, do that”, will not by itself be sufficient.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for calling this timely and important debate. I recall us sitting together some years ago in a room in Portcullis House, listening to my noble friend Lord Laming announce his findings on the Climbié case. At that meeting, I recall the contribution from Debra Shipley MP: she made the passionate and persuasive case that that incident highlighted the immediate and critical need to raise the status of social work and to invest further in it—to do all the things that we have been discussing today.
I have also been reminded in this debate of a couple of conversations, the first of which was with a general practitioner who was seeing a girl of 12 or 13. He was concerned that she might be being abused sexually by her family, and he was determined to avoid so far as possible referring her to a social worker because he did not trust the social worker partner who worked in his area and wanted to send to her a paediatrician, whom he felt would be the best professional to deal with the case. I was also reminded of a young social worker who said that he would never refer a child to a children’s home. Many factors are involved, such as partnership working and working together to improve the outcomes for children—strong professional identity is very important. That involves teachers, social workers, residential childcare workers and staff in children’s homes; they have strong professional identities and can respect the identity of the other person and trust their professionalism. That is important in helping people to work together effectively.
Debra Shipley brought through the Protection of Children Act. I am very sorry that she had to retire from the House in 2005 because of ill health. She made a very important contribution when she was in Parliament.
It is important to retain experience in social care and childcare, to build on that wealth of experience over the years and to build a culture of understanding about social care and childcare. That happens in other countries, but we in this country have done that very poorly. It is important to attend more to children’s homes, to build a cross-party consensus for what needs to be done, to work in the long term and to avoid continual change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said.
Experience is the foundation of success in improving outcomes for children and young people. It is important to recruit and retain for long periods the best staff at the front line and line managers. That appears to be what happens on the continent. They do not appear to be so interested in measurement or narrow evidence-based approaches. They are very interested in expertise and experience and in retaining people—people pass on experience and use their professional judgment, and they make their professions popular. For instance, in Denmark, the profession of working with vulnerable children is one of the most popular courses at Danish universities. Working in a children’s home is a popular profession and has a very low vacancy rate. That is in complete contrast to our experience in this country.
The noble Baroness referred to Tim Loughton’s very important work on social work. I thoroughly endorse the call for a chief social worker to be a powerful voice for social workers. Mr Loughton visited children’s homes in Denmark and was very impressed by the quality of provision there. That is a particular concern for him because there are a number of children’s homes in his constituency.
On the continent, residential childcare workers make their work attractive; there is a framework to support those workers. They are encouraged to reflect and can build up experience and understanding over many years. Many of them then move into administration or policy areas so that the best experience from front-line practice can be built into policy at all levels—central and local government. One sees that to a small extent in this country. Peter Wilson, who is a child psychotherapist and who founded the children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, of which I am a patron, brought to the national stage his very deep professional development and practice with children. His wife continued working with children as a practitioner. He had his finger on the pulse of what was going on on the front line, and he could talk to policy-makers. I also mention Paul Ennals, who is the chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau and a residential childcare worker, and Hilton Dawson MP, who was for several years the chair of the parliamentary group on children and young people in care and who was a residential childcare worker.
I remind noble Lords of my experience of meeting guardians ad litem some years ago, when they had concerns. They were escapees from authorities; they preferred not to be bound by the restrictions of bureaucracy and pressures from local authorities, and moved into the public arena. The culture was so unattractive to the best professionals that they moved away from local authorities and child protection and into public law. We must ask why we are making local authorities such unattractive places for the most experienced practitioners.
I met the then chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. He said that those guardians ad litem were angels. That might be idealising them a bit too far, but they were vastly experienced practitioners who were prepared to give up higher rates of pay in preference to working with children as they wanted to do rather than how they were told to do by local authorities. They had the tenacity to stick with children when they wanted to and did not have to work against the grain—against the local authority.
I very much welcome the White Paper from the Government on the best strategy for the children and young people’s workforce, which was published in December and is entitled 2020 Children and Young People’s Workforce Strategy. I hope that it will continue the good work undertaken by the Government to put into social work what they have done so effectively for teachers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we need to give the same commitment to social workers as has been given to teachers. I welcome particularly paragraph 4.13, which states:
“Social workers themselves have also told us that they want initial social work training programmes to prepare them better for working with children and families. They also told us that they wanted better access to ongoing professional training, more reflective supervision and support once in employment”.
I am grateful for the Government’s drawing on the expertise of the contributors to this report, which has not always been the case with government policy. They have not always paid strong attention to those practitioners and I welcome this development.
Recently, the New Economics Foundation published a report, A False Economy, on failing to invest in children in care, which highlights concern about children’s homes and the fact that commissioners were basing their judgments principally on cost and not on quality. The principal cost of social care and childcare is that of the workforce; that is, the carers. If one thinks only about cost, one reduces the pay and withdraws continual professional development, and the quality of care for children goes down. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at how children’s homes are being commissioned and do what she can to rectify that. I look forward to hearing her response.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for introducing this timely debate exceptionally well. I do not really need to say very much because, with her long knowledge and many years of experience, she said it all. My experience extends for almost the same length of time. I have spent 38 years in local government and, although I have not held the esteemed positions that my noble friend has held, I have been involved in children’s services of one kind or another throughout those years. Now I am the leader of Essex County Council, one of the largest local authorities in the country. Today, I am speaking from the Back Benches because I am speaking from personal experience. I apologise for rushing around: unfortunately, I have to return to my Front-Bench position to respond to the Heathrow matter in about one hour. It has been a rather busy morning.
I should also like to compliment my noble friend Lady Perry on her extremely valuable contribution. She said exactly some of the things that should be said today. As the leader of a large local authority I live with these issues every day. We have 250,000 children in schools and we have a new school initiative virtually every week or fortnight—for example, “coasting” schools, challenge schools and all sorts of schools. Officers and members have to put a lot of time and effort into those issues, which is quite right because we want to raise the standard of education and the performance of our youngsters. In Essex, we have just over 1,000 children in care and these issues are not compatible.
Four years ago in this House, as my noble friend Lady Shephard said, we all supported the Laming report. In my contribution I said that, however good the report was, the work needed to happen on the ground, we did not need lots of bureaucracy and we needed more social workers. At the time, there was something like a 20 per cent shortage of social workers in London and about a 12 per cent to 15 per cent shortage around the rest of country, which still applies today.
Quite honestly, after a lot of what has been said in the media recently, who would want to be a social worker? From experience, I know that some of our social workers—I would not say that Essex is one of the most difficult places to work—are subject to physical abuse when they go into homes. Sometimes five or six social workers have to go together to deal with parents. Recently, the media has been difficult. We need to encourage social workers and we need to put a lot of effort and support into that profession, rather than lambaste it the whole time. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will support social workers at this difficult time. It is now even more difficult to recruit them. In Essex, we are looking to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and all sorts of other places to recruit social workers to support our children’s services.
As the leader of a council, one of my main problems, and one of the biggest problems with the media, is when we want to take children into care, against which there is tremendous resistance. An analysis of media comment over the past five years would demonstrate more comment about local authorities snatching children away from their families than about the Baby P case. Judgments on families tread a difficult, fine line, which, again, goes back to the importance of the social worker. In this debate, we must not forget the other side of things. As leader, I am more involved in dealing with families who are fighting decisions about their children going into care.
I also support those who criticise. I was very reluctant to bring together the two departments. I took a lot of persuading by my chief executive and others. I tried to keep the departments separate because I thought that they were functioning well. One department supported the vulnerable children’s service and special needs children, et cetera, and another department dealt with school improvement. I fought that merger, although we merged them in the end. Inspection reports show that Essex is supposed to have deteriorated since we merged them, which I would dispute. All the reports, which are mainly box-ticking reports, show that our services are supposedly not as good as they were before the two departments were merged, which shows that some things noble Lords have been talking about are probably right.
I talk to social workers all the time. I do not always agree with my Liberal Democrat colleagues but, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said at the LGA, social workers spend half their time filling in forms and a quarter of their time travelling between one family and another. Therefore, they spend only a quarter of their time dealing with cases. There needs to be a different way for them to work. I support my noble friend Lady Perry. It was wrong to merge and the box-ticking system is wrong. This is more about quality of service than about targets.
I would be the first person to do all I can to ensure that the various agencies work together. But if you talk about family problems involving physical abuse of the wife, the police are more concerned about convicting the criminal, whereas we are more concerned about supporting the family. Therefore the targets for the police are different from ours. Last night, I spoke to the head of our children’s services, who is very good. We work fantastically well with the police, but they have different objectives. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will look at that. Health authorities have different targets too. We all have to deliver lots of financial targets and time targets. In Essex, we have created 29 task forces where the police, the probation service, our service and the health service—multiple agencies—sit together. We try to do more preventive work, which I think we would all agree is most important.
As these groups have different targets to deliver in order to tick all the boxes—so that they can come out with three stars or four stars in government terms—they cannot always solve those problems. For all the legislation and all the discussion that we have had, the situation behind the scenes is probably worse than it was five years ago. It is a disappointment and I live with it every day, so I want to make certain that we improve the situation. That is why I have rushed in my contribution today.
As the leader of a local authority, and one who puts a lot of effort and energy into it, my preoccupation is always to ensure that we safeguard very vulnerable children, and that is extremely high on the list of priorities of the members of my authority. However, we must not forget all the other children in our schools who have just one chance of an education. We have to put effort into that as well, and therefore we have to find ways of dealing with both streams in the right way. I hope that I have been able to add something to the debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for her fantastic opening contribution and tremendous analysis, and particularly my noble friend Lady Perry for her remarks.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for introducing this important debate and for all the important points that she made in her speech. What I shall remember the most is her admonition not to confuse activity with action.
Today we have heard about many failures, and it is easy to concentrate on those, but we must also recognise the successes. The trouble is that, whereas a teacher’s successes are often reflected in exam results, those of a social worker are mostly hidden. They are the things that do not happen: the dogs that do not bark in the night. We must find ways of recognising social workers, because they are doing one of the most difficult jobs there is. Although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that it is important not to forget the less contentious areas of children’s services, I am going to concentrate on social services in my contribution to the debate.
My principle for children’s social services is to keep a child with their family where it is safe and in the interests of the child to do so, and to provide the family with the high-quality support that it needs to give the child a good life. But when you have to take a child into care, you must provide high-quality services to compensate for the effects of past experiences. Children’s brains develop in such a way that their personalities and behaviour reflect their experiences, including those that are no fault of their own. To do all this, you need information. You need to know which families have the risk factors, so that you can do preventive work, and which children are at risk, so that you can move in and protect them. That means that you need enough knowledgeable pairs of eyes and ears on the ground and you need good leadership; in other words, you need high standards of training for social workers and their managers, compliance with standards of conduct and manageable case loads.
The General Social Care Council has briefed us about its code of practice, which has been developed by experts. However, the council points out that, while compliance with the code is mandatory for employees, it is not a requirement for employers. If it were so, perhaps it would be easier to recruit and keep social workers. As the GSCC points out, putting the code of practice on a statutory footing for employers and within the Ofsted inspection framework—although there are doubts about Ofsted, as I hope we will debate before too long—would give employers more responsibility for raising standards and would improve leadership in the sector.
To give the Government their due, I was delighted to hear about the new leadership training for directors of children’s services led by the National College for School Leadership. I wish that well, because the college is a great facility, but I ask the Minister whether all directors will be expected to take this course in the fullness of time.
My noble friend Lady Sharp and others mentioned that recruitment is in a terrible state, with some authorities having a high percentage of vacancies. Of course we need bodies on the ground, because case loads are too high, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, pointed out, but I cannot believe that a Hungarian or even an Australian, New Zealand or American social worker, however well qualified, is the best person to understand the culture of inner-city Britain. We need to recruit and retain more of our own British social workers who understand our culture and we should support and pay them well.
Children and family social work is one of the most difficult jobs I can envisage in society today. The judgments that social workers have to make are crucial and difficult; they would give me many sleepless nights, I am sure. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, pointed out, there is a fine line between the right decision to leave a child with its mother in a home that is not satisfactory but not dangerous and the right decision to take a child away because the risks have exceeded what is acceptable. No one can really know the truth of what goes on in the minds of parents, boyfriends and lodgers, or what factors may arise that drive them to violence or murder. Social workers can only conscientiously gather information and use their good judgment and experience. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, they will never please everybody.
However, one thing is absolutely crucial: social workers must see the child and they must listen to the child. It is also a very good thing if appropriate people actually undress the child and check over their body for signs of abuse. Indeed, social workers must be trained both in how to listen to children and how to recognise, through what those children say and do, the signs of abuse. If that is neglected, disasters can happen. They must see the child and not be put off by excuses from the parents. Furthermore, teachers and health visitors should also listen to children carefully. I have been in the House a little longer than the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, but ever since the day I arrived I have been shouting for more health visitors, because I agree with her that they work right on the front line, provide a universal service and should stay with families at risk for much longer than they are allowed to at the moment.
To have the knowledge and confidence to do all the things that a social worker needs to do, good initial and ongoing education and training are vital. The first cohort to study for the new social work degree completed their courses in 2006 and the Government are currently examining how the qualification is working. How is this review progressing? Has it reached any initial conclusions? How are any lessons learnt to be fed into the system, and will there be a report to Parliament?
Advanced and ongoing training is also vital to keep social workers up to speed with the latest thinking and to maintain the standard of their practice. A range of new post-qualification awards were introduced in 2007, including one in working with children, young people and their families. It is important that enough social workers become specialists in this important area, but it costs money. Given the state of the finances of many local authorities at the moment, can the Minister say whether the funding for this work will be protected in any way? I know that there are difficulties during a recession, but this is absolutely vital and can save lives. I learnt recently that 6 per cent of local authority children’s services have already experienced an increase in demand because of the economic downturn, while a further 30 per cent anticipate a heavier workload. So there is already considerable pressure.
It was reported yesterday on the BBC that one in seven local councils is already cutting jobs, and the Government’s threats of capping are preventing them from raising the money that they need to keep up the level of services. I know that there is a quandary here, but we have to keep the interests of children right at the top of our agenda. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, mentioned, there are additional pressures on budgets for child protection since the case of Baby P. People are now being particularly cautious, even though the cost of taking a child protection order to court has risen dramatically of late. Indeed, before the Baby P case, many people were concerned that the number of cases being taken to court had fallen dramatically because of the high cost of court fees. That is surely not a coincidence. It is interesting to note that the number of cases has now risen since the sad case of Baby P hit the headlines. That must have an effect on the budgets of children’s services departments.
I return to training. Currently, there are no national standards for training in safeguarding and therefore a lack of consistency and focus. Are the Government planning to address this so that we can be confident about the qualifications and accreditation of individual social workers’ competence? In order to renew their registration every three years, social workers must provide evidence to the GSCC that they have met the training requirements set down in the registration rules. A review is currently going on into whether more formal requirements about the content of this training should be set down. Personally, I believe that they probably should be, but I would be interested in the opinion of the Minister, as well as in hearing from the GSCC about the results of its review. A number of individual local authority reviews are also going on, both internal and external. It is important that the lessons are learnt not just by those authorities but nationally. What plans do the Government have to ensure that that happens?
I shall now say something about nurture groups in schools and the work of another third sector organisation, Place to Be. These are not new organisations; the nurture groups have been going for 40 years and there is plenty of evidence of their success. Both organisations work in schools in different ways to tackle the effects on children of failures at home and failures of the system to help them earlier in their lives, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley.
Your Lordships may have seen the “Dispatches” programme on TV last week that showed the wonderful work of the nurture groups. There is hardly a school in the country that would not benefit from one or other of these organisations working in it, yet schools struggle to pay for them. Will the Government do something about that? The investment is very cost-effective. This work saves many thousands of pounds.
Crucially, these organisations work closely with the parents. It is easy to blame the parents, but many of them were not well parented themselves. They start off determined to do better for their children than their parents did for them, but they do not know how to because they have never had an example and so eventually they give up. I was most moved by a particular aspect of the “Dispatches” programme. One parent was given a little award by the nurture group because she had regularly come into school to liaise with it about her difficult child. She burst into tears because, she said, it was the first time she had ever been recognised as a success in anything at all. That image should inspire us to focus on the families. If we do not, we forget that, if we focus on a parent of a particular child in a school who is showing problems, we are benefiting the other children in that family and the children who may come along, possibly even by a different father but in the same difficult situation. If you focus on the families, you get real value for money and you are helping the children.
Early diagnosis is important, and the Government have concentrated on that, but we need action, not just activity, based on the understanding of child development and attachment theory. Nurture groups are doing that sort of work. If the Minister has not already looked into their work, I recommend that she does so.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a provider of services in adult care. I join all noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold on this most timely and important debate. She speaks with enormous knowledge and depth in all areas of education and social services, as do other noble Lords across the Chamber.
Noble Lords will have seen that this morning the BBC’s lead story was on disclosures by a social worker that more than 60 cases in Doncaster alone of children identified as at risk from abuse and neglect were awaiting allocated case workers. That is just one borough. How endemic is this problem going to prove to be? Why, after the lessons supposedly learnt after the tragic cases of Victoria Climbié and others, and in the light of the review and recommendations by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, are the Government still having to respond on the hoof? We cannot allow these tragedies to concentrate our minds only for the period during which they make news headlines, reviews are ordered and the Government make sweeping structural changes to departments without ensuring that the underlying issues are identified and treated.
As I sat listening to contributions from your Lordships’ Chamber, the passion, the anger and the need to get things right just rang out with every sentence. My noble friend has, in her unique and measured way, provided us with a debate that has raised some very difficult questions for the Government. They have to take responsibility and share some of the blame for failing to look not just at structural change but, more importantly, at organisational change, adequate leadership and appropriate training for staff at all tiers. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield hit the nail on the head following the widespread negative media coverage of social workers. Who would want to be a social worker?
While recent cases, and cases that have gone before, stir huge emotion among us all, my noble friend Lady Shephard and others have commented that Ofsted has reported a doubling in the numbers of local authorities failing to protect thousands of children at risk. In October last year the Audit Commission published a report that looked at the governance and resource management in children’s trusts. It found that the role of children’s trusts was unclear and confusing. One of the key findings was that many representatives on children’s trust boards lacked a mandate for committing their organisations’ resources and that systems for reporting back were rarely systematic. What action have the Government taken in view of the Audit Commission’s report and its findings and recommendations?
The Conservative Party’s Commission on Social Workers, convened by my honourable friend Tim Loughton in 2007, examined how social work could be strengthened and supported. The findings of the commission, published in the excellent report No More Blame Game in October 2007, was met with widespread approval from the sector.
Social workers spend at least 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their time on administrative work as opposed to client contact. Twenty years ago, only 30 per cent of a social worker’s time was spent on paperwork. Absence due to sickness is endemic within social services—approximately 15 days a year compared to teachers, who take approximately eight days a year. In 2005 around 11 per cent of field social worker posts were vacant, while 81 per cent of social workers said that workload and pressure had become worse than over the previous year. I could wheel out statistic after statistic—noble Lords have mentioned many here today—but beneath all the numbers and calculations lie the lives of vulnerable individuals whose start in life has been horrific and painful.
We on these Benches have been consistent in asking for urgent action to limit the caseloads of social workers and for more concerted efforts to be made to promote social work. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is right: retention is crucial for those in the service to be able to envisage long-term career development. He is right in wanting to see evaluation and review as essential elements in raising the standards of our services.
The large majority of social workers enter the profession wishing to help and support those most vulnerable in our society—of course, there may be the odd few that are bad. However, social care for all age groups has been seen as the poor relative of care compared to the NHS and healthcare, and has been funded accordingly.
One of the immediate failings in the Baby P case in Haringey was the lack of appropriate contact with Baby P. While over a period of time a number of people had seen the child, the follow-through—the line management support—was inadequate. The other services involved also failed to see that the overall performance of the department was falling very short of satisfactory, and yet Ofsted had provided the council with a three-star rating. What support is being given to those councils in England that were deemed inadequate at keeping children safe in making the appropriate urgent changes needed? Is the Minister satisfied that those councils that have received three-star ratings will be revisited if the Government feel unsatisfied with the council’s overall performance? Will she also comment on the large volume of agency workers used within the sector and the impact on the quality of service provision? I am sure that she is aware that 5 per cent of local authority budgets—around £110 million—was spent on agency workers in 2006. That rose to 10 per cent of the budget in London.
My honourable friend Michael Gove rightly says that the public are tired of hearing that “the correct procedures have been followed” when a child dies in agony at the hands of parents or other adults. The public are both astonished and outraged that a director of children’s services can say, after the death of a child, that in the light of the good performance a scrutiny review would not be beneficial or add value to the service. The public are rightly insistent that we act swiftly and comprehensively to hold all those responsible to account and make the necessary changes to improve child protection across the country. Can the Minister say whether the findings in the serious case review of Baby P and others will be made publicly available?
My noble friend Lady Bottomley referred to the importance of health visitors. Does the Minister agree that until the huge shortage of health visitors is addressed, it adds to the deficiencies of the service provided in the sector? What are the Government doing to keep their pledge of ensuring that all children have an allocated health visitor?
It has been a great privilege to have contributed to this very important debate. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the concerns raised and recommendations made may help improve a sector that is there to protect our most vulnerable citizens. I suspect that it is a topic for another day, but the difficulties and concerns are equally shared in adult services, where we address the most vulnerable at the other end of the age scale.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, raised a number of important points that were constructive and helpful. I hope that the Government will examine her suggestions more closely, particularly those on how we elevate the position and perception of social workers and their work.
Will the Minister now agree to support our calls for offering much greater assistance at the front line of social services to ensure that adequate training, and time and line management are available to all field and front-line staff? What consideration are the Government giving to the size of children’s services departments and the number of children for which those departments are responsible?
My noble friend Lady Perry rightly addressed education through the reorganisation of the services and the department. My noble friend is right that the culture and language of social services and education are completely different. Communication has become more difficult, not easier. While the main body of my speech has covered social services, my noble friend expertly highlighted a number of important points I would have wanted to expand on had time permitted. I refer particularly to the point about an inspection being an inspection—thorough and face to face, rather than a tick-box exercise.
In her passionate and graphic way, my noble friend Lady Bottomley supported the experiences described by my noble friend Lady Perry, which brought home the difficulties and dangers facing social workers. I am so pleased that my noble friend is supporting our call for a chief social worker.
My noble friend Lord Harris of Peckham has to be congratulated on the enormous success of his academies, where there is shared belief partnered with discipline, order and commitment by all involved in raising standards. Where services integrate successfully, children are confident and will thrive.
Following consultation with Conservative councillors in Conservative-run councils, my honourable friend Michael Gove has asked that the director of children’s services be different from the person chairing the local safeguarding board. Will the Minister ask all children’s services departments to follow the Conservative Party’s lead, a move supported by the noble Lord, Lord Laming?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on securing this debate. This could not be more timely for the House; it has been extremely thought-provoking. I have listened carefully and found every contribution to be very important. I will read the debate again and think carefully about everything that noble Lords have said. I will make sure that I go through the contributions systematically, and where I have not picked up a point I will write to noble Lords and circulate those letters to those who have taken part in this debate.
It almost goes without saying that recent tragic events have brought children’s services to everyone’s attention. It is a characteristic of this House that we are able to have an intelligent and thoughtful debate that will help us to move forward and learn lessons. It is right that failings in children’s services should be brought to public attention. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, the public are concerned about this, as are we. Of course, publicity seems only to attend bad news; the work that children’s services do day in, day out, year in, year out, can go unacknowledged, but not in this House.
I believe that services are improving. I hope to explain what has been happening in the work of the Government in recent years and what is still being done to improve further services for children. Because children’s services are at the heart of the Government’s agenda, I will take a few moments to go through some of the important achievements.
Spending on children’s social care has increased by 90 per cent in real terms between 1997-98 and 2008-09, while total funding per pupil has increased by 97 per cent. More than 1.3 million childcare places have been created, there is a free entitlement to early education for three and four year-olds, and more than 3,000 children’s centres and 14,000 extended schools are in place. Teacher numbers have increased by 40,000 and those for teaching assistants by 100,000.
Last year, 107,000 more pupils left primary school secure in English and maths than in 1997. While today’s GCSE results show a further increase in the number of pupils achieving five or more good grades including English and maths, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, described eloquently how many schools are outstanding in their progress.
In 1997, more than half of all secondary schools were below our benchmark of at least 30 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths—that is more than 1,600 schools. Today that figure is down to less than a fifth of all secondary schools—around 475. That is important progress.
We are investing £430 million to improve the lives of disabled children, something this House cares passionately about. We are investing more than £200 million to transform youth facilities and £235 million in new and improved play spaces, something I had the privilege of launching before Christmas. This is the biggest ever investment in play—an unsung transformation around the country.
Teenage pregnancies have fallen to their lowest level for more than 20 years, and 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty.
We have begun to transform the care system; we in this House played our part through the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which finished its proceedings just before Christmas. We introduced the first Children’s Commissioner for England to champion the rights of the country’s 11 million children and young people. Only this week we published the New Opportunities White Paper, which sets out a new package of support to help all children reach their potential. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on her appointment to the panel on fair access to the professions announced in the White Paper. We have heard yet more today about how professions need to be developed, and I will come to that.
It is more than five years since we published Every Child Matters following the inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said, we benefited at the time from a significant all-party consensus on the right way to go. I start here because the Every Child Matters reform programme provided the framework for looking holistically at children’s well-being. That framework means that we are in the position today to have a holistic debate on children’s services—not just on education or children’s social services, but on children’s services altogether. These reforms have been significant. According to both the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the joint chief inspectors, they have significantly strengthened the framework for children’s services. It is important that we take account of that. Across the country, much good, innovative work is being done to keep children safe and ensure that they are healthy, do well at school and are able to make a positive contribution to their communities, as codified often in Every Child Matters outcomes. For example, South Hunsley School in east Yorkshire is open from 7 am to 10 pm on weekdays and from 7 am to 5 pm at weekends, providing a range of activities for children as well as courses for parents and year-round community access. It is a universal service promoting access to targeted services for individual children. Our 2007 Children’s Plan set out a vision for continuous improvement of children’s services and the children’s workforce, and for a world-class education system for all over the next 10 years. Our progress report in December set out significant progress over the first year of our Children’s Plan and our priorities for the coming year.
We have heard concerns raised today by many Peers about the performance of local authorities. In the annual performance assessment of each local authority’s children’s services, published in December, more than 70 per cent of all councils were judged to be good or outstanding in their contribution to improving services for children and young people. We can be proud of that, but it is nothing less than we should expect. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, that too many councils were judged to be inadequate in key areas. Eight were judged to be inadequate in their services to keep children and young people safe, while four were judged to be inadequate overall for children’s services. While it is possible to interpret the figures as going up and down, it is clear that we cannot put up with that kind of poor performance and need to see improvement. We are taking action and, yes, there is activity, too—activity and action are linked. We are making interventions. It is important that we are able to act decisively and swiftly to ensure that children and young people are properly safeguarded. During the last five years, we have intervened in more than 12 councils. We are not afraid to step in and take direct action when there is a clear need, but we must not overstep that mark and go in too soon.
Clear need was identified in the case of Haringey, as it has been in Doncaster and Surrey. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, raised her concerns about Doncaster. As she knows, we are concerned about Doncaster and have already initiated a diagnostic review. My right honourable friend the Children’s Minister has sent in a diagnostic team. Following the review, she and Ministers in our department will consider what steps need to be taken. The noble Baroness asked about the publication of serious case reviews. In line with government statutory guidance, Haringey published an executive summary of the serious case review. The full overview report and other associated documents are not required to be published, as doing so would be likely to compromise the very purpose of the serious case review. They would not attract the full, open and honest participation of individuals within relevant agencies and lessons would be less likely to be learned. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, has already written to the Secretary of State to make clear his view that the published summary of a serious case review has to be a good representation of it. That is an important point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked expressly about concerns over Surrey. Following a joint area review, we have issued Surrey County Council with an improvement notice, setting out the targets for improvement that we expect it to meet. This includes a series of targets for the most vulnerable, including those with SEN.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, spoke about a perceived loss of focus on child protection and asked about guidance in particular. Working Together and other guidance such as What to Do if You’re Worried a Child is Being Abused are very clear about the processes to protect children from harm. It is right that immediate action to protect children should be taken when needed, but also that children’s needs can be identified in circumstances prior to their being exposed to the risk of significant harm, which the current assessment framework and guidance do. As noble Lords are well aware, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is looking at the barriers to good safeguarding practice in the production of his report. I do not want to second-guess what he will say, but I am sure that questions about paperwork and the use of the ISA will be looked at.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly reminded us of the need to listen to the child. I fully recognise the importance of seeing and listening to the child. That is why government guidance states clearly that safeguarding should be child-centred and that a child’s reasons, perceptions, wishes and feelings should be ascertained and taken into account, with nothing less being acceptable.
Many references have been made to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. It is right that we look at the situation nationally as well as at significant local concerns. Local safeguarding boards in particular have an important role in ensuring that children and young people are properly protected. As we have heard, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is producing a report on progress and considering the operation of local safeguarding children boards, including the governance, accountability arrangements and the independence of LSCB chairs, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was concerned. The report will consider also whether statutory guidance needs to be revised. The noble Lord is also looking at what more can be done to improve the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews. I hope that we can maintain the important cross-party consensus that was initiated all those years ago after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié when we consider the outcomes of his report.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the need for review. The Laming report announced on 12 November will assess progress made with implementing the reforms introduced following his original inquiry. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, explained, the Children Act 2004 is very much a part of that. We expect to receive the report by the end of February. I am sure that noble Lords will want to discuss and review it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and a number of other Peers spoke about Ofsted and the importance of a robust inspection regime, which is of course crucial. From April, a new comprehensive area assessment will be introduced with two main changes regarding children’s services. The first is a three-yearly programme of inspections, led by Ofsted, focusing on children’s safeguarding and services for looked-after children. However, there will also be an unannounced annual inspection by Ofsted of each local authority to assess front-line social care practice; that front-line practice is something that has come out of this debate. This will inform the annual CAA report and it means that in future annual assessments will no longer be purely desk based, as was the case with Ofsted’s annual performance assessments up to 2008, and will involve direct inspection. There will be no paper exercises or hiding behind data, which the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, was so concerned about. Ofsted will go and look for itself, and it will be unannounced. I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured at least in part by that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, was concerned whether Ofsted has the right skills, given its new role inspecting children’s services. I remind the House that Ofsted has expertise across its range, in education and childcare, social care and adult skills. When it took on children’s social care in 2007, 269 social care inspectors transferred from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, along with other professional staff. Just as services for children must work together, so it is right to have a single inspectorate that looks across children’s services. Ofsted is the Every Child Matters inspectorate now. The recent inspection of Haringey shows its expertise in social care. The inspection report was incisive, clearly pointing out what needed to be done. The inspection was carried out by highly experienced professionals who are experts in their field.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, was concerned about the numbers. The difference between the statistics cited by Ofsted and our department is caused, as she suspected, by definitions. Ofsted’s figures include cases of children dying from causes such as anorexia nervosa or suicide, or where local authorities and local safeguarding children boards have concluded that abuse or neglect were not the main cause. Ofsted’s data capture all these cases, including where causes of death are yet to be determined. It is absolutely important, as other noble Lords have stressed, that we have the right evidence base.
Local authorities have the main responsibility for children’s services, working with their partners in children’s trusts. This is a key area of discussion. We intend to legislate further to put children’s trusts on a stronger footing by including maintained schools, academies, sixth forms, further education colleges and Jobcentre Plus as relevant partners to the children’s trusts. I am sure that we will debate that in future sessions. Children’s trusts are a very important way in which to draw in health, as many noble Lords have identified; the role of health visitors is key in this.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Shephard, referred to the Audit Commission report. The headlines did not properly reflect what the report actually said. It said clearly that partnership working was improved and that local agencies were aligning their resources better. We have made a lot of progress since the field work was done a year ago and have taken steps.
My noble friend Lady Massey talked about the importance of tackling youth crime through effective partnership and by working with different agencies. The youth offending teams are key parts of the children’s trusts. They supervise young people who have offended and ensure that they have access to the services that they need to prevent reoffending. We see this as extremely important work—and I would wish to talk for much longer on that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, referred to the increase in care applications. We are monitoring that very carefully; in fact, I met with the MoJ only this week to look at that.
I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and many others have welcomed the publication of the Government’s 2020 Children and Young People’s Workforce Strategy. We see this as absolutely crucial, as we need to support the work of social workers. As many noble Lords have identified, there are key concerns; we are putting in £73 million over the next three years for better training, professional development and support for recruitment and retention, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, stressed again is so important. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that we need to put on record again our support for social workers.
I have come to the end of my time. I wish to stress again that this has been a very helpful debate. I look forward to working with noble Lords to take the debate further in a considered, intelligent and systematic way.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have so expertly contributed to the debate today. It has been an example of the House working at its best. Colleagues have approached the subject from different perspectives, but the degree of consensus has been remarkable. With respect, I suggest that the Minister has not addressed that consensual view in her characteristically full and sincere response. That view, as expressed today, is that it would be timely now to review the principle behind the Children Act 2004—the principle that merging social and education services would be in the best interests of all children. I believe that the view today, as put forward by noble Lords, has been that we should have another look at that. I hope that the Minister might accept the view of her colleagues from all parties in the House today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.