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Local Authorities: Child Protection

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 26 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that local authorities have sufficient social workers employed to undertake child protection work in their areas.

My Lords, local authorities are responsible for judging what the level of need is locally and recruiting accordingly. Ofsted inspects children’s services and, if an authority is judged inadequate in its provision, we intervene. We should not judge the success of local authority children’s services solely by the size of their workforces. Management is also very important, as is the quality of social workers. However, since 2010, we have spent nearly £0.25 billion on social work training programmes and I am delighted to say that one of these, Frontline, has received more than 5,000 applications from top graduates in just a few weeks for its first 100 posts. The other, Step Up to Social Work, for career-changers with good first degrees, has already trained nearly 400 people and has a third cohort of 320 people in 76 local authorities beginning next year.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but only last week the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that child protection services in England were under greater pressure than ever. We also heard last week that, following the Francis report, the number of nurses in hospital wards is to be monitored. We have a ratio for the number of children to teachers in education, yet social workers up and down the country are left to deal with uncontrolled caseloads—when the next case comes in, someone has to take it.

With the number of children in care at the moment at a higher level than in the past 30 years and social workers suggesting that the level of need required to get support is greater, is it not time for the Government to do even more to intervene? The position is dangerous for children at risk and social workers alike, and responding simply by saying that social workers are committed and hard-working, and that more money is now being put in, is not good enough. Are the Government waiting for the next report of a child’s death, when no doubt it will not be the institution seen as responsible but some poor individual social worker? Is it not time that greater attention is paid at a national level to what is a crisis in our children’s services?

The noble Baroness speaks with great experience in this area and anything she has to say on the subject we should all listen to very carefully. We all acknowledge that social workers have a very tough job and, of course, we hear only about the disasters—there are plenty of Daniel Pelkas or Hamzah Khans whom they save and whom we never hear about. It can be a question of volume of cases, but there is evidence that there is no direct correlation between failure and caseload; indeed, a number of local authorities have failed with relatively mild caseloads. It is a question of managing those caseloads and whether the more experienced social workers get the more difficult cases. The Troubled Families programme, for which we have just announced an investment of a further £200 million, is undoubtedly helping in this regard, as are innovative ways of working such as those seen in Hackney. It is also a question of local authorities recruiting better managers for these services.

In the light of the increased numbers of children in care, what steps is my noble friend the Minister taking to ensure sufficient numbers of adoptive parents are recruited?

My Lords, this matter is at the top of our list of priorities and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education feels extremely strongly about it, as does my colleague Edward Timpson. We have established the adoption leadership board to drive improvements in adoption recruitment. We have the adoption scorecard, and the adoption support fund for voluntary agencies. We have invested £150 million in the adoption reform grant, and are encouraging partnerships between local authorities and voluntary agencies. Through the Children and Families Bill we are also opening up access to the adoption register.

I can report some good news. Today we announced that in the past year we have recruited just over 4,000 new adopters, an increase of 34%. Nevertheless, the gap between children waiting to be adopted and the numbers of adopters is sadly still widening.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that child protection, such as that called for by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, requires not just numbers but intense social work casework with troubled and problem families? If there were sufficient people undertaking enough of that, would it help to address some of the horrific problems that we heard about this morning from the Deputy Children’s Commissioner of children being forced into sexual activity, often associated with violence, at an unacceptably young age?

The matters to which the noble Baroness refers are of course shocking. As I say, we have innovated and started the Troubled Families programme. It seems to be working well and having quite substantial effect, which is why we are expanding it to 400,000 high-risk families until 2016.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware of the child protection register, which is an important means of recording children at risk. There is also an opportunity to be proactive through use of this register. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have for the child protection register in future?

My Lords, in the light of the shocking findings published today by the Children’s Commissioner—that the extensive use by boys of adult pornography is fuelling sexual exploitation and abuse of girls on an apparently massive scale—what action are the Government taking to ensure that social workers and teachers in particular are better equipped to protect young people from this new and escalating abuse taking place among them? In view of the widespread concern across the House about these serious issues, will the Minister host a meeting with the commissioner and interested Peers to discuss further her findings and recommendations?

We take this matter very seriously. There are a number of programmes from CEOP and UKCCIS to help teachers in this regard and we are strongly focusing on this. I would be delighted to host the meeting to which the noble Baroness refers.