My Lords, families play a primary role in caring for and educating their children. The right honourable Secretary of State for Education has therefore been asked to drive forward policy in order to protect vulnerable children and give all children the best start in life. To work towards this, the Government have announced £2.5 million to research and develop best practice on how to integrate family services and support for vulnerable children.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. As I said somewhat earlier, there has been a welcome focus on children’s welfare in the past few months, including children’s poverty, free school meals, obesity, domestic abuse, education and excluded children, among other issues. However, is it not now time for the Government to consider it appropriate to appoint a senior, Cabinet-level Minister with special responsibilities for children to consolidate, co-ordinate, streamline, implement and introduce new policies to meet these continuing needs?
My Lords, the needs of children and families indeed cut across government departments. Therefore, the Government’s existing procedures are utilised when policy impacts on more than one department. For instance, there is now a ministerial group in relation to the needs of care leavers. Reviews have taken place, such as the Selous review of service families. So existing procedures are being used across government and the Secretary of State is driving forward new policy.
My Lords, I understand that the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is absent, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
My Lords, as a practitioner in the field of family protection, I add my voice to the call by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for a Cabinet-level Minister. This is a seminal moment in children’s lives. They face countless burdens, including poverty, education, mental well-being, online harms, county lines, and an unprecedented level of violence and abuse. A Cabinet Minister with a diverse team to address these complexities would be in the forefront of decision-making. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, it is a privilege for the Secretary of State to be in charge of driving forward policy in this area. However, we should not focus solely on the level of responsibility, because often the first points of contact for vulnerable children are not only the local authority but voluntary services. So we have invested about £9 million with Barnardo’s, which takes the lead on See, Hear, Respond to try to reach children who have yet to be sighted by the statutory authorities.
My Lords, might I urge caution on the Minister? We have many departments that deal with children, particularly the DHSC, which has responsibility for social services aspects. We have a Children’s Commissioner and I am not sure that we would advance anything by adding a title to a Cabinet Minister’s role, when there are already Cabinet Ministers responsible for social services and education. So caution, please.
My Lords, yes, there are a number of departments that have responsibility in this area. For instance, the DHSC has led on the childhood obesity strategy, while money raised by the sugar tax is actually spent out of the Department for Education on healthy eating and PE. We welcome the appointment of the new Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, who will take office soon.
My Lords, the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, is not without merit, but the Minister will be aware that we have a Children’s Commissioner in England who promotes the rights, views and interests of children in policies and decisions affecting their lives. Will the Minister consider ways of enhancing the role of the commissioner?
My Lords, the advantage in having a Children’s Commissioner is that it is a statutory appointment and, as I say, there will be a new occupant. However, we are privileged in this country to have a very active civil society on behalf of children, making sure that their views are known, as well as through MPs. There are government-led programmes to reach the most vulnerable families, such as the successful Troubled Families programme, where we have spent over £1 billion and where we have seen significant reductions in the number of children coming into care from those families, and significant reductions in juvenile convictions.
My Lords, I am a vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and I warmly welcome the focus on children’s welfare in the range of Bills currently before the House on online harms, domestic abuse and covert human intelligence, among others. My noble friend in her replies outlined an ad hoc basis of interrelationships between relevant departments. Is there some merit in setting up a permanent cross-party group that will consider the welfare of children at the earliest possible stages of drafting policies with regard to children’s welfare, and again at the stage of implementation? At the moment we have only an ad hoc basis, bringing departments together where relevant. There is some merit in having a permanent, formal cross-departmental relationship.
My Lords, in relation to certain matters such as care leavers, there is a formal cross-ministerial group, but I assure noble Lords that the processes are not ad hoc. There are procedures across Whitehall to ensure that policy-making is coherent. The Government also now applies the family test to policy-making. We also must not forget as well that one of the key things we need to focus on is that schools are now closed for most pupils, and that is one of the best protective factors for our children and is why vulnerable children and those of critical workers are, I hope, currently in school.
My Lords, I support the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. Of all Bills with relevance to children, surely the Domestic Abuse Bill should have their interests high on its agenda, yet they are hardly mentioned. I think I found three mentions in the Bill. Does the Minister agree that a Cabinet-level Minister for children would have ensured that children’s interests are fully reflected in this incredibly important Bill?
My Lords, the noble Baroness may be aware that the DWP has a specific initiative to reduce parental conflict. When the Domestic Abuse Bill is before the House, I am sure noble Lords will make the needs and interests of children clear. We have been focused on this, particularly with schools, which are the second-largest referrers to the police, to ensure that local authorities have enough capacity for referrals to be made.
My Lords, the Minister says that the Secretary of State for Education is responsible for driving forward policy on children, yet, on the DfE website, the welfare of children is not listed under his responsibilities, although providing support for children is included under the responsibilities of the DWP’s Secretary of State. Does this not demonstrate the need for a cross-departmental approach to protect children’s welfare? Given her other role as Minister for Equalities, the Minister surely understands the benefits of overarching departmental responsibility. Without a Cabinet member responsible for the welfare of children, what new cross-government procedures will be introduced during the current lockdown to ensure that vulnerable children are protected from levels of abuse similar to those reported by the NSPCC during the spring lockdown?
My Lords, the NSPCC’s role is very important at the moment. That is why we have ensured funding so that its helpline can exist. Within the structure of the Department for Education, the right honourable Member Vicky Ford is responsible for vulnerable children and children’s social care in policy terms. It is clearly a priority within the department, but I will take away the noble Lord’s comments about how things on our website are prioritised.
Minister, much has been said about cross-departmental working with some welcome remarks about civil society. In a post-pandemic recovery plan, is there any political will within the Government for part of the solution to be real devolution and decentralisation of responsibilities and powers to local governments?
As I understand it, the primary responsibility in statute is with the local authority. It has responsibility for the safety and welfare of every child within its area. That is why, during the pandemic, there has been an increase of £4.6 billion and £1.55 billion going forward to keep those services. They are now part of the local safeguarding partnership that has been put in place with the police and public health locally.
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.