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Safeguarding of Young Children

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the safeguarding of young children against abuse and death caused by adult members of their household.

My Lords, every child should grow up in a stable, loving home but, in rare circumstances, children are harmed by those who should protect them. We have commissioned the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to make recommendations about how local and national safeguarding practice should change to protect children in future, and the panel reports on Thursday this week. We will carefully consider its recommendations, alongside the reforms in the care review, with an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy later this year.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, who has vast experience in these matters, but does she agree that, in these absolutely awful cases, there are three consistent features? The first is that the child was not hidden away but was known to the services; the second is that the dysfunctional nature of the family was known; and, thirdly, opportunities to protect the child had been missed in each case? In these circumstances, will the Government send a letter to each of the key frontline services, reminding them of their duties in law to safeguard children at risk and to work together, sharing information which is vital to the child’s needs?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I remember in a former role publishing research on this entitled In Plain Sight, about abuse of children, so I entirely recognise the issues he raises. He will remember that Ministers from the DfE, the Home Office, and the Department of Health and Social Care wrote to all chief constables, local authority chief executives and clinical commissioning groups’ accountable officers at the end of last year, reminding them of their duties in this regard. We are absolutely clear on the importance of this, both locally and in central government.

Does my noble friend agree that one way that safeguarding can be helped is through the family hubs? I seem to keep mentioning family hubs in this Chamber, but I should be interested to know where we are with them. If there are still only the pilot schemes, can we roll them out further throughout the country? They will be a one-stop place where people can go to get help.

My noble friend is right, and we absolutely intend, through the almost £302 million we are investing in Start4Life and family health services across 75 local authorities in England, to achieve what my noble friend describes. Yesterday, we announced seven local authorities that will be receiving transitional funding. We will also be carrying out a thorough evaluation and have a national centre for sharing best practice.

My Lords, there was a very similar case during my time as the Member of Parliament for Copeland, in which a child, a small boy, was murdered by his stepfather. I know that that is not always the case, but it frequently is. I regret to say that successive Governments—Labour, Conservative and even, I may say, coalition Governments—have not grasped this problem. It may be that from the report to which the noble Baroness just referred, we will have some further recommendations about action but, until this problem is resolved, we might as well say that social services are not doing their duty. They are not protecting children in anything like the necessary way to prevent these terrible events. I hope the Minister will report to the House in due course about the report, and then perhaps we can see some progress.

We will be debating the report in your Lordships’ Chamber later this afternoon, but I would say that social workers have some of the hardest jobs in this country and we thank them for everything they do. We continue to invest in those services to address the terrible cases such as that to which the noble Lord refers.

My Lords, the safeguarding of young children is yet another important social concern alongside violence against women, racism in the police and youth crime. They are simply surface sores of an underlying social malady. Does the Minister agree that the long-term solution to such problems is a much greater emphasis in schools on the other three Rs; namely, right, wrong and responsibility?

I am sure that the noble Lord’s suggestion may be part of the solution, but to expect any single thing to resolve these difficult and complex problems will not be sufficient, hence the more comprehensive approach that we are taking.

My Lords, when I became a Minister with some of these responsibilities more than a decade ago, my noble friend Lady Walmsley gave me two pieces of advice. First, she said, “Always remember that social workers do not murder children, although they sometimes get the opprobrium when something wrong happens.” The other piece of advice was that the interest of the child comes first.

With that as a background, last year, Emily Dugan, the social affairs correspondent at the Sunday Times, ran a series of articles about mistakes being made through either misdiagnosis or misinformation where children were taken away from families with traumatic results. Will the report that we are expecting on Thursday cover this element, because it causes problems for the families affected and puts additional burdens on social workers instead of concentrating on the children in real danger?

The report on Thursday will focus on the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson and the lessons to be learned from them.

I know that this Minister knows of the importance of voluntary organisations in working with the most disadvantaged, and sometimes the most vulnerable, families. Is she aware, and has she made the review aware, that there are too many examples of the voluntary sector being excluded and not involved in plans for the future of the family and the child once the issue has been referred to safeguarding? This cannot continue. It increases danger for the most vulnerable children.

Obviously I cannot comment on what will be in the review on Thursday, but in the care review led by Josh MacAlister there is a particular focus on independent domestic violence services.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the shortage of health visitors in many parts of the country and the reduction in investment in them? In the past, they have been absolutely key in identifying at-risk families early and preventing long-term abuse.

The noble Baroness is right: health visitors play an incredibly important role in identifying families that need support and children at risk. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are looking at this as part of the wider workforce strategy.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to say what she just said, so does she regret the closure of 1,300 Sure Start centres?

Our focus is on getting effective multiagency support for children, hence our investment in family hubs and all the support that goes with them.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that both Scotland and Wales have banned parents and carers from hitting their children? Is she interested to know that, when I had a meeting with the Minister responsible for this area in another place to ask why England is not considering doing the same, she told me that she was working incredibly hard and that this was not at the top of her to-do list? In the light of some of the most recent dreadful reports, does the Minister think it might have gone up her list of priorities?

I cannot comment on another Minister’s priorities. What I can say is that this Government are prioritising the safety and well-being of children so that they should all thrive throughout their childhood.