Skip to main content

Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 23 May.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on how the Government are responding to the independent review of children’s social care and the Competition and Markets Authority’s children’s social care report.

This Government believe in a country where all children are given an equal chance to fulfil their potential, but sadly we are not there yet. That is why we made our manifesto commitment to launch the independent review of children’s social care in March 2021; its report was published today. The review was commissioned to take a fundamental look at the children’s social care system, and to gain an understanding of how we must transform it to better support the most vulnerable children and families. I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Josh MacAlister and his team for this comprehensive review, as well as thanking the children, the experts by experience board, and the care leavers, families and carers who shared their experiences of the current system and their aspirations for a future one.

The review is bold and broad, calling for a reset of the system so that it acts decisively in response to abuse, provides more help for families in crisis, and ensures that those in care have lifelong loving relationships and homes. I look forward to working with the sector, those with first-hand experience and colleagues in all parts of the House to inform an ambitious and detailed government response and implementation strategy, to be published before the end of 2022. To get us there, I have three main priorities. The first is to improve the child protection system, so that it keeps children safe from harm as effectively as possible; the second is to support families to care for their children, so that they can have safe, loving and happy childhoods which set them up for fulfilling lives; and the third is to ensure that there are the right placements for children in the right places, so that those who cannot stay with their parents grow up in safe, stable and loving homes.

To enable me to respond effectively and without delay, I will establish a national implementation board consisting of people with experience of leading transformational change, to challenge the system to achieve the full extent of our ambitions for children. The board will also include people with their own experience of the care system, to remind us of the promise of delivery and the cost of delay.

I want to be straight about this: too many vulnerable children have been let down by the system. We cannot level up if we cannot make progress on children’s social care reform. However, we are striving to change that. Our work to improve the life chances of children is already well under way, and is aligned with the key themes of the review and the CMA report. On 2 April, we backed the Supporting Families programme with £695 million, which means that 300,000 of the most vulnerable families will be supported to provide the safe and loving homes that their children need in order to thrive.

We welcome the review’s recognition of this programme as an excellent model of family intervention, and today, with the review as our road map, we are going further. We will work with the sector to develop a national children’s social care framework, which will set a clear direction for the system and point everyone to the best available evidence for how to support children and families. We will set out more detail later this year.

I pay tribute to every single social worker who is striving to offer life-changing support to children and families day in, day out. Providing more decisive child protection relies on the knowledge and skills of these social workers, which is why I support the principle of the review’s proposed early-career framework. We will set out robust plans to refocus the support that social workers receive early on, with a particular focus on child protection, given the challenging nature of this work.

We will also take action to drive forward the review’s three data and digital priority areas, ensuring that local government and partners are in the driving seat of reform. Following the review’s recommendation for a data and technology task force, we will introduce a new digital and data solutions fund to help local authorities to improve delivery for children and families through technology. More detail will follow later this year on joining up data from across the public sector so that we can increase transparency, both between safeguarding partners and the wider public.

Recognising the urgency of action in placement sufficiency, we will prioritise working with local authorities to recruit more foster carers. This will include pathfinder local recruitment campaigns that build towards a national programme, to help to ensure that children have access to the right placements at the right time. As the review recommends, we will focus on providing more support throughout the application process to improve the conversion rate from expressions of interest to approved foster carers.

Delivering change for vulnerable children is my absolute priority and, as suggested by the review, I will return to the House on the anniversary of its publication to update colleagues on progress made.

This Statement also provides an opportunity to welcome the recommendations set out in the Competition and Markets Authority report into the children’s social care market, which was published in March. As an initial response, I have asked my department to conduct thorough research into the children’s homes workforce, engaging with the sector and with experts to improve oversight of the market.

Sadly, we know that too many children are still not being protected from harm quickly enough. This is unacceptable. On Thursday, the child safeguarding practice review panel will set out lessons learned from the heartbreaking deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, and the Secretary of State for Education will come to this House to outline the Government’s initial response to these tragic cases. For too long, children’s social care has not received the focus it so desperately needs and deserves. I am determined to work with colleagues across the House and with local authorities across our country to deliver once-in-a-generation reform so that the system provides high-quality help at the right time, with tangible outcomes. For every child who needs our protection, we must reform this system. For every family who needs our help and support, we must reform this system. For every child or young person in care who deserves a safe, stable and loving home, we must reform this system. This is a moral imperative, and we must all rise to the challenge. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank Josh MacAlister and his team for their hard work and commitment on this piece of work. We must recognise the commitment of the social workers, support workers, foster carers, children’s home staff, youth workers and everyone else who devotes their lives to providing safety and stability to children who are in need or whose own families are unable to care for them. We on these Benches welcome the review’s conclusion: a total reset of children’s social care is now needed.

I remember serving as lead member for children’s services in Darlington and spending time with our looked-after children, visiting our children’s homes and, back in 2007, having a very strong sense that these children are a priority for local agencies and that their futures are our responsibility as corporate parents. I do not think there has ever been a golden age for us to look back at, but it is unarguable that pressures have grown and services have come under more and more strain over the last decade.

MacAlister’s conclusions must make us all wake up to what has been going on in every community up and down the country. Looked-after children are our children, and we are failing them. Over the last 12 years, we have seen the number of children living in poverty rise to 4.3 million. We have also seen the number of looked-after children increase continually, up by a quarter since 2010. The number of Section 47 inquiries, where a local authority has cause to suspect that a child is in need, has gone up by 78% since 2011. Half of all children’s services departments have been rated inadequate or requiring improvement. At the same time, vacancy and turnover rates for children’s social workers are increasing and outcomes for care-experienced children and young people are worsening.

There are many reasons for this, of course, but we have to ask ourselves how, against this backdrop of failure, the 10 biggest private providers of children’s homes and private foster care placements made a jaw-dropping £300 million in profit last year. Where have the early intervention and prevention services gone? We warned that the decimation of Sure Start would have deeper, long-lasting impacts that would cost us socially and economically. Other local authority-led services that would have identified problems sooner have faced cuts too.

Time and again, we all agree that these services are vital—yet the Government do nothing to protect them. I must refer the House to the work led by my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, who has been making these arguments for as long as I can remember. Perhaps if she had been heard by the Government, the MacAlister report could have been different and outcomes for children so much better.

We welcome the review’s focus on restoring early help to families so that many more children can be supported to remain and to thrive with their own family, on supporting kinship carers and on seeking to ensure that every looked-after child can build lifelong links with extended family members. We also welcome the review’s clear statement that:

“Providing care for children should not be based on profit.”

The law recognises childhood as lasting until the age of 18, so it is shocking that the Government have continued to allow children to be placed in unregistered children’s homes and other completely unsuitable accommodation. The review says that this must stop, and now.

Nothing the Government have revealed so far answers the review’s demands. Successive piecemeal announcements are yet further indication of what the review describes as

“a lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care”.

We agree. The Government do not seem to grasp the depth of change that the review requires, at scale, across the whole country.

We would like to see a firm date for publication of a comprehensive response to the review and a detailed implementation plan. Does the Minister think there will be a need for legislation? We note that nothing was suggested in the Queen’s Speech.

How will the announcement of early-help investment in a handful of additional areas ensure that services are available in every single area of the country so that every family needing help can be supported? Will the Minister agree, as the review demands, to investigate profiteering in children’s social care? How will the Government ensure that the voices and experiences of children are always at the heart of children’s social care? Will she guarantee that the workforce, who are the backbone of children’s social care, are fully respected, engaged and involved as reforms are implemented?

This review represents an opportunity to deliver the total reset needed in children’s social care. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.

My Lords, we too very much welcome this review and thank all those involved in presenting it to us. I associate my remarks with all those people involved in working with children and families at all sorts of levels; they do an amazing and fantastic job.

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care provides an opportunity to unlock potential for recognising that loving relationships and supporting kinship networks lead the way to sustainable and ideal solutions for children in social care. Her Majesty’s Government’s response focuses on providing foster carers and social workers with more support but does not address the supporting of children themselves. This review is a wake-up call to Ministers who, after a series of reviews, must finally address the scale and severity of the challenge to provide adequate support to those who rely on us. The report recommends injecting a minimum of £2.6 billion into the care system over the next four years. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will commit to this kind of important investment?

The Government’s response so far does not address the discrepancy between care-leavers and the continuing success of the individual throughout their life. Every child, no matter where they live or what their circumstances, deserves a great start in life so that they can have the support, relationships, skills and knowledge needed to succeed. We on these Benches believe in young people being allowed to stay in care until the age of 25, as well as increased financial resources through expanding the bursary for those leaving care from £1,000 to £2,000, access to mentors and support networks. We champion bridging the gap between care and a fulfilling adult life in a way that current government policy does not meaningfully address.

Furthermore, Her Majesty’s Government’s proposed policy places the onus of finding care providers for vulnerable young children on the relevant local authority while underfunding those very same councils. The providers in the private sector are charging exorbitant rates—£4,000 a week—for inadequate care, knowing full well that there is a shortage of care providers. The predictable outcome is that the authority finds care from the lowest bidders, often unregistered providers with no quality assurance of care.

Young people are the future of our nation. How can we be content to allow such a situation to continue? Can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will stop these vulnerable children and young people going into inadequate, unregistered care provision? We welcome many of the review’s recommendations, including a renewed emphasis on supporting families, financial allowance to parental and kinship carers at the same rate as foster carers, and providing parental leave to kinship carers. This will support our nation’s most vulnerable young people while allocating funds towards those who are best able to support them.

Without the resources and proper structures of support, children will continue to be placed in unregistered care situations, which can of course be incredibly harmful. It is of paramount importance to use this report as a springboard for sustainable and meaningful change for those who deserve a safe and purposeful upbringing.

We talk about levelling up but, if we are actually to make any meaningful changes, we need to deal with the root causes of what these children and families often find themselves in. It is about making sure that we tackle poverty and provide the best educational opportunities. It is about making sure that families in the most disadvantaged communities are supported.

Finally, I remind the House that we have a Select Committee looking at the Children and Families Act, chaired by my noble friend Lady Tyler. Many of these issues are being discussed in that Select Committee, so I welcome that opportunity as well to highlight these important matters.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their remarks. As a Government, we absolutely acknowledge that the children’s social care system needed a fundamental report. That is why we commissioned this independent, broad and bold review. We will be publishing an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy later this year that will deliver for our most vulnerable children. The noble Baroness asked for a timeline on that; we can be clear that the implementation plan will be published before the end of the year.

Obviously, a lot of work is already ongoing within government but, in response to the review, we have been clear about three key priorities that we want to focus on initially: first, to improve the child protection system so that children are safe; secondly, to support families to raise their children so that they thrive; and finally, for those children who need to be placed in local authority or foster care, to have the right placements in the right places and in a timely way. On Monday we announced plans to establish a national implementation board, which will challenge us to achieve the best for our children. One of the strengths of this review, as I am sure all noble Lords will agree, was the incredible contribution from people with lived experience of the care system. We commit to ensuring that their voices are also represented on that national implementation board.

We are prioritising work with local authorities to recruit more foster carers, which we think can make a real difference in the short term, and to support social workers, particularly early in their career, and give them additional focus on child protection given its key role in their work. We are developing a national children’s social care framework, which will set out a clear direction for the system and provide an evidence base for all those working in the sector. Finally, we are introducing a new digital and data solutions fund, which will help local authorities to improve delivery for children and families through technology.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, commented on the pressures that the social workforce faces. I do not question for a second that those are very real, but I remind the House that the number of social workers has increased by 14% since 2017 to 32,500. One of the points noted in the report was that the average caseload has come down slightly. We are not arguing that every case is the same, but the figures are going in the right direction.

The noble Baroness asked whether we were planning legislation. In response to her question and that of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about our commitment to funding additional services, I say that we need to wait and see what the implementation panel recommends. We will respond to its recommendations but taking real care with implementation is crucial, because your Lordships will all know very well of examples where implementation has not delivered on the aspirations within such reports.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord referred to the situation with children’s homes. This Government are absolutely not against companies making a profit, but we are absolutely against profiteering, which I think was the phrase the noble Baroness used. We are putting funding into local authorities now so that they can expand their provision as quickly as possible while we look at some of the longer-term structural issues raised in the Competition and Markets Authority review as well as the care review.

In relation to unregulated provision for children in care, we are investing over £140 million to introduce new standards and Ofsted-led registration inspections for supported education to ensure that young people are safe and have the high-quality living arrangements that they deserve.

The noble Lord also referred to support for care leavers. We are providing £172 million over the next three years to support care leavers as they transition to independence, with better move-on accommodation and practical and emotional support from a personal adviser.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly challenged the Government on how we will implement this. There is real commitment and ambition to try to address some of the tragedies which we have heard about all too often in this House, and the systemic issues that we face in the child protection and care system. We look forward to working with all noble Lords across the House in our attempts to do this.

My Lords, this is a most important report, and we are grateful for the points the Minister has already made. I commend the Government on commissioning this review. and congratulate Josh MacAlister and his team on producing what I regard as an inspiring report because it focuses so much on the needs of children and families.

By any standards, this is a substantial document, and it will repay very careful study by all of us. The strength of the report is the way in which it focuses unrelentingly on children and families who could and should have been helped through difficult periods in their lives. Too often in recent years, these children and families have had to fit in with the needs of the services—not their needs, yet these very services were created to meet the needs of the children at risk. This is despite the legislation making it clear that the well-being of the child is of paramount importance, and we must hold on to that.

During the last decade, as has already been mentioned, we have witnessed a remarkable reduction in family support and preventive services. I am told that even when a child and family have been identified as being in difficulty and have been referred to the appropriate services, it has sometimes been decided that the crisis is not yet sufficiently serious and therefore they have been denied the opportunity for support and help at that critical time.

Today, we have a crisis-driven set of services. In other words, they wait for the crisis to be apparent before they react. That is contrary to what the legislation and all the practice guidance says. No wonder, therefore, that there has been a large increase in the number of children coming into state care. This report gives us the opportunity to reverse that process. I am very pleased that the decision has been taken to establish a national implementation board and I wish it great success.

I will end with a quote from the report, which I hope will stay with us:

“This moment is a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care”.

I hope the Minister will show the House that she and other Ministers will do everything possible to ensure that this report is fully implemented. I commend the report.

I am sure that I am not the only person in this House who has been inspired by the noble Lord’s work over decades, and I thank him deeply for that and for the leadership and hope he brings in this area. I will pass on his remarks to my colleagues in the department.

I would say two things in response to his reflections. First, investment in preventive services is absolutely critical and we will be reviewing that in detail. Secondly, we also need to push ourselves to understand the local authorities prioritising those services, how they are making that work and how we can replicate that across the country. The noble Lord will be familiar with the Hertfordshire family safeguarding model; there are other early intervention models in Leeds and other places around the country. We want to understand those too so that we can act on evidence of what actually works in practice. On the commitment from the Secretary of State and the ministerial team, I cannot underline strongly enough how passionately we aim to address this.

My Lords, I too thank Josh MacAlister, his team and all the people from within the system he worked with. Josh came to the Public Services Committee, which I chair, as part of giving evidence in our review of vulnerable children.

There are so many things I want to put to the Minister today. Maybe she can help me get a debate on the Floor of the House on our report, and then I will not feel as if I am short-changing the vulnerable children I want to argue for. I will concentrate on one issue only: how do we prevent children having to go into the system? However good it normally is, children suffer when they go into the care system. Our committee uncovered that, since 2010, £1.7 billion a year has been cut from early intervention and prevention services. That was largely for two reasons. First, the overall money going in, particularly to local authorities—whether for children’s centres, youth work or other prevention programmes—was under pressure. Secondly, because they were not statutory responsibilities, authorities shifted the money to the statutory responsibility for looked-after children. Therefore, children have become older as they enter the system. I can tell noble Lords that difficult adolescents are much more difficult to deal with than very young children. Will the Government introduce a system which will ensure that money can go to early intervention and prevention services for the long term and will not be allowed to be switched into crisis work?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to focus on how we prevent children needing to go into the care system or, indeed, needing a social worker at an earlier stage. I highlighted the Secretary of State’s three priorities in response to this report, the second being supporting families to raise their children effectively, happily and in a way that enables them to thrive. One of the strengths of the report is its emphasis on relationships and whether the immediate family—or the wider family—can provide those stable relationships, and how we can create them. As the report uses the term “relentlessly focused”, we must ask: how do we have a relentless focus on those relationships?

We will follow up on all those issues, but in the meantime—we were pleased that Josh MacAlister acknowledged the value of the programme—as we announced in April, we will back the supporting families programme with an additional £695 million over the next three years, which will support 300,000 families to provide the safe and loving homes their children need, as well as other investments in family hubs and other early intervention.

My Lords, as we have already heard, much is to be welcomed in this review, which clearly has the needs of vulnerable children and young people right at its core. The emphasis on boosting early help to prevent children reaching a crisis point is crucial. I am most grateful for the confirmation we have been given that a detailed implementation plan will soon be forthcoming, with the views and voices of children and young people firmly at its centre. I am also grateful for the comments already made by the Minister about investment in the action plan and implementation. Does she agree with me that, should any further encouragement be needed on investing properly in implementation of early intervention, proper investment should also lead to significant savings in the longer term?

The right reverend Prelate’s final point is right; Josh MacAlister’s review has set out very clearly the scale of the challenge we face and has worked through the financial impact of getting this right. However, none of us is in any doubt that our primary focus is getting it right for children.

My Lords, I also welcome this review and its focus on supporting families earlier in the process. To echo an observation made by the author and journalist Polly Curtis, the word “love” was used 42 times in this review and “loving” 50 times. As she says, this is pretty radical for a set of formal proposals. It is most welcome, because is that not what the system is for—making sure that children are loved and cared for when their parents cannot take on that role? As has been mentioned, kinship carers play a fundamental part in this, so will my noble friend reassure us that, as the review proposes, there will be increased legal, practical and financial support for kinship carers to match the scale of what is offered to foster carers and adoptive parents?

My noble friend is right to pick up on all the “love” and “loving” in the report. Kinship carers are an incredibly important part of providing that to children, and I send them my thanks for everything they do. The department already works with the charity Kinship and supports it in creating more support groups for kinship carers. There are some very important recommendations in the report and I can absolutely say to my noble friend that we will consider each of them and they will be part of our report at the end of the year.

My Lords, following on from the question just asked, do the Government recognise the need for a legal definition of kinship care? It should be in legislation, because that will improve the rights of these very important family members who take on the care, often in extremely difficult circumstances, of very traumatised children. Will the Government also consider the recommendation from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that there is a need for a single unique identifier so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said, rather than responding to crises, there is an ability to respond to early warning signs? Several yellow flags will add up to a really screaming red flag if they are left to develop.

In relation to the noble Baroness’s first point, I can only say that all those issues, including whether the definition should be covered in legislation, will be in our implementation report. In relation to the single unique identifier, we have committed to coming to a decision on the best way forward by next summer.

My Lords, may I say how much I am comforted by the response of the Government to the excellent report and hope that all that the Minister is saying in good faith will actually take effect? As a family judge over very many years, and as the writer of the Cleveland report, there are two points I would like to raise with her. The first relates to children. My experience is of many children asked to see me. From the age of about six upwards, those children gave me extremely valuable advice as to what should happen to them. I do not think that social workers listen enough to what the children have to say. You cannot necessarily do what the child wants, but at least the child has a right to be heard, however young, if they are sensible enough to give a good example.

The other thing, which I found extremely sad when listening to the evidence of social workers, was that the social worker on the ground knew the family very well, but she or he did not make the decision; the decision was made higher up the ladder by a social worker who no longer had any individual cases to look at. I cannot imagine why they do not still keep a caseload to keep their hand in. They make decisions totally contrary to what the girl on the ground who knows the situation is saying. Can the Minister do anything by way of guidance to deal with that issue?

The noble and learned Baroness makes very important points, first in terms of a child’s right to be listened to and have their views respected. On the point about caseload, one of the 80 recommendations in the report is that, just as in the medical profession senior doctors will keep a caseload, so in social work senior social workers should keep a caseload and there will be teams with senior and less experienced social workers working together on cases.

My Lords, Josh MacAlister’s report demands good practice, which actually exists in many parts of our country—I declare my interest as a social worker who worked with child protection and disability services for many decades. I acknowledge all that good practice; nevertheless, there were 206 serious safeguarding incidents involving child deaths in just one year, 2020, and we have known other very serious cases, so something is going very wrong. Those of us on the front line have always known what Josh MacAlister has argued, which is about early intervention and the serious impact and ramifications of closing Sure Start and other services, so will the Minister ensure that the national implementation board takes on board not just the voices of young people but those of parents, who have had a terrible time at the hands of inexperienced social workers?

It is not for me to tell the national implementation board what it should or should not look at: it will have the 80 recommendations from the report. We will bring together a group of real experts with a very wide perspective, including experts by experience, and we look forward to their reflections and advice.

My Lords, I also welcome the report and endorse many of the comments we have heard about early intervention and children being listened to, and families as well. I think we are all agreed on that. I was a cabinet member for social services and care in Islington Council for some years and dealt with child protection. Islington, like many other boroughs, had a bit of a chequered history but improved dramatically. One thing I found very valuable as a corporate parent was listening to children in care and their experiences.

One thing that struck me was a young man who said, “My corporate parent is one of the wealthiest in the borough and the biggest employer in the borough, yet I’m having difficulty in getting training, education and a job. Why is that?” If we think about it, local authorities are in a very good position to give young people leaving care the adequate support that they need—that is, to set aside training and education opportunities. One thing that worked well for us in setting up a corporate parenting board was requiring all departments in the council to set aside opportunities for apprenticeships that led to jobs. Other local authorities also did it. I do not know whether that still happens, as I have not been part of a council for more than 10 years; I just want to put it to the Minister and say that it could be very positive.

Let us not forget the stigmatisation of young people in care. I heard a girl on the radio speaking about the way they are treated and the experiences they have. The discrimination they face must be recognised. I see that one of the recommendations was that such discrimination should be recognised in equality legislation so that these young people are protected.

One element focused on in the review is the ambition that we should have for children in the care system in relation to setting up their own businesses and having successful careers. All those things will be considered.

My Lords, 13 month-old Poppi Worthington died 10 years ago in Barrow, probably at the hands of her father after being sexually abused. Of the myriad ways in which she was failed, one was that there was clearly not enough information sharing to allow professionals to see before she was born that she was being born into a very troubled family. That is one of the weaknesses that has been identified. Is it one of the areas that the Government will now push forward with as they improve data sharing across the system?

My Lords, I want to ask a practical but important nuts-and-bolts question. Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House that it will be a cross-government and multiagency effort and not just for the Department for Education to put the review’s findings into effect?

My noble friend is right to press on this point. This needs to be multiagency at both the local level—it must include the voluntary sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, highlighted, and statutory partners; we were clear in our guidance on the importance of this—and the central government level. We need to do that across the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Statement has now elapsed. I suggest that we take a moment to shuffle the Benches before we continue.