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Children’s Social Care Implementation Strategy (Public Services Committee Report)

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 20 September 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the Report from the Public Services Committee A response to the Children’s Social Care Implementation Strategy (3rd Report, HL Paper 201).

My Lords, I am pleased to move this debate on the response to the children’s social care and implementation strategy. I am conscious that this is a debate on a response to a consultation to a report, and that we are still awaiting the final report, so I suspect this will be one of the conversations and discussions we have about this very important issue—one I know the committee will wish to return to as things progress.

I thank everybody who has helped us bring about this report. First, the many witnesses who appeared for us and sent written evidence gave us their expertise and wisdom, and we could not have come to our conclusions or understood the topic without their contribution. I also put on record the thanks of all the committee to our team: Tom Burke, Claire Coast-Smith and Lara Oriju, led by our clerk, Sam Kenny. Their ability to draw together all the different strands and help us make sense of what we heard is invaluable and underpins the report we are discussing today. I personally thank the members of the committee, who have been enthusiastic and assiduous in our work on this topic, as they always are, and I am grateful to those who could turn up today.

I give a special mention and thanks to the young people we spoke to as part of our inquiry. The part of our report that summarises what they said is worth reading. If there is one thing we can do at ministerial and committee level, it is to keep that by our side and judge our success by how much we can say, “That will never happen again”, and that people in care will get a better deal. All those young people were doing good things with their lives and making a success of things, but not one of them was doing it because of the quality of social care they had received. They were doing it despite it. That really sums up where we are.

Unusually, perhaps, for a policy area of such importance, there is a shared understanding across the nation, not just across politicians, of the importance of this area, what has gone wrong and what needs to be put right; and a shared ambition that this needs to be a priority for everyone and we need to make things better.

Every single witness we spoke to and who wrote to us welcomed the direction of travel the Government have set out. It surprised some of them that the Government had gone further in their ambition than they said they wanted to, and that might have been expected. I acknowledge, as the committee does in its report, some important individual policies that were good and welcome and will make a small difference. To put kinship care firmly in the policy was important, because it has been ignored in the past. Although we could debate that and talk about improvements, the Government have shown a commitment to kinship care, and we see from what they say that they intend to take it forward. We are pleased that the Government’s response to our comments on the importance of independent advocacy shows that they listened, and some change there is promised. We welcome the increase in the foster care allowance the Government have announced.

However, just as I can confidently say that almost everyone who appeared before us shared the ambition and understanding, they also all said, without exception, that there was a lack of urgency or boldness. I want to focus on that today, because that and the recommendations around it are the main part of our report. I could use many words, but it is perhaps worth quoting from our report what Josh MacAlister, who led the independent inquiry, said. He said two things, and both are true:

“I genuinely think this is the right direction and that the Government made some very positive announcements.”

In the same set of evidence, he went on to say that this was a “missed opportunity” and that

“it is not of the scale of … change that will see a tipping point in the system for some time.”

That was backed up by a lot of witnesses. Joe Lane, head of policy and research for Action for Children, said:

“We could easily be sitting here in three or four years, potentially longer, with the same problems.”

That is what worries us, not the lack of ambition. People say that the response is not ambitious enough. I think it is, but it does not have the means of achieving that ambition. That is very different. Politicians are good at words, and it is easy to write a report that is ambitious. It is more difficult to write a report that convinces people that there is a route to implementation of that ambition. That is what is lacking and what I want to focus on now.

The evidence for that can be seen in the language of the report and its approach to the key policies. If you go back and look at Josh MacAlister’s independent review, you can pick up the words again and again. It calls for a radical reset. It calls for a fundamental shift. It talks about policies being delivered at pace and with determination. When you look at the Government’s response, you see the same shared ambition and the same common understanding of what is wrong with the social care system, but what comes out again and again are words such as “we will consider the options”, “encouragement to review” and “we will explore the case for”. That is the problem. That language underpins the approach that seems to be there in the Government’s response. I was left thinking that where boldness was called for, caution has been offered, and therein is the problem.

That approach can also be seen in the two key policy areas at the centre of the proposals. We all agree that trying to move the focus of social care to prevention rather than dealing with crisis is fundamental to getting that right. If not, we are constantly spending resource too late on things that are happening and it is likely to have too little effect. One bit of information that our committee picked up from Barnardo’s in response was that of the £800 million increase in spending last year —more money has gone in—80% was spent on late intervention. That is the shift needed. Unless we can turn that round, nothing will change. That is a big task that calls for boldness and huge commitment, but what we have instead in this early help is pilots.

I am all for evaluation, and it is crucial that we use evidence to take us forward, but I am confident—and the committee and our witnesses are equally confident—that there is enough evidence available from over the years to make a start in every single area of this country. Go back to Sure Start, look at the Government’s family hubs, and look at what the research centre the Government set up—I think it was called Early Help—decided. There is ample evidence in our report of what works in early intervention so that every area of the country could have started now on something, with some resource, with some encouragement. Then if we want to experiment further than that, we can roll out a pilot of it. The truth is that, where we are at the moment, it will be 2026 before the rollout of a national programme begins, and that is not achieving the ambition and is not bold.

If you look at the second key area, which the committee said was workforce reform, we know there is a problem. There are 8,000 vacancies and 18% of children’s social care staff were agency workers only last year. There is good stuff. I think the early years career framework could be the spine of something exciting that can attract people and retain them in the profession. However, the national rollout will be from 2026, whereas the committee recommended that some measures be implemented this year and that we adopt ambitious targets. That is the problem. This report says that all we are going to do until 2026 is trial things. That means that lots of areas of the country will see nothing, or very little, not enough to make a change, and change in all areas for every child has to start now. Even then, it is only the beginning of a journey.

The last thing is that, whereas the report called for £2.6 billion over four years, there is £200 million over two years. I want to give this example of what I think we are trying to say which for me summarises it best. Take two initiatives from the last Labour Government and the present Conservative Government: the literacy and numeracy strategies from the last Labour Government and the academy strategy from the present Conservative Government. It does not matter whether you agree with them or not; no one was in any doubt that they were going to be implemented. With literacy and with academies, they were not implemented in full in the first year. It was an evaluation. We were trialling, but no one did not believe that resources would be found to carry that policy forward. I always knew that we would carry forward literacy and numeracy. Every Government Minister has believed that they would take forward the academies programme, and we are not convinced of that in this policy area. There is neither a timeframe, a promise of legislation, political leadership or resource set out that gives the committee the confidence to think that action will definitely follow these initial stages.

I finish by asking for some more information on one or two key areas. The one area where we disagreed, were very uncertain and definitely asked the Government to go slow and evaluate was regional care co-operatives. It was not just local authorities, which could be said to have a vested interest in this, but some of those representing user groups who were not convinced that the argument had been made for regional care co-operatives, so we ask that they be kept under review. There was also very little mention of residential homes. However well we do, there will always be a need for some children, at some point in their care journey, to be in a residential home.

The phrase “once in a generation opportunity” is overused, but it is apt here. I think the stars are aligned—the need is proven, the wish is there and the ambition is shared—but we need a plan that convinces everyone on the ground that it is actually going to happen, and on that the report falls short. I hope the Minister will reflect on our comments and perhaps reflect them in the report that is eventually published. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, on opening the debate so compellingly, and I congratulate her and the whole committee on this excellent report.

It happens that it follows, helpfully, the recent debate on the implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014. We were told then by the Minister, who is on duty again tonight, that many of our recommendations would be considered and taken forward as part of the implementation strategy we are debating tonight. I welcome that commitment and look forward to working with Ministers on it.

In the short time available, I shall make some general points about children’s social care. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has reminded us, the independent review of children’s social care called for an immediate investment of £2.6 billion to address the existing crisis in children’s social care. It talked about a revolution in family help to prevent children entering care where possible. It talked, as we have been told, of a

“once in a generation opportunity”

to better protect children, deliver the right support for families at the right time and create a sustainable system that delivers value for money.

However, more than a year later we seem to be little further forward on the reform that is so urgently needed. The Government have pledged just £200 million over a two-year period to fund 12 family first pathfinders and regional care co-operatives, but the national rollout of new family help services will not happen until 2026 at the earliest, and there is no legislative timetable for introducing further reform. I agree that we need to see a far greater sense of urgency and pace to these reforms.

Recent analysis commissioned by some of the UK’s leading children’s charities reveals that the funding will now need to exceed £2.6 billion due to the impact of inflation and the cost of delaying reforms. That research supports the Public Services Committee’s finding that the level of investment in the stable homes strategy is “inadequate” and will have long-term social and financial costs.

I underline the importance of a shift to a focus on early intervention. As we have heard so many times, not least in reports from the APPG for children in recent years, we need to switch from crisis to preventive work to protect children properly. That means championing the importance of family help and support.

The research that I mentioned by children’s charities has already found that local authorities across England increased their spending on children’s services by £800 million in 2021-22, a substantial 8% surge from the previous year. However, as we have heard, over 80% of that increase was funnelled into crisis intervention: safeguarding, child protection and the ever rising number of children in care. In short, of the additional money spent, £4 in every £5 went on late intervention services. In the light of that research, the Public Services Committee’s recommendations—to roll out early help nationally and to ensure that this is linked to family hubs—are welcome. Unless this pattern of expenditure is shifted significantly, frankly, nothing is ever going to change.

Turning very briefly to child protection, the record number of children who are now looked after by the state, the horrific killings of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, and the abuse of disabled children recently uncovered in residential settings in Doncaster are powerful reminders of the urgent need for reform. Meaningful, sustainable change requires long-term investment, yes, but the Government must also introduce an emergency package of measures to stabilise the current child protection system. Can the Minister please provide an update of what is happening in this area?

We also need to see sustained funding for family help services, ranging from children’s centres and youth clubs to targeted support on issues such as drug and alcohol misuse, to stop problems further spiralling. Of course, we cannot ignore the workforce challenges, which we have already heard about from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.

Finally, on links with wider policy, particularly on health and disability, what assurances can the Minister give that the major conditions strategy will focus on children and young people, in particular mental health, to help alleviate the additional pressure that the crisis in mental health support places on social care? Can the Minister say what support will be made available to adopted children needing help to overcome trauma and what special measures are being put in place for children in care, who are four times as likely to experience mental health issues as their peers?

The Government’s test-and-review approach to reform is unlikely to lead to the level of investment and changes so desperately needed. I conclude once again by urging the Government to reconsider the scope for further investment at their next spending review.

My Lords, I thank the committee for this report. It is a fair and, in a sense, generous report to the Government but it raises some serious issues, as my right honourable and noble friend Lady Morris did in her excellent opening speech. This could not be more serious for thousands and thousands of children and families. We want to see that urgency and challenge in the Government’s implementation of the MacAlister report.

This report demonstrates the value in the House of a committee which is ongoing but can keep returning to serious issues. Under my chairmanship, I think we had two or three reports. This one follows those up and, as my noble friend Lady Morris made clear, the current committee will also do that, which is a very important aspect of our work.

In the short time I have—I have already used far too much—I do not have time to comment on everything, so I will be very specific. I am currently chairing an advisory group to the North East Child Poverty Commission and really want to talk about what I have been learning from that. The north-east has experienced the steepest increases in child poverty in the country over much of the last decade. It has risen from 26% in 2014-15 to 35% in 2021-22. The north-east has the highest proportion anywhere in England, by a fairly significant amount, of looked-after children. It also shares the highest proportion of children within kinship care settings. All of those things matter, and they add up to really effect the fabric for children in the region.

In a joint submission to the initial report, the north- east’s directors of children’s services—all of 12 them —said:

“Exceptional levels of poverty in the North East are driving dramatic rises in child protection intervention and the number of children in care. The cost of this cannot be afforded. Exacerbated by reductions in government funding, spending on early help has reduced at a time when it has been most needed. This vicious cycle can only be broken by different ways of working, backed up by adequate investment”.

They submitted another joint response to what the Government had to say in response to the MacAlister report. Their concern was:

“The long-term intergenerational impact of poverty and deprivation is not being addressed and will continue to feed rising demand for services. A new national child poverty strategy is needed”.

An academic study last year, I think by the University of Liverpool, found that rising child poverty can be linked to an additional 10,000-plus children having been taken into care across England between 2015 and 2020. The problem with this is, as my right honourable and noble friends said, the more that services locally are having to spend on the crisis in the care system, the less they are spending on prevention. That has become more difficult in the last year, rather than easier. We really have to face up to that.

The other thing is that during austerity the north-east suffered the highest level of funding cuts to local government. Child poverty increased and local government services were reduced by 26% across the region on average, which means that the support and help for children and families simply was not there. Is it any wonder that I want to associate myself with what the report says in its plea for the Government to show more “pace” and “ambition” to enact the review? We need that in the north-east. The children in the north-east need it and the Government really must respond.

My Lords, I thank the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for her excellent introduction and the brilliant way in which she chairs the committee. I also thank her predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for her continued commitment to child social care. It is very rewarding to see.

Oddly for me, I also thank the Government for recognising that there is a crisis and for their willingness to take on board the urgency of the findings of the plethora of challenges outlined in Josh MacAlister’s independent review. Unfortunately, despite some positive recommendations, the Government’s response is neither radical, urgent or financially credible considering the scale of the challenge. Far too many calls for further evidence is incredibly disappointing.

The challenge was illustrated to me when the committee had the opportunity and privilege to meet a number of young people with direct experience of the current social care system. One highly articulate young woman, now aged 20, had, together with her twin sister and younger sibling, been placed in care at the age of 11. Her grandmother had previously cared for the children but was deemed unsuitable due to financial reasons—an issue for kinship carers that we highlighted in our report. After a year, the children were split up. The youngest child stayed, but the twins were put into residential care, only to be moved through four different foster homes before eventually being separated. “Stable homes built on love” is a distant dream.

On her journey, our witness was moved without explanation from inner London to a rural setting, where she felt totally out of place and was bullied. She regularly asked social workers to move her back to London and an urban environment, which did not happen until post-16, when she was moved to a hostel in London. To the committee’s amazement, she was not bitter. She recognised the challenges of the care system, but urged the committee to plead with the Government for the voices of children to be heard and for changes to be explained by those making decisions before the changes actually happened.

She commented to the committee:

“I am not a number, I am a person … we are all humans”,

as she reflected on the inability of the system to act as corporate parents and the lack of time that social workers have to work with individual children. What was so rewarding for me was that, despite the frequent changes, she had really enjoyed her schooling, had now secured a care leavers’ internship and was able to articulate her concerns just a few weeks ago on an ITV programme.

I have spent most of my adult life, 36 years, working in the most deprived areas of Leeds and Cleveland as a youth worker, teacher and head, and I know the price that society pays for its lack of investment in our most at-risk young people. More than half of children in care have a criminal record by the age of 24—four times more than those not in care—with 18% receiving a custodial sentence before they are 16. That is a staggering set of statistics. Only one in 50 of these children gained five GCSEs, and 92% had special education needs and disabilities.

It is so important to recognise that, to children in care, education is a vital key to help solve so many problems. But, as the recent findings of Action for Children reported, between 2019 and 2021 more than half of children with social care referrals failed either English or maths at GCSE. Trying to separate school from social care, when a third of a child’s early life is spent in education, is a gross mistake. They are part of the same. It is this need to fundamentally change how we approach the education and support of children in care that makes me urge the Government to think again about their funding proposals.

It is difficult to know what to think when an inquiry which looked at the whole detail looks for £2.6 billion, and we end up with £200 million to be spent over two years. It is really quite insulting to all the people who made such a commitment not only to our inquiry but constantly to the issue of trying to make a better life for children.

My worry with regard to this report, which I think has been well received not simply by the Government but by all the organisations involved in child social care, is that next year when we have a general election and things get knocked even further back, there will be yet another set of reports and ideas. What we will see is not 2026, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, indicated, but 2036 coming without a great deal of change. This is far too important for party-political diversity. It is such an important issue and we all, whatever our backgrounds and political requirements, must get behind this report and seek from the Government the sort of commitment they have. I plead with the Minister to ask young people what they think when they are in care, because that is one of the key principles that should be added to the six principles that they have quite rightly put in their answers.

My Lords, it has been a harrowing privilege to serve on the committee that produced this report. Before moving on, I pay tribute to the highly consultative but steely chairing of this inquiry. It has been extremely well done, and we are all very grateful to the committee clerk, Sam Kenny, and Tom Burke and Claire Coast-Smith, who have really backed us up and have been tremendous.

Going back a little bit, many years ago in my late teens I spent a number of vacations working in a home for children in care. The local authority was the LCC, now redundant, and the model of care, now redundant, was a large campus with hundreds of children, based on the public school model of houses, playing fields, a chapel and a lot of open space. Since then, we have moved on; we have moved people back into the community by and large and have provided local services—standards have improved. But here we are at a moment of inflection, when radical change is needed: just as it occurred all those years ago when we changed the model of care, we have to do it again. So we have this opportunity—and the MacAlister report showed us the way. However, as other noble Lords have said, it could be characterised as high on ambition and aspiration, but I do not quite see how it is going to happen. I shall return to the money in a minute.

I turn to the question of pace. It is wonderful— I sometimes wonder whether all government reports are like this: you commission a report, you buy a bit of time, you consult, you buy a bit more time, you run a pilot, you buy a bit more time, then it fades away—time and again. This, however, has to be different, because this is a critical group of people.

I want to touch quickly on four areas, which cover the generalities. First, there are 13,000 children in residential homes. That is still an enormous number. There should be better ways of caring for them. However, while we have them, we also need better regulation. We need to see what Ofsted is doing to develop that inspection framework. Another point is proximity. Those children are often sent away to care homes that are remote, and they are often remote because the property is cheap. In other services, proximity has become key. We should be moving the children closer, not only culturally but physically, to where they come from.

Other noble Lords have talked about voice. We heard about some very moving cases. It seems that, at both the micro and macro levels, the voices have not been listened to. We need to get out there. Again, the concept is there; we know that we need to develop opt-out advocacy services. We need to develop these things, and it should be a question of when, not if. It is easy just to say the policy.

Other Members have touched on workforce. How can we be 7,900 people short? That is bound to lead to bad care being provided. Similarly, in residential care, people are badly paid and the churn is colossal. There may be the right number of people for the CQC inspection, but the fact that some are coming and some are going obviously affects the quality of care. Can the Minister say when the shortfall in care workers will be eradicated? Are we paying enough? How do we get this level of temporary labour down. It is amazing—it is a sign of a bad system.

For me, perhaps the most important thing—beyond early intervention—is kinship care. The report touched on this. Some estimates show that there are about 150,000 to 200,000 in such care, as opposed to 57,000 in foster care. This is a worthy thing of course—it is how families used to do it; they would group together. In recent times, the funding has made that much more difficult; it is patchy and depends on the postcode. We need to see what we can do about that. A review is due, so let us hope it is comprehensive and has some money attached to it. If, however, it is another aspiration and another pilot, taking longer and longer, we will fail to grasp the opportunity. This is a terrible situation. Often, a grandparent is taking a grandchild, and it often means the grandparent walking away from their own children; they are separated from them. That is harrowing, and we need to back those people up as far as we can and as quickly as we can.

As others have said, it all comes down to being long on aspiration. It would be really helpful to put some dates on things, and then put some money behind it all, so that progress can be monitored rather than the can constantly being kicked down the road. Pace and ambition have been mentioned but, for me, it is about the practicality of how we do it. As ever, we know what to do; the fault often is that we do it only once. This is about taking forward a national programme.

I end quickly by quoting Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead—many noble Lords may have read it. She says in her dedication:

“For the kids who wake up hungry in those dark places every day, who've lost their families to poverty and pain pills, whose caseworkers keep losing their files, who feel invisible, or wish they were: this book is for you”.

I hope that the Government can make it for them as well and move on.

My Lords, I briefly interrupt to remind noble Lords that there is a five-minute advisory speaking time. There have been some wonderful speeches and we want to hear everyone in the fullness of time.

My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for tabling this Motion and for the very real concern she and the committee have shown for such an important issue. There are many others in this Chamber far more expert than me on social care, but I was moved to speak in this debate by the fact that I see the results of these policies weekly. As some noble Lords may know, I am a teacher in a state academy in Hackney. Like the noble Lord, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, I am at the gritty end of this subject, where the consequences of these decisions are often manifest.

As Action for Children recently reported, 53% of young people with a social care referral failed either English or maths at GCSE. Of the 2004-05 birth cohort, 58% of young people with a social care referral were persistently absent at some point in their school careers, missing 10% or more of their classes in a school year.

Schools can provide a safe, structured environment for children, and teachers are the weathervanes of social care. We are trained to spot signs of abuse, neglect and bullying and most schools have a clear system of reporting. Those reports, often of tiny changes or instinctive hunches, can become part of a jigsaw puzzle whose final picture could lead to a referral and future action. A case study in the strategy talks about two young people who disclose physical abuse to their teachers. It is the referral from the school that leads Jackson and Madison to be placed with foster parents. Children will often open up to a trusted teacher when they will not talk to anyone else. Through teachers, the missing voices of young people can be heard—something the strategy has been heavily criticised for.

When I talked to members of the safeguarding team at school, one of their top concerns was the wide variation in care between boroughs—some are excellent, while others do not even answer phone calls or emails about referrals. A child can get lost in the cracks if they move boroughs, which can be used deliberately by the families to disappear from the system. As the response says, the strategy will have an impact only in a few areas, and then only as a pilot programme. This will surely exacerbate the problem.

It was also said that the threshold is exceptionally high. For social care to open a case, there needs to be a significant risk. This is completely understandable, as it does not have the resources to complete early intervention work, but this results in firefighting as opposed to early help in prevention when it could be most effective, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris of Yardley and Lady Tyler of Enfield, have said. If care workers are transitory and lasting relationships can never be built, that is never going to happen. The focus on recruitment and particularly retention of staff as a priority is vital. Otherwise, much of the other work is pointless.

All this, I am afraid, is dependent on money. If the committee’s report is true and the strategy lacks the political buy-in and funding to deliver reforms for young people and families, it would be a huge lost opportunity for change. I am also concerned that, in the strategy and the report, the increasing burden of work that falls on schools is hardly acknowledged. I am also unclear quite how schools are to be embedded into the new plan. The strategy recommends that schools should be made a statutory safeguarding partner and contribute to the strategic and operating delivery of multiagency working. It also recommends that they have a greater role in supporting and protecting vulnerable children without making clear how or what budget will be provided for the extra training, and necessary staff, that will inevitably be needed for the extra responsibility alongside their main job, which is usually to teach.

The strategy is called Stable Homes, Built on Love. Might it not be better to aim for stable lives, built on love?

My Lords, it was a pleasure to serve on the committee, which was so well chaired by my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley. I agree with the committee’s conclusions and recommendations, particularly its comments relating to legal aid in kinship cases. Of course we welcome the extension of legal aid to prospective special guardians, but the concern was that many kinship carers would be unable to access it.

However, I want to talk about residential homes and their system, and emphasise, as our report does, the essential need for radical reform of residential homes. Alas, the Government’s proposals do not go anywhere near far enough. The issues facing residential homes are stark and, in my view, one of those hidden, rather British, deep scandals that are not talked about nearly enough, and are not acted on by the political class. What persuaded me that radical change is necessary was my five years as a police and crime commissioner. Indeed, I was on the way because of 25 years as a criminal law barrister, defending in the Crown Court countless young people who had been in residential care. As a police and crime commissioner, it was painfully obvious to me that vast amounts of precious police time were taken up dealing with offences, serious and not so serious, committed by those who were or had been in residential care, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, mentioned a moment ago.

If it was not offences to deal with, then it was the constant issue of missing persons, regularly young girls picked up by bad men outside their homes and taken God knows where, to do God knows what, before being returned. Please do not misunderstand me: it is not the fault of the local authority, let alone the vast majority of staff in residential homes, all of whom perform as well as they are allowed to by the system—I pay tribute to all of them. It is the fault of an underfunded, underresourced, often ignored system that results too often in the most vulnerable children—many of whom are traumatised when very young—not receiving the care, protection and love they need and deserve. What chance do many of them really have?

A major part of the problem is that if any system should be solely in the public domain, it is surely a system that is responsible for bringing up, educating, housing and, indeed, parenting young people, who are our fellow citizens and future participants, we hope, in our society. However, I am afraid that we have seen fit to allow the profit motive—often a good thing in society—to play a leading part in this precious, vital and difficult area. One of our prime witnesses, John Pearce, a vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said this in paragraph 121 about regional proposals, but it applies to my point just as much:

“With about 80% of the residential care provision currently sitting with independent providers, many of which are backed by private equity, the suggestion that in the North East the 12 authorities coming together are going to have more influence over a substantial provider backed by a state investment fund than an individual local authority, and that that is going to change the dynamic, is flawed”.

That is an understatement. This area needs drastic, fundamental, urgent and radical reform so that, instead of the near conspiracy of silence that has existed, we can be proud of how we help our most vulnerable children. It is time to act.

My Lords, I have found this a very helpful, focused debate. I hope that the Minister will find that this debate and our report will be a useful aid to government thinking on the implementation strategy, and on the kinship care plans to be published later this year.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we heard from many young people who are doing positive things with their lives, despite all the disadvantages of being in the care system. It was impressive to listen to witnesses who supported the Government’s desire to improve the children’s social care system. Generally speaking, people want it to be done more quickly. The strategy is going in the right direction. It can be improved, but can it be sped up? The strategy is to have trials and pilots, but some have a sufficiently robust evidence base now to be rolled out more quickly. For example, elements of family help could be rolled out nationally faster than currently planned. It would be good if all young people could see some benefit from the Government’s strategy over the next couple of years.

We ask the Minister: can we speed up? We can, but the strategy lacks the funding needed to deliver the reforms. As we have heard, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in 2022 said that investment of £2.6 billion was needed over the next four years, and that so far only £200 million is being provided over two years, which is simply not enough. To quote paragraph 28, as a committee our formal conclusion was:

“The level of investment outlined in the Strategy is entirely inadequate and will ensure the Government will fail to achieve its vision for children’s social care”.

It would be helpful if we could have a specific comment from the Minister about that.

We say things in the report around young people’s need for advocacy. It was instructive to hear from young people themselves, who said that they were not listened to by those making decisions about their care. The strategy on advocacy is currently too vague about how to listen to young people, and establishing clear standards will be very important. Can the Minister tell us what the plan is? Will it be an opt-out model, and can she guarantee that it will be independent of local authorities, for it must be?

We were told that there are some 20,000 children in England living as separated siblings. Of course, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Willis, in one case they were twins. Many children are being placed too far from home. It is essential that this issue is addressed, partly through funding, and partly through the structures, which I will come back to in a moment. If there is to be a radical reset in the system, it needs far better cross-departmental co-operation and policy alignment. I am pleased that there is a cross-government care leaver Minister now, but Whitehall needs to be a great deal more joined-up than it is.

We have heard about kinship care. The strategy is due by the end of the year, and it is clear that increased support for kinship carers is needed. It is hard to see why we should wait until spring next year to know what that amounts to, for 150,000 children are living in kinship care, and the Nuffield Trust has shown that young people in kinship care have better outcomes than young people in foster or retirement care.

I ask the Minister, on foster care, whether setting national or regional targets actually works. Are they local enough? The shortage of foster carers seems to me to need to be dealt with at a local level. Getting prospective carers is a much more local matter than the Government realise. On workforce issues, there are apparently going to be 500 apprenticeships in children’s social care. I would be interested to know what the timelines around that are. However, there is an 8,000 staff shortfall in the children’s care system. The Competition and Markets Authority has said that the children’s care market in “dysfunctional”. The demand is not forecast accurately, demand for placements is higher than the supply, young people are being sent too far away because of a lack of placements, and providers can profit from the shortage of placements.

In our committee report, we raised questions as to whether regional care co-operatives are seen as the solution. Are they? Is the Minister confident of that? They are not local, and I do not understand what their accountability regime actually is. It is possible that Ofsted gave evidence to support the suggestion that a regional care co-operative model could cause more children to be relocated further away from their home area, but I hope not. Will regional care co-operatives work in restoring a functional market? Will smaller providers, not only big providers, benefit from procurement? Might the Government look at subregional procurement as opposed to regional procurement, if they are unhappy with very local procurement?

In conclusion, as we have heard from various speakers, we have had lots of reviews in recent years but we need to beware of yet more reviews, because we need action to be taken. The evidence base is there, and we need to ensure that we have more children in safe, loving homes.

My Lords, I declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, as noted in the register. I thank my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley and all members of the Public Services Committee for this excellent, direct and wide-ranging report on such a vital area of our social services provision. It is indeed always worth listening to our young people.

The Government’s strategy, published in February 2023, followed an independent review of children’s social care, which recommended wide-ranging reforms based on principles such as family help providing the right support at the right time; unlocking the potential of family networks; and creating a system that learns, improves and makes better use of evidence and data. To where we are currently, we have seen the erosion of children’s services for more than a decade, while poverty and inequality have increased—points strongly made by my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top. It is acute in the north-east and severe elsewhere. Preventive services have been stripped back, leaving the need for costly crisis interventions soaring. The independent review on social care described a system that is

“skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise”,

and called for a “radical reset”. So what will this Government do to address the huge deficit in children’s social care?

The strategy contains 12 local areas which will receive £45 million of additional investment for a new pathfinder role to test models of family help. The Government also committed to providing new multiagency child protection standards in 2023, amending guidance to local authorities, police and health partners to give greater clarity on their responsibilities. There will be trials of kinship care support packages. Other measures include £27 million in funding for foster carers. This is all just a sticking plaster.

According to the review, the strategy lacks “scale, ambition and pace” and will impact

“only a few areas, and then only as a pilot programme”.

There is no guarantee of long-term reform, which is badly needed. Some of the proposed pilot programmes already have strong evidence behind them, so they would be ready to be rolled out nationwide. The committee felt that, although the strategy had aspects to recommend it, it was being rolled out slowly and would therefore leave many children behind. Improvements for residential care were almost entirely absent from the strategy, and my noble friend Lord Bach has made the strongest of arguments for urgent review of this sector.

We in the Labour Party believe that the strategy represents a piecemeal approach to long-standing and entrenched issues in children’s social care. It does not provide the serious strategy needed to fix the crisis in the workforce, to help kinship carers and to deliver on the greater protections that vulnerable children and families desperately need. As my noble friend Lady Morris quoted, this is what Josh MacAlister called a “missed opportunity”.

The Local Government Association analysis of the strategy prior to high levels of inflation indicated an existing shortfall of £1.6 billion per year simply to maintain current service levels. The independent care review recommended an additional investment of at least £2.6 billion over four years, prior to the impact of inflation. The LGA further suggested that multiple factors would be key to the success of regional care co-operatives, including resourcing, IT systems, and clarity on structure and roles held between councils and providers. The LGA also argued that the strategy

“could have gone much further”

in relation to the provision of mental health services for children in care and care leavers.

Although the Government opened a consultation into the use of agency social workers, there is no plan to end the domination of for-profit children’s home places, which account for 78% of places in England. Some of these providers have been the subject of inquiries into abuse in children’s residential care. I remember well when leader of Newport City Council the eye-watering sums that private providers demanded for places in their establishments for our children and young people—goodness knows how much those sums have increased in the past few years. It is not about the money but about the quality of provision for children and young people, which always had to be the main criteria despite the cost.

The 20 largest independent sector children’s social care providers had an income of £1.7 billion in 2021, an 8.3% increase on the year before. In October last year, a report by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel identified a “culture of abuse”, including violence and sexual harm, in three residential schools run by one of the largest private providers. Given that the taxpayer is paying huge amounts for children to be given at times appalling care, why on earth is this strategy not tackling the role of private providers in children’s care?

We recently discussed the review of the Children and Families Act 2014. There are issues left unaddressed by that Act, such as kinship care, that have been given some consideration in this strategy. However, one aspect of the Children and Families Act that struck me was the lack of ongoing data collection and impact evaluation. As the implementation of this strategy progresses, what will the Government do to ensure that it is regularly analysed and evaluated? Do the Government really believe that the strategy will make the difference needed to improve the 43% of children’s services departments rated “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”?

According to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, across regions in England there are varying degrees of interest in taking up a RCC pathfinder opportunity—but, at present, no region seems to be interested in adopting the approach outlined by the DfE. The ADCS recently published a position paper coming after the collapse of a joint procurement frame- work for children’s residential care involving seven local authorities across the north-east of England. It raised concerns over whether government plans to move to regional commissioning of children’s social care services should indeed be re-evaluated. While ADCS members acknowledge that regional collaboration could offer some opportunities, including regional sufficiency audits, workforce gap analysis, and the opportunity for joint commissioning in areas of greatest need, a number of concerns about the model described by the DfE remain for the association; thus, the position paper offers strong solutions for the Government.

In conclusion, as the final sentence in the report, which we all hope will be taken up by the Government and acted on, notes,

“we need to ensure that all children and families engaged in the care system see some immediate benefit and can be sure that significant change will follow”.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, on securing this debate and express my thanks on behalf of the Government to the whole committee for the important work it has done and the valuable insights in its report.

As we have heard in a series of powerful speeches this evening, children’s social care has the potential to transform lives for the better. Sadly, as the independent review and two other key reports set out last year, the system is not delivering consistently enough for the children and families it supports. The Government have heard the call for whole-system change and are committed to responding. Earlier this year, we published our implementation strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, which set out our bold and ambitious plans to transform children’s social care. I heard clearly from the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, the need to convince not just her but others in this House of the urgency with which the Government are approaching this task. We have previously debated in this House the tension between really high-quality implementation and speed, and I hear and will take back to the department the concern about and criticism of the Government’s approach. However, I will try to reassure the House that it is based on a determination to get the implementation right, even if that means some delay in national rollout.

We have also published our draft children’s social care national framework and dashboard, which sets out in one place the outcomes that should be achieved for children, young people and families through local authority practice. It will aim to set national direction and raise the quality and consistency of practice. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about the use of data. I reassure her that that is central to our plans.

We heard from thousands of individuals in our three consultations, which launched in February with the strategy. Most particularly, I acknowledge the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, and the personal story he told about one of the young people who gave evidence to your Lordships’ committee. I echo that the stories we heard from young people were the most powerful and were invaluable in helping to shape the strategy; we thank them for sharing them with us.

The committee launched its inquiry over the same period and assessed whether the reforms would achieve the transformative change the system needs. The report concluded that our strategy sets the right direction for the system. That mirrors what we heard through our public consultation on Built on Love. We will publish our response to this and the national framework consultation tomorrow—apologies to committee members that the timing did not quite align perfectly. We know there will be areas to go into further and that we will need to make available more detail on how we intend to deliver that reform, but we wholeheartedly support the case for urgent and extensive system-wide reform of children’s social care.

The £200 million investment over this spending review period sets the path for longer-term reform and provides an opportunity to test and learn from some of the most complex elements. Your Lordships made the comparison between the four-year national rollout in the independent review and the £200 million for the pathfinders. To be fair, we are not comparing like with like. The Government completely understand that this is not the scale of investment required for national rollout. Transformation on this scale will take time and commitment, and we need to balance the necessary reform with the need to ensure that we have interventions that we know work and that can be rolled out safely and effectively.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, asked about the wider package of support and commitment that the Government were making. This funding of course builds on the £3.2 billion announced at the last Autumn Statement for adult and children’s social care and on further investments we have made, including the £259 million over the 2021 spending review period to maintain capacity and expand provision in secure and open residential homes, £230 million over this SR to support young people leaving care, £160 million over the next three years to deliver our adoption strategy, and £142 million to take forward reforms to unregulated provision in children’s social care.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, expressed very clearly their concerns about residential children’s homes. I absolutely hear and recognise some of the stories that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to. When I worked in the area of safeguarding before joining your Lordships’ House, it was extraordinary how perpetrators could spot vulnerable children and adults like homing pigeons. So, sadly, I recognised the stories he told.

In addition to the capital investment and addressing the disproportionate role of private sector-run children’s homes in the sector, there is obviously the whole issue of recruitment and retention, which your Lordships understand very well and is a particular challenge in the residential children’s homes market. We are exploring options to introduce professional registration for staff working in children’s homes, alongside a national leadership programme aimed at recruiting new talent into the sector. We are clear that we need to raise the status and profile of those working in the sector to address the recruitment issues.

With regard to family help, as we heard in a number of your Lordships’ speeches, these reforms are central to ensuring that children grow up with loving relationships and stability. The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, talked about stable lives rather than stable homes. I would challenge him and say that the probability of having a stable life vastly increases if you start with a stable home. I do not think he would disagree too strongly—but, equally, stable lives are a great outcome also.

Through family help, we want to create a service that meets the whole needs of a family, works at building on their strengths, is delivered across multidisciplinary teams and makes sure that there is collaboration within local areas between partners. In July, we announced the first three local authorities that will be taking part in the Families First for Children pathfinder, to help us codesign this new model of working. It will go live in three areas in the autumn.

We also recognise the vital role that kinship carers play, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, acknowledged, in providing loving, safe and stable homes for children. We absolutely agree with the review’s finding that that support must improve. They are at the heart of our strategy. We have announced the local authorities involved in our family network pilots, which will promote the use of a family-first approach to children’s social care and test the impact of financial and practical support for families to support children to stay safely at home. We have also invested £2 million to deliver high-quality peer support groups, as we know from talking to families who offer kinship care that these groups can build very powerful supportive communities for them. We are also establishing a training and support offer, which will be accessible to all kinship carers within this SR period.

We are also rightly championing foster carers and all that they do to provide loving homes. We know that fostering can be hugely rewarding, but obviously recognise that it takes hard work, skill and dedication. We are investing £27 million to deliver a recruitment and retention programme so that foster care is available to more children who need it. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, will be pleased that this will start in the north-east—her voice has been heard—before a wider regional rollout. The pathfinder will be fully up and running in the autumn.

The committee raised some important notes of caution with regard to regional care co-operatives. We think that this new model will represent a radical shift away from the way the sector currently commissions and delivers care placements, which is why we are working closely with Health and Justice to co-design it. We have invited local authorities to express interest in setting up a regional care co-operative pathfinder; we are now in the second phase of that process. However, I will take back to colleagues in the department the concerns that the committee raised in this regard.

Our strategy made firm our intention to put loving and stable relationships at the heart of children’s social care. We must have a system that empowers children and young people to feel seen and heard, whatever their needs. I note the remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, about the important role that education can play. As I think the House is aware, we are exploring how we can increase the role of schools and other education settings in multiagency safeguarding arrangements. We have consulted on our statutory guidance, Working Together, and will use learning from that to form the proposals on whether and how to make education a safeguarding partner.

Obviously, advocacy is incredibly important; your Lordships who bring great experience to this issue will have heard that again and again. We want to update and improve the system so that we can help children navigate it, particularly at times of transition, but we also want to be sure that we include ways that standards apply to some special residential settings and develop new standards for non-verbal children so that they too can access advocacy. We plan to consult on the guidance and standards in relation to this.

I want to update the House on where we are in relation to supporting our social work workforce. If I may say so, I take slight exception to the remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about the Government’s strategy overall, including in this area. She often makes reference to what is happening in Wales; she did not do so on this occasion but I remind the House that, in its annual report, Care Inspectorate Wales talked about the real challenges around recruitment and retention, the real shortages in provision for children with additional needs, and the unprecedented increase in demand for care. I in no way wish to diminish the challenges that we face, but they are not unique to England or this Government.

The Government are already investing £50 million each year during this spending review period to recruit, train and develop our child and family social workers. However, we know that there is more to do to ensure that we fulfil our ambition of having a valued and skilled social worker for every child who needs one. Since publication, we have appointed eight early adopter local authorities to help design our early career framework and we are supporting local authorities to offer up to 500 social work apprenticeships.

We are also tackling working conditions. We have launched a national workload action group to make recommendations so that we can support social workers to spend more time with children and families. We will respond to our consultation on the agency workforce rules later this year; a number of noble Lords raised that issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, asked about therapeutic support for children who are adopted. Since 2015, over £300 million has been made available through the adoption support fund to help fund therapy for adoptive and special guardianship families.

She and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked what we are doing in relation to mental health for children in care. In the Government’s strategy is a clear mission to reduce disparities in both long-term physical and mental health outcomes for children in care and care leavers. To do that, we have to work closely with our health partners. We will set out clear expectations of practice, including service planning and commissioning, through updated joint guidance with the Department of Health and Social Care. We want to make sure that that reflects the most recent published research on the emotional well-being needs of care leavers. We will revise and strengthen levels of knowledge and skill in relation to mental health in the social care workforce, including through the early careers framework.

I will finish by outlining some of the additional steps that we will take in the coming months to progress further in delivering our reforms. The Government will shortly publish responses to our recent consultations. The families first for children pathfinder and the “foster with the north-east” support hub will be live in the autumn. We will publish a kinship care strategy by the end of 2023, setting out our national direction, and a children’s social care data strategy. We will publish the national framework as statutory guidance by the end of the year. The dashboard rollout will be phased from 2024 to help us all learn and understand how well we are achieving the outcomes for children’s social care.

By updating our key statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children, we will clarify and simplify the existing requirements of practitioners to reflect updated best practice and support new policy. Our national implementation board continues to support, advise and hold the Government to account for the reform programme. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, was particularly concerned about advocacy and the voice of children and young people. We are seeking to develop a children and young people’s advisory board to ensure that we hear the voices of those young people right at the heart of our decision-making.

I again thank the noble Baroness, all noble Lords who contributed to this important debate, and everyone who contributed to the inquiry and to our public consultations. I extend my particular gratitude for their courage to those with lived experience of the system who have spoken to us and to all the professionals whose work supports children and families across the country, every day. Delivering on this will take great commitment and focus from the Government, working together with local authorities and our partners in the system. We will prioritise working with those on the ground to make sure that we achieve the kind of change in children’s lives that everyone in your Lordships’ House wishes to see. I will end where the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, started: it is one thing to write words on a page, but we need to make it work in real life.

My Lords, indeed it is, and I think that is part of the problem. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, and the Minister. Inevitably, she was not going to be able to persuade us that the Government are right and we are wrong, because she would inevitably reiterate the paper that has already been published. However, we look forward to the paper that we now understand is being prepared tomorrow; this is something ongoing to which we will return. I do not doubt the Minister’s personal wish and determination to get this right; I do doubt the Government’s ability to get it right or to have the means to get it right at the moment. That is the discussion of which we want to be part.

The Minister said that people spoke with passion and I think that is true. One thing that has always struck me is the title of the report, Stable Homes, Built on Love. One reason why that hit me quite forcibly when I saw it is that there is probably no one in this Room who does not know the importance of that phrase, either because they received it when they were children or they gave it to those who they care for.

For the children who do not have that, we are corporate parents—we are part of that system. I genuinely think that the Government are not entitled to understand how bad things are and not be more determined to get them right. That is part of discharging their responsibility as corporate parents. That is what is to be won, to be gained, but also what is to be lost if we do not do this with greater determination than is shown at the moment. I am grateful to everybody for their contribution. I look forward to continuing consultations.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 10 pm.