I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be able to open the debate in the absence of the Secretary of State, who is in Shanghai at the education summit. I know she regrets not being here, and she sends her apologies.
As the Secretary of State made clear when she spoke at the national children and adult services conference a few weeks ago, nothing is more important than making sure that children get the best start in life, feel safe, are well looked after and are able to fulfil their dreams. Nowhere is that more important than for those children who do not have the benefit of a loving family to help them on their way and to support them as they grow up, or who face other significant challenges, which make it harder for them to flourish and thrive.
Children’s social care professionals perform some of society’s most vital, most important work, and we entrust them with nothing less than keeping our children safe and making life-changing decisions about what is best for their futures. These are highly challenging, highly complex tasks, performed by deeply dedicated and committed individuals.
However, as we all know, the system in which these individuals work is far from perfect, meaning the help and support being offered to vulnerable children in different parts of the country is a long way from being consistently excellent. Evidence from Ofsted shows that most local authorities struggle in some way to provide consistently effective core social work practice. That is why this Government are determined to bring about the widest-reaching reforms to children’s social care and social work for a generation.
Reviews by Professor Eileen Munro, Sir Martin Narey and Professor David Croisdale-Appleby, among others, have given us a deep understanding of the challenges faced by children’s social care. They have described a system in which initial social worker training is not consistently preparing students for the challenges of the job, and those already doing it too often lack the time, specialist skill and supervision needed to achieve real change for children and families; a system that focuses too much on management and is governed by prescribed approaches rather than excellent practice; and a system where services have not always been designed around vulnerable children, and innovation has not been given enough space to thrive.
Over the last six years, the Government have taken important steps towards addressing these challenges. For example, we have raised standards in children’s homes and enabled young people in foster care to remain with their carer up to the age of 21. We have invested £100 million through our innovation programme to allow radical new approaches to children’s social care to be developed and tested. In April, we announced a £200 million extension to the programme to take this further still. We have taken a variety of steps to enhance the status, skills and capacity of the social work profession—both for children and for adults. Those include appointing chief social workers; publishing definitive statements of the knowledge and skills required by adults’ and children’s social workers; and investing over £750 million since 2010 in traditional and fast-track routes into the profession.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would just like to explain some of the tenets of the Bill, and then I will take his intervention.
We are starting to see things change. This year, we have seen the first “outstanding” judgments under the most recent—and most challenging—Ofsted framework. Local authorities are testing innovative ways of supporting families through the children’s social care innovation programme. Examples of excellent leadership across the country are being celebrated by Ofsted and others.
However, we are under no illusion that there is still much more to be done. That is why, in July of this year, the Department for Education published a clear and ambitious vision and plan for the changes that need to be made to drive sustainable improvement across the whole country. This is our plan for putting children first. It sets out fundamental reforms across each of the three pillars on which the social care system stands: people and leadership, practice and systems, and governance and accountability. This Bill is a crucial part of delivering reforms across those three pillars.
Part 1 concerns children who are in care or supported by the state. Clause 1 sets out, for the first time, a set of corporate parenting principles designed to establish consistently high standards in the support of looked-after children and care leavers, and drive a culture of excellent corporate parenting. The principles are intended to help a local authority to think and act in the interests of the children in their care in the same way as any good parent would. This is not about putting a new set of duties on local authorities; it is about changing behaviour and practice. The aim is to ensure that all parts and every tier of local government have the needs and circumstances of looked-after children and care leavers in their minds in their planning and decisions. This responsibility goes beyond just children’s social care, reaching across the whole of the local authority.
Clause 2 will ensure that the corporate parenting ethos extends into adulthood and that all care leavers are clear about the support on offer to them and how to access it. Care leavers will have access to information about the services available to them through a local offer from their local authority, with each local offer based on consultation with care leavers themselves.
Clause 3 will give all care leavers access to support from a personal adviser at any point up to the age of 25. We amended the Bill in another place to make sure that the service is offered at least annually so that care leavers can take advantage of it whenever they need to.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, may I make a little more progress, and then I will come back to him?
The next section of the Bill recognises that children who are adopted or who leave care under another permanence order often have ongoing difficulties resulting from their early life experiences. Clauses 4 to 7 will therefore give them access to the same support that looked-after children receive from virtual school heads at local authority level, and that designated teachers provide in schools to help with their education. Following an undertaking given in the other place, we are bringing forward amendments that will extend these provisions to children who have been adopted from overseas.
Clauses 8 and 9 expand the factors that courts and local authorities must take into account when deciding on the most appropriate place for a child. They do not give priority to one type of placement over another, but they do place more emphasis on stability and what would be in a child’s best long-term interests, taking account of the impact of any harm that the child may have suffered.
I now give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I was trying to tell him that I have to speak in a Delegated Legislation Committee at half-past 4, so the clock was ticking down for me. I want to ask him about a specific point relating to some casework that I have done in my constituency. It is about the lack of safeguarding checks for 16 and 17-year-olds in private fostering arrangements. I had a situation where a young person within that age group in my constituency went into a private fostering arrangement, and the parents were unable to get the assurances they would have had in a public setting. That is not addressed in the Bill, and I wonder whether the Minister would be willing to look at it if I tabled an amendment at a later stage.
Yes, of course. My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families is very keen to engage in debate on the details in Committee. I know that he will be very interested in the particular case raised by the hon. Gentleman and want to debate it with him.
In Oxfordshire we have had a situation where children in care have been abused, and that has led to Operation Bullfinch. How will what the Minister has set out make that situation better?
The local safeguarding arrangements set out in the Bill will provide a strong statutory framework that puts responsibility on the police, the NHS—through the clinical commissioning group—and the local authority to ensure that a robust safeguarding system is in place, but with greater local flexibility than we have at the moment, so that the arrangements are as effective as possible in meeting local needs. I also believe that the combination of improved national arrangements for analysing serious cases, which I will come on to, including child sexual abuse and exploitation, and for learning from them in a more systematic way, including higher standards for social workers, as set out in the Bill, will enable Oxfordshire and other counties across the country to keep children safer than is currently the case.
Chapter 2 of part 1 of the Bill focuses largely on arrangements for the safeguarding and protection of children. Earlier this year, Alan Wood, the former director of children’s services in Hackney who is president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, carried out a review for the Government on the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards. His report, which was published in May, found that local arrangements were patchy. Less than half of LSCBs were judged by Ofsted to be good or better, and he reported that there was a clear consensus in favour of reform. Strong partnership is, as we know from serious case reviews, key to keeping children safe.
Clauses 12 to 15 will establish a new child safeguarding practice review panel to review serious child safeguarding cases that are complex or of national importance. The purpose of the panel will be to improve the way in which we learn from cases where a child has died or been seriously harmed and neglect or abuse of the child was known or suspected.
Clauses 16 to 30 will introduce a stronger statutory framework for child safeguarding and protection at local level. The focus will shift away from wide-ranging local partnerships and will place a duty on the three key agencies involved in safeguarding children—namely local authorities, the police and the health service—to work together, and with any relevant agencies, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
I will give way to my hon. Friend and am sorry that I did not do so earlier.
The Minister will be aware that this is not the original Bill, thanks to the good work of the House of Lords in removing clauses 29 to 33 on the duty to innovate. At the recent national children and adult services conference in Manchester, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said of that duty:
“It’s about how we can put you in the best position to protect those children properly.”
The trouble is that the “you”—meaning 150 organisations, including Coram, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the British Association of Social Workers and 90% of all social workers—said that they did not want it and that they were opposed to it. Will the Minister confirm that he will not try to reintroduce those clauses in this House?
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend, who will be aware, of course, that Eileen Munro, whom he appointed to look into this whole area when he was the Minister, supported the power to innovate. The Local Government Association, ADCS and Catch22 also support it. The power is not to do with taking rights away from children or with saving money; it is about giving councils the opportunity to develop new ways of working that they believe will improve outcomes for children.
My hon. Friend says that it is not about taking rights away from children, but one of the scenarios is the abolition of independent reviewing officers, who absolutely can be the only voice independently standing up for vulnerable looked-after children in local authorities. If they go under the proposals, how is that not taking away the rights of children, particularly vulnerable children?
This is not about abolishing any statutory responsibilities. My hon. Friend should wait to see the amendments tabled in Committee. I am sure that he will want to talk about his concerns in more detail with the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, who will take them very seriously indeed, particularly given my hon. Friend’s background and experience.
Chapter 2 covers other provisions relating to children, so we are talking about the rights of the child. Will the Minister consider amending the law so that a child has the right to have the names of both parents on their marriage registration certificate?
I know that that issue has been discussed and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families will listen very carefully to my right hon. Friend if she tables such an amendment.
We are not introducing change for the sake of change. If existing LSCB arrangements are working, there will be nothing to prevent them from continuing in a similar vein within the new legal framework set out in the Bill. Importantly, the local safeguarding partners will have a clear responsibility for the arrangements and the flexibility to change and improve them if they are not working.
I should briefly mention two other provisions in chapter 2 of the Bill. Clause 11 is largely technical and allows the Government to use their powers to intervene in combined authorities where their services are failing vulnerable children and young people, in the same way as the Government can intervene in individual authorities. Clause 31 was an amendment to the Bill, and it will enable the Secretary of State to extend whistleblower protection to people applying for jobs in children’s social care, as well as to existing employees.
Part 2 sets the legal framework for the establishment of a bespoke regulator for all social workers in England. High-quality social work can transform lives, and social workers play a critical role in our society. Every day, social workers deal with complex and fraught situations that require a great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. However, when social workers are not able to fulfil their role competently, the consequences can be grave. In order to protect the public from these risks, social workers have to meet high standards of acceptable practice and competence, which are overseen by a regulator.
The need for an improved system of regulation for the social work profession was highlighted in recent independent reviews by Sir Martin Narey and Professor David Croisdale-Appleby. Our ambition, through the establishment of a new bespoke regulator for social work, is to continue to improve the practice of social work and raise the status of the profession. For too long, the bar on standards has been too low. Some graduates are leaving courses and being registered as social workers without the knowledge and skills required to do the job, and that cannot be right. The new regulator will ensure, following consultation with the profession, that minimum standards are set at the right level. The new regulator will be a separate legal entity, operating independently of Ministers in its day-to-day work. The Government have always been clear that we have no intention of making decisions about the performance of individual social workers. As with other independent health and social care regulators, the Professional Standards Authority will oversee the operations of Social Work England. The PSA has welcomed the revised clauses.
We are planning to table a further amendment regarding the national assessment and accreditation system. That will introduce a nationally recognised post-qualification specialism in child and family social work, which will reinforce the focus on quality of practice.
There are two other crucial measures that are not in the Bill, but about which amendments will be tabled shortly. First, amendments will be tabled to ensure that looked-after children in England and Wales can legally be accommodated in secure children’s homes in Scotland. Recent case law has cast some doubt on the present arrangements. Secondly, amendments will be tabled regarding the power to innovate. That power is a direct response to the issues raised by Eileen Munro in her independent review of child protection. She has said:
“Trusting professionals to use their judgement rather than be forced to follow unnecessary legal rules will help ensure children get the help they need, when they need it. Testing innovation in a controlled way to establish the consequences of the change, before any national roll out, is a sensible and proportionate way forward.”
The purpose of the power is to allow individual local authorities to test new ways of working by changing or disapplying specific legislative provisions within a controlled environment, with a view to achieving better outcomes for children. As hon. Members know, the other place was unhappy about the clauses that were included in the Bill at introduction. We appreciate that this is a new way of working in Government and we understand why some noble Lords were wary, but the provisions are too important just to let them drop. I emphasise that this is a grassroots power, empowering local authorities to test new and better ways of working in the best interests of children.
Will the Minister give way?
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am coming to the concluding elements of my comments.
Local government overwhelmingly supports these measures, and the national associations and individual authorities have made it clear that they do not want us to lose this opportunity to allow them to test new ways of working. We have, therefore, reviewed and substantially revised the clauses to make sure that they avoid the issues raised in the other place, and there are several notable new features. We have removed the provision that allowed a body carrying local authority functions under an intervention arrangement to apply to use the power. Only local authorities can apply to use the power and if they do not wish to, that is the end of the matter. The power was never intended to be used to alter or remove children’s fundamental rights or entitlements. Its sole purpose is to allow local authorities to trial better and more practical alternatives to the sometimes very specific and overly prescriptive requirements set out in legislation in order to provide better outcomes for children. The new amendments will put that beyond doubt.
We will set out further provision for the process surrounding the power to ensure that it is based on sound consultation, transparency and robust safeguards. All applications to use the power will be subject to local consultation, scrutiny by an independent panel and parliamentary approval. Pilots will be closely monitored. Those changes will be in addition to amendments the Government tabled in the other place about the scrutiny process that accompanies the power—
On that point, will the Minister give way?
I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman because he was not here at the beginning of my speech, when I set out a lot of the basic principles surrounding the Bill.
As I said, those changes will be in addition to amendments the Government tabled in the other place about the scrutiny process that accompanies the power and ruling out the use of the provision for profit. The Government are committed to working with the sector. The changes we have made are the result of significant consultation and we believe that these clauses are the safest possible way to test new approaches. My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families is very keen to meet any colleagues who have concerns to discuss these provisions further.
This is a Bill for the welfare and prospects of vulnerable children and young people. All its measures are designed to improve the services that so many of them rely on, and I commend it to the House.
We welcome any attempt to improve the lives of children in care, and I am sure that aim is shared in all parts of the House. The challenges facing those children are significant, as is the effort needed to tackle them. The National Audit Office said recently:
“Nationally the quality of help and protection for children is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure.”
The Government need to take action in the Bill to address that failure, rather than make it worse. I hope that the Secretary of State is listening to this very important debate, even if she is not able to attend the Chamber.
A new report by LaingBuisson for the Department for Education, which was published only last Friday, considered the options of outsourcing and developing markets in children’s social services. That is privatisation by another name. Quite simply, it would be not just the wrong solution, but no solution at all.
Following the excellent work of my noble Friends and others in the other place, the clauses that would have allowed local authorities to derogate from their existing legal obligations are no longer in the Bill. However, given the seriousness of the proposals and the timing of that report, I must ask the Secretary of State’s Department to think again and guarantee to this House that the Government will not seek to use the Bill as a vehicle to privatise children’s social services.
I hope the Minister can give us that assurance later, because there is a good deal to welcome in the Bill. From the principles of corporate parenting to the local offer for care leavers, there are steps towards helping young people in care and leaving care that we welcome. I do not want to have to divide the House in later stages and the Opposition would like to make progress collectively.
This issue is vital to the collective good of our nations. The services that are provided and the great work that is done on the ground by many public sector workers should be applauded, as they change lives every single day. I must declare an interest as my niece is one such worker. Our aim collectively within the Bill should be to enhance and enable that important work. Privatisation and fragmentation are not the answer. Our overall concern is less with what is in the Bill than with what is not in it. In short, the Bill lacks the ambition to have the meaningful impact on the lives of vulnerable young people that is needed.
If we are to make significant progress, we have to improve child mental health services. The Bill focuses on adoption, which is hardly a surprise—in the past several years, the Government have taken several steps to make it easier to adopt, such as the Education and Adoption Act 2016 —and we welcome measures that support adoption, but surely the Minister is aware that only one in every 20 children in care goes on to be adopted, so can he explain to the House why the Bill, much like the last one, focuses exclusively on adoption and does not contain provision for other forms of care? Would this not have been an opportunity to come forward with a comprehensive strategy for children in all forms of care? Will he indicate whether we might anticipate further legislation or whether he thinks that no changes are needed?
Similarly, we welcome the principles of corporate parenting, but there are questions about why the Bill does not go further. I am sure the Minister agrees that children in care will often have complex needs that require a joined-up approach across public services in order to get the best possible outcomes, so will he explain why there is no provision in the Bill to facilitate ways for public services, such as health and education, to play a key role in ensuring good corporate parenting? These public services play a key role in ensuring the best outcomes for children in care, yet there is no apparent involvement for them in the corporate parenting principles.
The principle of the local offer is welcome, and we supported it when it was introduced for children with special educational needs and disabilities in the Children and Families Act 2014, but we have since seen failings in practice, with the quality of local offers varying wildly between local authorities, no minimum guarantees of quality, no statutory guidance and no certainty that the local offer will be available to all those who need it. When there are no minimum guarantees of quality, we know which areas will lose out. Overwhelmingly, it will be areas already facing disadvantage that will not get the support they need.
There are already unacceptable variations in spending on children’s services between regions. In one local authority, £4,970 is spent on children in need; in another, it is only £340. The Department for Education’s own figures show that these spending inequalities fall along our all-too-familiar geographical divides.
In my conversations with Hull City Council’s children’s services department, it talks to me about the resource inequalities it faces and the very disadvantaged community it serves. It is not asking for powers to innovate; it is asking for proper resources to provide the services that young people need in the city.
My hon. Friend makes a significant point. Local authorities in the north-west, such as mine, have faced cuts of 50% since austerity while trying to deal with the complex needs of their communities. I ask the Government to look again at that.
In the south-east, spending tends to be much higher than average, but, as we move through to the midlands and the north-west, spending in local authorities is far lower. Once again, levels of spending on public services fall on either side of the north-south divide, with the north losing out. In his final report as Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has singled out the north-south divide as one of the great challenges facing our education system and our country, and only this morning the Children’s Commissioner said that the problem was simply that parents in the north were not as ambitious as those in the south. I am sure that the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, a parent from the north himself, will agree that such comments are neither acceptable nor helpful. In an effort to ensure that all regions of our country, north and south, benefit from the local offer, I hope he will seek to put clear national standards in the Bill that all local offers will have to meet. There is a clear case for proper guidance on what the local offer should contain and how to make it accessible to all those who need it, drawing on the best available practice. Will the Minister tell us why these issues have not been addressed in the Bill, and whether the Government will bring forward amendments during its passage?
Part 2 establishes the new regulator, Social Work England. I want to pay tribute once again to the excellent work done by the parties in the other place. Following their scrutiny, plans to place regulatory control with the Secretary of State were defeated. I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge the norm that regulators are operationally independent from Government and, in this case, serve the interests of children. Will he guarantee today that that independence will be respected as the Bill is ultimately agreed?
While we welcome the new regulatory body, assuming that it is effective and independent, we will seek answers to a number of questions about how it will function. After all, the Government seem to want Social Work England to have a representative improvement and regulatory roles within the profession, yet they have not told us how it will be achieved. We have no detail on the remit of the work of the new regulator. As it stands, we will find out only through a series of regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell us exactly what the remit and powers of the new regulator will be, and why it is appropriate for those to be decided in secondary legislation, away from scrutiny of the full House? After all, we have been down this path before. Only four years ago, the General Social Care Council was closed. What, then, will be done differently this time to ensure that we do not look back in a year or two and see yet another regulator that has been closed down?
We broadly welcome what is in the Bill, although we hope that the Minister will answer some of the many questions that remain. Once already in the other place, the Government’s plans for the outsourcing and privatisation of our children’s services, dressed up as “innovation”, were defeated. Nobody in the profession believes that privatisation is the answer to the immense challenges it currently faces, and neither can it alleviate the growing demand for children’s services.
My hon. Friend is doing a very good job of putting forward the case that exists in the country. Is she concerned that the Minister has not said much at all about what “innovation” he expects would require a local authority, in effect, to wash its hands of its statutory duty in respect of our young people and children?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most people who work in the profession believe that privatisation is absolutely the wrong answer and will not help with any form of innovation that the Government might currently want. In fact, the best way of helping would be to restore the investment in our community and local services that the Government have cut over the last few years.
I call on the Minister to confirm today that the Government will not seek to bring these clauses back into the Bill. I am sure that he knows as well as Opposition Members and indeed all Members that these plans do not offer a real solution. If the Minister fails to take that suggestion on board, Opposition Members will be far less conciliatory when we debate the Bill again.
The Bill is a very good one. It has been amended in the House of Lords, and we will need to consider the implications of that in due course. The central points of the Bill are well founded. I am particularly impressed with the theme of reflecting the work of the Munro report and improving the capacity of social workers to use their own judgment, rather than simply rely on box ticking. That is an appropriate theme for the Bill and it explains why the regulatory structure introduced by the Bill will help. It is through such a regulatory system that the ability to make judgments will be made easier.
It is important for social workers to have a clear eye on what professional regulation is all about. The profession should be operating, of course, at arm’s length, which is usefully stressed in the Bill. A register of social workers makes a lot of sense, because one of the things that we must do is enhance professionalism in social work. That is where I have some difference with the Government, in that I think that ultimately we should have a professional body for social workers. The Education Select Committee made it clear in a recent report that it thought there was a strong case for such a body, and I think there is an appetite for that beyond the Chamber. I urge the Government to have an open mind, and I suggest that they continue to send signals that they would like a professional body to be established. I also think that an independent review of proceedings in five years’ time makes a huge amount of sense, because that is a realistic timescale.
There is, however, one area in which I think the Bill needs some additions, or at least some recognitions. Given that more than 70,000 children are effectively children of the state and that so many more children are subjected to sexual abuse, and given the historical sexual abuse that has taken place, our failure to place the issue of sex and relationships education front and centre is becoming increasingly obvious. The Government must embark on a full consultation to provide reassurance that something will be done about this most important matter. I ask the Minister to confirm that there will be a realistic and meaningful consultation on the introduction of statutory SRE.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. May I ask him to back Labour amendments to make SRE part of the safeguarding of all children, so that we can finally ensure that we keep every young person in the country safe?
To an extent, that will depend on what the amendments are, and whether the Government make it clear that they will organise a full consultation. However, I note what the hon. Lady has said, and I am sure that the Government have noted what I have just said. We need a full, meaningful and comprehensive consultation on this important matter.
Five Select Committee Chairs sent a letter to the Secretary of State. Obviously, I organised one of them. The others came from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee—Members may well ask what it has to do with SRE, and I can explain if they wish me to—the Women and Equalities Committee, the Health Committee, and the Home Affairs Committee. All those Committees effectively said precisely the same thing: we need SRE to be introduced statutorily in our schools.
Finally, I want to say something about latitude for local government. The Select Committee did some work relating to children in care, particularly those with mental health difficulties. When we went to Trafford, it was strikingly obvious to us that through co-operation with other agencies, coterminous structures and strong leadership, the council was delivering outstanding results. Its ability to benefit from strategic leadership at the top end, operational leadership within the structures themselves, and a coterminous relationship not only with its own organisations and related agencies but with the police force was clearly extraordinarily beneficial for working practices and the way in which decisions were made and responses given on issues connected with children in care and children at risk. Therefore, the Government are right to move towards giving local government more latitude in the way it formulates its structures to deliver outcomes.
In short, there is a lot to be said for the Bill. It is critical that we acknowledge that some form of professional body will be good for social workers and social work generally. The absence of SRE is a pity. It is important, however, that the Government give the firm commitment I have asked for. Generally speaking, the Government are going in the right direction on local government.
I am aware that very few clauses in the Bill affect Scotland but, as a member of the Education Committee, I may have some points of interest and I might be able to help the Bill to become even better.
When a child or young person cannot live at home, we all owe it to them to make the process of finding a new, stable family as efficient and straightforward as possible. Clause 1 would introduce seven “corporate parenting principles” that local authorities must “have regard to”. I ask the Minister: why are those not mandatory? The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said:
“We have considered the arguments and the evidence for and against introducing a statutory duty on public authorities in England requiring them to have due regard to the rights of children in the UNCRC in the exercise of their functions relating to children, equivalent to the duties already introduced in Wales and Scotland.”
If Wales and Scotland can have such a duty, I find it difficult to understand why it will not be mandatory in England. The Joint Committee went on to recommend that Parliament takes the opportunity presented by the Bill to ensure that there is “such a duty”.
It is important that children are the focus of and are at the heart of any Bill that is introduced in this Parliament. We need to look at how children are affected by legislation introduced by not just the Department for Education, but Departments across the board.
In Scotland, the First Minister has said that people who have experienced the care system will be the driving force of an independent review of how Scotland treats its looked-after children. That is the mandatory duty in action. In Scotland, we want to move forward and to listen to young people, and we are looking at extending what is happening in Scotland to people who have been in care and are going through the process of becoming adults who stand on their own. It is good that the Bill looks at what happens to children after they leave care, but I ask the Minister to examine what we do in Scotland, because we are moving forward at a far faster pace than England and Wales.
A former children’s Minister in Scotland has said:
“children don’t need a system that just stops things happening to them”.
We have safeguards, but we also need a system that
“makes things happen for them. A system that supports them to become the people they can be”,
fostering a sense “of belonging”. I am sure that the Minister agrees with that and with the fact that that should be a guiding principle for any legislation. What steps will the Government take to respond to the recommendations made earlier this year by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child? When do they plan to publish their official response? What further steps will the Government take to ensure that policy development across Whitehall has children’s rights at its heart?
Clause 31, which is the one measure in the Bill that affects Scotland, relates to whistleblowing. The Scottish Government acknowledge and respect the need for whistleblowing. They believe that procedures should be in place across the public and private sectors to support staff in raising any concerns to ensure that people can work in a safe and secure environment. They believe that it is important that NHS workers in Scotland should be able to raise any concerns about patient safety or malpractice, because that helps to improve our health service. That should be the case not only in the health service, but across all professions, especially in the social work sector, given the importance of child protection. We welcome this measure and are really keen for the Government to see it through.
Social work is regulated in Scotland, and I again ask the Minister to look at how the Scottish system works. When the Education Committee heard evidence from social workers and their representatives as part of the inquiry referred to by its Chair, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), one of the first things they said was that we should look at the Scottish system. I encourage Ministers to do that. The Scottish Social Services Council regulates the profession and all social workers in Scotland have to belong to it. I am pleased that England will be moving forward in a similar way.
I share the apprehensions expressed by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) about creeping privatisation in the care sector, especially in relation to children. It is imperative that children should be looked after when they cannot be with their own parents and families, and the duty to protect children is shared by us all in society, not just by professionals. This is another reason why whistleblowers can be important.
The Bill will improve the situation in England, but it has to be seen in the context of child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies states that child poverty in the UK is projected to rise by 8 percentage points by 2020, which makes it even more important that these provisions are right. Many more children could be drawn into the care system as a result of the ongoing austerity programme across the UK, so will the Minister please look at what we are doing in Scotland? We might not be perfect, and we might not get everything right, but we put children and their experiences at the heart of our system and we listen to them. I ask him please to look to the north, as well as to Wales, which is also doing really good work on child protection and childcare across the board.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome most parts of the Bill, and I particularly welcome the fact that it is now without certain parts, as I said earlier. It is good to have this opportunity to discuss child protection and social workers. We spend far too little time in the House highlighting the excellent practices that we expect our social workers to achieve in highly adverse conditions. I have always referred to social workers as our fourth emergency service, and I am proud to be a patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, along with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). I attended the awards dinner just over a week ago, at which fantastic examples of dedication, hard work, skill and expertise were on display. Alas, none of that made it into the mainstream media, as is so often the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the challenges facing social workers are particularly intense as a result not only of immense reductions in funding, but of the fast-changing climate and the Government’s occasional initiative-itis that seems to attach itself to the social work sector?
Social workers are certainly under a huge amount of pressure, but that initiative-itis has, to an extent, gone into reverse, not least through the shrinking in the past six years of the “working together” rule book—the bible of social workers and social work practice—which amounted to more than 750 pages when this Government came into office. Social workers were spending all their time checking what the rulebook said, looking over their shoulders and ticking boxes, rather than being allowed to get on with the business of being social workers, and eyeballing families and the vulnerable children whom they are there to protect and work with. With the support of Professor Munro, that work was an important initiative that tried to take away many of the administrative burdens on social workers, notwithstanding their other pressures and challenges.
I am proud of the work that the Conservative party has done in this area, starting with the commission on social work that I chaired back in 2007. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) is in the Chamber because she played an important role in the commission. We produced the document “No More Blame Game—The Future for Children’s Social Workers”, which is as relevant today as it was then. The trouble is that social workers are still too often subject to the blame game, especially in the tabloid press, from which it would appear that it is social workers who abuse and murder vulnerable young children. Of course they do not; they are there to try to protect such children. Parents, carers and others commit those foul acts, but people would not believe that based on the reports. Too many people view our social workers with disdain.
From that piece of work, of which I am proud, came the suggestions for consultant social workers and a chief social worker. In 2010, our manifesto commitment was to take child protection back to the frontline. I am also pleased and proud that the first review initiated by the Department for Education after the 2010 election was not about schools or education matters; it was the excellent Munro review into child protection. I was slightly surprised that the Minister prayed in aid Professor Munro so explicitly. I appointed Professor Munro and worked closely with her, but the problem is that many of her 15 pertinent recommendations are still to be implemented, and they do not involve the removal of a local authority’s basic duty to protect vulnerable young children.
I support the Bill as it stands, but it could certainly be improved by a number of enhancing amendments, although I would not include among those any that would rehash clauses 29 to 33. I was alarmed by the Minister’s comments that strongly suggested that those clauses will be revisited. That would be a shame because, after the good work done in the Lords, we were promised a period of reflection —perhaps it could be referred to as a pause, as we have had for other legislation—but that reflection will not have lasted long if the Government return with amendments. I caution them to extend the period of reflection before they hurry into repeating what was clearly a mistake. A clear majority in the House of Lords and a great majority of important organisations involved in child protection were not in favour of the proposed changes and made their feelings clear.
Let us be clear, many good things have happened around child protection under this Government. The reform of fostering and adoption regulations has helped not only fosterers and adopters, but, most importantly, children who are being fostered. It has also helped more children to get adopted. There is more to be done, but a lot of progress has been made over the past six years. Ofsted’s inspection system is now much more appropriate and rigorous.
The Munro review gave rise to a lot of innovation in child protection. The child sexual exploitation action plan was published back in November 2011—well before the Savile scandal became so public and made CSE a headline issue of which we have never seen the like. We have the Staying Put policy which, although perhaps underfunded and less effective in certain local authorities, includes the right to a personal adviser until the age of 25 and places a duty on local authorities to stay in touch.
These are all good things being innovated through the Bill that, along with staying close until the age of 21, offer support to vulnerable children in the care system at what is often a most fragile time in their lives. Previously, at the age of 18 or even 16 they faced a cliff edge, coming out of care into the big wide world without the help and support—the safety net—that so many of these children and young people need.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way a second time. Does he agree that much of this could be quite academic if funding does not accompany these exciting developments?
Funding is, of course, part of this, but we can do a lot better with existing funds, although the National Audit Office report showed that funding on vulnerable children had gone up as well. But what was not working properly is when social workers were spending, through the integrated children’s system and other very bureaucratic systems, up to 80% of their time in front of a computer filling in forms to do with child protection, rather than getting out there and dealing with children face to face. That was a huge waste of resources, but more importantly a huge waste of opportunities to deal more effectively and early on with children, who really did need to have the support, and often intervention, of professional services and social workers in particular.
Despite all these innovations, we still need to do an awful lot better for vulnerable children, children in the care system and our care leavers. It is a fact that 40%—almost half—of our care leavers aged 19 to 21 are classed as not in education, employment or training, and 4% of them are in custody. Two thirds of children in the care system have special educational needs, almost half of them with a diagnosable mental disorder. The percentage for the educational achievement of children achieving A* to C GCSEs is still in its teens, compared with its peer population now with over 60% achieving those grades.
I particularly welcome some of the Bill’s corporate parenting principles— although it will be interesting to see how they work in practice—that apply to physical and mental health, which is so important. Although this Government have again done a lot to raise the profile of mental health, particularly among children and young people, and have injected a further £1.4 billion into that area, the problem is that not nearly enough of it—and that is not enough in itself—is getting through to the frontline, to help the children and young people who so desperately need it, when they need it and where they need it.
These are challenging times. The NAO report on children in need of protection, to which various hon. Members have already referred, flagged up some worrying observations. Too often the way we look after vulnerable children is a postcode lottery. We are still very poor at sharing best practice in this country, yet a child in need, a child in care and a child in desperate need of protection should be dealt with no differently whether they are in Durham, Worthing, Exeter or anywhere else throughout the United Kingdom.
There was a surge following the horrific case of Baby Peter, but the number of children coming into the care system continues to rise: there are now in excess of 70,000 children in the care system in England—the highest since 1985, when the environment in respect of why children tended to come into the care system was very different. I do not know whether we need to take more children into care, or fewer, but I do know that we need to take the right children into care at the right time, and give them the right support and services if they cannot be supported living with their families or other kinship carers.
Another thing I am very proud of is the Government’s initiative on promoting adoption, which had fallen into neglect, frankly, after the good work done in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The adoption figures have started to fall back considerably and there is still a very big grey space following the Munby judgment. But that should not have happened, because those adoption reforms were about bringing forward an easier system for adopters to offer their services and for children to go through all the hoops. There were too many hoops and it took too long for children to get adopted. We needed to bring onside not only those involved in adoption at the local authority level, which largely we did, but, contemporaneously and in sympathy, those in the legal profession, as many judges felt put upon, in that they were being told how to run cases in their courts. I am afraid that the Government have failed to do that and should not therefore be surprised by the disappointing reversal in the adoption figures, which I hope will be reversed again, because adoption does offer the best chance at a second childhood—a second possibility of being brought up in a safe and loving family—for a lot of children who still do not get that chance and are still in the care system.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although many younger children are being adopted, it is far more difficult to place older children? We need to do more to promote the benefits to those children of adoption at a later age.
The hon. Lady is right about that, but shiny, squeaky new babies have always been much more attractive to people who want to adopt than problematic teenagers who have been through all the trials and tribulations of broken families—perhaps abuse, neglect, mental health problems and behavioural disorders—and have been pushed from pillar to post in the care system. Those are the children we have most let down, which is one reason why the introduction of adoption scorecards was based not just on improving the number of children adopted, but on concentrating on those harder-to-adopt children: older children; large sibling groups; and children from black and minority ethnic communities. Too often these children were at the back of the adoption queue. I am glad to say that in recent years disproportionately they have found themselves more likely to get adopted than they were before. This is still not enough and there remains a lot to be done, but that was absolutely the right focus to bring in over the past few years.
Another thing I am concerned about is that despite all the good work the Government did on paralleling the kraamzorg system for health visitors in Holland, we have lost 722 health visitors since January and there has been a 13% decrease in the number of school nurses since 2010. They are really important people in early intervention—in identifying children with problems, and those for whom the support of social services and other caring services is essential, sooner rather than later.
Of course, I am also worried by the recent rise, again, in social worker vacancy rates in many authorities around the country, and too often the positions are taken by temporary social workers. Social work, particularly when dealing with child protection, is an area where staff need to forge empathetic relationships with those vulnerable children and families whom they are there to look after. Being pushed from pillar to post, from one home to another, from one social worker to another reviewing officer—or whoever it may be—only accentuates the instability and vulnerability of those children.
I worry when, even in this place, we are still too quick to point the finger of blame at the social workers because a child has been brutally assaulted or killed, as still happens in too many cases, by their carer, parent or close relative. We hear the talk of “wilful neglect”. There are social workers who are not doing their job properly, and there are social workers who are not up to the job and should not be in social work, and they should be removed from it, but they are a small minority. We should not make the rest of our excellent, hard-working, dedicated social worker force feel constantly that they are the ones to blame for many of these tragedies. We have to up everybody’s game, but they are part of the solution; in the vast majority of cases, they are not part of the problem.
It is odd therefore that at the heart of the original Bill, since eviscerated of clauses 29 to 33, which it would seem are about to make an unfortunate reappearance, were radical new proposals supposedly to test new ways of working, under the guise of promoting innovation. As I said earlier, the clauses were not remotely welcomed by the vast majority of people who are involved in the whole field of child protection. They were opposed by the British Association of Social Workers, the Care Leavers Association, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, CoramBAAF, which is the Government’s appointed adoption provider, the Fostering Network, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and Action for Children. In various polls, about 90% of working social workers did not support those clauses either, which was hardly surprising given that the clauses came out of the blue. There was no consultation on absolutely fundamental changes to the way in which we apply duties of care to vulnerable children in this country.
I pay tribute to the House of Lords, particularly to Lord Ramsbotham, for putting forward the amendments that saw those clauses taken out of the Bill. Lord Ramsbotham referred to clause 29 as nothing less than
“the usurpation of the proper parliamentary process.”
“how the courts are expected to respond where a young person or child in a particular local authority area is clearly disadvantaged by the arbitrary disapplication or modification of the law as it is applied in all other parts of the country.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2016; Vol. 776, c. 1056.]
As I said earlier, a child needs protection wherever he or she may be in the country. We cannot have a competition between different areas on ways of looking after vulnerable children, some of which will not work and some of which might. Every child needs the protection of the law as set out by Parliament, and it should not be subject to a postcode lottery, as is convenient for certain local authorities.
In the debate in the other place, Lord Low said:
“It is perfectly possible to test different ways of working…within the existing legislative framework…it makes no sense to get rid of the duty.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2016; Vol. 776, c. 1063.]
The squeeze on funding, which Members have mentioned, and which is, I am afraid, inevitable at the moment—[Interruption.] I am afraid that it is inevitable because of the disastrous way in which the Labour Government ran the economy into the ground. In too many cases now local authorities are providing only what is their duty; additional services are no longer on the agenda at all. Taking away that duty means that some of these fundamental things could not happen in the future.
Clause 29 as it was would have allowed local authorities to request exemptions from their statutory duties in children’s social care. Every Act of Parliament and every subordinate piece of legislation concerned with children’s social care from 1933 onwards could have been affected. The proposed mechanism for exemption orders was to be statutory instruments, which would have handed over enormous powers to the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. I am afraid that the Minister for School Standards is wrong: the DfE acknowledged that this part of the Bill directly concerns children’s fundamental rights. How can vulnerable children challenge those lack of services? I gave an example—it was one of many examples raised in the House of Lords—of independent reviewing officers. I am a big fan of IROs—I think we can do better, and there is a bit of a postcode lottery—as their role is to stand up and be the voice, or the advocate, of children who are not getting the services to which they are entitled and which they need from local authorities. If no IRO is available because an exemption has been applied for and granted, which means that the authority has no IROs, where is that child to go? There are not just IROs, but key legal protections that exist in the form of regulations now, including the ban on corporal punishment in foster care and children’s homes, protection for disabled children placed away from home, leaving care entitlements and complaints procedures. All of those could be granted an exemption and could disappear from fundamental rights, which we apply to protect vulnerable children now. This would be the first time in the history of children’s welfare that legislation made for all vulnerable children and young people could be disapplied in a particular area. This is a very radical proposal that warranted at least a Green Paper and a White Paper and proper consultation, but there was none.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the NSPCC and Action for Children said that
“the case that the Government is making presents considerable risk. Despite numerous conversations with ministers and officials, the evidence for the need for this power remains unconvincing and does not justify the potential risks of suspending primary legislation.”
The British Association of Social Workers said:
“If the clauses are re-introduced it will pave the way for significant and dangerous changes to the provision of children’s social care which would jeopardise hard fought victories for children’s rights spanning decades.”
How would the pilots for these provisions be monitored? How would we monitor whether children were still safe and what the results were for those children? It is no surprise that only one in 10 practising social workers surveyed by the BASW and by Unison thought this was a good idea. That is why I have severe reservations if the clause is to be returned to the Bill.
The Munro review took away much of the bureaucracy from social workers. It gave flexibility on the timing of assessments of children and how social workers could prioritise. It gave greater powers and confidence back to social workers to use their professional judgment to do what they thought best in the interests of vulnerable children. Sometimes they will get it wrong. I always say to social workers, “What I want to do, and what the Munro review was all about, is to give you the confidence to make a mistake—hopefully, not often, but to do it for the very best of reasons, not simply because that’s what it says on page 117 of the rule book and you needed to tick the boxes.” That is not what social work is all about. It is not a science. It is a complicated and challenging job.
If we are going to give social workers those flexibilities and allow them to act in different and innovative ways because they think that is the best way of looking after vulnerable children, we do not need to take away the statutory duties of the local authorities which are the corporate parents of those children, so that those new ways do not have to abide by the fundamental duties which ensure that social workers are doing the right thing and looking after those vulnerable children.
Finally, I shall look at a few specific clauses and ask the Minister some questions, which I hope he will refer to in his summing up. Clause 1 is about corporate parenting principles, which I welcome, but it is not clear exactly what they amount to in practice. Are they in addition to the section 23 commitments of the Children Act 1989 or do they replace them? I have used examples which I welcome: promoting physical and mental health, promoting high aspirations and securing the best outcomes for those children and young people. Nobody could vote against such things, but in clause 3 new section 23CZB(7) states:
“Where a former relevant child to whom this section applies is not receiving advice and support under this section, the local authority must offer such advice and support . . . at least once in every 12 months.”
Once in every 12 months will not go very far for a vulnerable child who needs intensive help. Subsection(4) makes provision for personal advisers. The problem is that too many children in care whom I met and children leaving care had never heard of personal advisers, let alone knew who their own personal adviser was.
In clause 4 new section 23ZZA(3) gives a local authority this extraordinary power:
“A local authority in England may do anything else that they consider appropriate with a view to promoting the educational achievement of relevant children educated in their area”—
motherhood and apple pie. Why do we require that sort of thing in legislation? It strikes me that a bit much of this is a bit too mushy and full of cotton wool—too many vague assumptions which in practice, particularly with funding pressures and duties taken away, will not amount to a row of beans, if we are not careful.
Obviously, the primary focus and concern is the duty of care to children, but there is also the issue of mothers who might well end up having successive children who end up in care. The local authority needs to have a responsibility for those vulnerable women, who may well be victims of a coercive relationship and have complex needs as a result. The sooner there is intervention and therapeutic care, the better, to avoid subsequent issues—maybe subsequent children and subsequent costs and concerns for all.
My hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area, is right. Of course we cannot look at vulnerable children in isolation; we need to look at their families holistically. There are some really good examples. I hope that the Minister will stick to his word and provide funding for things such as FDAC, the family drug and alcohol court set up by the excellent Nick Crichton, a fantastic family district judge.
At FDAC, a mother—often a single mother—at risk of losing a child to the care system because of substance abuse or an abusive partner, say, is given a clear choice of an intensive package that will help her back on to the straight and narrow so that she can bring up her own child. It is a tough, challenging exercise. Alternatively, perhaps both parents will be involved. If they are able to do that, the whole family is put back together and the child stays, which is the best outcome. If not, that child will head for care.
I have sat in court, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who will speak shortly, seeing mums who have had six, seven or eight children taken into the care system. We have to tackle the root of that problem: why is it? Is it that the mother just does not know how to parent, in which case what are society, social workers and the troubled families programme doing to help her become a fit parent if she remotely can? If she cannot, that child must go to a safe family elsewhere who can give them a second chance of a beneficial and happy upbringing.
I would like to make a few other quick points, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am aware that there are not too many speakers for this debate, so I have an opportunity to elaborate on some important points a little longer than the Chair normally allows. I know how generous you are in these matters, which are of great interest to you.
Clause 5 is about the designation of a member of staff at school
“having responsibility for promoting the educational achievement”
of children in the care system. That is a good initiative, but it already exists for children with caring responsibilities and alas that does not work in practice. It is a good idea, but it has to have some teeth so that it means something on the ground: that children in the care system have special attention from a designated teacher who understands the particular needs of such children, who are often subject to bullying, mental health problems and everything else. There must be more than a clause on paper in a Bill: the proposal has to work in practice.
There are some good points on the child safeguarding review panels, although I have concerns about the independence of the panels. Certainly when we gave a commitment before the 2010 election that we would publish serious case reviews—opposed by the Labour party, although the reviews have now become the norm—one of my concerns was also about the calibre of the people producing those SCRs and the quality of some of the reports. Effectively, they were not properly monitored; they were monitored only on a local basis. Some time ago, I put forward the idea that a national body should oversee the quality and that there should be a national register of authors of serious case reviews with a requirement for continuous professional development; there needed to be training, which would be updated. Before now, anybody, effectively, could apply to be the author of a serious case review. We need to regulate that important area rather better.
Under clause 13, the panel
“must publish the report, unless they consider it inappropriate to do so.”
Given that, previously, when serious case reviews were published, they were seen only by a few people locally and Department for Education officials if we were lucky, it was really important that, other than in exceptional circumstances where there could be detriment to surviving children or families, the reviews should be published and the lessons learned to see how they could apply elsewhere. This new review panel is an exercise in doing that and in disseminating best practice rather better. I very much support that, and I would like more details on how it is going to work.
Then, however, we have the section about safeguarding partners. These appear to be replacing the local safeguarding children boards, which are a really important feature of bringing together local agencies to make sure that we have workable solutions and partnerships in place, particularly to deal with child sexual exploitation at the moment. We need to be convinced about how these new bodies are better than, or different from, local safeguarding children boards and, in particular, about how they are going to be funded. Clause 20, on funding, says:
“The safeguarding partners for a local authority area in England may make payments”
towards the expenditure of these bodies
“by contributing to a fund”
or making payments directly. It also says:
“Relevant agencies for a local authority area…may make payments”.
The problem with LSCBs at the moment is that not all the partners pull their weight. In too many cases, key partners are, first, not turning up at the table and, secondly, not helping to fund the work of the LSCBs. Too often, it falls to the local authority—the default partner —to pick up too much of the tab. If we are going to put these things on a statutory basis, can we make sure that it is laid out clearly and unequivocally that the funding contribution from, and the active participation of, all the relevant partners is absolutely essential?
I am also concerned because clause 21 says:
“The safeguarding partners for two or more local authority areas in England may agree that their areas are to be treated as a single area”.
How big can they be? It is important that LSCBs are able to come up with local safeguarding plans and local plans to tackle child sexual exploitation in their areas—plans that are relevant to Rotherham, given the particular problems there, to Rochdale or to wherever. If these bodies are going to be looking after huge areas, their effect will surely be diluted in key hotspots. The Bill also talks about having cross-border constabulary co-operation, but these are very large areas, and I am concerned about how big these new bodies could become.
On the part of the Bill about the new body, Social Work England, I think we need to improve the regulation of social workers. I am not sure whether this is the right way to do it, and I would like to see more details. The demise of the College of Social Work is a shame, and I think it would have performed a lot of this function if it had been allowed to continue and to thrive. A lot of effort went into setting it up in the first place.
I am also concerned about the independence of Social Work England. My understanding is that it will be an Executive agency of the Department for Education, and we need to have some clarity over that.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes—I am delighted I am getting a response.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the new Social Work England regulatory body will not be an Executive agency; it will be a non-departmental public body, so it will be at arm’s length from the Government and provide the independence that people called for and that I think is right.
I am grateful, and gratefully reassured, and I look forward to being able to support that provision, as opposed to some others that I am not so reassured about.
In clause 31, one of the overarching objectives of Social Work England is
“to promote and maintain public confidence in social workers in England”,
and that is quite right. However, that is also the job of the chief social worker. One disappointment to me is that when we set up the chief social worker—originally, it was to be one chief social worker covering the elderly and children, but then it was split into a child social worker and an adult care social worker—the point was for them to be a high-profile face of social work, particularly for the public, and a reassuring face of child protection for the public in times of high-profile tragedies and disasters involving safeguarding issues. Therefore, while the current chief social worker for children said recently:
“I don’t pretend I am the voice of the profession. I am a civil servant and I see my role”
“offering advice to ministers based on what other people tell me about a the system”,
I think there is more to the role. This person must not just be a civil servant. They need to work closely alongside Ministers and civil servants, but equally—in action out on the street—to work alongside social workers, consultant social workers and practitioners at the sharp end. We need to revisit the balance that we currently have in that regard.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for going on at length. This is a subject that interests me enormously. I have spent most of my career in Parliament involved with child safeguarding and child protection. I am very proud of the progress that has been made over years, but very worried that we still have a long way to go. Most of this Bill will help in that journey, but certain parts will not. I hope that when scrutinising the Bill in Committee and on Report, the Government reflect a little more before they rush to do some things that clearly are not in the best interests of vulnerable children.
It is a true pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and his detailed, precise and, some might say, exhaustive analysis of the Bill before us. I think I can speak for all Labour Members in saying that we share many of the concerns that he outlined about getting right the legislation on how we protect young people in our country. I associate myself with the excellent introduction by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) in which she raised Labour Members’ concerns about the Bill while recognising that many parts are welcome and could take us forward. We share the wish across the House to provide the best safeguarding for all children.
I see this Bill as being about how we best support our children in an imperfect world—a world that we are all painfully aware of through our casework and work within our communities. That is why we all share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the importance of partnership working—in particular, working with professionals. Many of us will have dealt with cases where we are acutely aware that we are not professionals but wish to help, and where the guidance of social workers with years of experience in complex and delicate matters has been of vital assistance to us. We therefore recognise that not involving them in this conversation may take us backwards rather than forwards as a country. Some of us have real concerns about what will replace the local safeguarding boards, and how we make sure that the multi-partnership work that has worked in some parts of the country and led to some significant changes is not lost in the process of recognising where change is needed.
In a wish not to indulge one of the customs of this House where the same thing is said several times, let me try to offer the Minister some ideas about things that I believe are missing from the Bill. I hope that we will find cross-party consensus in adding to it. One of those things, as well as a concern to avoid any suggestion of privatising such a delicate and important service, is to make sure that in talking about safeguarding we involve the concept of prevention, particularly the idea of acting earlier within the system to make sure that children are protected. I am particularly drawn to clause 16, which talks about the safeguarding and promotion of welfare of all children, and the role that local authorities might play in that.
Bearing in mind the comments of the Minister, who is sadly no longer in his place, about ensuring that a robust safeguarding system is in place, I wish to let him know that I will table amendments to bring in one of the most crucial parts of safeguarding we have yet to get right—sex and relationships education for all young people. We cannot say that we safeguard our children when we make sure that they are taught about composting but not consent. Many of us may have stories of our own sex and relationships education. I might have feared that I was forever scarred by having once fallen asleep in a classroom only to be awoken by somebody waving a female condom in my face. However, it is no laughing matter. Many of us are acutely aware of the many pressures on our young people that we need to be able to address, and, crucially, in a positive and inclusive manner. All parents will tell us that they are concerned about the world today. In a former lifetime, I was a youth worker, and we used to say that we had all been 15-year-olds but none of us had been 15-year-olds in today’s world. I am incredibly grateful, for a start, that Facebook was not around when I was at school. One third of young girls in this country report being sexually harassed at school. Three quarters of girls in a Girlguiding survey said that they were anxious about sexual harassment in their age group, and 5,500 sexual offences, including 600 rapes, were recorded in UK schools over the past three years alone.
I say that not to make parents fearful, but to ask what we can do to make sure that every young person in this country has the tools and the confidence to lead the lives that we would all wish for them, and to be able to know when no means no and yes means yes. That is why it is important that we do not let it become the internet that educates our young people or the playground that tells them what passes for acceptable sexual conduct, but that we give every young person the kind of training that we would want for our own children.
That is not a critique of parents. Indeed, many parents work very hard to make sure that their children have good ideas about sex and relationships education. We need to recognise that parents can only ever be 50% of the answer, because this is also about the other children that children will meet. Giving every child good sex and relationships education should be considered part of safeguarding, because it will make sure that every young person, whoever they come into contact with, has the skills and the tools to lead the life that they wish to lead and to deal with the modern world as it is, not as some might wish it to be.
I know that Members across the House will support that proposal. I am mindful of the support of the Select Committee Chairs, one of whom—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—is in her place. I was taken by her Committee’s report, but this is not just about the Women and Equalities Committee: the Select Committees on Home Affairs, Education, Health, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy all agree that now is the time to make sure that every child is given access to good sex and relationships education.
The hon. Lady has prayed in aid the Home Affairs Committee. I think that she is referring to the previous Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who signed up to a letter, but he did not do so on behalf of the Committee. As a member of that Committee, I did not support it. I certainly support proposals for high-quality sex and relationships education. There are ways of achieving that, not least through building resilience and supporting families, which is what the Bill is about. We can do that in lots of ways, not just the path suggested by the hon. Lady. I ask her to please acknowledge that there is significant opposition to her proposal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I hope that we will be able to change his mind during our discussion. We have been having this debate for some time, and I tell him plainly that the young people of Britain are crying out for this kind of education. Time and again they say, “Ignorance is not bliss; confidence is what we want.” It is not about replacing parents; it is about supporting them and making sure that young people, wherever they are, have the right environment. It is too important not to listen to our young people when they ask for this kind of education to be done in an age-appropriate fashion in their schools. Now is the time to get it right. Select Committee Chairs acknowledge that, and, although the hon. Gentleman did not support the letter, I believe that many do. It is right that we have this debate and I hope that we can allay those fears, because the consequence of not doing so is to leave young people at risk, and I do not think that that is acceptable in the 21st century.
I agreed with the Secretary of State for Education when she said that she was minded to see this happen and that she wanted to consider all the options, and I believe that this Bill is the right way to do it. There were discussions about doing it as part of the proposed education Bill, but that has stalled, for whatever reason. The matter is too important to delay any longer. That means using this legislative opportunity to acknowledge that, in order to safeguard every young person, they need to be taught about consent—not just the biology of sex, but how to have positive, equal and safe relationships. The honest truth is that that is not happening for too many of our young people and we are seeing the consequences.
I will ask the Government to make sure that that work is part of safeguarding at a local level; that schools are given the guidance to make it available to every young person in an age-appropriate and inclusive way; that they work with communities; and, above all, that they do not simply consult, but set a timetable, because for too long our young people have been asking us to get this right, and for too long their voice has not been heard.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) is no longer in his place, but I hope that there will be cross-party support for amendments that I will table on this subject. I will certainly seek that support, and I know that many Labour Members—including, I suspect, the Front-Bench team—will support those amendments. I would be happy to sit down with Ministers and look at how we can make these proposals work, because I do not think that any of us can be happy with the situation that obtains. There is general agreement that this needs to happen, and yet there is no legislation to make it happen. We are failing our young people if we keep kicking this issue into the long grass.
I hope that I can convince the Minister that there will be cross-party support on another area as well. Although the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is yet to be convinced about the case for the changes I have just outlined, I hope that he will be convinced to back the amendments that I will propose on child refugees. He and I were certainly on the same side when it came to supporting the young people left in Calais. I acknowledge the Minister’s statement about safeguarding child refugees and recognising the importance of extending safeguarding proposals to our young people. However, I believe that his statement was undermined by the guidance that was issued by the Home Office at the same time. The Minister’s statement caused the noble Lord Dubs—a tremendous champion of our child refugees—to withdraw his amendment to this very Bill about this very matter. That amendment was withdrawn on the basis that there was good will across the House about making sure that we safeguarded child refugees, including during the process of transferring them from overseas to the UK.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her outstanding work on unaccompanied asylum seekers, who are often voiceless. Does she think that enough is being done to provide post-trauma and post-traumatic stress counselling for those children, who have seen things that are quite unimaginably horrible?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. Counselling should be part of the safeguarding process.
Many of us who deal with these young people are concerned about the fact that many of them are still in France, precisely because of the guidance issued by the Home Office, which set out a two-step process and specified that nationality would be one of the criteria for helping child refugees—ahead of their best interests. It cannot be in the best interests of a child to put nationality before need, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that the detail in his statement of 1 November is undermined by such a strategy. It is right that we clarify in amendments to the Bill that the country will always put the best interests of a child first, and that includes child refugees.
I was with the hon. Lady on the Dubs II amendment. Perhaps the link with her proposed amendments is that we can agree on the outcomes, but the question is how we achieve them. If we will the ends, is a prescribed piece of statute needed or are there other means to achieve what we want? We will debate amendments about SRE at a later stage, but the issue with her proposals about safeguarding is the practical implementation. We saw with the Dubs amendment that we need to pay careful attention to practical implementation. Prescribed legislation is not always required, but we need to hold the Minister to account and ensure that he stays true to the good words in his statement.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I agree with much of what he has said about the difference between having to prescribe, and recognising locally led solutions. However, I disagree with him fundamentally on both points for precisely the reason that he is putting out. The outcomes that are being achieved are not what we desired; they are not the will of this place. The desired outcome in sex and relationships education is not being achieved at a local level because there is no clarity about what schools should be teaching, so too many young people are not getting the appropriate support. Even with the best will in the world and the best parenting, unless we wrap those children up in cotton wool, the other young people they meet may present a risk to them.
So, too, with child refugees. Sadly, with the Dubs amendments, good will has slowly ebbed away in this place when the implementation has not matched the outcome that we desired. Nowhere is that clearer than when the Government try to say that nationality is more important than need. Many of us were delighted by the statement that the Minister made on 1 November, and then we were horrified to read the Home Office guidance, which seemed to stand against the spirit of the statement. I believe it is necessary to clarify that we must always act in the best interests of those children, just as Lord Dubs sought to act in their best interests when he tabled his original amendment.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate will know the battle that we have had throughout proceedings on the legislation. As difficult and uncomfortable as some of the debates may be, and although some people may have concerns about child refugees, we must surely all want to act in their best interests. I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that some of the Government’s conduct has led many of us to believe that amendments are necessary. I will seek support from across the House to make this happen so that we can put the matter beyond doubt, because, sadly, the guidance from the Home Office does cast doubt on it.
I do not wish to echo the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in terms of length—not to undermine anything he said—but through my proposals I am looking forward to being part of the legislative process. I am looking forward to scrutinising the Bill. I am looking forward to seeking cross-party agreement on these issues, because all of us in this House recognise that protecting children is one of the most important jobs we do. There may be disagreements about how to get there, but we do have to get there. We cannot avoid these issues any more. Whether it is our young people facing an uncertain world or the young people stuck in child centres in France right now, we have a responsibility for all of them, just as we have a responsibility for children through our corporate parenting rules. I hope that the Minister will listen and respond on all these issues. I am happy to meet him, as I am sure are many others, but we will not rest until this is resolved.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and to have heard not only Opposition Members’ broad support for the Bill, but the important points they have raised. There can never be too much consensus on these issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, we just need to do better for vulnerable children. Challenge is part of that, as are new ideas. We cannot allow the Bill to be a missed opportunity in terms of prevention or the knowledge we give to children, because they are as much a part of the safeguarding process as any other structure or law that we put through this place.
The focus of the Bill is very much children who cannot remain in the family home, but its scope has been widened, particularly through Government amendments made in the other place, to broader issues around child welfare. I will focus on some of the broader issues, particularly the provisions regarding adopted children and ongoing support for them; the more contentious issue of the power to innovate, which some Members have talked about today, the measures on which were voted down in the other place; and, finally, what more the Bill could do to improve the welfare of children and to empower children.
The Bill proposes improvements to the long-term placement of children for adoption and the assessment of their current and future needs through care orders. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to tell the House how the new measure sits alongside recent Government announcements on the adoption support fund. In particular, I am thinking about the interim cap on financial support that was put in place midway through the financial year.
The adoption support fund ensures that important therapeutic support can be funded for adopted children, some of whom are coping with difficult trauma, complex and challenging behaviour, and mental health problems. That can result in a high risk of adoption breakdown. The fund already helps thousands of families—I believe it was 3,500 last year—and the Government are increasing the budget to about £23 million this year. That significant investment perhaps underlines the Minister’s deep knowledge of the subject and his understanding of the challenges that parents of adopted children face, which he has gained from his own family’s experiences. I put on record my thanks to the Minister for all that he has done to support families with adopted children. I know that my constituents are enormously grateful for his expertise in this area.
Perhaps we should be unsurprised to hear that the demand for the fund has outstripped the supply of finances. The Minister, with the inevitable fiscal duties on him, had to introduce a cap to the budget in October. Although that was understandable as a normal response to keep control of budgetary pressures, it has inevitably created uncertainties for families such as my constituents, Mr and Mrs Cross, who adopted their son in August 2013. Mr and Mrs Cross are incredible. They have adopted a young child with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder which, as many will know, means their son requires significant support.
Mr and Mrs Cross have taken the necessary measures and are doing a fantastic job. The child’s therapy has been hugely beneficial, leading to real progress, but because it costs in excess of the new £5,000 cap, it is uncertain whether the funding will be available in the near future. The next phase of treatment costs about £10,000 and would require the local authority in Hampshire to match fund, in year, any costs over £5,000. Clause 8 calls for long-term plans for the care of a child to be in place, yet my constituents, who have made an incredible choice to care for a severely disabled child, are now unsure whether his care can be funded. I hope that the Minister, perhaps in his response to the debate, will reflect on how a local authority such as mine in Hampshire might respond, and reassure Mr and Mrs Cross that the support for their child will continue.
The second issue I want to speak about is the controversial power to innovate, which was contentious in the other place. Indeed, the then clauses 15 to 18 were removed from the Bill after a vote. The provisions would have allowed local authorities to apply to the Secretary of State to test new ways of raising children’s outcomes and to allow high-performing local authorities to be involved in that work. It is important that we pay heed to the strongly held concerns raised by expert voices, not just in the other place but outwith this place, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to those concerns, which have been echoed again today.
None the less, the Department has put in place something that we need to look at again: the idea of giving “partners in practice”—my local authority in Hampshire is one of only eight in the country—the opportunity to look at innovative ways of working. If we are to find better ways to care for the vulnerable children about whom we all feel so deeply, we need to be open to new ideas, so I hope that we can revisit this idea, which was strongly supported by my local authority as well as experts such as Professor Eileen Munro. It is right that this tightly regulated area is as protected as it is, but I cannot believe that there would not be a benefit from our looking at new ways of working. We will all have seen examples of that in today’s briefings.
The problem might be—hon. Members might have put their finger on it today—that the proposals came somewhat out of the blue, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said. We need to take care that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I do not think that the Minister had any intention for the proposals to create competition between local authorities; rather, the intention was to drive improvement, which we would all applaud. No one is suggesting that this approach would do anything other than drive innovation in an area that has developed, inevitably, in a piecemeal way in response to the various and sometimes quite appalling situations in which local authorities have found themselves.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the need for policy and law to work in practice. When I read the Hansard report of what the Minister in the other place said, I felt that that was exactly the purpose of the proposals. I think the intention is that local authorities are able to look at how they can make the law work in practice, rather than creating something of a postcode lottery. When there is an insight into better ways of working, authorities need to be able to pass it on to other areas to improve the way in which we care for this vulnerable group of individuals.
The final issue I want to raise, building on what the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, is what we are doing to empower children themselves, especially vulnerable children who might not have the consistent involvement of their parents in their lives and who, frankly, face really difficult situations when they have to take decisions about their own welfare without the input of other adults to guide them. This Bill is one of many pieces of legislation that have put in place laws, procedures and protocols to help to protect and improve the welfare of children through a whole host of agencies, but that does not directly address what we will do to help those children themselves. We need to ensure that they are armed with the knowledge that they need to make the right choices to safeguard themselves.
That is not a new concept, but something that we have done for many years. For example, we have tried to encourage children to understand the dangers of drugs, alcohol and, indeed, early pregnancy. It is important to take that forward in a more structured way. As parents and carers, we know that we have the prime responsibility to protect our children, but we also know that our children need the ability to make good choices. We cannot be there 24/7; social workers cannot be there 24/7. It is crucial that children have the ability to make decisions themselves in an informed way.
The Bill provides a perfect opportunity for the Government to respond positively to the five Select Committee Chairs who have called for PSHE and, in particular, sex and relationships education, to be made compulsory for school-age children. I am one of those Select Committee Chairs. Our work taking evidence on our recent inquiry on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools was a sobering experience for all members of our Select Committee.
We need to help to empower children to make their own decisions. When we hear the evidence and some of the statistics about the challenges that young people face in respect of their own personal welfare, it becomes clear that this debate is overdue and that we need to take action now. Two thirds of girls regularly experience sexual harassment in school. Children as young as eight are seeing online pornography as a place to learn about sex, and there were 47,000 sexual offences against children in this country in the last year, a third of which were perpetrated by children against other children. Communities should be able to enjoy freedom and safety, and school communities are no different from any others.
When we look at what happens to children after their school life, we find that, according to a study by the National Union of Students, 68% of students say that they are subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment on campuses. The problem does not stop there, as some 85% of women are experiencing unwanted sexual attention in public places.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow is absolutely right when she says that this is all about prevention and making sure that we can stop these problems from happening in the first place by ensuring that children have the knowledge they need to make good decisions, to understand what consent means, and to achieve some control over their own personal space and their own bodies.
The Bill has been extensively debated in the other place, where many amendments were tabled, particularly relating to the importance for the welfare of children of joint working between agencies, including local authorities, the police and clinical commissioning groups. In the other place, the Government tabled amendment 113, which dealt with that, because they recognised that a multifaceted strategy was vital to children’s welfare.
Another set of organisations also have a crucial role to play in children’s welfare: schools. If the Bill is to do what it sets out to do and to promote welfare for children, it must make sex and relationships education compulsory. What is currently compulsory in secondary schools is the science of reproduction; the rest is based on guidance that was last updated at the turn of the millennium and makes no reference to pornography, through which, as we know, more young children are finding out about sex. We also know that 40% of schools do not teach SRE very well. Perhaps all that explains why organisations such as Barnardo’s have made clear that the development of an early understanding of and respect for each other’s bodies, and a knowledge of when to ask for help through PSHE, can help to build resilience and an understanding of what healthy relationships look like, as well as mitigating the effects of exposure to such things as pornography.
I am closely following what my right hon. Friend is saying and agree with much of it. As is the wont of speeches on Bills concerning children, hers is straying into a number of subjects that relate to children but are not dealt with in the Bill, but I support her on this subject. Does she agree that one way of securing the better-quality PHSE and SRE that we desperately need would be to bring in experts from outside schools, especially young experts such as youth workers? They could empathise with young people who would listen to them, take notice of them and act on their advice. Would that not be better than giving the task to Mrs Miggins the geography teacher who just happens to have a couple of free periods on a Thursday afternoon?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Expertise is necessary when it comes to teaching those subjects. However, as I have said, I have raised this issue because if we are to tackle the welfare of children, we must ensure that we do so effectively. It is no good leaving children out of the equation; we must tackle their welfare head on. While I do not disagree with my hon. Friend’s point that undertrained teachers will not provide effective sex and relationships education, I think that all teachers—whether they are Mrs Miggins teaching geography or anyone else—need to understand how they can stop the sexual harassment and sexual violence that too many young people told the Committee they took for granted in their everyday school lives, and which we would never take for granted as adults. All teachers should have some sort of training in this sphere because they are responsible for the wellbeing of children while they are at school.
The right hon. Lady will know that I completely agree with everything that she is saying. May I help her by reassuring the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that her speech is entirely in order in relation to the Bill? Clause 16 not only deals with the promotion of the welfare of children in local authority areas, but requires local authorities to work with the “relevant agencies”, which are those that are exercising functions in relation to children in their areas. That is exactly what schools do, and that is why we need to do this now.
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention.
We sometimes worry about raising the issue of sex and relationships in the House because we feel that we are taking away a primary function of parents, but that is not the way parents see it. Research conducted by YouGov shows that 90% of parents want compulsory SRE because they understand the pressures that their children are under. Those pressures have the potential to undermine the welfare of those children, especially when they are at school. Teachers understand that, too. They understand the importance of helping young people to navigate, in an appropriate way, the pressures of being a teenager in the internet world.
There is overwhelming evidence of the need for change and I make no apology for underlining it today for the Minister’s benefit. Five Select Committee Chairs have made the same point as a result of work that their Committees have done, and the Department for Education itself told the Education Committee that good PSHE underpins good academic achievement. We know that children who have received sex and relationships education and PSHE more broadly are less likely to engage in risky behaviour and much more likely to seek help when things go wrong. Children need to be able to recognise abuse, grooming and predatory behaviour. As Alison Hadley of the University of Bedfordshire told the Education Committee, if children have no
“ammunition to understand these things, no wonder they are ending up in very dangerous situations.”
Educating children about this is not an optional extra; it needs to be mandatory and an integral part of the Government’s safeguarding strategy.
In January 2014, in response to the Education Committee’s report, the Government said that they would work to ensure that all schools deliver high-quality PSHE, but 40% still do not. In November 2014, the Government established an expert group for PSHE, which recommended that PSHE should be a statutory entitlement for all pupils. Two years on, can the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made on the issue, which 90% of parents want action on, and which Girlguiding, End Violence Against Women, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s—the list goes on—are calling for action on?
I call on the Minister to put in place a timetable for action, including a comprehensive consultation to ensure that we get this right. No one is calling for rushed measures but, as Members have said, the issue of making SRE compulsory has been ongoing for some time. Of course the education should be age-relevant in all cases, and any proposal should be implemented in a way that brings the whole House together, because that is always the best way to handle such important cross-party issues.
I am pleased to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I very much welcome this debate and the time and focus that this Government are devoting to the outcomes for children who are looked after and to the social work profession. However, I must declare an interest. My sister is a senior practising social worker and, prior to becoming a Member for Parliament, I worked for Supported Fostering Services in a contact supervisor capacity. I am also still connected with that charity as I remain an independent visitor for one of our looked-after children.
I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I was brought up in a safe and loving environment and was given the necessary tools to go out into the big wide world and make my own way. In 2007, via my sister, I got involved for the first time with Supported Fostering Services. That was the first time I had the privilege to meet and work with some of our looked-after children, their families, carers and social workers, and to see at first hand the challenges that our young people and the social work profession face. There has been an increase in children becoming looked after, and some of that has been attributed to the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, representing 6% of the looked-after population. I have also seen at a local level the increase in the number of children in care.
In that environment, it is right that this Government, and society, are putting the outcomes of our young people at the top of the agenda. It is also right that there is a focus on the decisions made about the futures of those young people. In my limited involvement over the past nine years, I have seen some fantastic outcomes for our young people, but far too many disappointing ones—some due to decisions made about their futures and to a lack of understanding of the child and of the use of timely interventions that are best for that child.
One young person who has been in care for over 10 years since the age of four has had to go through unbelievable experiences, which even an adult would struggle to cope with—being split from siblings, attending therapy, a failed adoption, time in a therapeutic centre, and number of foster placements and social workers. That young person has amazing strength of character and a resilience that we could only hope to have. Luckily, an amazing placement has now been found and that person will succeed, but it will be in spite of some of the interventions and not solely because of them.
If a young person is ready for adoption by a family that is the perfect match, no one would disagree that adoption for the child should be a major consideration for social services and the courts. Achieving the best outcomes for that young person should be the duty and focus of social services and the courts. Unfortunately, I have seen decisions on adoptions being delayed by too much focus being placed on challenges by the birth parents and on their needs, even after several reports from professionals have recommended a decision. Allowing judgments to be challenged over long periods does not put the interests of the child first.
A social worker once told me that she did not like adoptions and that they made her feel nervous. I asked her why, and she said that the stakes were too high. At the time, I did not know quite what she meant and I thought it rather an odd thing for a social worker to say. However, having subsequently seen the damage that a failed adoption can cause, I finally understand. Relationships with children are like all relationships. We as adults do not like everybody we come into contact with, and it is the same for children. We ask a lot of children and adopters when, after an introduction period of perhaps only two weeks, we put those strangers together and hope that it works out okay. I know that the process is far more complicated than that, but fundamentally we hope that a good relationship will be built after only a short honeymoon period and that the adopters and children will be given the support they need to make it a success.
I have seen children being given the best chance of a great life when their adoption has worked, but once an adoption order has gone through, the support from the agencies stops. The stakes are high with adoption. It should be regarded as the perfect solution, but its success will always be dependent on the individual child, and the use of special guardianships and placements should not be undermined by a focus on adoption.
I welcome the fact that support for care leavers features heavily in the Bill, through the local offer and the extension of personal advisers. This is a major step forward in supporting this vulnerable group of young people as they make the difficult transition from coming out of care to going it alone. Some of our young people have had upbringings and experiences that we would struggle to comprehend. The care system tries to wrap them in a safety blanket, so a child in care can be far less prepared to go it alone without a support network of trusted people giving guidance, or to make decisions for themselves after most decisions have been made for them up to that point.
It is a long outdated view that once a young person reaches 18 or even their early 20s, they do not need any help. I very much welcome the extension of personal advisers to work with our young people to ensure they get access to the services they need, to give them the support they deserve in order for them to succeed, and to put them on the pathway to achieving their full potential. That is great, and I very much welcome it, but will the Minster tell us how this will work in practice? Will personal advisers always be social workers? How will plans for young people leaving care be monitored and evaluated to ensure that this is not just a box-ticking exercise by local authorities, that it provides meaningful help, support and advice to our vulnerable young people and that the personal advisers get to know the young person and truly understand their needs?
The local offer will be extremely important to young people, but we know that due to local authorities’ budget burdens the availability of that support will very much depend on a council’s priorities unless there is a statutory obligation to deliver the services. Investment in our most vulnerable young people at this crucial time in their lives can only bring rewards, and I would like to see high-quality offers from local authorities for our young people.
A high proportion of formerly looked-after children are not in education, employment or training. We also know that leaving care and going it alone can present barriers to prevent a young person from moving forward with their life in a positive way, even though they might think of this time as being exciting and full of hope. However, some of those young people will never have to manage their finances while in care and are therefore much more vulnerable to getting into debt and not being able to manage without the safety net that a family or carer can provide. We must ensure that young people are given all the tools they need to succeed. They deserve to be treated differently in terms of accommodation provision and access to funds so that they are able to move forward and get the best chance to succeed. My constituency contains a young offenders institution and a secure training centre and, sadly, too many of the young people in such institutions were once looked-after children. That is a direct outcome of not only what they experienced growing up, but a lack of support and access to the services they needed as they moved towards adulthood.
My final point relates to social workers. Policemen, doctors, nurses and firemen are public servants, and many sectors of our society stand up to defend them and will hear no criticism. However, social workers are often criticised, blamed and singled out when something goes wrong. They put up with a negative dialogue about their profession, including stereotypes and being dismissed as interfering do-gooders. However, our social workers should be held in the highest esteem as professionals who make decisions, intervene to protect children and families from harm, work with families to help them stay together and have an impact on outcomes—day in, day out. They see some of the most terrible situations on a daily basis, including where children are being neglected or physically and mentally abused, and they work with children who have severe, complex disabilities. Social workers do not go into social work for the money; they do it because they want to protect children—often a thankless task.
I remember when my sister was working in a duty team and would struggle to sleep at night as she worried about what was happening within some families after she went home. She feared what she would be presented with when she got into work in the morning. That is not unusual. It is the daily life of a front-line social worker. I welcome the creation of Social Work England, even though the profession has some concerns about the change. Social work is so important and it is right to have a regulator focused on raising standards, good practice and strengthening formal training pathways. However, I spoke to several social workers before today’s debate and, owing to the level of their caseloads, some were not even aware of the Bill.
Social workers carry out a mentally and emotionally demanding job, and I feel that one element has been missed. There is a high burnout rate among front-line social workers and individual social worker caseloads are far too high in some parts of the country, causing some to feel unsafe in their work. For example, a social worker working 40 hours a week with a caseload of 20 would have only two hours a week per case. The casework could involve a mixture of children in need, court cases or child protection, all requiring a different amount of attention in any one week. Some cases require a significant amount of time and yet we expect social workers to know the children and the family and be able to make safe decisions. Such circumstances do not give our professionals the opportunity for thinking space or allow them to carry out the preventive work that many want to do. The nature of their work means that every child and family is different, and social workers innovate every day within the current framework in sometimes challenging circumstances.
In conclusion, everyone in the House should champion outcomes for children, who will go on to become the parents, workers and leaders of the future. It is unacceptable in this century for some of our young people’s future to be predictable based on their past or where they have come from. State intervention must work, and I hope that this Government will continue to push for better outcomes for vulnerable looked-after children.
It was my choice to be last today, so I am very pleased to be speaking now. It is a great honour to follow my very hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who made an excellent speech, and I completely agree with her on the support for adoptive parents; I have a close relative who has adopted three children and it really is not easy, so I completely agree.
I am very pleased with this Bill, and particularly welcome some of its measures, including on decision-making support for looked-after children, and especially the raising of the age of care leavers to 25 in respect of local authority services. I know that young people in their 20s still need looking after, having four of my own in their 20s. There is plenty of evidence to show that the brain does not fully develop until 25, and the state needs to keep its parental responsibility until young people are firmly launched.
In March 2016 there were 70,440 looked-after children in England, and based on the 2016 data there were 26,340 care leavers aged 19, 20 or 21, of whom 40% were not in employment, education or training, compared with 14 % of all 19 to 21-year-olds who did not go through the care service. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, 4% of these care leavers end up in the criminal justice system.
The role of the corporate parent is to safeguard the young, but there is a resource aspect to it. Portsmouth children’s services estimates that if a young person is kept out of a single involvement in the criminal justice system, it saves the state £100,000 in various ways, for instance in avoiding the need for probation services, the cost of the criminal justice system and social services for rehabilitation.
I also mentioned the increase in age on Second Reading of the Homelessness Reduction Bill a couple of weeks ago. Many twenty-somethings are still living at home, and therefore we need to look after the housing of our care leavers, too. That protection should follow the care leavers around the country, so, like any other young person, they are looked after by either the local authority where they have settled or their original local authority. I welcome the amendment of the Earl of Listowel for a national offer for care leavers. Independent living is very different from living in the care environment in terms of budgeting and looking for jobs, and there is also the question of setting up home, including dealing with bills and council tax. I hope that the national offer will be accepted and personal advisers are clearly identified.
On social workers, I welcome the establishment of Social Work England as an independent non-departmental public body. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, I worked with him on a commission on children’s social workers in 2007, called “No More Blame Game”. Some of the recommendations were adopted—for instance, that of the chief social worker—but the General Social Care Council, which was the regulator, folded in 2012, and the new regulator, the Health and Care Professions Council, looks after many other jobs. It is important that social work is seen as a unique job, and therefore we must recognise that it is a separate profession, on a level with other professionals such as doctors and nurses.
Some of the other recommendations have already been accepted, but I thought it would be a good idea to remind the Minister in case he has not read the report. The first recommendation is that the generic nature of social work must be maintained and resources better targeted to enable social workers to work with families in a preventive role. That is largely happening already. There is also the role of the consultant social worker, which I think is what the sister of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood does. That senior practitioner has been introduced to keep experienced social workers on the frontline, rather than putting them into management. That requires an appropriate career and pay structure to be put in place to support them, because if they do not want to go into management, there is no other way of going forward.
Thirdly, every social worker should be encouraged and have an opportunity to become a member of a professional body similar to the British Medical Association or Royal College of Nursing, which could advocate on their behalf, negotiate on salaries and conditions of services, provide good public relations on behalf of the profession as a whole, and influence future Government policy. Consideration should also be given to a requirement that employers, including agency employers, fund this membership for the first post-qualifying year to ensure that all entrants to the profession can become members.
We also recommended that there should be a chief social worker—an idea we took from New Zealand, where it works incredibly successfully. This person would work across Departments, and with Unison, the British Association of Social Workers, other representative bodies and, in particular, the media. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood mentioned that the attitude some people take to social work is appalling, because it is an incredibly tough profession. We need to get the media to look at the health of the profession, and provide good news stories and cases. I do not know whether anybody is watching “Damned”, but it shows how hard the profession works, although it is made to be amusing. It would be nice if we could also have positive stories coming out in the media.
Our next recommendation was that the social work degree must continue to be generic to allow social workers a good foundation in all aspects of social work, so that they can get a good grasp of all the different aspects of looking after children in the care service. The content and the length of the degree course might be reviewed, to equip them with the right knowledge and skills for rewarding jobs—I believe that is in the Bill, too. That is beginning to happen. We also considered that the course should extend to four years, so that they have a year out in practice and get a good grasp of what they are getting themselves into.
Our next recommendation was that multi-agency training should be incorporated into the qualifying degree and should continue to be part of continuing professional development. In many professions, be it teaching or medicine, professional development is incredibly important. Social workers need that continued professional development and support throughout their career. We also recommended that the Department of Health and the Department responsible for children’s services work with local authorities and other employers of social workers to ensure that resources, both course fees and replacement time, are available so that all social workers can undertake the level of post-qualifying education and training necessary for the roles and tasks they are employed to undertake. Again, that goes back to the point about continued development.
There should be a combination of a national recruitment campaign and local headhunting to encourage more people to enter social work. As we have heard, there are a lot of vacancies and social workers are incredibly overworked. It is an incredibly rewarding profession and we need to ensure that we get more people into it, so we need a national recruitment campaign. One way of doing that is through high-impact advertising, similar to what we see for the Army, the police and teaching. We need it to send a clear message that the role of social workers is important in society and should be respected.
Another recommendation was for the establishment of the newly qualified social worker status, which is essential to supporting and retaining inexperienced social workers. Often they were coming out of university and going straight into work in harrowing circumstances and were not getting the support they needed. I hope we will also look at apprenticeships in social work. I know we are doing those in nursing and it would be great if that could extend to social work. Social workers need to have protected caseloads and guaranteed post-qualifying study and training time, so that we retain the social workers we already have. There also needs to be a flexible pay structure that corresponds to those of other similar professions working in multi-agency teams and that recognises the difference in living costs around the country.
We said that the numerical adoption targets and other targets that are not in the best interests of the child should be phased out, and I am pleased that has already been adopted. We also suggested that better targeted funding should go into research and development in social care.
Some of our recommendations have already been accepted, but this very good report is now nearly 10 years old, so if the Minister has not read it I insist that he does so. I ask him to look at anything that we have not done already, with a view to putting it into practice. I hope that the new regulator continues the improvement that has been happening in the social work profession. It is a tough job at the front-line but it is a very necessary and rewarding one. I look forward to seeing this Bill go into Committee.
As we have already said, Labour will not be dividing the House on this Bill this evening. However, I will take this opportunity to deliver some home truths to the Government. This is a Bill, which, from its very inception, has been ill-thought out and hastily put together without any guidance from children or from the very industry that it purports to be helping to improve. In short, it is a Bill about children and social work with negligible input from children and social workers. By not listening to the profession, the Government have once again shown how little value they see in using the professional experience and expertise of those who work, day in, day out, and often at the risk of their own welfare, to protect children and families.
What social workers want is to be out in the field with vulnerable children and families, because the more time they spend with them the more vulnerable children are identified and supported or saved from harm. It could not be simpler than that.
So far, the Government’s social work reform agenda has been a total failure, rooted as it is in structural system change and in tinkering around with individual, mainly Labour-held, local authorities. [Interruption.] The Minister twists in his place, but he will get his turn soon I am sure. There continues to be an obsession with adoption to the detriment of early intervention and work that can keep families together and children out of the care system. This Government are completely oblivious to the severe impact that their austerity measures and punitive welfare policies are having on our most vulnerable children and families. They are causing untold damage
I remind the Minister, as I have done many times before, that social work is a holistic profession. The Government’s closure of Sure Start units and removal of early years help in family support centres, and the disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most deprived areas have measurably taken their toll. All this Government seem to be doing for desperate families is turning the screw tighter and tighter, year on year, until they break. As other hon. Members have already said, the demand for help and protection is rising.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a 124% increase in serious cases—where a local authority believes that a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm—and the varied spending on social work has been found to be totally unrelated to quality. In short, all of the Government’s initiatives and changes are not yielding positive results. This is systemic not local failure. In other words, it is the Government’s fault.
Both the National Audit Office and the Education Committee looked into social work reform and noted that there are significant weaknesses in the Government’s agenda, and that the reforms focus on
“changing structures potentially to the detriment of the people delivering this key public service.”
What the social work profession needs is continuity, stability and confidence, and a Government who can hold their nerve on how best to help children and families by putting in place and embedding good policies—policies such as the introduction of personal, social, health and economic education, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and supported by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller).
The Government are failing to get the basics right. They are not reducing social worker caseloads, preventing experienced professionals from quitting the profession or training social workers in a holistic way—they are fast-tracking them, and forcing them to specialise before they have even been trained in the basics. The Government are not amending IT and the bureaucratic process across the board to achieve the goal of getting social workers where they want to be, which is out from behind their desks and seeing the families with whom they work. This Bill does nothing to respond to the crisis in social work and to the hundreds of thousands of children who need better services right now.
Like other Members, I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Labour Lords and other peers whose tireless work has resulted in the Bill before us today being markedly different from that which was first introduced. In particular, I wish to congratulate peers on defeating the Government and forcing them to remove dangerous clauses from the Bill that would have paved the way for the privatisation of children’s social care. It is scandalous that these clauses are soon to reappear at Committee stage. The Government’s proposals will allow local authorities, under the guise of innovation, to opt out of protective primary legislation. That legislation, which has taken decades to achieve, has led to us having one of the safest child protection systems in the world. It was hard fought for by the profession in this place and in the other place. These proposals have caused alarm and outrage in the profession and the sector overall. I have yet to meet a social worker who supports the changes. I have had no clarity from the Minister about where the demand for change has come from and what pieces of primary legislation local authorities and social workers say prevent them from carrying out good social work. Will he tell us today?
This is legislation formed in the worst possible way, without demand and without any evidential basis for fixing the problems it purports to fix. The Government have invented a solution to an invented problem, because the Bill will not solve any of the problems in social work. What I know from my time in social work practice is that the things that social workers find restrictive, such as case recording, derive from secondary legislation, guidance, or the custom and practice in their particular local authority—all of which can be changed without primary legislation.
The Government have denied time and again that the opt-out clauses were about privatisation, yet late last week, two years after it was written and after an inexplicable delay in responding to freedom of information requests, the Department for Education released a report, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), which sets out how children’s social care can be moved out of local authority control—a report which states that independent contractors have said that they are willing to play the long game and wait for councils to hand over the majority, if not all, of their children’s social care services after they have developed their experience in children and families social work. There we have it—independent contractors are going to use vulnerable children and families to experiment with, once the Government allow local authorities to opt out of protective legislation. These are the most dangerous changes to child protection that I have ever seen.
Labour, bolstered by the support of the profession and related stakeholders who have expressed outrage at these plans, will fight the Government every step of the way on these clauses. Vulnerable children are not to be used as market experiments, and any child protection strategy that requires the dispensation of the law to achieve it is counter-productive and downright dangerous.
Of course, there are parts of the Bill that we can support. The introduction of detailed principles of corporate parenting, the extension of the personal adviser role to care leavers up to the age of 25, and the local offer for care leavers are all steps in the right direction. Our concern is whether the Government can deliver it. For example, they promise in the Bill to promote the physical and mental health of looked-after children, but on their watch child and adolescent mental health services are in meltdown, with many looked-after children waiting not just months, but years, for specialist help. Changes need to be properly resourced, otherwise they are warm words and nothing more, so can the Minister confirm that these proposals will be properly resourced?
The Bill establishes a new social work regulator. In Committee we will carefully consider this change and those that relate to local safeguarding boards and the child safeguarding practice review panel. We share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). We have ongoing concerns about the independence and impact of the proposed non-departmental public body model, especially the lack of detail in the current proposals which envisage Government appointments directly to the leadership of the organisation. Can the Minister please explain why the social work profession is treated so differently from other health and care professions?
Finally, the Bill is impotent in its response to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. These children are experiencing the most immense suffering and trauma. Thanks to Lord Dubs forcing the Government’s hand and reminding them of this crisis, we will see a strategy in May next year, but these are urgent and pressing matters and deserve further debate in this place. We fully support the amendments so eloquently and passionately outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow.
In essence, what we have here is a Bill with some nice-sounding elements that do not appear to be fully resourced, and are therefore not guaranteed, and the continual threat to open up children’s social care to the market by allowing opt-outs from legislation. In fact, we will be presented with a Bill in Committee that local authorities could, in theory, dispense with if it became law. That is a completely ridiculous approach to legislation and an insult to the House.
I know that getting things right for children and families in the social work arena is not an easy task—it is difficult and complex, and many Governments have grappled with it. But trust me, this Bill is not the answer. We will seek significant amendments in Committee and make sure that the Government understand that privatisation and micromanagement are not the answer to every problem. Labour will never allow the Government to use our most vulnerable children as experiments in Tory ideology.
I begin by thanking hon. Members for their enthusiastic engagement with the issues at the heart of the Bill. We all share a commitment to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children, and that has been demonstrated by the energy shown throughout this debate. As we enter Committee, I look forward to exploring in much more detail aspects of the Bill that have been raised today.
As the Minister for School Standards set out in opening the debate, protecting our most vulnerable children and giving them the care and support they need to thrive is one of the Government’s most important responsibilities. The children who need support from social care services have often faced challenges that most of us can only ever imagine. They have disabilities, they have faced abuse and neglect, or they have been let down time and again by the people who are supposed to love and protect them. They may be being exploited by perpetrators preying on their vulnerability. Children’s social care professionals deal with these highly complex and demanding challenges every day. They step up and take on responsibility for protecting our vulnerable children.
In my time as children’s Minister, as a family barrister and as a foster sibling, I have often been inspired by stories of children whose lives are transformed by social workers, foster carers, residential care staff, adopters and others. These people epitomise the compassion and deep desire in our society to help others, without which we, and our children, would be so much the poorer.
The Bill we are debating today is a critical part of creating a children’s social care system that enables those people to do the very best job possible for our children. It builds on the Children and Families Act 2014 and takes forward important measures from our overall strategy “Putting children first”—a strategy that I think represents the most fundamental reforms to the system in a generation.
The Bill places the interests of vulnerable children right at the heart of the social care system. It defines what good corporate parenting looks like, and secures the involvement of the whole council in looking out for children in or leaving its care. It requires every local area to set out exactly what support it is offering care leavers, and extends the help of a personal adviser to all care leavers up to the age of 25. It introduces improved national arrangements for analysing serious incidents and learning from them, and strengthened arrangements for local multi-agency co-ordination of safeguarding.
The Bill extends educational support to children leaving care via adoption or special guardianship. It creates the conditions for good placement decisions to be made for children coming into the care system, by ensuring that the child’s long-term needs and the impact of the harm they have suffered are properly considered. Furthermore, it introduces a new, bespoke regulator for social work, Social Work England—an organisation that will be empowered to raise standards in social work and raise the status of that vital profession.
Members have raised a multitude of important points in today’s debate, and I will do my very best to respond to them without detaining the House longer than would be deemed acceptable. I am grateful for the constructive engagement of Members, and want to work together to move forward with these legislative provisions, which have huge potential to improve the life chances of the children we all care so deeply about.
The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), the shadow Secretary of State, asked where our comprehensive strategy for all children in care was. We have it: it is the “Putting children first” document, and I urge her to refresh her memory of that all-encompassing strategy for children in care, which goes through to 2020.
The hon. Lady asked about spending on children’s services. It is right to say that the pattern of inspection outcomes is not about how deprived an area is, the local geography or even the amount of money being spent on children’s social care. Some of the local authorities judged inadequate by Ofsted this year were among the highest spending, while higher performers were found to spend their money more effectively, investing in the best services and bringing costs down. The key here is identifying where investment makes a difference, and spreading knowledge and practice about what works.
The hon. Lady asked about the local offer and about what guidance there would be for local authorities. The legislation already sets out the areas where local authorities should provide support: health and well being, education and training, employment, accommodation, participation in society, and relationships. We expect a wide range of services to be covered, from relevant universal health provision, to careers advice, to specific financial support, which care leavers can access and will benefit from. We have also developed a prototype local offer that sets out the areas we expect local authorities to consider and that provides examples of more specific support a local authority may choose to offer, and I am happy to share that with the hon. Lady so that she can scrutinise it in more detail.
The hon. Lady asked about the independence of the new regulator—Social Work England. The Bill makes it clear that Social Work England will be a separate legal entity, with its own staff and set of responsibilities as a non-departmental public body. The Government have always been clear that they have no intention to make decisions about individual social workers, and that is reflected in the legislation.
The Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), made some central points about the foundations of the Bill, which he welcomed, and that included the regulatory changes. He raised the issue of a professional body for social work, and I agree that it is absolutely important for the profession to have a strong body to represent it, to provide support and guidance, and to help it develop its own practice. I set out at the national children and adult social services conference a few weeks ago exactly how I want to work with the profession to make sure we come up with the right solution. We have tried a whole host of different ways of making these things work, and we now need to go further to make sure we have something that will endure long into the future.
My hon. Friend alluded to Trafford, one of the outstanding care-leaving services in England, and to the virtue of its having strong leadership. I agree with him, and I have been hugely impressed by the work that has been done there by Mark Riddell and his team. There is a lot they can show others in terms of what works.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) told us to look at the work in Scotland. I am always happy to look at the Scottish perspective. As ever, I invite her to look at what we are doing in England, too. She said Scotland has children at the heart of the system; so do we—if she looks at the “Putting children first” strategy document, she will see that. Although Scotland may lead the way in some areas, we lead the way in others—Staying Put being a good example.
The hon. Lady asked why local authorities are only to “have regard to” corporate parenting principles. The reason for that is that the local authority is the corporate parent and is legally responsible for looked-after children and care leavers. We believe that maintaining this clear accountability is right. There is an existing duty under section 10 of the Children Act 2004 in terms of who the key partners are, and they include health, police, education services and others. The intention is that the provisions will help to improve the response in terms of them carrying out the duties they already have set out in legislation.
The hon. Lady asked about the Government’s commitment to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The Government remain fully committed to protecting children’s rights and to the UNCRC. We have considered the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and we responded through the written ministerial statement published in October and through the permanent secretary’s letter to his counterparts across Government. The Bill is an example of how we constantly seek to not only protect children’s rights but enhance them. A full child rights impact assessment was conducted during the development of the Bill. There was considerable debate in the Lords on this issue, and we recently reaffirmed our commitment, through the written ministerial statement, to reinforcing the message of the importance of the UNCRC across every Department and to making sure there is a proactive approach to considering children’s rights in policy making.
I will do my utmost to address all the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I do join him and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) in praising the incredible work and dedication of our social work workforce—something that was reiterated by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). Children’s and adults’ social workers do a fantastic job, which is so difficult, day in, day out.
I agree that the administrative burdens on social workers—sitting in front of computers filling in forms—has hampered much of the progress of social work. I have read on several occasions the report, “No More Blame Game”, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was instrumental in producing. The whole purpose of the changes we are making to the serious case review process is to get away from pointing the finger and to look at where things have gone wrong, why they have gone wrong and how we make sure that it does not happen again in future.
My hon. Friend set out some of the highlights of the Government’s reform programme in children’s social care over the past six years, mentioning Staying Put as one of those. I can inform him that there has been an exceptional response to this, with 54% of 18-year-olds, 30% of 19-year-olds and 16% of 20-year-olds now choosing to stay put. Of course, however, we keep the mechanism under review to ensure that it will continue to benefit more children and young people in future.
My hon. Friend talked about some of the deficiencies in the system, including in sharing best practice. Again, I agree. That is why we are setting up a What Works centre for children’s social care that will build a robust evidence base, and disseminate learning about what does and does not work in children’s social care practice, in order to help local practitioners and commissioners to employ the most cost-effective front-line practices to support children. Crucially, it will work closely with the child safeguarding practice review panel to ensure that practice developments identified through reviews are also widely disseminated.
On adoption, I share my hon. Friend’s pride in the work of this Government to try to improve the adoption process for prospective adopters and, crucially, for children. The number of children being adopted has risen to over 5,000 per year, and they are being adopted more quickly. On the back of the Re B-S judgment, however, there has been a disappointing fall in those numbers, and we are seeking to do all we can to address that so that we do not lose the ground that we made up in the early years of this Government. Over 10,000 families have benefited directly from the adoption support fund, which was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). Although we reluctantly had to put in a fair access limit in the short term to enable more families, where at all possible, to benefit from the fund, we want to try to find a sustainable solution so that we can continue this support in the long term. I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to look at the particular case she raised, as it may exemplify some of the wider issues we need to look at in getting the decision right.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked whether the corporate parenting principles are additional to section 23 of the Children Act 1989. This is not about trying to put new duties on local authorities, as the duties are already very clearly set out. We are trying to engender a whole-council approach with councils taking responsibility for children and their care, and having regard to the principles in any decisions they make on their behalf.
Although we are extending the use of personal advisers, I concur with my hon. Friend that there is a whole range of quality and access for care leavers to personal advisers. That is why we are conducting a review of both those issues to make sure that the scope of what a personal adviser is there to do, and the types of people who become personal advisers, together with the training that they get, really matches the needs of care leavers in the way that they have told us they desperately want.
My hon. Friend raised some drafting issues and details around the additional support for education of children in care. I will look at that carefully, and I am sure we will address those issues in Committee.
On serious case reviews, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about the need for transparency. We worked hard in opposition on the issue of their publication. I remember substituting for him on “Newsnight” to talk about this very subject. We now need to make sure that the new system reflects this important element of an approach that will provide us with a shining light on where practice has fallen short.
My hon. Friend asked about active participation in new local safeguarding arrangements, including financial contributions. That is an important part of the new system and we will set out in more detail, in guidance, how we expect to engender such an approach. He also made a clear pitch for where we should go next with the power to innovate. I will talk about that at the end of my speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) asked about cases of mothers who have repeat pregnancies. He should know that we will spend a total of about £11 million until 2020 on the Pause project, which has been extremely successful in trying to break that cycle, helping mothers find a different path through their lives and reducing the number of children coming into the care system.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about the need to concentrate on prevention, which has to be at the heart of any decision about where money should be spent and where policy should be moving to. A number of other hon. Members also talked about sex and relationships education, and I will come to that subject towards the end of my speech.
On child refugees, the hon. Lady referred to my written statement on the safeguarding strategy across Government. I am grateful for her support for it, but she queried how it sits alongside the Home Office guidance. I will look carefully at what she has said and talk to Home Office Ministers. The Home Office has published guidance setting out the eligibility criteria for children to be transferred to the UK from Calais. Those criteria are: all children aged 12 or under; all children referred to us by the French authorities who are assessed as being at high risk of sexual exploitation; and those nationalities most likely to qualify for refugee status in the UK aged 15 or under. As the Dubs amendment makes clear, children transferred should be refugees, and the best interests of the child are also established in every case as part of the process. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we have to have a method to ensure that those children who are at greatest risk are prioritised. I am happy to discuss the matter further with her, in conjunction with my colleagues at the Home Office.
Does the Minister acknowledge that that guidance explicitly sets out nationality before the best interests of the child and, further, that it identifies particular nationalities, thereby ignoring, for example, the Oromo and Afghan children who are currently in France, a third of whom have now gone missing because of the gap that it has caused? I appreciate the Minister’s offer to look carefully at the situation, but will he look at it speedily as well, because we are very worried about those children in the run-up to Christmas and the cold in France?
I am happy to do that. Like the hon. Lady, I do not want to create conditions that are counterproductive to our shared mission. I will make sure that acknowledgment of the further work that needs to be done is as rapid as possible and that we progress in a way that does not create more difficulties, but that brings about positive solutions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned the adoption case in her constituency. I am happy to discuss that further with her. We need to move to a more sustainable approach, but the adoption support fund has shown that there was a real need for that additional therapeutic support. As the Minister with responsibility for children, I am committed to doing what we can to continue to do that into the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) spoke of her enduring experience of many issues touched on by the Bill. In particular, she raised delays in the adoption process, and I agree with much of what she said. She will be pleased to know that the average time that it takes for a child to get through the adoption system has reduced to 18 months—a reduction of four months from its peak—but more work needs to be done, because every month that goes by is one that the child will never get back. More children are receiving that adoption support and I know that my hon. Friend will ensure that that message gets through to families in her own area who may not yet realise that it is available. She was also clear that the new provisions for care leavers are a major step forward, but I acknowledge that we need to make sure that social workers and personal advisers have the necessary tools to make the most of those changes.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South for our measures to improve the support for care leavers. She raised the issue of a national offer. I have met the relevant Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions to see what further practical action we can take, and I will be able to allude to that in more detail in Committee. I take her point on social worker training, which is very much behind the work that we are doing on the assessment and accreditation process to make sure that we raise standards in social work wherever possible.
The hon. Member for South Shields and I get on very well, but I agreed with very little of what she had to offer this afternoon. She questioned the value that we place on the experience and expertise of social workers, but I have to say to her that that is exactly what this Bill is about. I ask her to look more widely at the work that the Government are doing, such as the innovation programme, where we have already spent more than £100 million. That money has gone directly to local authorities to test new ways of working, and there will be another £200 million up to 2020. That £300 million of value has been put directly into improving children’s services.
When the hon. Lady started her speech, I felt as though she was determined to try to turn the debate into some sort of ideological struggle on many of the issues. I do not think she wanted to do that, but we seemed to be moving in that direction. I understand her desire to oppose and to be seen to oppose, but I hope that when we get into Committee, we can have a constructive debate about what is in the Bill and how it fits into the wider Government programme. I do not doubt that we have a shared desire to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. I have a pragmatic streak running through me; I am not some ideologue who will sit here and create a wall of noise. I want to hear the hon. Lady’s argument, but I want her to hear mine, too.
The hon. Lady raised the LaingBuisson report, but I note that she failed to share with the House the official Government response to that report, which states that
“we disagree with the option in the report relating to the privatisation of children’s social care services and we will not be implementing this option.”
We could not be clearer about our position.
I want briefly to talk about the power to innovate, which has generated the most debate. Several hon. Members have raised questions about the power to innovate, a provision that was removed from the Bill in the other place, and which my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards referred to at the opening of the debate. We intend to revisit those powers, because of the important role that they stand to play in improving the quality of children’s social care. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for her support in explaining that new ways of working are a means of driving improvement in practice.
Whenever I visit local authorities and speak to front-line social workers—I am obviously not meeting the same ones as the hon. Member for South Shields—I am always struck by the passion, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. Too often, though, I leave with a message that, rather than helping them in their task, the structures and processes that we have put in place prevent social workers from using their professional judgement to truly respond to the needs of the children they look after.
As Professor Eileen Munro’s landmark review of child protection told us, over-regulation can get in the way of social workers’ ability to put children first. The power will address that challenge, and it is being called for by local authorities around the country. It will give councils the ability to test new ways of working that are designed to improve outcomes for children in a safe and controlled environment, where the impact of removing a specific requirement can be measured and evaluated carefully.
That is not to say that important points have not been raised in the House and in the other place. I have considered them all carefully and I will continue to do so, and I will bring back a power with significant changes and additional safeguards that will, I hope, provide the reassurances that have been requested.
I want to be clear: we do not want to privatise protection services for children. We will not privatise child protection services. There are already clear legislative restrictions on the outsourcing of children’s social care functions, and it was never our intention to use the power to innovate to revisit those. To put that beyond doubt, however, we tabled clarificatory amendments in the other place.
Neither will we remove fundamental rights or protections from children. Our aim is to strengthen, not to weaken, protections. My mission—since entering this House and before—has always been to improve the lives of vulnerable children. It is our job as a Government to create the conditions in which excellent practice can flourish. I am convinced that with proper safeguards in place, the ability to pilot new approaches will, in the long term, allow this House to enact more effective, evidence-based legislation and drive wider improvement for our most innovative practitioners and services across the system.
I agreed with Professor Eileen Munro when she said:
“I welcome the introduction of the power to innovate set out in the Children and Social Work Bill. This is a critical part of the journey set out in my Independent Review of Child Protection towards a child welfare system that reflects the complexity and diversity of children’s needs.
Trusting professionals to use their judgement rather than be forced to follow unnecessary legal rules will help ensure children get the help they need, when they need it. Testing innovation in a controlled way to establish the consequences of the change…is a sensible and proportionate way forward.”
I ask hon. Members, before casting a final judgment on the power to innovate, to consider the amendments that we intend to table, which I believe provide that “sensible and proportionate” approach, built on the clear and single purpose of improving the outcomes of vulnerable children.
Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for Walthamstow spoke powerfully about sex and relationships education. I, too, recognise its importance. Of course, the Government already issue statutory guidance on the teaching of sex and relationships, and have made funding available to improve the quality of that teaching. However, I have heard the call to go further in this area to build the resilience and confidence of children and young people in tackling what the modern world throws at them, not least online. This is, of course, a topic on which there are many, and strongly held, views and it will be important to look at those in the round, not least because PSHE and SRE are inextricably linked.
This matter is a priority for the Secretary of State, so I have already asked officials to advise me further on it, but I will ask them to accelerate that work so that I can report on our conclusions at a later point in the Bill’s passage, when everyone in the House will be able to look at them and have their say.
I am sure that these reflections only start to do justice to the range of important issues we have debated here today. I look forward to picking up these matters in greater detail as the Bill moves into Committee. I see the contents of the Children and Social Work Bill as a major step forward in making sure that our most vulnerable children get the levels of support, protection and opportunity that any of us would want for our own children. I welcome the debate and challenge we have engaged in this afternoon—it helps to maintain the momentum behind what is a shared endeavour across these Houses. We are all united in our commitment to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children. Please let me leave the House in no doubt that I recognise and accept the challenges we face. This Government are more determined than ever to rise to those challenges, with our clear and ambitious plan for fundamentally reforming the system. Our vulnerable children deserve no less. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 17 January 2017.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Question agreed to.
Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] (Money)
Question’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Children and Social Work Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
(1) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by a Minister of the Crown, and
(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Question agreed to.
Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] (Ways and Means)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Children and Social Work Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Question agreed to.