Wednesday 5th September 2018

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Before we begin the debate, I alert colleagues to the fact that a Division is expected at 4.48 pm, at which point we shall adjourn for 15 minutes if there is one Division or 25 minutes if there is a second Division. We shall still have the full hour of the debate.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:28 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the findings of the Care Crisis Review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Minister for his recent announcement about the new exploitation unit. I know that he will continue to work closely with the Home Office on the exploitation of vulnerable children, and I am extremely pleased with how well he understands his brief. When he has appeared before the Select Committee on Education, he has been passionate about his commitment to children in care. He shares my passion, I know, to do everything possible to support and strengthen families. That is why he has engaged with the findings of the care crisis review. I would like to build on that and ask the Minister to acknowledge the scale of the problem, with alarming numbers of children being taken from their families and placed in state care. I would also like him to acknowledge the apparent lack of a long-term strategy to address the problem.

Although money is never the whole solution to any problem, I urge the Minister to commit to funding early support for struggling families and to ensure that the funding is ring-fenced so that it is not eaten up by statutory crisis interventions. The care crisis review was facilitated by the excellent Family Rights Group, which does so much important work in this area, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. It was undertaken in response to the unprecedented increase in the number of children being taken into care, as a way of finding a series of solutions to bring about change. It has come up with 20 solutions—I will not go through all the findings because the Minister is familiar with them, but I will highlight one or two that I urge him to take on board.

Over the last 10 years, in the wake of the tragic case of Baby P, there has been a dramatic and consistent increase in the numbers of children being taken into state care. The figures show something like a 151% increase in 10 years of children in child protection investigations, and 73,000 young people in care in 2017—those figures are higher for 2018, although the numbers are not yet out. That translates into 90 children a day being taken into care. That is not sustainable and it is not necessary. Often, taking children into care helps councils and social workers to be protected from any accusations of failing to act, but sometimes it is not necessary.

Anna Turley Portrait Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:32 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She makes a really important point about the number of children being taken into care, sometimes unnecessarily. Does she agree on the importance and value of kinship carers and wider family support networks? At the moment, there is patchy and inconsistent support for those families. Many do not get the financial support and counselling they need to take care of their children and to keep them out of the care system.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 4:33 p.m.

The hon. Lady has done wonderful work in Parliament promoting the role of kinship carers. She is absolutely right: the opportunity to explore other avenues before taking children into care is often overlooked. Too often, social workers say, “This person won’t be suitable,” but they have not actually done the due diligence to determine whether extended family can be supported to help keep a child connected with their identity, school, friends and network. All those things are so important to the stability of children. I hope that the hon. Lady will continue to do work on kinship carers. If I can assist her in any way, I would be more than delighted.

It used to be considered that increasing the number of children in child protection investigations or taking more children into care was a good thing. Thank goodness we no longer think that way. Clearly, it places intense pressure on children’s services and on the family court system. Too often, statutory intervention does nothing specific to help a family and is more punitive than supportive. Often, it is all that is available at the end of a long process. If all we can offer struggling families is care proceedings, of course they will not engage and work collaboratively with social workers.

Jim Cunningham Portrait Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:34 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on this timely debate, which in actual fact has been a long-running debate for a number of years. When we talk about problems that social workers have and criticisms of them, we tend to forget that a social worker probably has too many cases on their hands, which does not allow them to concentrate in the way that they should concentrate. Of course, there is a lack of resources.

Often, police are called to a house about an issue that has nothing to do with childcare, only to discover some appalling situation affecting children, and have to get on to the relevant authorities to try to sort it out. We have had one or two cases in Coventry like that. There is a need for a more joined-up approach. We can have as much legislation as we want, but if we do not have a proper joined-up approach, we will get nowhere fast.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 4:35 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the issues raised by the care crisis review was the intense pressure on social workers and the need to work in a problem-solving way rather than in the process-driven way that is so often their focus. They often find themselves in a blame culture where they are quite defensive, and therefore focus on getting the process right rather than finding the right solution for the child. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point.

Placing children in care or triggering forcible state intervention is never a solution to a family’s problems. Too often, it is evidence of our failure to support children before problems escalate so they can stay safely at home or, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) said, with a wider family network. Time and again we hear that action is taken only at the point of crisis, and often only in the form of assessment, judgment, monitoring or scrutinising a parent’s ability to parent. The action taken is not practical support for the drugs, alcohol or mental health issues that are the cause of the crisis, but simply saying that the parents are not really good enough, and all the state can offer is removing the children from the family. Meanwhile, people often overlook the role that the extended family and the community can play in supporting families.

For all those reasons, I invite the Minister to take very seriously the solutions that the care crisis review has put forward. There is an emotionally damaging cost to children, families and to society, as well as a financial cost to the state. That is why we must have an overarching long-term view on the problem—a longer-term strategy, rather than sitting back and saying that this is a local issue for councils to decide locally what is right for them. They are on very tight budgets that often are taken up with statutory measures rather than being available for early intervention and preventive measures.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:37 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. On funding, Hartlepool council’s children’s social care services have been rated by Ofsted as good, and outstanding in some areas such as children in care. Spending on that allocation has gone up by 27%, yet they face an overall council deficit of £6 million. Does she agree that there are long-term financial difficulties to resolve in local authorities’ funding?

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 4:37 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that perfectly illustrates my argument about the duties of local authorities to spend on the statutory crisis intervention measures they are required to take by law. They have nothing left in the pot for the preventive measures that would reduce in the long term the need to spend on crisis funding. It is difficult for a local authority to have the flexibility to do what it knows would work in the long term, because it is a statutory requirement that it uses its budget primarily to meet the statutory needs of the most vulnerable children in the borough.

That is a big issue that we neglect. If there are tight budgets for children’s services, councils have to take an increasing number of children into care, which costs more, and there is less chance of reducing that number through early intervention and support. That is why we have to think and act for the long term. If we believe that families do a better job than the state, we must work with families to support them, not just judge them and find them wanting—that helps no one. The Minister will agree because, like me, he has a wonderful family. The greatest gift he could give to any child to secure their life chances is a strong family.

Anyone who works in the system will say that the short-termism that they are forced to work with is wrong, and that instead of being able to fund early help, most authorities have to proceed with the statutory interventions that so many families experience as oppressive and destabilising. My plea is to invest in early help to make long-term savings. I am thinking not just of the huge financial savings, but of the emotional cost to a child of being removed from their family and losing their home, their siblings, their friends and their school. We know that happens. The Education Committee hears too often about fostering breakdowns, which cause children to go through a whole series of placements. Time and again, children feel abandoned and isolated, and have to put their possessions in a black plastic bag to move from foster home to foster home. They never quite feel that they belong.

I know that every Member would want to prevent that from happening to any child if possible. That is why I believe that the Government could be doing so much more to set the direction and insist on a ring-fenced element of funding for early intervention and prevention. As a Conservative Government, we care about families. We care about people being able to help themselves. We believe in helping people to help themselves, but we are not doing that. We are simply saying, “The state will take care of this, because you have failed as a parent.” What message does that send about our vision of society? The number of children in care goes on increasing while everyone takes a back seat and says, “Well, it’s not really central Government’s problem, because local authorities have to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. It just so happens the numbers are going up.” We have to look at why that is, and that is exactly what the care crisis review did.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:42 p.m.

I declare an interest, which is detailed in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, although I take issue with some of her analysis. Does she agree that the early help recommendation of the Munro review back in 2011 was crucial to allowing more preventive work to be done to keep families together? Alas, that recommendation never became reality. She will also be mindful of the worrying finding in the “Storing Up Trouble” report by the all-party parliamentary group on children, which came out at a similar time to the care crisis review and to which the Minister contributed, about the huge differences in intervention outcomes between authorities. A child in one local authority can be seven times more likely to be taken into care than one in another. That causes great concern.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 4:47 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. He has a long track record of expertise in this area, not least as an excellent Children’s Minister. His point about different treatment in different local authorities is vital, because it demonstrates that with the right support for families there is less need to take children into care. With the right support, children are more likely to be able to thrive safely at home. That illustrates my argument.

All Members would agree that taking children from their families must be a last resort. Indeed, the Prime Minister said exactly that when I raised the care crisis review at Prime Minister’s questions a few months ago. However, if nothing else is on offer to support a family in crisis, it suddenly is not a last resort—in some cases, it becomes the only tool a local authority can deploy. As I said, that will be of huge consequence to children, society and the state if we continue down the path of saying simply, “Let’s not invest in the long term and enabling children to stay safely at home with their families.”

Had I not seen it for myself, I would not have believed the cost of care proceedings where parents object, or the agonies they go through to keep their child with them. I have seen cases where the legal process has cost the state millions. Just think of the difference we could have made if only we had been able to support such families before they reached crisis—not only to the children’s lives, but with the millions of pounds we have spent on the court process, which is the most awful process for any family to have to go through.

I pay tribute to Edward Timpson, another excellent former Children’s Minister, for the work he did and for his knowledge and understanding of this area. He initiated fantastic projects such as Pause, which works with women who have repeatedly had children taken from them and put into the care system. To deal with their loss and grief, women continued to have children, which the state simply took away from them one after another without doing anything whatever to help them get out of the situation they were in. The futility of all that anguish seems senseless, so I am grateful to Edward Timpson for his legacy.

The only thing I would say about such projects is that, admirable as they are, they too often tinker at the edges rather than setting an overarching, long-term view of what could be done differently. That is why I welcome the suggestions in the care crisis review. Yes, some of them are about funding, which I have touched on, but the review contains all sorts of other suggestions. The Minister is very familiar with them, and I urge him to consider which ones could be implemented and which he could put his weight behind. It is important that we do not just have debates in which the Minister says, “I’m going to consider it,” and then the proposal dies a death. I have seen that happen many times. This is a real opportunity to use work that has been done for the Government by experts in the field to look carefully at what the Government can do to improve the system and make things better for children and families.

The cost to the state of a child being in care is enormous. We all know about the outcomes for care leavers and the huge challenges they face when they leave the care system. We know the statistics about the make-up of the prison population. Too often, people who have children taken from them are care leavers who did not have a parenting role model. The state deems that in itself to be a risk factor when assessing their suitability to parent. In too many cases, there is a self-perpetuating cycle of misery, and the Government do not intervene in the way they could to do amazing good. We have seen from the great projects I mentioned how much good can be done, but there does not seem to be an overarching, long-term Government strategy. Instead, understandably, the point is made that local authorities have to act on a case-by-case basis and the Government cannot intervene.

Jim Cunningham Portrait Mr Jim Cunningham
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5 Sep 2018, 4:48 p.m.

The hon. Lady is being generous in accepting interventions. She has worked hard on issues such as child abuse, which are related to this debate. One of the big problems is that successive Governments—not just Conservative Governments—have passed legislation but have not provided the funding to see it through. That is why we often get situations where things are botched, for want of a better term. We all know that local authorities have been starved of resources. Whether we accept the figures or not, that is a fact, and it puts another burden on local authorities. If we are going to have a proper strategy, it will have to be properly funded and we will need cross-party consensus to ensure that whichever party is in power sees it through.

Timpson was one of the very few Ministers I knew who actually understood the problem. I met him many times because of the problems we had in Coventry. I hope the present Minister, whom I do not know too well, has the same depth of commitment as Timpson. If he has, I am sure he will realise what the hon. Lady advocates. That will be the test for him.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 4:49 p.m.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for echoing what I said about Edward Timpson’s contribution. He is correct about funding. I am not one who thinks the solution to a problem is just to throw money at it—never, never, never—but in this case, where local authorities do not have funding for early intervention, prevention and support for families, they will only be able to keep coming back to the Government and asking for more money for statutory services. There will be a cumulative effect. That will happen unless the Government step in and say, “Right, we’re going to ring-fence funding to ensure there is at least an attempt to provide adequate support, particularly where we can see a family is struggling.”

We know that if a crisis is not addressed it continues to escalate. We must be able to act. We must be able to say, “Okay, that’s no good.” People normally end up in court proceedings, where the judge says, “Ah yes, the mother needs to have therapy, she needs to go to counselling and there needs to be”—[Interruption.]

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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5 Sep 2018, 4:49 p.m.

Order. There is a Division in the House. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes or, if there is a second Division, for 25 minutes.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 5:20 p.m.

Before the Divisions, I was talking about a situation where a family was in court proceedings and the judge told them to get counselling, but it was too late, because the timeline for the mother is not fitted to the timeline for the child and therefore the child is going into care. My point is that acting sooner is for the good of all, and particularly for the good of children, who need to be brought up in strong families.

Before I conclude, I want to say something about the role of social workers and the local authority. As we mentioned, the care crisis review refers to the risk-averse blame culture and the focus on correct processes rather than a collaborative problem-solving approach. We have to understand the difficult challenge social workers face. If a social worker has little else to offer a struggling family, of course they will be more likely to conclude that a child would be better off being removed, because they cannot take the risk of doing nothing.

As a Government, we cannot just sit back and say that these decisions must be made by the local authority, because that is a little bit too hands-off. I am not usually one to say that Government should do more, but we recognise that all social workers have a professional obligation to adhere to statutory requirements and guidelines and they simply do not have the flexibility that we imagine they do. They also have their own professional reputation to safeguard and that of their children’s services department. The local children’s services department has to fund statutory services, which speaks to the point about there being nothing left in the budget.

One important point, which I hope the Minister will take away, is that we cannot just say it is someone else’s problem. We need clarity from central Government. There are alternatives to care proceedings and some local authorities use them very effectively; we have to look at what works and encourage other local authorities to implement it. The care crisis review has come up with helpful options for change. It has specifically drawn attention to the need to tackle root causes and address the issues that children and families face on a cross-departmental basis. I am sure the Minister agrees that we should have a Children’s Minister in the Cabinet, because that cross-departmental approach is really important. The Minister has been working effectively with the Home Office on child sexual exploitation and I am grateful to see effective cross-departmental working on that issue; I know there is more of that to come under this Minister. I want to emphasise the point about ring-fencing funding for early help. We do not want to lose all the funding for children’s services to cover statutory interventions when other activities could support the families and help children to stay safely at home.

I know the Minister will have listened carefully and that he has already considered the conclusions of the care crisis review. What plans does he have to adopt any of the recommendations? Will he ask his officials to take a long-term, overarching, strategic approach to the problem? If we continue to take more children into care, the funding gap will increase. It is a sticking plaster, which will not solve anything in the long term. I know it is difficult for a Minister who is only in his post for a year or two—I hope this Minister will remain a great deal longer—to think long-term. If he implemented the strategic direction, which is currently lacking, that would be a tremendous legacy.

I believe Government have to be active in formulating direction, because there are too many legislative restrictions on local authorities. There is too much that they have to do, so they do not have the choice to operate in a more flexible manner. I know we all agree that no child should be in care if they can live safely at home, and if the Minister agrees with that, I know he will take action to make it an objective for Government. I thank everyone for taking part and the Minister for listening to me on this subject, which I have raised with him many times.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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5 Sep 2018, 5:24 p.m.

I have to advise the House that the debate must finish at 6.1 pm.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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5 Sep 2018, 5:24 p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing the debate and setting the scene. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility to speak out on behalf of those in Northern Ireland, but I think it is important that we get a perspective from Northern Ireland. The figures I will refer to will show that we do not have the same extremes that there are in parts of the UK mainland, but that does not detract from my support for the hon. Lady and others who have contributed to this debate.

As I mentioned to the hon. Lady, I had the joy of being raised by both parents in a strict but loving home, and raising my own boys along with my wife—although I can take no credit for that, as my wife reared them and I was rarely there. I now have the joy of seeing my granddaughters also living in a happy and stable home. My heart aches very much, therefore, when I hear the case made by the hon. Lady, of which she has persuaded me. I think of the children in the UK and specifically in Northern Ireland, who through no fault of their own do not have the life that we have, but live in care. In the short discussion I had with the hon. Lady beforehand, we were saying how fortunate we both are to have had a loving family home, but we also recognise the responsibility we have as Members of Parliament to make the case on behalf of those who need help. I do not do it in a judgmental way. I seek solutions for the problems and try to find a way forward.

The Minister has not been in his position long, but we wish him well. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is in the Chamber, was an excellent Children’s Minister. I also remember the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who was also Children’s Minister. We miss his contribution. He was really on the button with everything we were trying to put forward. The Minister has a hard act to follow, but we look forward to his response, which will hopefully be helpful.

In Northern Ireland, on 30 September 2017, some 2,325 children and young people had been in care continuously for 12 months or longer. The number of children in care was 5% higher than the previous year, but it represented a 57% increase from 2006. The increase over those 10 years was astronomical and put a lot of pressure on our system in Northern Ireland. Those 2,325 children represent a rate of 53 per 10,000 aged under 18, which is lower than the rest of the United Kingdom. Some 62 children per 10,000 had been in care for 12 months or more on the 31 March 2017. On 30 September 2017, 55% of those young people and children who had been in care for 12 months were male and 45% were female.

People say that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics,” but statistics prove a point. While they may not make good reading, they illustrate the issue. Similarly to 2015-16, 70% of children in care were pre-school age, some were primary school age, 26% were post-primary school age and 18% were 16 or older. There were minor differences in the breakdown between boys and girls. The rate of looked-after children in 2017 was slightly higher than that of 2016. The lowest rate occurred in 2006, when 34 children per 10,000 had been in care for 12 months or longer. We have had a consistent, long problem in Northern Ireland with children in need. We have tried to address that issue. Our health service has tried to address it fairly well within the confines of its responsibility financially, physically and emotionally.

Of those children, 18% experienced a placement change, which unfortunately can be particularly difficult. That has been the lowest number in recent years. If children whose placement move was for an adoption placement are excluded, the proportion of children with a placement change was 17%. As of 30 September 2017, more than 1,000 children in care for 12 months were placed in non-kinship foster care. The hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) referred to kinship foster care, which I have a particular interest in as well. Some 5% were in residential care and some 2% were in other placement types. Of the 1,055 children in non-kinship foster care, 71 were placed for adoption.

I have always tried to support adoption over the years—it is so important to get the right home and the right availability. Today there was a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and fostering that unfortunately I was unable to attend because of other commitments. I would have liked to have been there to give my support.

Of the 44 children in other placement types, 27 were living independently— sometimes that can happen—while the remaining 17 were in assessment centres, community placements, support accommodation, hospitals, juvenile justice centres and other placements not elsewhere described. Statements of special educational needs continue to be more prevalent among children of school age who are in care—some 24%—than the general school population.

I put to the Minister the importance of Health and Education Ministers working together, ever mindful that he is responsible for the mainland UK and that responsibility for care is devolved in Northern Ireland. When it comes to doing it better, we should be doing more in health and education together. Children in care for 12 months or longer do not perform as well as their peers in key stage assessments. Again, that tells us that the problems are not just about health and placements but about educational needs. While some of those children attain five or more As at GCSE, it is clear that many do not.

I was looking at how to describe this issue, and I wanted to give the stats and the figures in Northern Ireland to prove where the problem is. Now I want to ask everyone in the Chamber—I said this to the hon. Member for Telford beforehand—to do something different in illustrating the issue. For us, they are statistics—somebody that probably we do not know and may never know, but they may have come to our constituency office. However, we have read the pertinent statistics that highlight that our system is under immense pressure and we are failing these children. I believe we are, and the responsibility for that lies with elected representatives, with Government and with devolved Assemblies as well. We all agree that more needs to be done—the statistics speak for themselves.

I want everyone to take one of those people and think of them as their young son or daughter. Put a face, rather than just a number, to that statistic of 45%, 5% or 2%. In my case, my eldest grandchild is called Katie. How would I feel if Katie was one of the 25% who did not get their GCSEs? That is a statistic, but it is also a young person. What if Katie was one of the 17 children placed in a juvenile detainment facility? What if Katie was the child who slipped through the cracks and was one of the 127 children suspended from school in Northern Ireland last year? That is how we make statistics and figures real: we close our eyes and say, “What if that was my Katie, your John, your Jane or your Robert?” If it were my Katie, I would be doing more, so I ask myself, “Why, as an elected representative, am I not doing more now?”

I ask the Minister gently, cautiously and humbly to put his child’s face to one of those statistics, rather than see a figure. That makes it real and gives a perspective on what we are trying to say. We need to make changes to the system. Work must be done. We are not here to criticise or to point a finger; we are just here to make a heartfelt plea, as the hon. Lady did and as others did in their interventions. We urge the Minister to begin the work by making these changes, and not to simply accept or argue against the findings. The statistics are clear and they are not good reading. These children would not be abandoned if they were in our families—if they were our blood and kin—and they cannot be abandoned in our communities either. We must do more. I hope that today is the first day of acknowledging and working on that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate, and all hon. Members who have contributed.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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5 Sep 2018, 5:35 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate on the findings of the care crisis review, which was expertly conducted by the Family Rights Group. She made some excellent and valuable points, as did other hon. Members who have contributed.

Sir James Munby, president of the family division, said:

“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis… What is to be done?”

The Minister and all of us should be alarmed that although those comments were made more than two years ago, the state of children’s social care has continued on that negative downward trajectory. The review notes

“the link between poverty and care”

and that

“local authority spending in England and Wales is failing to keep pace with the steadily rising demand for children’s services, linked to rising family poverty.”

Those comments should come as no surprise to the Minister, as his Department’s figures show that children are 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan if they live in a deprived area.

Similarly, the Minister will know that local authorities’ early intervention grants—money that can keep children from entering care—have been slashed by his Government by up to £600 million, with almost £100 million more of cuts still to come. When the Minister was previously asked about early intervention, he said:

“early intervention is important and the Government take that very seriously.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 590.]

If that is the case, he should have no difficulty in committing today to the review’s request that he plug the estimated £2 billion gap in local authority budgets for children’s care by 2020. Services must be enabled to move on from an expensive crisis-led model to one of prevention, where there are enough resources for families to be supported and for children to remain with their family or return to their family’s care where it is safe to do so. In the prevention model, the focus on process and performance indicators changes to a focus on relationships and the absolute best way to meet a child’s needs.

As a practising social worker, I often saw the pain caused to children, their wider birth family and their new family when they were removed from their parents’ care, even when it was the safest thing to do. It is utterly heartbreaking. When opportunities to keep a family together have been missed, that heartbreak and enduring pain never leaves those involved. That is why it is vital to implement the recommendation to extend the problem-solving model of the family, drug and alcohol courts, which help to keep children out of the care system and save the taxpayer an average of £27,000 per family. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to halt their plans, which will lead to the closure of the family, drug and alcohol court national unit.

The Opposition very much welcome the report’s other recommendations to strengthen support for families, and its overall thrust. If implemented, it would result in a more child and family-centred social care system across the board. The recommendations are in stark contrast with the Government’s misguided efforts so far. The What Works centre has already cost taxpayers nearly £10 million and will not be in place until 2020. Partners in practice has had questionable results, with one council’s Ofsted rating falling from outstanding to requiring improvement under the Government’s scheme. The national assessment and accreditation system proved grossly unpopular, which forced a U-turn on roll-out, while gifting £23 million to private companies. The innovation programme has similarly bestowed £12 million on private consultancies, despite being time-limited and given only to certain local authorities, which exacerbates the postcode lottery. In total, £45 million has been spent on piecemeal measures that are not yielding long-term positive changes.

Three months ago, the Minister said about the very report we are debating:

“Across government we will consider its findings and recommendations carefully.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 589.]

He should be in a position today to say what he will implement from the report and detail the outcome of the discussions that have taken place so far. I look forward to hearing that in his response.

I would like to end where I began, with a recent comment from Sir James Munby’s successor, Sir Andrew McFarlane. He said:

“I, too, am clear that this is a crisis and I am extremely concerned to see that it is by no means abating.”

Coupled with recent reports in the press from members of the Minister’s own party that we are fast approaching a Baby P tragedy, it should be more than enough for him to act and put pressure where it is needed within government. I wait in anticipation and look forward to his response.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)
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5 Sep 2018, 5:41 p.m.

It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. I know she is concerned about the number of children being taken into care and that she is a firm believer in early intervention and family support services as a vehicle for lowering care demand.

I acknowledge the increase in the number of care order applications and the number of children being taken into care in recent years. The Government are acutely aware of the impact that that has had and is having on local authorities and the courts. We are also very conscious of the implications for children and families. I am immensely grateful to all those who have worked in child protection and the family justice system, whether they are social workers, court staff, CAFCASS guardians, judges or those in other roles. We want every child to be in a loving, stable home that is right for them. In most cases, children are best looked after by their families. Children are only removed as a last resort, which is why my Department is continuing to deliver a comprehensive reform programme for children’s social care across England. I will say more about our reforms later.

I recognise the sector’s care crisis review and acknowledge the work that the Family Rights Group and others involved invested in it. The review is an important contribution to the work being done across the family justice system to address the pressures caused by rising public law volumes for local authorities and the family courts. I am pleased to say that tomorrow the Minister for family justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who also has an interest in the report, and I are meeting members of the review team—Nigel Richardson, who chaired the review, and Cathy Ashley, who helped drive it—to discuss its findings.

In advance of that meeting, I can tell Members that officials in both our Departments have been carefully considering the options for change set out in the report, and we have taken action. The sector’s report sets out two specific options for change in relation to our “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance. First, it states that the guidance should be

“reviewed and amended so that the principles underpinning the legislation, including partnership and co-production with families, are clearly expressed and the processes for managing individual cases reflect the messages from research on the effectiveness of relationship-based practice.”

Secondly, it argued that the same guidance should be

“amended to place greater emphasis on the role to be played by key partner agencies, in addition to that played by children’s social care, in assessing and meeting the accommodation, health and educational needs of children and their families.”

I am pleased to say that we have addressed both those issues in the latest version of the statutory guidance, which we published in July. I hope Members and those who took part in the review welcome that. It is particularly important to recognise that the sector’s review stated that

“there are many overlapping factors contributing to the rise in care proceedings and the number of children in care. This complex picture means that there is no single solution.

That is in keeping with the Government’s own analysis and is why, in addition to the many reforms we are seeking to deliver, including those I will talk about shortly, we are working across Government to consider what more we can do. It includes the work that officials from my Department and the Ministry of Justice are doing with members of national and local family justice boards across England, through which we are seeking to understand the challenges in the family justice system better and consider with sector representatives what can be done to address them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford has an interest in early intervention. I assure her that, across Government, we are addressing the root causes of children’s needs early—be it by supporting children with alcohol-dependent parents or in families affected by domestic abuse, preventing young people from being drawn into serious violence, or investing in early years and children’s and young people’s mental health. Our “Working Together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidance is clear that local areas should have a comprehensive range of effective evidence-based services in place to address assessed needs early. The Government have also committed £920 million to the troubled families programme, which aims to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple high-cost problems by 2020.

On the point that my hon. Friend made on funding for preventive support services, it is for local authorities to determine how to spend their non-ring-fenced income on the services they provide, including services for preventive support measures.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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5 Sep 2018, 5:46 p.m.

The Minister mentioned the troubled families programme, which has been a huge success in west Sussex. There is concern that the funding will not be renewed after 2020. Will he give a commitment now that that successful programme will be continued?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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5 Sep 2018, 5:50 p.m.

My hon. Friend is one of my excellent predecessors—hon. Members mentioned Edward Timpson, but the work that my hon. Friend did in the Department has been a high bar for me to attempt to meet. I have seen first hand the effectiveness of the troubled families programme, and when it comes to the spending review, I will be a champion in ensuring that we continue to commit. In many of the cases that were highlighted to me by social workers in Islington and other parts of the country, a whole support system is required to help those families deliver stability for the family and the child.

Since 2016, we have been working to implement the reforms set out by my predecessor, Edward Timpson, in the “Putting children first” strategy. They centre on three key areas: people and leadership, practice and systems, and governance and accountability. I fully support the strategy and am committed to implementing it. “Putting children first” set out a five-year reform programme for children’s social care in Europe, which includes developing the social work profession, supporting innovation and improvement and establishing a new What Works centre. I will say something about them and the impact that our reforms will have.

On the social work profession, our successful Step Up to Social Work and Frontline programmes have brought new people into the profession and promoted social work as a desirable graduate career. Recently, I was pleased to be able to announce a further £25 million for Step Up to Social Work to bring a further 700 talented future social workers into children’s services. Through investment in professional development at key stages throughout their career, and the new national accreditation and assessment system, which the shadow Minister effectively dissed—[Interruption.] Not at all. The very good social workers who have been through it show very high satisfaction ratings. Hon. Members will hear more of that in the future. We are really helping to ensure that the quality of practice is consistently excellent.

Innovation and improvements are at the heart of the Government’s vision for children’s social care. The £200 million Children’s Social Care Innovation programme has deepened evidence about what good social work looks like and about the potential for innovation. It has generated a portfolio of promising successful innovations, which we are rolling out more widely to understand the potential wider impact. I am also pleased to note that the sector-led report points out that many projects are doing effective and innovative work with families who are at risk of breakdown, including helping to reduce the numbers of children being taken into care. Information from the programme will form the wider bank of evidence going into the new What Works centre, which is currently in a testing and development phase, to improve outcomes for young people and learning for the sector. The What Works centre is pressing ahead with its research programme, including examining what works on reducing the need for children to enter care. We hope it will support the uptake of quality evidence in frontline practice in children’s social care.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Lewell-Buck
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5 Sep 2018, 5:51 p.m.

I am conscious that the Minister is about to wrap up, and I am concerned that he has failed to mention anything about the links between deprivation and rising care numbers, which all the research says is a massive issue. I am interested to find out from him what exactly local authorities have done through innovation money that they would not have been able to do if they were funded properly. Would it not have been better if they were all funded properly so they could all innovate, instead of it being piecemeal?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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5 Sep 2018, 5:51 p.m.

Local authorities are spending a record £9.2 billion on children’s services. The hon. Lady raises an important point and I do not want to politicise this. Yes, budgets are tight, but where I have seen good children’s services being delivered, it is very much dependent on the quality of leadership and support offered to frontline social workers.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
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5 Sep 2018, 5:52 p.m.

Will the Minister acknowledge the role of kinship carers with respect to the moneys they save the state? Will he commit to looking at that subject and trying to resolve their issues as part of examining the wider picture?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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5 Sep 2018, 5:52 p.m.

I was going to mention the point made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on kinship carers. I acknowledge the work that they do. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, we should remember to turn the statistics into real children and real families. The work that kinship carers do is incredibly important in delivering stability for those children.

We have developed an improvement strategy to identify local authorities at risk of failing and put in place targeted support to help them improve, so that the services families and vulnerable children receive get better faster. We have done that by working in partnership with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the LGA to test the new regional improvement alliances. We believe that that will complement the new Ofsted framework, enabling a new phase of continuous sector-led improvement.

In March I announced that more than £15 million will go to eight new partners in practice, expanding our local authority peer support programme to improve children’s services. We know that some of our partners in practice are looking at what can be done to address the increased number of children entering care—this addresses the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields—and are working with them to understand what might work and how it might be used by other local authorities.

We are confident that this comprehensive reform programme will lead to better qualified and developed skilled social workers who are able to make difficult decisions, more confident local authorities and social workers that manage cases themselves including associated risks, and a children’s social care system that learns what works from evidence and applies it in practice. Ultimately, that should all lead to the right decisions being made for children and their families.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, my Department is working with the Ministry of Justice, with which we share responsibility for public family law. We are committed to ensuring that local authorities and the courts have the resources that they need. For example, the MOJ has overseen a campaign to recruit more family court judges and to provide more court sitting days.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford for securing today’s important debate and express my gratitude for her ongoing interest. I want to address some of the points made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talked about social worker caseloads. Social workers have one of the hardest jobs in the world, and I am determined to do all I can to support them. We continue to attract high-quality recruits and we invest in fast-track and the frontline programmes. We are also establishing Social Work England as a new specialist regulator, which will set professional education training standards and provide assurances that those registered meet the standards.

The hon. Member for Coventry South made the point that the reforms came without additional funding. However, when new duties have been introduced, we have provided additional funding. For example, when the new “staying put” duty came into force in May 2014, we committed £40 million to help local authorities implement it.

It is important to address some of the questions asked by probably the most experienced Member of Parliament in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He asked about early help being deprioritised after the Munro review in 2011 recommended an early help duty and the Government decided that such a duty was not necessary. Instead, as I am sure he knows, we strengthened the “Working together to safeguard children” requirement for early help assessment, as I mentioned. We made it clear that early help services should form part of a continuum of help in local areas.

My hon. Friend made a very good point about the postcode lottery. The Government are committed to making the reforms to improve decision making for children and their families throughout England. Alongside that, part of the joint work that my Department is undertaking with the Ministry of Justice is to understand better the basis of decision making in different areas so that we can consider what Government are able to do. For example, can we learn anything from how different local authorities use the space that precedes care proceedings and share that among all local authorities?

I shall end there, other than to say that, ultimately, in my book, everything we do and all the reforms that we deliver need to do two things: place the child at the heart of the process and deliver stability.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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5 Sep 2018, 5:57 p.m.

I thank all Members who have contributed to this extremely important debate. I value in particular the reminder from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that these children are not statistics; these children are our children. I know that everyone present shares that view.

I am grateful and glad that the Minister will meet the Family Rights Group tomorrow. That is excellent news. The group will tell the Minister many of the things that I and others have said today.

The issue of funding is not one that can be so lightly skated over. I hesitate to say that, because I never think that funding is the solution to problems on its own, but the Minister may need to reconsider ring-fenced funding for early intervention. If nothing is left in the budget, there is no choice for local authorities to spend on early intervention. The LGA, Barnardo’s and Action for Children all say the same thing. He will listen to what I have said and to what others have said. Cathy Ashley will also put him right on that point tomorrow.

I am glad about the good news on children’s social care—there is lots of it, but I will continue to raise it with the Minister. There is a well of support for it on the Education Committee too, and he will be back before us to answer our questions. I am grateful to him, and I know that he has a passion for the sector, that he cares deeply about children and children in care, and that he will do everything possible to ensure that children have the opportunity to be brought up in a safe and strong family.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the findings of the Care Crisis Review.

Sitting adjourned.