HC Deb 26 July 1985 vol 83 cc1423-34 10.10 am
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I shall not have to start by facing the difficulties faced by Lord Shaftesbury in 1875 when he wrote to a friend who was profoundly concerned about the welfare of children and said: The evils you state are enormous and indisputable, but they are of so private, internal and domestic a character as to be beyond the reach of legislation and the subject would not, I think, be entertained in either house of Parliament. I am pleased to have this opportunity to talk about child abuse. It has been estimated that more than one child dies every week at the hands of its parents or guardians, and that every year perhaps 50,000 others suffer lesser deaths—physical cruelty, mental torture, gross neglect, sexual abuse or severe emotional starvation within their families.

None of us can fail to experience a strong emotional reaction to the recent cases of child abuse and death which have been so widely reported. There have been errors of judgment and it is essential that lessons be learnt from those. Rather than simply adding to the sensationalistic and censorious responses to these recent appalling tragedies, for which simplistic solutions are too often proposed and social workers are more often than not used as whipping boys, I should like to try to redress the balance and see the problem of child abuse in a clearer context.

Sadly, there is certainly nothing new about child abuse and neglect. The use of pathological terms to describe its roots, causes and effects and the media's preoccupation with horrific cases should not obscure its long-standing nature or delude us into thinking that its incidence and characteristics are any different now from what has been described in literature over the years. Descriptions of barbarous treatment are widespread in literature and popular culture. There are frequent tales of infanticide, ritual sacrifice, mutilation, starvation, flogging and exploitation. It is only relatively recently that a child has been thought to have any right at all not to be abused or neglected.

I hope that this is not an area in which Members will advocate a return to Victorian values. In Victorian times children did not get a particularly good deal, as can be seen from graphic accounts in novels by Dickens and others. By 1822 there were laws for the protection of animals, but it was not until 1889 that, with the first children's charter, neglect and cruelty to children became illegal. The activity of baby farming where children faced a lingering death from starvation was notorious.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, founded in 1884. Like so many other organisations, it was founded by philanthropists responding to need as they saw it. In its 100 years over 9 million children have been helped. The society started with a policy of removing children from their homes and when necessary prosecuting their parents, but increasingly it tried to work with families in an attempt to keep children at home. At the turn of the century its enlightened founder, Benjamin Waugh, said: It is better to remove evil from the home than remove the child. We still face precisely the same issue when dealing with child abuse.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Patten)

I hope my hon. Friend will allow me to associate myself with her remarks about the valuable work of the NSPCC. She has drawn attention to the work done by its field workers and also to the work that it does centrally and to its resources, such as the valuable Sainsbury library.

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank my hon. Friend for endorsing my remarks. The NSPCC has constantly moved ahead arid has pioneered work and performed the ideal role of a voluntary body of embarking on experimental and innovative work, maintaining statistics, expanding research and developing social work services. It also influences legislation and is increasingly involved in educational work.

The one job for which nobody has training is parenthood. Frequently in cases of child abuse we find poorly skilled parents with remarkably disadvantaged backgrounds who are quite unprepared for the demands and pressures that a child places upon them. Many hope that a child will be source of love for them, and are quite unprepared for long days and nights tending difficult children with demanding behaviour. When the strains and stresses on the rest of their life build up, too frequently it is the child who is the butt of their anger.

The majority of child abuse cases involve children under five, although there are increasing numbers of cases involving children over 10; about one child in four is over 10 at the time of the abuse. Apart from physical injury, they fall into categories of failure to thrive, sexual abuse, which is causing increasing concern, neglect, and emotional abuse. Fewer than half live with both their natural parents. The parents are more likely to be unemployed, and nearly two thirds are in receipt of supplementary benefit.

A significant number of the parents have criminal records, nearly half the men, and one in five of the women, according to recent NSPCC research, and a large number of the criminal records relate to violent offences. This raises the issue of the extent to which criminal records should be available to those responsible for child placement. There are many background stress factors on the families. They include marital discord in virtually half the cases, unemployment, and financial problems, but many parents also complain of difficulties with the children, saying that the child is behaving badly.

Significantly, many parents have an unrealistic expectation of how the child should behave, so that when it behaves badly the parent takes it as a personal rejection. Many complain of being socially isolated. Heavy drinking is a factor in about one in five cases, and another factor is a parent with a psychiatric history. Frequently, parents have had experience of being in care and, significantly, of being battered themselves.

It is helpful to build up background information, but it is naive to think that by building up such information one can predict precisely where incidents will occur, because they are profoundly multifaceted. We know of the disasters and the problems, and we know when a child loses its life. Serious injuries arid fatalities are in decline. Social workers and public authorities cannot advertise successes. The confidentiality of the parents and children involved mean that they are protected and, as a result, the public always receive a jaundiced picture.

Social workers are particularly vulnerable. Widespread variations in practice exist and one disaster inevitably results in social workers being pilloried. We had a recent example in the press of a lady with seven broken ribs being sent home from hospital, an injury which she sustained in a car accident. The lady later died, but this did not result in a letter from the DHSS advising doctors to X-ray motor accident victims. One can imagine the indignation of the medical profession if this one clear case of bad practice had been used as an example for guidelines.

Few people appreciate the complexity of the job that a social worker has to do. Such a worker has to make life and death decisions, he or she has to decide whether or not to place a child on the child abuse register, whether or not to seek a care or supervision order or whether to go for wardship. The social worker has to decide whether or not the child should be removed from its home and if it should be fostered or adopted, or whether rehabilitation should be attempted. All this uncertainty causes delays, stress on the parents and stress on the child. Indecision is often one of the worst eventualities for a child. But throughout this, social workers have to do all that they can to maintain the trust of the parents.

Too often, child care legislation results from some appalling incident. It is interesting that the Curtis report in the 1940s resulted from a case where a child was killed when in the care of foster parents. It resulted in the setting up of the children's departments. In 1973 Maria Colwell died at the age of seven, and the inquiry report into the circumstances of her care was published a year later. Currently there is the Jasmine Beckford case, when again a child was returned from foster parents to a home with a history of violence.

It would be unfortunate if such a case resulted in widespread over-reaction. Social workers are always having to act according to the whims of public pressure. In recent months we have had a great outcry in the media about social workers removing too many children from their families, suggesting that this is oppressive and a sign of the totalitarian state, and that it is not right for children to be brought away from their natural parents. The Family Rights Group has been particularly active in advocating this view.

It would be sad now if we had a widescale over-reaction, as many feel we did after Maria Colwell, where magistrates, social workers and others are so afraid of being pilloried in the press that they over-reacted. We could safely take hundreds and thousands of children into care to lead a rather sterilised life, doing the best that could be done. But it must be right to try as hard as possible to leave a child with the family, with the proviso that if rehabilitation does not work a brave and firm decision must be made because the child needs a secure and predictable future.

We have had other fashions and trends, some more sinister than others. In some of the more Left-wing areas we have recently faced an obsession with a kind of anti-racism where, in cases of black children especially, social workers were interrogated if they decided that they should be removed from their homes. This is profoundly unhelpful to all families and an insult to the overwhelming majority of caring families from ethnic minorities, suggesting that somehow they need a different standard of care. It is especially incensing when some of the more Left-wing despots try to interfere with professional social work practice in this way and are then often the first to point the finger at social workers and condemn them when cases go wrong.

The social worker has a duty to his local authority, and that points in two profoundly opposite ways. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 requires that children shown to be at risk are protected. The Child Care Act 1980 lays a duty on a local authority to work to prevent children having to go into care whenever possible. Somehow, social workers have to find a way down the middle.

I welcome the recent consultative paper issued by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary on child abuse inquiries, trying to standardise the way in which inquiries are held. It is essential to hold such an inquiry speedily as soon as there has been an incident. The appalling cost of inquiries at present—up to £500,000 in one case—simply to have the local authority go through much of the same information that is gone through in the court case is unhelpful. We need a standardised way of learning from mistakes, adopting a similar approach to all inquiries so that comparisons can be made.

The British Association of Social Workers has been working for many months on policy papers for codes of practice in cases of child abuse, trying to look long term at the issues involved rather than simply responding to a crisis.

The emphasis laid by all is on the need for training. It was perhaps simplistic to think that a generic social worker could be produced after perhaps one year's training. Increasingly what is required is post-qualifying experience. The Seebohm idea of one front door so that families did not have to go to a variety of agencies is laudable, but to deal with the very difficult issues involved in child abuse must require post-qualifying training and experience.

In many ways, the probation service handles its training better. There is a major problem in that social workers do not receive mandatory awards. They go on their initial training as a result of secondment. It has been tentatively suggested that this makes it particularly difficult for colleges to fail CQSW students who are on secondment. This is an issue which I would like to see looked at further.

Above all, basic training must include a practical understanding and appreciation of child development. In most of the cases that have arisen the child has suffered considerable weight loss, which is one of the first signs of unhappiness and emotional distress. It is essential that some of this knowledge which health visitors have is understood more widely by social workers.

There is also the factor emphasised in the Maria Colwell report that the ability to communicate with children alone is essential. It is not possible to work only through the parents. Direct contact must be made with the child. Again I welcome the letter from the chief inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate to all authorities emphasising the need actually to see the child. I am constantly struck by the number of cases where a huge number of visits have been made but the child has not actually been seen. The child needs to be seen.

In my view, consideration should be given to adding a little more to the obligations of a family whose child is put on the child abuse register. That parent, for instance, might be entitled to a written statement in the way that in court an accused person who is refused bail is given a written statement of the reasons. Is it unreasonable for the parents whose child is placed on the child abuse register to have a written statement explaining their obligations and what is expected of them? Amongst the ideas that I suggest is, first, that for a child who is not attending a day nursery there should be regular medical inspections. Seeing a child unclothed at regular intervals is a vital ingredient. It is very hard for a social worker visiting a family to ask a child to remove its clothes. That needs to be done by a member of the medical profession.

There should also be an obligation on the parent to inform the local authority or the person responsible of any change in the location of the child. Frequently a disaster has been preceded by a change in the home circumstances —either the child has gone to live with someone else or there has been another significant change at home. Frequently it is a change which might not initially give rise to concern. For example, a father finding a job may to the uninitiated seem to be a good move, but it may mean that the mother is more isolated and more lonely, and the child is more at risk. It is vital for any change in circumstances to be investigated and considered.

Similarly, there is an impact on a family if there are changes in its support team. If a family aide leaves, or if a health visitor leaves, it is essential to recognise the significance and the impact that it may have on the child.

It is essential for management training to be introduced for the social work organisations. Social work departments are recent creations. There is no reason to despair—they have come a long way in a short time — but good management training is vital.

It is also important to have a qualified, experienced worker in each authority responsible for consulting on child abuse cases. The person who holds the child abuse register should not be an unqualified clerical assistant. It is essential to have someone who can give guidance and advice and weigh up information coming in to him.

I wish to spend a few moments discussing the input of the multi-disciplinary team. Children live in an environment in which their schools, their doctors, their health visitors, their local policemen — all sorts of people—have a part to play. A multi-disciplinary team is vital for dealing with cases of child abuse. However, it needs to be practical. It must know who is the chairman and what decisions have been reached. It cannot be just an exchange of hunch, intuition, feeling and suspicion. It must be a practical body which sets out clearly categorised points for action. Moreover, when the points for action have been established, there must be a specific recommendation about the action that needs to be taken if something goes wrong. It is easy enough to prescribe a recipe, but it is not so easy when one finds that the child is not there when one knocks at the door. To whom does one turn then? All of these eventualities need to be clarified.

The general practitioner has a particularly important role to play, but he does not always face up to this role. A recent research project on multi-disciplinary teams suggested that the general practitioner turns up only at 10 per cent. of the conferences to which he has been invited. The general practitioner's contribution is important. In the Maria Colwell case there was comment about the failure of the general practitioner to note the signs of child abuse. The Short report on children in care also referred to the vital role of the general practitioner and his reluctance sometimes to report suspected abuse by parents who are also his patients. A child has a right not to be abused. When he is making up his mind, that should be the overriding concern of the doctor. The child is his patient, too.

Teachers see a great deal of children when they are at school, but frequently they are remarkably unaware of the signs of child abuse. So the training of teachers is also important. A child who is reluctant to change for games may be hiding a bruise. Another sign may be that a child does not want to go home. That is particularly true of the child who wants to run away. It is essential that teachers should know what to do about such worrying signs. Health visitors, who have a practical knowledge of child development, also have a key role to play.

One member of the team who receives wide praise is the police officer. The police have become specialists and extremely sophisticated in dealing with cases of child abuse, particularly sexual abuse. They have the reputation for straightforward but sensitive communication with parents as well as for taking statements prior to any legal proceedings. They make a significant contribution to the. team.

Inevitably, tension can arise from the conflict between the need for confidentiality and the need to communicate about children at risk. Guidance on how to weigh up the conflicts between the different professional groups involved would be helpful.

Magistrates are as vulnerable as social workers to the pressures of public opinion and to the danger of making decisions which eventually result in disaster. I hope that this debate on child abuse will be used as an opportunity to discuss once again the future of our juvenile court arrangements: whether it makes sense to have adversarial conflict between the child and a local authority, in which parents have no official standing, or whether we should establish family courts and an inquisitorial system which would allow the court to become a seeker after the truth and to call expert witnesses, instead of being told that certain evidence is not admissible. Court delays can be particularly damaging to a child. A child of three months about whom a decision takes three or six months to be made spends two thirds of its life as the victim of indecision.

The public have a role to play. After a disaster has occurred we are too often told that somebody knew something, or thought something, or had heard something. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has played an excellent role in maintaining public confidence, but particularly at a time when families are geographically separated it is very important that good neighbours should be prepared to take action and to inform the relevant authorities of their concern.

I appreciate the steps which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security is taking to review the procedures and to provide further guidelines in cases of child abuse. It is essential that public confidence should be maintained. For this reason I urge him to think again about the collection of national statistics. None of us can fail to have powerful professional, political and above all personal reactions when things go wrong. I urge him not only to consider the natural outrage that is felt when disasters occur and to make every effort to learn from the mistakes, but to reach his conclusions with a full appreciation of the complexity of the task with which professional social workers and others have been entrusted and with an awareness of the good practice and of the progress that is being made in many areas.

10.35 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Patten)

Before the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) leaves the Chamber, may I say how very pleased my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) and I are that he has listened to our short debate. The Government join the Opposition in warmly congratulating the right hon. Gentleman upon his 40th anniversary as a Member of Parliament. We value having him as the Father of our House. We hope that he will long continue to play that role.

Today the right hon. Gentleman looks very much as he did in that splendid general election photograph of 1945, which is copied this morning in The Times. The importance of his election to his then Cardiff constituency and the importance of that watershed general election victory by the Labour party in 1945 passed me by entirely. I did not notice it. My only excuse is that I was then only eight days old. My mind was, alas, on other things. The House warmly congratulates the right hon. Gentleman on his anniversary.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. May I intervene to congratulate the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on her very interesting and wide-ranging speech, to which I listened with great attention. In the past I had some small responsibility for these matters. The hon. Lady referred to the consequences of the Seebohm commission. We have been unable to reconcile the care of the child with the control of the child. When they are in two separate hands, it is bound to be a recipe for division. The care of the child and the control of the child should surely be in the same hands, or there should at least be the same over-arching responsibility for them.

The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 has not worked out as it should have done, because the children's department in the Home Office, which was able to reconcile those two responsibilities, has disappeared. I am not suggesting that there should be an overhaul of the administration, but I hope that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will consider carefully the hon. Lady's point about the need for reconciliation of the tension between magistrates and social workers. That cannot be good for the future welfare of these children. I hope that he will forgive me for saying that. I fear that I shall have to leave the Chamber very soon, but I shall read his speech.

Mr. Patten

Characteristically, the right hon. Gentleman has pre-empted a large part of my speech. I shall turn from time to time during it to exactly those tensions. When the right hon. Gentleman has a chance to read my speech, he will see that his wise words are reflected in what I am about to say. I join him in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West for the characteristically measured, balanced and articulate way in which she dealt with this most difficult problem. The House listens to her with respect because she has experience of these problems in both the social work and voluntary sectors. She is also a distinguished justice of the peace.

It is curious that my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate should be on the day after the trial of those involved in the tragic case of Tyra Henry. That case, and cases like it, cannot fail to stir the emotions of everyone who reads about them. I appreciate that, and I share the abhorrence which has been well reflected in what has been said about the cases that have occurred this year. However, those emotions must never be allowed to cloud the real problems that exist for social workers, the courts, doctors and others who have the difficult task of trying to balance the rights and welfare of the child with the need to return a child to his or her family, while ensuring that the protection of the child is paramount. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned those tensions.

Recent tragic cases have brought home to us all the sad extremes to which parents may go in abusing their children. But they are extremes, and there is a danger that they may give a false impression that all is failure. Such statistics as we have from the NSPCC and other bodies seem to demonstrate that, although child abuse cases must always be matters for considerable concern, there has been a welcome levelling-off, if not a slight decline, in the incidence of child abuse in recent years. My hon. Friend made an important point about whether our national statistics are adequate for our purposes. I wish to deal with that point in more detail than I can fit into the short time that remains, so I shall write to my hon. Friend and set out my views.

One problem is the under-reporting of child abuse, whether it be physical or mental. It is interesting that we have had many more reports of child sexual abuse during the past two or three years than we have ever had. Does that represent an increase in that disgusting practice, or does it represent an increase in the reporting of such cases because people are now prepared to talk about it? I believe that the latter is true, and that the incidence of reporting has been the most important trend in recent years.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

indicated assent.

Mr. Patten

I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment — the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) — who has considerable experience in social work issues, agrees with that.

Professional staff in all disciplines and in all authorities who are in contact with children and families work extremely hard, with much unpublicised success, to help families who have problems. However, I should make it clear that a minority of social workers, social work managers and their political masters—the councillors in borough, district and county authorities— have rightly been criticised for their failings. But they are a tiny minority. The vast majority of social workers perform their difficult tasks extremely well. Most of us in the Chamber this morning would find it acutely difficult to perform those tasks.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

Does my hon. Friend agree that, sadly, some teachers, policemen, magistrates, health visitors and members of the public have not acted as responsibly as they might have done in some cases?

Mr. Patten

That has sometimes been the case, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that only a small minority are involved. An unfortunate side effect of cases such as the ones about which we have read this year is that the entire profession gets a bad name for the failings of the few. That is not to say that the few should not be strongly criticised, or that the failure of management properly to direct social workers in their tasks should not be exposed. We should also expose the failings of a small minority of councillors, especially in one or two London boroughs, who have interfered dramatically with the professional judgments of social workers and made their jobs almost impossible.

These are not anecdotal remarks from a Conservative Minister. One need only read a report in last week's edition of the journal Community Care from social workers in the London borough of Lambeth, who resent the political interference that makes their jobs much more difficult. Councillors, having laid down policy guidelines, should not give in to the temptation of interfering with professional judgments. That is not their role.

All our efforts in the community stress that we must have an integrated approach to dealing with child abuse. A variety of forms of help can be made available to rehabilitate families. Authorities and voluntary organisations have developed a wide range of facilities, such as day and family centres, which provide much advice and help. In parallel to this activity, we must encourage the entire community to understand its role in helping families in trouble. That echoes a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West. For example, there has been an encouraging growth in self-help groups in the community which offer assistance to families under stress — perhaps with telephone help lines. We should encourage the continuing growth of help in the community and care by the community for children at risk.

However, we must not be complacent. My hon. Friend referred, kindly, to some of the initiatives taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health and myself. We cannot stop there. We have a considerable task ahead of us in ensuring that tragic cases are avoided in the future. No one in the House would suggest that changes in the law, the guidance that we send out, the statements that I make from the Dispatch Box attempting to influence social workers, social work practice, social work management and those who direct social workers will stamp out the problem. We know that that will never happen, but we must redouble the efforts that we have made during the past few months to ensure that such cases become less likely.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Although I agree entirely that voluntary organisations and communities can help, we must ask how much a voluntary organisation can do in a case of child abuse before a professional judgment is needed. Neighbours looking after a family which they know is under stress may not always see the signs of abuse. Reliance on voluntary services must be limited because, in most cases, professional judgments are needed.

Recently, I heard about a Dr. Barnardo's pilot scheme for providing day fostering to parents under stress. The scheme looks after the child, and teaches the mother how to look after her children properly. Although it is a voluntary organisation, I believe that the professionals must judge how much that stress could be eased by removing the child from the home for a few hours a day. I am worried that if there is a reliance on voluntary organisations the necessary professional judgments will not be made.

Mr. Patten

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening because he has raised some important points. I know of his interest in these matters. I agree that we must use voluntary organisations carefully. Professional judgments must not be suborned or second-guessed by voluntary organisations, individuals or politicians. However, professional social workers are employed by organisations such as Dr. Barnardo's and the NSPCC. We need partnership, and I believe that social work departments should take the lead in organising voluntary groups and bringing them together so that the problems to which the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred can be resolved.

In the nine minutes that are left, I hope that I shall have time to pinpoint the six main points of our overall strategy. The first is that we must continue to learn lessons from serious cases that arise. Based on experience that we have gained from such investigations, on 4 July we issued a consultative paper which sets out to speed up the process of investigation. I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West gave it such a warm welcome. We had close consultation with the social work profession, which also has warmly welcomed the paper.

I remember doing an interview on a BBC radio programme a couple of weeks ago, when I made that announcement. At the end of the interview the rather surprised announcer said that the BBC had telephoned the British Association of Social Workers, which said that it agreed with everything that I had said. I was delighted about that warm welcome. I am not criticising the BASW, but simply saying that it was a great disappointment to the BBC commentator.

Secondly, we must make sure that the law is working well. We responded quickly to the excellent report by the Select Committee on Social Services. Child care law is the essential legal foundation on which much of our work to provide help for abusing families is built. We intend, through our current review of child care law to produce a much clearer and much more consistent legal framework in which child care practitioners can operate. That is critical, because there is an enormous area of overlap between the work of my Department and that of the Lord Chancellor's Department. Over the past few months we have had a very helpful set of informal consultations with a wide range of groups of those involved about possible changes and potential benefits that may accrue from changes in child care laws.

There has been a suggestion that that is taking rather a long time. All that I would say to those who say that we are taking a long time is that it is an incredibly complicated area. We have a substantial number of consultation papers, which stand a foot or so high. It is a very complex law. Strong feelings and human emotions are closely involved. However, we shall issue a consultation paper in the autumn—by which I mean the autumn—so that those interested can look at our ideas for reform. Those ideas will of course be related to the general examination being conducted by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, into the concept of family courts. That idea does not fall within the remit and responsibilities of my Department, but should such things come about in child care law that would be critically important.

Thirdly, we must make absolutely sure that our guidance is good. We must have a sound legal foundation on which we can continue to develop the procedural framework for dealing with child abuse. We are trying to develop the two things together. I am not waiting for the final reviews of the legal framework for child law before developing a better and tighter procedural framework for dealing with child abuse. The message from so many child abuse inquiries—alas, there have been many in the past — has pointed to the critical importance of good collaboration among authorities. My hon. Friend also referred to that matter.

Over the past 15 years successive Governments have issued a wide range of advice in that area, and we believe that the time is now appropriate for a much more comprehensive review of that material—to bring the whole lot up to date, to try to make it as sensible, but as direct, as possible, and to try to introduce advice for the first time ever about the extremely difficult and sensitive area of child sex abuse. I hope to be able to provide a collaborative framework within which professional and voluntary sector child care practice can develop. We are also looking at prevention and training, to which my hon. Friend referred. We hope to issue a further consultative paper by the end of the year.

If anyone is impatient with the idea of producing consultative papers, let me tell him that again it is a complicated area. We must consult the professions involved and carry them with us, because it is the social workers on the ground who have to do those exceptionally difficult tasks. However, I am determined that the guidance that will flow from the consultation by the end of the year will be definitive; of the sort that we have not seen before in social work practice.

Fourthly, we must monitor what the statutory social service departments actually do. It is sometimes forgotten by the general public and the media that local authorities run social work departments. They have the legal responsibility for looking after children in care. It is we who have to lay down the guidance, and the development of the professional skills of social workers is an essential part of our bid to improve services. As a contribution to that development, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set up on 1 April this year a Social Services Inspectorate. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West said about the work of the inspectorate so far. It was set up with the agreement of the statutory authorities. I welcome the tribute that she paid to the work already done by the chief inspector, Mr. Utting, who sent out a letter giving additional guidance on child abuse.

One of the first tasks that I have set the Social Services Inspectorate is to have a radical, rapid look at practice on the ground in connection with child abuse and report back as a matter of urgency so that we can build those conclusions into guidance which we shall introduce in order, we hope, to minimise the risk of tragic cases such as have been described today.

Fifthly, we are introducing regular structured reviews of the circumstances of children in care, trying to balance the needs of children's families and the worries and concerns of social work departments against the needs, interests and welfare of the children. In the light of the work that we are doing on child care law, we are looking again at the guidance that we are giving on that.

Finally, we hope to promote throughout the social work profession and the social work world, nationally and locally—it is at local level that so much is done—the idea that common sense is critical in what social workers do, and that in the continuing debate on whether one should be more or less cautious about a child's welfare, whether to return it to a family should there be any element of risk, in the last resort it must be the welfare and safety of the child that come first.

Recognising that the individual social worker has a difficult role, we believe that he or she must in the end follow the basic procedures laid down — the basic guidance that I gave in April this year. That is that if a child is at risk, and if a social worker has been told to visit and see that child, the social worker must do so. There is no excuse whatever for any social worker, whatever the difficulties he is working under, not to visit a child who is deemed to be at risk. Equally, there is absolutely no excuse for any social work managers not to have definitive instructions and structures within which social workers work. They should give guidance and make sure that it is carried through.

I think that social workers in some parts of the country would be greatly helped in carrying out their task if they were not interfered with by the politicians, who sometimes control and adversely affect what they do, as we have seen recently in Lambeth and one or two other London boroughs.

The Government are determined to introduce by Christmas a new set of guidelines for the entire social work profession that will be based on the six main points that I have mentioned. We hope that this will minimise further tragic cases of the sort that have so appalled the nation.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).