HC Deb 05 November 1998 vol 318 cc1011-23 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

In November last year the Government published the Utting report, which reviewed the safeguards for children in care. In my statement to the House, I made clear that the report painted a woeful picture of failure. Many children who had been "taken into care" to protect and help them had received neither protection nor help. Instead they had been abused and molested. Many more had been let down, never given the attention that they needed, shifted from place to place, school to school, and often simply turned out to fend for themselves when they turned 16.

That catalogue of events was not just a failure by the care staff directly concerned. It was a failure by social services managers, by councils, councillors, the police, the court system, schools, voluntary organisations, neighbours, the news media, the Government's social services inspectorate, Government Departments, Ministers and Parliament. Some people from all those institutions and in all those categories had worked hard to do a good job for those children, but too many had not and the whole system had failed.

Last November, I reported to the House that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had asked me to lead a ministerial task force to draw up the Government's response to the report. The task force involved Ministers from 10 Government Departments, together with outside representatives from social services, education, the police and the voluntary sector. It also included a young women who had recently been through the care system. She made some most valuable contributions to our deliberations and provided salutary reminders of the real world in which some children are being expected to grow up. I am grateful to her and all the other members of the task force for their positive contributions to the work of developing a comprehensive and practical set of measures.

In July this year, the Select Committee on Health strongly endorsed the need for action. Its report covered some aspects that were not the subject of the Utting report. The Government will make a full response to the Select Committee after the publication of our White Paper on social services.

Today I am publishing the task force's report, which sets out the practical measures that we have proposed and which the Government have accepted. We want to ensure that in future, children in care are looked after properly and get a decent start in life. We started by recognising that, if the whole system had failed those children, the whole system had to be put right. Tinkering with a few aspects was not enough.

Throughout our deliberations I asked everybody involved to look at the matter from the point of view of the children and to ask whether the care provided would have been good enough for them when they were children, and whether it would be good enough for their own children. That is what the task force has tried to do. As a result, our proposals are intended to ensure that those responsible, at any level, for children in care behave towards them as any good parent tries to behave towards his or her children.

With that in mind, the Government are implementing the task force's recommendations. We have already launched a three-year programme in the document entitled, "Quality Protects". Its job is to transform the care system for children by setting clear objectives and targets, putting action plans in place, and measuring whether those targets have been met. It also provides new guidance to strengthen the hand of conscientious elected local councillors. That will call for joined-up government—all Government Departments, local authorities, the court system, schools, the police and voluntary organisations working together towards a common goal, with clear targets and a demanding timetable. There can be no more excuses.

All those measures cannot be undertaken for nothing, so I can announce today that we are establishing a new children's services grant, which will provide an extra £375 million over the next three years to help fund the necessary improvements.

To stop potential child abusers working with children, we are establishing a new criminal records agency to improve and widen access to police checks on people wishing to work with children. It is a first step towards a "one-stop shop" that can give employers access to police records and the separate lists kept by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health. The present system is a confusing mess that denies the children concerned elementary protection.

The present law provides that councils have a duty to children while they are in care up to the age of 16 and a discretionary power to help them up to the age of 18 when they leave care. As a result, some unfortunate children are turned out at the age of 16 with little or no help afterwards. That cannot be right.

In order that the task force could consider the question of when young people should leave care, and how they should be helped when they do, I insisted that my officials produce a paper spelling out what parents usually provide for members of an ordinary family between the ages of 16 and 18 or 21. May I ask hon. Members to think for a minute about when they were between 16 and 21, or what they did or are doing for their children in that age group? Now may I ask them to think about having to do without any of that: no home to live in or return to; no shoulder to cry on; no encouragement to do school or college work; no morale-boosting chat before an interview, nor anyone to console us if it went wrong; nobody to give us a lift, make us a meal or, if we are a bit older, take us out for a drink; nowhere to get our washing done for nothing; no mother or father to touch for a tenner when we are skint. The list is endless, and it is a disgrace. It is simply wrong and the Government are going to change it.

We will change the law to extend the duty of care for those young people from 16 to 18, and ensure that councils' responsibilities for children up to the age of 18 and beyond correspond more closely with those accepted by any good parent. That includes trying to keep in touch with children once they have left home.

We are taking steps to ensure better school attendance by children in care and setting targets so that they achieve more at school than they do at present. We are taking steps and setting targets to reduce the number of children exposed to a succession of placements every year and to ensure that those placements are more suitable. We are taking action to increase the number of foster parents through new recruitment campaigns. We shall also increase the skills of foster parents by providing new funds for training and establishing a code of practice and national standards for foster care. We propose to bring all children's homes—whatever their size—and residential schools and independent fostering agencies within a new and more effective regulatory system, with simpler and faster action against schools and children's homes with unacceptable standards.

We are taking steps to monitor and safeguard better the welfare of children in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices and improve the health of children in care, including their mental health. We are changing local government law and practice to bring about across-the-board improvements in services for children in care or with special needs. In future, the whole local authority will have to accept its responsibilities for supporting the children.

The voice of the children involved has been ignored for too long. We will improve the arrangements for whistleblowing and fund a new group to provide a national voice for children in care and those formerly in care. We are taking steps to ensure that children in court as witnesses get better protection, and children who are detained are kept separate from adults.

These are just some of the major measures that the Government are starting to put in place. Many others are set out in the detailed report. It will take time to thrash out the detail of some, and others will depend on the availability of parliamentary time. However, action is under way.

The task force report covers England and Wales, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales shares my commitment to its implementation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is today publishing a separate response to the Kent report, which covered the same issues in Scotland.

Finally, I should like to make it clear that many dedicated people are doing a good job looking after vulnerable people living away from home. It is never an easy task and we owe them our thanks. However, that is not all we owe them. We owe it to them and to all the children in care to root out and punish the wrongdoers and to put in place a system which really cares for children in care.

Vulnerable children are the responsibility of us all. In the past, the whole system has failed. We intend to make sure that, in future, the whole system delivers.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his courtesy in supplying me with an advance copy of it. However, I was disappointed—as you will be, Madam Speaker—to have read the details of the Secretary of State's statement in the Evening Standard this lunchtime. That shows, once again, the contempt in which the Government hold the House of Commons.

Anyone who has read the Utting report, or reports of other inquiries into child abuse, will have shared a sense of horror at the nature and extent of the abuse which has undoubtedly taken place. It is for this reason that the previous Government set up the review under Sir William Utting into safeguards for children living away from home, the excellent work of which forms the basis of the Government's proposals.

At the time of the publication of the Utting report, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples)—the then shadow Secretary of State for Health—confirmed the Opposition's support for the Government in carrying forward the process of implementation of the report's recommendations. We shall continue to support the Government in their efforts to ensure the safety of children living away from home.

However, there are a number of issues that arise from the Secretary of State's statement, and I would be grateful if he could clarify the following points. Is the £375 million of children's services grant that he announced really extra money, over and above the existing funding for social services? Can he confirm that there will be no corresponding reduction in social services standard spending assessments in the revenue support grant settlement?

If the money is not to be funded by a reduction in revenue support grant, can he confirm that this is genuinely new money, or is it simply an allocation of money that has been announced in the comprehensive spending review? While the Opposition support the need for national standards to protect the safety of children living away from home, can the Secretary of State confirm that local authorities will retain the autonomy to develop service provision in accordance with local needs?

Local councillors are to be held responsible for the quality of services delivered—rightly, in my view. However, with that responsibility must go the right—within a framework of national standards to ensure the safety of children—to exercise discretion over service delivery in meeting the targets set by the Secretary of State.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have now abandoned the Utting recommendation for a legislative definition of parental rights and responsibilities? The report stated that the issue was to be reviewed by the Home Secretary, but the recent Green Paper on the family makes no mention of any such proposal.

Will the Secretary of State's "new and more effective regulatory system" be dedicated to children's services, or will it be broader and more all-encompassing, as suggested by the leaks of the social services White Paper? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the inspection system will be nationally based? In view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that "the whole local authority" will have to accept responsibility for failures in children's services, will he use his influence and authority to persuade the responsible Labour councillors in the London borough of Ealing and in Coventry, where there have recently been serious failures in children's services, to do the decent thing?

Let me again emphasise our support for the Government's objectives in implementing most of the recommendations of the Utting report. The vast majority of people who work with children living away from home are dedicated, loyal and trustworthy, but every Member of Parliament will support measures attempting to weed out the tiny minority who represent a threat to the safety of those vulnerable children.

Mr. Dobson

I thank the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) for his thoughtful response to, and welcome for, our proposals.

The £375 million to be provided over the next three years is extra money. Of course it was included in the sums that we announced after the comprehensive spending review. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah"] Do not start mocking. The money is available because, when we were conducting the comprehensive spending review, we recognised that extra funds would be necessary, and, as far as I know, they are being welcomed by all concerned apart from the Conservative party.

I am a strong supporter of local government and local autonomy. That is one of the reasons why, as I said, we have already issued new guidance to help conscientious councillors to do their job better in relation to children in care. In view of the general performance of councils over the years, however, we need to take a fairly leery look at anyone who says, "We want to do things this way, or that way" on grounds of local autonomy. There will be national standards, and people will be expected to meet them.

As for the definition of parental rights and responsibilities, what the task force has tried to do—partly because of my psychological predilection in that direction—is come up with practical measures, rather than exceedingly theoretical considerations. I suspect that we could devote two or three years to those, without necessarily getting much further.

The regulatory system will be national, although it may be delivered on a regional basis.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the "whole authority". He descended into bathos by singling out Labour local authorities where things have been going wrong in regard to children in care. I shall not descend to his level by coming up with a list of Tory authorities where things have gone wrong. The burden of the Utting report, of the task force's consideration and of my statement is that everyone has been at fault, including Members of Parliament. It is not just the fault of local authorities; it is the fault of people in management, of the police, of people running the courts, of neighbours who did not bother to report what they saw going on, of councils, of councillors, of Ministers and Government officials. We have all let these children down, whatever our political persuasion. We should be ashamed of our record and we should start doing something about it and not try to use this opportunity to make stupid party political points.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

If it was in order to cheer, I would cheer this report very loudly. At long last something will be done to protect these vulnerable children and I thank my right hon. Friend very much for the work that he is to do. He said that abuse is continuing and that it is a problem that we all have to work towards preventing. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the appointment of a children's commissioner to lead this long-awaited campaign?

Mr. Dobson

I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome for what we have done. I pay tribute to her because, whatever the shortcomings of the rest of us, she has devoted a great deal of her parliamentary time and effort to trying to draw to the attention of the rest of us the circumstances in which so many children were being mistreated and let down by the care system. I will agree to look further at her suggestion for a children's commissioner as long as she does not interpret that as a promise to definitely agree to it. I will look at it again because, when someone has campaigned so consistently and effectively, and for as long as my hon. Friend, she is entitled to be listened to.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for granting me the opportunity to look at it in advance. Liberal Democrats support the proposals outlined in the statement and those we have managed to study in the detailed document that accompanied it. We would like to acknowledge the way in which the Secretary of State recognises that the failures that have undoubtedly occurred in the system are not the sole responsibility of any one institution or individual, but are systemic and need to be recognised as such.

One of the issues I did not hear mentioned in the statement was how the Government propose to reduce the number of children aged 15 or under who are currently held in prison establishments. It is a national scandal that more than 200 children are currently being held in such institutions. The Utting report made it clear that that was a serious failure of public policy. I wonder how the Secretary of State's proposals will help them.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the £180 million earmarked for the year 2001–02 will become core funding to sustain the improvements that we all hope that funding will produce? Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the statement or the detailed document go on to develop the issue of training for staff? There were welcome comments about training for foster carers, but can he make it clear whether we will see additional resources being used to raise standards of training for residential care workers? In addition, in order to retain those residential care workers, there needs to be recognition of the fact that we will need to look at pay and conditions. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether he has plans to give legal protection to staff who choose and need to blow the whistle about abuse of which they become aware? Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a developing crisis in the recruitment and retention of foster carers, which could undermine many of the laudable proposals contained in his statement today?

We welcome the statement and the additional resources, whether they are contained in the comprehensive spending review or are new money, but we want to be assured that those resources will produce the results that the Secretary of State has described.

Mr. Dobson

I welcome the welcome that the Liberal Democrat representative has given to our proposals. When he has had an opportunity to read the report in detail, he will see that it is our intention to address the number of children and young people who are imprisoned to try to ensure that they are not mixed with adults, which is a veritable invitation to the interests of child molesters. Children in care amount to less than less than half of 1 per cent. of the population, but make up 22 per cent. of the prison population and nearly 40 per cent. of the number of young people in prison, which is a measure of how unsuccessful the care system has been.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned funding. The £375 million is additional funding and will be spent on the specific task of looking after children better. There are proposals to improve staff training, but I have always been disappointed when reports on terrible incidents in the social services make more training for the staff their first recommendation. A bit of decent management and the exercising of common sense should probably be item one, but I accept that more training is needed and, as we spelt out in "Quality Protects", we intend to provide it. We also intend to make life easier for anyone who blows the whistle on anything that is going wrong, whether that person is a member of staff, the child concerned or another child in the institution.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's deep personal commitment to this subject and his announcement today, and I thank him and those in other Departments for the steps that have already been taken. As he knows, during both the previous Parliament and this Parliament, the Health Committee has considered in detail the issue of looked-after children. Members of the Committee have been particularly struck by the fact that children in care lack a voice—someone to speak out for them or to whom they can turn. The abuse that has, sadly, taken place is a result of that lack of a voice.

The Committee strongly recommended establishing a system for a local voice; my right hon. Friend referred to that, but I should like to hear more about it. I strongly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) about the need for a children's rights commissioner, which was, until recently, Labour party policy—I know that because I wrote the policy document.

I warmly welcome the children's services grant, but will my right hon. Friend look at the one failure of the Children Act 1989? We have not been able to make the Act's preventive measures work, but if we prevent the problems that the care system has to deal with, children will not need to be in care. How will the new grant system enable local authorities to carry out the preventive work that is, at the moment, so lacking?

Mr. Dobson

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. We intend to establish a national unit to provide a voice for children in care and for children formerly in care. We are considering various ways in which to assist the whistleblowing process in each locality, as a national voice will not be of much help if children cannot make it speak for them. We would welcome the Select Committee's views on how best to proceed—I note my hon. Friend's support for a children's rights commissioner.

We want the children's services grant to be used to prevent children from coming into care in the first place. Many of the actions that have to be taken are not necessarily the responsibility of the social services department; they may be the responsibility of other parts of the council's organisation. That is one reason why we will legislate to ensure that responsibilities fall across the board in local authorities, not only to individual departments.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Long-term admirers of Bill Utting's work will recognise that the problem is serious and intractable. I welcome the effort to restore the equivalent of the National Association for Young People in Care. Does the Secretary of State intend to use a telephone service, such as Childline, to assist in encouraging young people to get their voice heard?

Many of the children are troubled and troublesome, and in great need of child mental health services. Does the Secretary of State plan to provide any encouragement for the availability and development of child mental health services? The young people are often costly to care for, and some cost shunting goes on, with referrals between special education, children's homes and prison institutions. I am pleased that he gathered together Ministers from different Departments on his group; are there to be any financial mechanisms to discourage perverse recommendations being made on the basis of the Departments' financial interest rather than the children's needs?

Mr. Dobson

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. Certainly, Childline fulfils a function, and we will want to continue to promote that, but it has been in existence for some time and it clearly does not work for all the children. It is a valuable service, but its provision needs to be augmented, as otherwise we would not have all the current problems.

We will shortly make a statement on mental health services. I am not a person who leaks anything to anyone at any time, but I can safely predict—

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Who is leaking, then?

Mr. Dobson

If the hon. Gentleman can help me to track down the person who is leaking from the Department of Health, I will get that person sacked.

We are talking about the serious matter of children's mental health. I can safely predict that we will make a substantial effort to ensure that the mental health of all children gets more attention than it does under the present system, and especially that we concentrate on children in care, because recent estimates suggest that about two thirds of all such children suffer from some degree of mental health problems, compared with 4 per cent. of all other children of the same age.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) mentioned the problem of various Departments shuttling children from one budget head to another, because the people making the decisions do not give a damn about the body of the child that goes with the budget head that they are concerned about. I am determined to put a stop to that, and I think that our proposals will achieve that. If people still want to behave in that way, I suggest that they seek employment that does not involve any responsibility for children.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I commend my right hon. Friend for providing the extra cash and making a commitment to the reform of the whole care system. How will the extra money help to address the central absurdity of the care system: the fact that a large proportion of staff working in residential care are completely unqualified for such a vital and complex task? How much of the money will go to help the funding of foster care, to ensure that foster carers receive money commensurate with abilities and training and are adequately supported?

May I be the third person today to say that children's rights are fundamental to the whole process and that we absolutely need a children's rights commissioner to ensure that the scandals of the past are put well behind us? My right hon. Friend rightly celebrates the achievements of one young person in care who has made a major contribution to that work, and he makes the commitment that local authorities should act as good parents to all children. Does my right hon. Friend look forward to the day when we can celebrate the achievements of all children in care?

Mr. Dobson

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his points and I know that he draws on considerable professional knowledge and experience of the subject. He is right to say that many people who look after children in care have no qualifications. One of the problems is a by-product of the constant assertion that care in the community is superior to care in an institution, however large or small, which has meant that the prospect of working in a residential setting has become less professionally attractive. As we said when we launched "Quality Protects", we want to increase the number of foster carers, provide better training for them, and give them whatever encouragements are necessary to improve the service they provide. Most of them do a very good job already.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and commend to him the report of the Health Committee. Like Sir William Utting in his report, the Committee considered the safeguards for children looked after by local authorities and the need for them to give children the same support as a parent would. On that theme, I have two points to put to the Secretary of State. First, he will know that many problems stem from the impermanency of the arrangements for many children. Even when placements are sustained, there can be rapid changes in staffing caused by the relative professional unattractiveness of residential social work. Will he consider a residential child care initiative for training and the need to adapt training for residential social workers so that it becomes an explicit professional expertise with its own recognised and specific training? Having rooted out abuse, we must recognise and value those who continue to work successfully in the system.

Secondly, the Secretary of State will know that adoption can be the most appropriate mechanism for providing children with a home like that enjoyed by most children. Will he introduce adoption legislation to remove many of the impediments to successful adoption?

Mr. Dobson

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Health Committee's report and I contemplated whether the task force should consider it as well as the Utting report. The Committee's report covered a wider range of issues than Utting and I felt it was better to deal with those aspects separately. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with our proposals when we respond to the Select Committee's report and produce the social services White Paper. He is right to draw attention to the problem of unsatisfactory short-term placements for children, which are disturbing and damaging to the children's mental and physical health and their prospects. As we said in "Quality Protects", we intend to improve training and to set more demanding targets for local authorities so that they pay more attention to the standard and appropriateness of placements and to reducing their number.

Adoption, where it works, works very well indeed in providing a wonderful family life for the children concerned. One reason why it succeeds is that there is, rightly, a severe vetting process to ensure that the child is suitable for the adoptive parents, and that the parents are suitable for the children. The law does need sorting out, but we must be careful about that. Some people—not, I am sure the hon. Gentleman—seem to think that some of the restraints on adoption should be dispensed with entirely. Those constraints exist for the protection of children, and that is right.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the immense steps that he has taken in acting on the Utting report. However, he has not mentioned the fact that the number of prosecutions for child abuse is dropping. In the past two or three years the figures have fallen by probably 50 per cent. The Utting report said that schools feared prosecutions because of the shame, the headlines and the bad publicity that result. Councils also fear prosecuting abusers because of legal costs and insurance payments. There is often a tacit agreement that abusers should simply be dismissed—they can then move on elsewhere. Despite list 99 and the other safeguards, the BBC 2 education programme, "Just One Chance", claims that 1,000 abuse suspects are probably still teaching.

Would it not be a good idea to have a children's commissioner who could take decisions on whether to prosecute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has said? If decisions on whether to prosecute are left with schools or councils, prosecutions will dwindle to nothing. In addition, lawyers drag cases out, and our court procedures need to be examined. The decision on whether to prosecute must be taken from local councils and schools or the problem will simply be swept under the carpet.

Mr. Dobson

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The number of prosecutions has gone down, and successful prosecutions have fallen even faster. That seems strange at a time when more and more attention is paid to and public horror expressed at the idea that some pervert may be molesting children. However, when cases come to court, the courts are less likely than they were a few years ago to find the people charged guilty. We clearly need to examine the system to find out what is going wrong.

As my hon. Friend has said, one problem is that for the sake of not damaging the reputation of their school, institution or council, and to avoid all the bother and expense of prosecuting, employers frequently let the abusers move on. That stops them molesting local children, but it leaves them to molest children elsewhere. We have to put a stop to that, and we are considering what we can do. I am prepared to consider the concept of a children's commissioner and the possibility of a prosecuting role for such an office.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the compassion that the Secretary of State showed as he presented the report. I also welcome his tribute to Sir William Utting. We all recognise our debt to Sir William, although some of us are still waiting for implementation of an earlier recommendation for a council for social work. In implementing the report, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that some conscientious and hard-working social workers may have extra pressures placed on them, which their middle management will do nothing about? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was not mentioned in the Secretary of State's statement, but may I take it that the statement also applies to Northern Ireland where abuse is as prevalent as it is here? Finally, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming Tuesday's launch by his erstwhile colleague, now the Minister of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), of the remand foster care experiment in Reading? I hope that that experiment, pioneered by the care movement, will spread throughout the nation.

Mr. Dobson

At the risk of being accused of leaking from a document that I shall eventually produce, let me say that the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the proposals for a council for social work will ultimately be forthcoming. As far as I know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will seek to extend the principles behind what we have been talking about today to Northern Ireland although, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be the first to say, certain aspects may need adjustment to meet the particular circumstances there. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's kind words about my former ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), which give me an opportunity to pay tribute to him for the enormous amount of work he has done in this sphere generally and as a member of the task force towards the production of our report. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about my hon. Friend and I have tried to trump him.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I remember a child who had been in care talking to the Select Committee on Health. He realised that he fitted into the category of a child looked after by a local authority but said that "looked after" was the last thing he felt he had experienced. I am sure that he, like me, would welcome the Secretary of State's comments today and the great moves forward that have been announced. In particular, I welcome the extension of care to children over the age of 16 and the funds for local authorities to improve the services for looked-after children.

The Select Committee picked up on the lack of streamlined checks available for social services and other employers to look at, so I welcome too the change on that to ensure that those who are working with children are not potential abusers. Do the Government accept that local authorities need to have surplus places if children who are to be looked after are to have real choices? Sometimes it is uncomfortable for a Government to say that their target is to have surplus places, but that must be recognised if there is to be real choice. Will my right hon. Friend continue to encourage independent visiting schemes for children looked after by local authorities, who for one reason or another cannot relate to their social worker? It is important for them to have somebody who will befriend and stand up for them and be an independent voice to represent them as they move through their life and make choices.

Mr. Dobson

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind welcome for our proposals. I welcome the continuation and, indeed, development of independent visiting schemes. I accept on behalf of the Government her good point about surplus places. A problem that faces councils when placing children, possibly with particular difficulties or who may not be particularly appealing to a possible foster parent or even people running a small home, is that if they have no choice because there are no surplus places, they end up knowingly placing a child somewhere that is less than suitable. Therefore, there must be a surplus of places; otherwise, there is no choice and even the best-intentioned, best-informed social work staff cannot implement their professional judgment, but have to send children somewhere unsatisfactory.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

May I congratulate the Government on a comprehensive response to Utting and in particular welcome the establishment of a central register that can be consulted by people concerned about the welfare of children? For some time I have been concerned about the welfare of young foreign visitors to this country. I note with interest that the paper suggests setting up a code of practice. A code of practice is no use if it does not require those organisations to consult the very register that the Government are setting up. Will the code be voluntary or will it have some teeth?

Mr. Dobson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general welcome for what we are doing. Our ultimate intention is that consulting the register should be mandatory for employers, but it will take some time before we can get to that position. There are all sorts of quite difficult ethical and other considerations to bear in mind before we can fully put in place the system that we all want.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)

Like other members of the Health Select Committee, I very much welcome the Secretary of State's report. He has noted that the educational standards reached by children in care, as the Committee said, are appallingly low. What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about the mechanisms used to raise standards? Will joint advice be given to local authorities so that they can act in a corporate Way in making relevant decisions? The Committee found that stigma was attached in school to children in care. Will he and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment consider ways of making contact with children more sensitive while in school so that such stigma is not attached?

Mr. Dobson

As a member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend has been heavily involved in these matters. He knows that the system does not get some children to first base. Roughly speaking, on any given day, one in four of the children in care who should be in school are not. There is not much hope of them doing well if they are not attending. It must be one of the first, basic requirements of the system that education departments, social services departments and the people responsible for where the children live work together to get the children to school in the first place. I have had discussions with members of the team of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and we are ensuring that councils are given joint advice. We want to them to act jointly; there is no excuse for the education and social services departments of a local authority not acting in concert. The Department for Education and Employment has today launched a new initiative on children with special needs. Children in care are, of course, children with special needs.

It is difficult to deal with things such as stigma, partly because other children can be perfectly horrid. We have to bear that in mind. If we can get a system that works better, so that children in care are, generally speaking, better looked after and more closely resemble, in every sense, the other children in the school, differentiation and stigma should decline.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given his welcome insistence that the money for the new children's services grant is additional to existing funding, will the right hon. Gentleman give an absolute, unbreakable assurance that social services SSAs will at no stage be adjusted downwards to reflect its introduction?

Mr. Dobson

As a result of the comprehensive spending review, we have identified a substantial increase in the funding for social services. Part of that increase was to provide the £375 million over the next three years. That is additional money to what it was previously the intention to spend on those services. The assurance that I promise that I can make, which is probably more important even than the one that the hon. Gentleman seeks, is that the money will be spent on children's services. It will not be spent on anything else.

Madam Speaker

Thank you. We now move on.