HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc737-56 1.29 pm
The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Victoria Climbié inquiry.

The report of the inquiry is being published today. It is available in the Vote Office. I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for your agreement that Victoria's parents should have had advance access to a copy of the report.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I established the inquiry in April 2001 under the chairmanship of Lord Laming, formerly the chief inspector of social services. We are both extremely grateful to Lord Laming and his advisers for producing a searching and detailed report and recommendations.

Words in a report can never be enough for a family whose child has died in such terrible circumstances. I am grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Climbié for seeing me last week and allowing me to express, on behalf of the House and the country, the sorrow we all feel at the death of their beloved daughter, Victoria. Anyone who has had the privilege to meet Mr and Mrs Climbié cannot fail to be struck by their quiet dignity in the face of what happened to Victoria.

I hope the report provides them with some comfort as it seeks to answer the questions any parent would ask: what exactly happened? What went so wrong? What needs now to change to prevent services that are supposed to keep children from harm failing in the way they failed Victoria so badly and so repeatedly?

Lord Laming's inquiry lasted more than a year. His report runs to some 400 pages. We will study its 108 recommendations with care. Today I will outline the inquiry's findings and the Government's initial views. We will make our substantive response to the report as part of the Green Paper on children at risk, which we intend to publish this spring.

Victoria Climbié was part of a large, loving family living in the Ivory Coast. Her parents had agreed she could come to Europe in order to be educated. This was not about giving Victoria away; it was about giving Victoria an opportunity. All they wanted—as any parent would—was for their daughter to have the best education. Instead, she suffered the worst cruelty.

Victoria arrived in Britain with her great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, in April 1999. Within a year she was dead—murdered by the people who had taken the principal responsibility for caring for her: Kouao and her boyfriend, Carl John Manning. Both are now serving life imprisonment.

The cruelty experienced by Victoria before her death is truly the stuff of nightmares. Manning told the trial that Kouao would strike Victoria daily with a shoe, a coat hanger and a wooden spoon. She would hit her toes with a hammer. Victoria's blood was found on Manning's football boots. He admitted hitting her with a bicycle chain.

Victoria's final days—in the depths of winter—were spent living and sleeping in a bath in an unheated bathroom, in her own urine and faeces, bound hand and foot in a bin bag.

Despite valiant efforts on the part of NHS staff, Victoria died of hypothermia, after months of abuse, on 25 February 2000 at St Mary's hospital, Paddington. She had 128 separate injuries to her body. She was just eight years old.

It is a shocking but sad truth that about 80 children a year die from abuse or neglect. While a civilised society must do everything it can to protect children, sadly a few adults will always manage to perpetrate abuse, not least because those who do are, by definition, manipulative and secretive.

What makes Victoria's case so appalling, however, is that while the unspeakable abuse she suffered happened behind closed doors, in secret, Victoria herself was never hidden from the authorities or the agencies empowered by Parliament to protect children like her.

Victoria was known to three housing authorities and involved with four social services departments—in Brent, Ealing, Enfield and Haringey. Despite receiving allegations that she had been abused, none of the councils even managed to undertake a proper assessment of her needs. Social services did nothing to help her.

Victoria was known to two separate child protection teams of the Metropolitan police. Despite being told that she had probably been deliberately harmed, they failed to investigate the alleged crime. The police services did nothing to help her.

Victoria was referred to the specialist Tottenham child and family centre, managed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Despite marking her case as urgent, it failed to take any action to see Victoria. The NSPCC centre did nothing to help her.

Victoria was admitted to two different NHS hospitals—the Central Middlesex and North Middlesex. Despite suffering scalding to her head and face, and other evidence that staff saw of beatings and abuse, she was discharged and returned to her abusers. The NHS did nothing to help her.

Between April 1999 and February 2000, on more than a dozen occasions the relevant services had the opportunity to intervene to protect Victoria Climbié. More than 12 times in 10 months they failed to do so. This was not a failing on the part of any one service. It was a failing on the part of every service.

As Lord Laming says, The extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable. Tragically it required nothing more than basic good practice being put into operation … doing the basic things well saves lives … Victoria died because those responsible for her care adopted poor practice standards. Lord Laming considers that the current statutory framework for child protection, set out in the Children Act 1989, is basically sound. I take little comfort from that. Sound legislative policy and guidance is, frankly, useless unless we can be sure that it is implemented effectively and consistently.

Those who take on the work of protecting children at risk of deliberate harm of course face a difficult and challenging task. As Neil Garnham QC told the inquiry, Hundreds of children benefit every year from efficient and timely intervention by social workers, police officers and hospital staff. We would do children like Victoria no favours if we demonise entire professions as we seek to understand and remedy the weaknesses and deficiencies highlighted by a single case. While public servants should enjoy our support, they should not expect our excuses. There were failures at every level and by every organisation which came into contact with Victoria Climbié. There were problems with staffing and with resources. In Haringey the council was spending substantially less than the standard spending assessment it had been allocated for children and families. In Brent the council was spending just half of what it had been allocated.

Lord Laming rightly describes as breathtaking the unwillingness of some of the most senior people in these agencies to accept that they were in any way accountable for these failures. It is his concern with this lack of accountability that leads Lord Laming to recommend change through the creation of new national and local structures for services for children and families. Lord Laming rejects proposals to separate child protection services, but calls for better co-ordination from top to bottom.

It is an all too familiar cry. In the past few decades there have been dozens of inquiries into awful cases of child abuse and neglect. Each has called on us to learn the lesson of what went wrong. Indeed, there is a remarkable consistency both in what went wrong and what is advocated to put it right. Lord Laming's report goes further. It recognises that the search for a simple solution or a quick fix will not do. It is not just national standards, or proper training, or adequate resourcing, or local leadership or new structures that are needed. It is all of these things.

In recent years there has been a renewed effort to improve safeguards for children: the Protection of Children Act 1999; the Care Standards Act 2000; programmes such as quality protects and sure start; new work on systems for identifying, referring and tracking children at risk.

Alongside the fuller response that we will include with the Green Paper in the spring, I can tell the House that there are important steps I intend to take immediately.

First, the inquiry is highly critical of the local services that failed Victoria. Since her death each has been subject to review. Some have been restructured. Some staff have been disciplined, others dismissed. In the light of the Laming report, it will be for each employer to determine whether further action is necessary against individuals, including those in senior managerial positions. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are asking the inspectorates responsible for health, police and social services to undertake further joint monitoring of these local services in north London to provide independent assurance that standards are, indeed, improving.

Secondly, the inquiry concludes that in all agencies there was a low priority given to the task of protecting children. The Home Secretary has made child protection a priority through the national policing plan. He has asked chief constables to review force child protection units and consider how to action the recommendations of the report and reflect them in their local policing plans.

Additionally, I am today writing to all chief executives in local health services and local authorities emphasising their duties towards vulnerable children and the need to reflect them in their budget decisions. Social services budgets will rise by an average of 6 per cent. in real terms in each of the next three years. NHS budgets will rise by nearly 7 per cent. Extra resources should help employ more staff, including an extra 5,000 social workers, at a time when applications for social work courses, which fell for almost a decade, are now rising.

Thirdly, the report highlights inadequacies in the training of front-line professionals. Training for police officers is already being reviewed and we will ensure that Lord Laming's recommendations are fully taken on board. Social work training is also being fundamentally overhauled. From September, a new three-year social work degree will be introduced to raise the standards and status of the profession. It will focus on assessment, communication and working with other professionals—the areas where Victoria was so badly let down. The Home Secretary and I also intend to ask the professional bodies responsible for training police, social services and NHS staff in child protection to oversee a review of training needs, including a better focus on inter-agency training.

Fourthly, the report highlights the failure of agencies to adhere to common standards in the care of children. I believe that the Laming report re-emphasises the need for new national standards to which all local health and social services can work. I can tell the House today that I intend to publish the first part of those standards, covering the care of children in hospital, next month and the remaining standards by the end of the year.

Fifthly, the report says that there was confusion about guidance on aspects of child protection. Within the next three months, I intend to secure the replacement of all existing local guidance with new, shorter, clearer guidance that will reach every one of the 1 million professional staff dealing with the safeguarding of children. I also intend to simplify the wider range of Children Act guidance. It runs to more than 1,500 pages and covers 15 volumes. Some of it is out of date. Our intention is to reduce it by 90 per cent., make it available in a single volume and update it regularly.

Sixthly, more than half Lord Laming's recommendations are aimed at correcting repeated failures in basic professional practice. We are today issuing a checklist of those recommendations. Police, health and social services are being asked to guarantee that, within the three-month deadline demanded by Lord Laming, those basic elements of good professional practice will be in place.

Seventhly, the report says that there was a fundamental failure to translate good intentions into good practices. The Home Secretary and I have therefore asked the relevant inspectorates to supplement their planned joint inspections with a new programme of further visits to verify that those elements of basic good practice are being implemented, particularly where there are concerns about local services. We will also consider whether further powers are needed to intervene earlier and more effectively.

Finally, Victoria needed services that worked together. The report says that, instead, there was confusion and conflict. Down the years, inquiry after inquiry has called for better communication and better co-ordination, but neither exhortation nor legislation has proven adequate. The only sure-fire way to break down the barriers between those services is to remove them altogether.

Fundamental reform is needed to pool knowledge, skills and resources to provide more seamless local services for children. Therefore, I am today inviting health and social services, and other local services such as education, to become the first-generation children's trusts. Those pilot children's trusts will mean that local services for children are run through a single local organisation.

We will explore a range of models, including children's trusts, that could be led by local authorities and others, and that could be established as new public-interest organisations, drawing in the expertise of the community, private and voluntary sectors. In future, services for children must be centred not around the interests of any organisation, but around the interests of the child. Nothing—no existing organisation, no existing structure—should be allowed to stand in the way. We will of course consider in the Green Paper Lord Laming's recommendations for further structural changes.

Those reforms cannot be the end of the matter. If some good is to come out of this tragedy, lasting change must come out of it too. Lord Laming is determined that that is what should happen, and the whole Government share that determination. Victoria's parents asked for nothing more for their daughter than the opportunity of a better life in our country. I am deeply sorry that she did not get that simple chance.

We cannot undo the wrongs done to Victoria Climbié. We can, though, seek to put right for others what so fundamentally failed for her. That is what Lord Laming's report demands, and it is what the Government are determined to do. I commend the Laming report to the House.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and his courtesy in making it available to the Opposition earlier.

Clearly, this is an appalling human tragedy first and foremost, and it is right that we remember the feelings and sensitivities of Victoria's parents as we discuss the details of what needs to be done. That a defenceless child could be subjected to such unspeakable acts of savagery over such a long period brings shame on our society. Those who are brave enough to do so can only imagine the terror, pain and misery that she must have endured, but this is also a shocking tale of individual professional failure and systematic incompetence.

During the past 30 years, there have been more than 30 inquiries into the deaths of children who were known to social services. None seems to have had much effect. We all agree, time after time, that it must never happen again, but it does. Lauren Wright, John Smith and Ainlee Walker are only a few of the large number of those who have been failed by the system.

There are a number of questions that I want to raise with the Secretary of State, although I do not expect him to answer them in his response, as they cover important and sometimes conceptual and cultural issues that we need to examine in far more detail than is possible in the House today. Every report says that something must be done. Why will this one be different? How will the House be able to monitor progress in a truly transparent way so that this one does make a difference?

Communication is the main problem among different agencies. How will that improve in practice beyond just setting up new structures? What role is envisaged for the greater use of information sharing and early detection? Intelligence gathering can succeed only on a local basis. What review of the Data Protection Act 1998 will the Government undertake to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the proper sharing of information?

Will the Secretary of State tell us what action has been taken against the social workers involved in this case to give us a guarantee that they are not still responsible for children? What progress has been made to fill gaps in social work, especially in London and the south-east?

The Secretary of State did not touch on one subject: it is estimated that about 10,000 children in England and Wales are privately fostered—80 to 90 per cent. of them are west African—despite the Utting report identifying private fostering as clearly an area where children are not being safeguarded properly, indeed an unknown number are likely to be seriously at risk. Will the Government be taking any action to regulate private fostering to approved lists of people only, having failed to include that reform in the Adoption and Children Act 2002? To what extent does the Secretary of State believe that the current classifications of "children in need" or "children in need of protection" militate against appropriate protection? What changes are to be made? In a case such as Victoria's, once a child is categorised as requiring family support, the child's need for protection falls from notice.

If the status of social workers is being improved and more responsibility given, equally, what measures are being put in place to ensure that incompetent social workers are disciplined as toughly as other medical professionals? What does the Secretary of State think has been learned from the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which placed a positive duty of care on parents to promote children's well-being? Do the Government favour a single system of referral and assessment to address needs—for example, child safeguarding teams proposed by the NSPCC along the lines of existing youth offending teams and sure start? Should sections 27 and 47 of the Children Act 1989 be amended to include police and GPs as agencies that should support the local authority when it is carrying out its duties in relation to children in need of protection?

Despite what the Secretary of State said, the new police national plan 2003–06 lists child protection under the heading "other policing responsibilities". I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's statement today reflects a change of mind on behalf of the Home Secretary about the importance that child protection will be given.

Above all today we need to make sure that the changes recommended by Lord Laming and being introduced by the Government will allow us to get to a system in which we all know clearly where the buck stops. Professional failure on this literally fatal scale cannot, and must not, be tolerated. We welcome the concept of children's trusts, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will be well aware that the devil will lie in the details, including budget sharing, which will be worked out later.

I fully understand the difficulties faced by professionals in this very difficult area. I have been there myself. I can think of nothing that I have ever done professionally as stomach churning and terrifying as telling parents that I suspected them of having abused their child. However, the primary responsibility for professionals is to the child in their care, not the professional relationship with the carer, as it has been too often. Difficult though it may be, we need to encourage that cultural change in all the professionals who deal with children. "I'm too busy/didn't suspect it/didn't have enough resources" are excuses that we cannot allow to be tolerated.

In the time available today, it is not possible to do justice to the detailed conclusions and analysis in Lord Laming's report. I hope that we will get a chance to debate those matters in great detail in Government time over the coming months. Whatever measures need to be taken must be taken, and quickly. The Conservative party will willingly give its support in this most justified cause.

Mr. Milburn

I am extremely grateful for the tone and much of the content of what the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has said, and I shall try to respond to some of the detailed points that he made.

The hon. Member for Woodspring said that there have been a lot of inquiries over the years. That is certainly true. There have been both statutory public inquiries such as the Laming report and more private inquiries into the deaths and abuse of neglected children. The hon. Gentleman asked what was different about this report and about what we could make different, and he also wondered whether any inquiry had resulted in change. I think that some of them did result in change. The Children Act 1989 is a prime example, and Lord Laming considers it the bedrock of the legislative framework for the protection of children in our country.

However, I was very heartened to hear Lord Laming say on the radio this morning that the inquiry had already had an impact, even before publication of the report. I believe that he is right. For example, the Metropolitan Police Service has fundamentally restructured its child protection services. Quite rightly, it has brought those services under the aegis of serious crime, which is arguably where they should always have been housed. That is welcome, and there have been other changes in both the national health service and social services. We must build on those changes.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked whether we could be assured that there would be appropriate monitoring of change and improvement. That is one of the issues that we will need to consider extremely carefully as we craft the Green Paper. Lord Laming's principal recommendations concern the central issue of accountability—how we can ensure that, from top to bottom, the interests of the child always come first, and that the different agencies involved in providing care and sometimes treatment are fulfilling their responsibilities. In due course, the Govt will present proposals on that.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked about the disciplining of individual social workers. Some have been disciplined and others dismissed. However, Lord Laming makes a very strident point in his report when he states that front-line professionals—in social care, health care or the police service—failed to carry out the elements of good professional practice. Some have paid a price for that failure, but it is noticeable that the people in charge of some of the local agencies have not suffered a similar fate, and no consequences have been felt at any level of the organisations involved.

People in charge of organisations at local level—whether they have political or managerial responsibility—need to examine the Laming report's conclusions very carefully indeed. As the hon. Member for Woodspring rightly said, they should also examine their consciences.

The hon. Member for Woodspring mentioned gaps in social worker numbers. Haringey is the authority most criticised in the report, and it was charged for the longest period with caring for Victoria during her stay in this country. It had terrible problems with the numbers of locum staff and of vacancies among social workers. It took a conscious political decision—and I think that it was the right one—to invest more money in social services and to increase pay for social care staff. Those decisions have helped to plug some of the social work vacancies that Haringey was carrying. If one local authority can do that, others should learn the lesson.

With regard to private fostering, Lord Laming has asked the Government to carry out a review of the relevant law. We are undertaking that review, and the conclusions will be part of the Green Paper.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked what the Government were going to do in respect of incompetent social workers. It is worth placing on record that, overwhelmingly, social workers do a very difficult job very well. The temptation for people—not necessarily in this House but outside it—will be to point the finger of blame. In these circumstances, that is extremely easy. However, we must ensure that there is adequate support for social work staff, and that the right safeguards are in place.

As far as safeguards are concerned, the new general social care council will, for the first time, regulate and register qualified social workers. That will be an important step towards establishing the sort of assurances sadly lacking in this case.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked about national policing priorities. Ensuring that adequate child protection is in place is part of the violent crime priority, which is a national priority for the police service.

Finally, the hon. Member for Woodspring made a very telling point when he said that, all too often, what happens in cases such as this is that the interests of the people with the responsibility for caring come before the interests of the child. In this case, that is graphically true. Time after time, Kouao was interviewed and spoken to. Her needs were assessed and she had frequent and continual meetings with social care staff and other staff in the caring professions. It is noticeable that at virtually no point did anyone bother to ask Victoria what was happening to her.

That can be described only as a lamentable failure. We need to get the training and the relevant structures right, but most of all we must get right the culture of these vital public services. We have those services for one reason—to serve. None has a God-given right to exist. The interests of those services should lie only in serving the interests of the child. That is what we must ensure happens in the future.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving me the opportunity to see the report and his statement in advance. I associate myself and other Liberal Democrat Members with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) about the report and about the sensitivities involved in this tragic case.

Reading through the report, I had a terrible sense of déjà vu. The same weaknesses encountered before led to the same mistakes being made, and they led to the same missed opportunities to do what was necessary to ensure that the nightmare of neglect and abuse described by the Secretary of State did not happen to Victoria. There is no quick fix, so may I ask the Secretary of State some questions?

The right hon. Gentleman talked about rationalising and replacing a welter of guidance and documentation. That is welcome, but can he tell us whether that will include clarity about what is risk and what is harm? All too often, there is confusion about that, with different definitions being applied in different parts of the country.

Will the Secretary of State say more about the children's trust proposals? The Liberal Democrats welcome the proposals in their pilot form because there is a need to explore new ways of integrating services locally. Will further guidance be published to assist local authorities in deciding whether they want to take the opportunity that he is offering them? Does he accept, however, that the boundaries between agencies will remain even when children's trusts are in place?

Will the Secretary of State say more about the area child protection committees? Legislation alone is not enough, but does he agree none the less that all the agencies involved in an ACPC must have a statutory duty to take part? In too many places, they do not join in as they should.

Lord Laming's recommendations referred to the need to move to a new system of safeguarding and promoting welfare and away from merely keeping registers. Can the Secretary of State ensure that everyone will turn up to child protection conferences and that the general practitioners and teachers are there? All too often, the key players do not take part.

Recommendation 16 rightly refers to the need to address information sharing. Information must pass freely and confidentially between the agencies. The report proposes that the Secretary of State issue guidance. When will he do so? It should be issued as soon as possible.

As the Secretary of State said, training is a key issue, but it can succeed only if we can recruit and retain enough staff. The chief inspector of social services has told us all that there is a serious crisis in the recruitment and retention of social workers. What additional steps are being taken, not least to reward experienced social workers who choose to stay at the front line to do their job and who really make a difference?

The national agency proposed in the recommendations has many characteristics similar to those required in a children's commissioner. I hope that it can indeed become a children's commissioner. Will the Secretary of State end the consideration process and confirm that the Government will introduce a children's commissioner in England?

As we look back on 30 years of inquiries into children's deaths, the milestones in the development of our child protection system have been marked, sadly and tragically, by the gravestones of children who suffered a nightmare of neglect and abuse. The Liberal Democrats will work with the Government to ensure that the system is strengthened and resourced and that it delivers a better quality of life for all our children.

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and very much agree that there is no quick fix. However, one striking thing about the Laming report is that although Lord Laming, who has a wealth of experience as a former chief inspector of social services, recognises that some changes will take time, he has wisely put a time scale on some of the changes that he recommended. Although he realises that there is no magic wand that can be waved, he says that about 88 or 89 of his 108 recommendations should be capable of implementation in some shape or form within six months. That is why I took action as I did today. I have distributed the recommendations to local authorities and the national health service and written to them about what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is doing as regards police services. We have to get the balance right and I think that we are capable of doing so. We can fix what can be fixed quickly while recognising that some of the structural and cultural changes will take time.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the revised guidance would include clarification about whether a child was at risk or at harm. I read the report in considerable detail and it is clear that sometimes there is—at best—confusion about whether a case comes under section 17 or section 47. If it is a section 47 case, it goes up the list of priorities, but if it is a section 17 case it is deprioritised. That is one of the issues that we shall need to address in the guidance and we shall look carefully at that.

We shall issue guidance on children's trusts and an invitation to local authorities, the NHS and other organisations to make proposals. The trusts could take a variety of forms.

In recent years, there have been a number of recommendations on the structure of the ACPCs—for example, that they should be placed on a statutory footing. We must now consider such recommendations in the light of Lord Laming's broader structural recommendations to ensure that we get the overall structural balance right. The ACPCs could provide an important focus for local agencies to come together locally. However, partnership works well only when it is real rather than nominal. Although things vary throughout the country, all too often there is an assumption—for example, in the NHS—that the committees are really the responsibility of social services and no one else. We must be extremely careful to understand that what Lord Laming says is not specifically addressed to social services. He is not addressing one part of the care system, but the whole care system. It is only if we get the whole system right that we shall avoid the problems that were encountered in this case.

More needs to be done about recruitment. However, the case of Haringey—of all places—should fill us all with hope. Haringey had the worst record and, arguably, some of the worst services. Who would want to work in Haringey? Well, people are working there and they are doing so because the council took the decision to raise the status and the pay of the social work staff that it employed. That is a lesson that other local authorities should heed.

Lord Laming makes recommendations about the children's commissioner, but housed within a particular national, regional and local structure. We shall need to consider carefully whether that makes sense when we make our considerations for the Green Paper.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Members of the House have the first responsibility for dealing with these issues and that it is essential to hone our anger and concern about what we have heard today into a determination to transform children's services and ensure that such a scandalous chain of events never happens again? Does he also agree that the Government have a huge responsibility to face some of the difficult issues that have been around for such a long time? For example, we need to put children's rights at the heart of any agenda for children, to address the fundamental need for a children's commissioner for all parts of the United Kingdom and to address the important point that, under the law, children have less protection from assault than adults. We must deal with private fostering and invest thoroughly and comprehensively to ensure that all who work in services for children, especially in child protection services, have the status, pay and career prospects that they deserve.

Mr. Milburn

My hon. Friend makes some telling points. He referred to anger. Both the anger and the incredulity of Lord Laming and his advisers about what happened are crystal clear from the Victoria Climbié inquiry report. It is more than a sorry tale: it is repeated failure at every level. The constant assumption made in almost every agency and by almost every member of staff was that Victoria's needs were being catered for by someone else, somewhere else. As we now know, nobody was catering for those needs. As my hon. Friend says, we really must learn those lessons now.

There are responsibilities both for local services and for national Government. The fact that we are publishing the Green Paper in the spring, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced some time ago, is a recognition across the whole Government that the existing structures, nationally and locally, need change. Some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised will of course need to be detailed in the Green Paper.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

Listening to my right hon. Friend's reasoned statement, I was struck by the fact that, 30 years ago, I had just started in local authority child protection social work, and we had recently had the Maria Colwell report on an appalling set of circumstances. I find it incredible that I am here 30 years later after 35 inquiries listening to more or less word for word the same story and the same sad, tragic picture. However, I have taken some comfort from the statement today in that communication between professionals has been a key element all the way along the line. As someone who has argued for integration of professionals at local level and co-location, I warmly welcome the comments that my right hon. Friend has made today.

May I press my right hon. Friend on a more fundamental matter touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)? It is clear that physical punishment was an issue in this sad and tragic case. My right hon. Friend is looking at the policies of countries such as Sweden on delayed discharges and foundation hospitals. Will he also look at what other countries have done on child protection? Sweden acted to outlaw the physical punishment of children by parents 10 years ago, and while we have experienced at least one child death per week at the hands of parents and carers in the past 10 years, Sweden has had none. Will my right hon. Friend consider that as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is always worth listening to on these issues. He has campaigned long and hard for many years both before coming into this place and since he has been a Member of Parliament for better integration and co-ordination of services. There are important lessons that we need to learn from that.

It is crystal clear from this and all too many other cases that services were simply pointing in opposite directions. Social services were doing one thing, the health service was doing another and the police were doing a third thing. The consequence of that is confusion: people are passed round the system and, unfortunately, there is intervention later rather than sooner. Those are issues that we need to address. However, I say in all candour to my hon. Friend that I am cautious about confusing what happened to Victoria Climbié with issues around smacking and the reasonable chastisement of children. What happened to Victoria was of a quite different order. I know that my hon. Friend knows that. He knows the Government's position on these issues. Of course we will keep them under review, but it is important to separate the extreme violence that happened to this poor child from the sort of issues that my hon. Friend raised.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement today and his proposals to publish a Green Paper. He clearly recognises that the fundamental causes of the 80 deaths from abuse per year of vulnerable children are a lack of liaison between the relevant agencies and a lack of accountability. Both were clearly demonstrated in the tragic case of my constituent Lauren Wright.

Does the Secretary of State intend to make the new guidance statutory? Is he in a position to say today—perhaps not—how children's trusts will improve accountability?

Mr. Milburn

I know that the right hon. Lady has taken an active interest in these matters, not only in the case of Lauren Wright but in her previous guise as Education Secretary in the Conservative Government. She is aware that the current guidance is statutory. That is the problem. We have to get the right combination. Of course we have to have statutory guidance. Of course we have to have the right system of monitoring. Of course we have to have the right system of accountability. Of course we have to have the right system of training. Of course we have to make sure that we have decent local management who take responsibility rather than ducking it. Of course we have to have the right structures.

Several colleagues on both sides of the House have asked what is so different about this situation and the Laming report. I believe that the difference is that we have a broad sweep of recommendations covering all the issues and a vehicle, in the Green Paper, by which they can be addressed. It is only if we get accountability, structures, training, funding and local management right that we will avoid some of the terrible problems that children down the years have had to face. I believe that we have an opportunity to do that. Children's trusts are a means to that end. I believe that they will improve accountability. One local organisation will be responsible for protecting vulnerable children and people will not continually pass the buck.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Laming report explicitly directs most criticism, and places most of the responsibility for what happened to Victoria, not on the front-line staff but on senior managers and councillors in the local authorities. Time after time, events such as this happen, senior managers get themselves a media adviser and we hear the same old interviews about lack of resources. In many cases, those people go on to even better and more highly paid jobs. I believe that one way to stop such events happening again is to make sure that senior people take the responsibility that they are paid to take.

The practice of private unlicensed fostering, largely by west Africans, has gone on for a long time. At best, it causes all sorts of trauma. At worst, children are open to all sorts of abuse. It is time that the Government moved to close this practice down.

Mr. Milburn

To make managers accountable there has to be a proper system of accountability from top to bottom. That is what Lord Laming addresses in his recommendations. We will consider those recommendations seriously because that form of accountability is not present in the current system.

On private fostering, we will take extremely seriously the representations that have been made to us not just by Lord Laming but by others. However, let me strike one note of caution about reviewing the law on private fostering and the Victoria Climbié case. It is true that, legally, Victoria was being privately fostered. No one knew that, for one simple reason. Her great-aunt Kouao lied about who she was. She called Victoria "Anna" and said that she was her mother. Even if we had had changes in the private fostering legislation on the statute book, it would not have stopped the person responsible for caring for Victoria lying. She would have continued to lie.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

For Cambridgeshire Members, I am afraid that the painful recollection of the Rikki Neave case serves only to heighten our distress at what happened to Victoria Climbié.

Substantial benefits may flow from the introduction of children's trusts, but will the Secretary of State consider in the Green Paper two consequences that ought to flow from that proposal? First, having a children's trust does not automatically remove professional demarcations and boundaries—they could persist inside one. Is there a case, therefore, for giving one professional worker, whatever their discipline, responsibility for the services provided to a child and the authority to draw together the relevant services within the children's trust and impose requirements on other services?

Secondly, if one puts all the services within the trust, one makes the accountability clearer, but the service is unified and hence potentially more resistant to external scrutiny and more likely to cleave to a single explanation. Is it not therefore more important for there to be an external voice—if not that of the children themselves, then a children's commissioner—to speak on behalf of children from an independent, external standpoint?

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. On his latter point, we will address those issues as part of the Green Paper. On the first issue, I very much agree about professional demarcations and boundaries. The disaster would be to break down boundaries between structures and organisations but retain precisely the same boundaries between professionals. That is why it is so important that we have asked various professional bodies, local government and the training organisations to produce proposals on that. For example, I have never fully understood why the skills of health visitors and those of social workers cannot be put together to offer better support to families and children in times of trouble. We should be perfectly capable of doing that.

The hon. Gentleman puts the accent on flexibility and partnership working, but that has to apply as much at the level of the individual professional in those services as at that of the individual services.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South)

The Secretary of State will be aware that, for 10 years, I have been a trustee of the charity Childline, which takes tens of thousands of calls each year from children who, mercifully, do not die, but many of whom suffer in silence and never reach social workers or anyone else for protection.

Childline, along with every other major children's charity, has argued for a children's commissioner for England for a number of years. The Secretary of State spoke about culture. The problem is that civil servants, by and large, do not want a children's commissioner for England. If he wishes to tackle the culture of child protection, he will have to tackle the culture of Whitehall, which does not want to create a children's commissioner for England. Since every children's charity supports the creation of one, will he agree to change that culture in Whitehall? Will he act quickly to do so, because I believe that a children's commissioner would make a serious difference in protecting children?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Although we all know that this matter is grave, deeply disturbing and complex, may I appeal for brevity in questions and answers, as that is necessary if I am to call every hon. Member who is seeking to catch my eye?

Mr. Milburn

I shall do my best, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As for getting such things out into the open, it is very important that there was a public inquiry. Indeed, before he joined the Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) was one of those who argued very strongly that a public inquiry should be conducted properly in the open, so that people could hear and see the evidence for themselves. That has been achieved.

As for a children's commissioner, I understand the concerns and views of the organisation with which my hon. Friend is associated. Of course we will consider those issues in drafting the Green Paper. Again, let me say that it is very important that any structure or post that we put in place fulfils a function that will make a difference. Let us forget about making suitable gestures or getting the right symbolic policies. Symbolic policies do not save lives. What saves lives is good practice in social services offices, NHS hospitals and local police stations. That is the focus of the Laming report. Of course we have to ensure that we get the right combination between the national and the local, but let us remember where services are delivered: not in Whitehall, but in local communities.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

I welcome the new three-year degree for training social workers, but does the Secretary of State accept that there is value in shorter, postgraduate qualifications for people with relevant degrees, as they would be more likely to attract people with life experience, whom we so desperately need to provide improved services?

Mr. Milburn

Basically, we need both. We need people who have had a former occupation or those who have a suitable qualification to come forward. If we can achieve that on a postgraduate basis, so much the better, but the training has to be right to raise the profession's status as much as anything else and to ensure that we have the people to carry out this very difficult task. As I say, good social workers deserve to be valued, not vilified.

We have to ensure that the training is right. That is why, for example, in our proposals for the new three-year social work degree, we say that no one will be able to go into post unless they have carried out 200 days of practice on the front line, so that, when they go into post, they are experienced in precisely the sort of difficulties that social workers face day in, day out. One of the tragedies of this case is that very inexperienced people were put into the most difficult position imaginable, and we have to avoid that in future.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

I, too, welcome the emphasis on increased training for all staff involved in child protection. However, it is not clear how those staff will be required to demonstrate their competence in child protection before they begin working with children. How will the Secretary of State ensure that all staff—not just social workers, but those in health care, the police and, indeed, those in education, who see many of those children day in, day out, at school—have the required skills, not just the training, to be able to fulfil their responsibilities?

Mr. Milburn

As my hon. Friend rightly says from her own experience, it is important that the people who work in those difficult professions have suitable competence, not just when they start, but throughout their careers. That is why it is important that we are commissioning the review of training requirements to ensure that all those who have a responsibility for safeguarding the interests of children—whether in the police service, the social services or the health service—are properly versed not just in child protection procedures, but in child development, too. That will help to ensure the competence of those people, who do a difficult job, sometimes in pretty difficult circumstances.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I welcome the statement. Will the Secretary of State say why he will publish a Green Paper, rather than a White Paper, which might imply more urgency? As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) mentioned, the tragic Lauren Wright case involved her constituency, but the senior social worker involved—the team leader—was a constituent of mine, and he did indeed resign. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether there is anything in the Laming report about the Lauren Wright case? We have heard a lot today about the failings of social services—morale is obviously battered in Norfolk—but we must get across the point, surely, that the overwhelming majority of social workers do an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. What advice would he give Norfolk county council as it tries very hard to improve the recruitment and morale of social workers?

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and I very much agree with it. I hope that the balance is struck appropriately in relation to the coverage of such issues, particularly the role of social workers. He asks why we will publish a Green Paper, rather than a White Paper. We will certainly introduce proposals in the Green Paper that will be subject to rapid implementation, but it will be right to consult more broadly on other proposals, particularly if we propose far-reaching recommendations for structural change.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

How will my right hon. Friend ensure that social workers on the front line will receive the supervision and support that they need to deal with such very difficult situations? That seems to be the key to this issue.

Mr. Milburn

That is important, but, with respect to my hon. Friend, more is needed. We need people on the front line who are competent. We need management and leadership who demonstrate competence, and we need an accountability structure to ensure that. Those are precisely the issues that Lord Laming has been grappling with in his recommendations, and we shall consider those issues in the Green Paper.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)

When my right hon. Friend is developing the new national structures, will he consider especially the need properly to track children and their families as they move around the country? He will be well aware that many families are attracted by the bright lights of Blackpool. Sadly, all too often, those families bring with them problems. They must not be lost in the system, and not only social services, but health services and the other agencies need to know that they are there.

Mr. Milburn

I am pleased about what my hon. Friend said, as many of the points that have been made today highlight the role of social services. As we all know, however, vulnerable children require the support not just of social services but of a range of other services, too. I know that some might be tempted to point the finger purely at one part of those services, but that is not what Lord Laming identifies: he identifies a failure across the piece. He uses a graphic phrase, which is the right one: "widespread organisational malaise". That is precisely what is present in this case. We must deal with that for the future.

In relation to issues such as identification, referral and tracking, my hon. Friend is right that there is a group of vulnerable children out there, and it is important that we get the balance right and make sure that issues of civil liberties and data protection are dealt with properly and appropriately. We must also have information systems, however, that are capable of identifying where the children are in the system to make sure that they do not disappear, whether in Blackpool or anywhere else. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety is undertaking some good work. A £24 million pilot project is taking hold in different parts of the country, and by the autumn we want to make sure that that sort of system is being spread throughout the rest of the country.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

In 1993, a report was made to the Government of the findings from a national inspection of private fostering. The author was the social services inspector, Lord Laming. In 1998, the Utting report, by a former chief inspector of social services, was published. We have now had a further Laming report, and we will have a further review. There are 8,000 to 10,000 children involved, many of whom have come halfway round the world, and fewer checks are done for them than for child minders. These children are among the most vulnerable, as report after report has stated. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), my right hon. Friend issued a caution about private fostering: if we had a registration scheme, it would not necessarily have saved Victoria's life. I accept that, but does he accept that, given all the overwhelming evidence and the reviews presented to his Department, it would be one more safeguard for protecting vulnerable children?

Mr. Milburn

In truth, there are mixed views. My hon. Friend cogently argues from one perspective on the issue, but there are other perspectives. I hear what Lord Laming said in his report today, and I know what William Utting recommended. It is therefore right and appropriate that, as the Green Paper will address in the round the issues of children at risk—I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that opportunity to get the system right in that respect—we consider the various views and recommendations in that context. That is what we plan to do.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

One of my constituents who came to see me recently was the teacher who detected the first signs of stress in Maria Colwell in my constituency. I promised to pass on to the Government her suggestion that all professionals involved with children—nurses, social workers, doctors or teachers—should share a common social service practice module as a compulsory part of their training. That might go some way towards addressing the problem shown in all these reports, which is that, basically, one can have all the systems one wants, but if the people who operate them fail, through lack of quality of training or culture, nothing will succeed.

Mr. Milburn

I agree with my hon. Friend except in one respect: teachers, police officers and others should be properly trained, but not in social services practice. They should be trained in child development, child protection and the safeguarding of children. If we genuinely want services in which there is not confusion and fragmentation but integration and co-operation, we must ensure that we have people who are capable of operating those services in that way. We must therefore have training that reflects those principles.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

The failure to protect children shames all of us. I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments, and the comments of the shadow Secretary of State, which I support. There have been endless inquiries, and there will be a Green Paper in the spring. By May or June, another child will have died, and by the time the White Paper comes out, yet another child will have died. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the process will be speeded up and put high on the agenda? In terms of delivery, we must have one person who is accountable at a local level. That person should be the chief executive—I have senior legal advice on this matter, and have brought it to the attention of the Prime Minister. We also need coordination at ministerial level. Coverage by three Departments—the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office—is not good enough. Even with the best intentions, children are slipping between the cracks in provision, and they are dying as a result. I suggest that a Cabinet Minister should be made responsible for child protection.

Finally, will the extra resources mentioned by my right hon. Friend be ring-fenced? For example, in my well-run borough of Dudley, child intervention happens at level 5, although, according to the Government's guidance, it should happen at level 2. Will the resources that he mentioned allow intervention in my constituency at level 2, which is necessary to protect children?

Mr. Milburn

It must be right that we do not delay in doing anything that can be done without delay. That is precisely why we are taking action today: not just publishing a report but writing directly to those who have responsibility for leading these organisations, not only in local authorities but across the national health service, too. We are giving them a three-month deadline within which they must make sure that all the elements of good practice, which are basic common sense and which were simply not in place in Victoria Climbié's case, will be in place in the future.

Secondly, my hon. Friend refers to the need to ensure that we have appropriate structures at national level. There is more that we can do in that regard. She should not, however, understate what has been done so far, such as the advent of the children and young people's unit and its work, and the role of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, who has particular responsibility in that regard. On resources, again, we must get the balance right. Ultimately, the difference is that those of us sitting—or standing at the Dispatch Box—in the comfort of the House do not have to deliver a single service to a single child. The people who must do so are the people outside. Those are the people who should be empowered and held accountable, as a quid pro quo. That is why I happen to think it is right to have less ring-fencing rather than more. In the end, public money is involved, and those people must decide how to spend the money appropriately to serve their local communities, and they should be held to account stringently and rigorously for that. If we do that, we will get the right balance between national responsibilities and local ones.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to addressing this problem. Since the Maria Colwell affair in 1973, there has been a demonstrable failure to address it effectively. Will he clarify the respective roles of the proposed children's trust and the existing area child protection committees? Will he give an assurance that in future somebody at local level will be accountable, perhaps chairing a body that must legally own that particular responsibility, and that a statutory obligation should be placed on the agencies concerned that the people they send should be suitably qualified? Lastly, if something goes wrong, there should be a mechanism for a thoroughgoing and independent investigation, not a botched and obfuscated investigation as we had in Haringey when the Victoria Climbié affair first came to light.

Mr. Milburn

My hon. Friend makes a succession of extremely important points. It is important that we learn from things that go wrong. The only way of doing so is to get the facts out into the open. That is why the report and inquiry have been so widely welcomed.

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's comments on the area child protection committees. He will see in the guide to children's trusts, which has been published today, that one of the forms that they could take, for example, is to group together all the services in the local area that perform functions relating to child protection, mental health services or wider children's services. The important point about that is that, once again, it provides an opportunity for local services, whether in the public, private or voluntary sector, to come together in a way that is appropriate to meet the needs of sometimes different local communities in different local circumstances.