HC Deb 08 September 2003 vol 410 cc21-35 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to present to the House the children's Green Paper, "Every Child Matters". It is published alongside a detailed response to the Victoria Climbié inquiry report and a report by the social exclusion unit into the educational achievement of children in care.

I want to begin by thanking my colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Minister for Children and officials across Whitehall for the excellent work that they have done in preparing the Green Paper. The Chief Secretary's personal commitment to the central importance of inter-departmental partnership working was crucial to achieving these proposals.

The Green Paper sets out reforms covering children and young people from birth to 19 living in England. Our goals are both to protect children and young people and to ensure that each child has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The death of Victoria Climbié exposed shameful failings in our ability to protect our most vulnerable children. On 12 occasions over 10 months, chances to save Victoria's life were not taken. Failings occurred across all services at all levels. While no society can entirely eliminate the risk of children being damaged or exploited, our society has a duty to give priority to the protection of children and to tackle the tragic and avoidable failures that occurred in Victoria Climbié's case as well as in other cases.

From past inquires into the deaths of Maria Colwell and Jasmine Beckford to recent cases such as Lauren Wright and Ainlee Walker, the list of problems is familiar: unwillingness of some of the most senior people in agencies to accept their own accountability; poor coordination across agencies; insufficient sharing of information; front-line workers who are often overloaded and under-supervised. But these issues do not just afflict the 80 children on average who die each year from abuse. Weak accountability, poor integration and work force pressures are all critical barriers to improving the lives of all our children. Too many children fall through the net only to reach a crisis that could have been avoided. Too many children are passed around the system only to end up in care, in prison, or worse.

Lord Laming in his admirable report makes it clear that nothing less than fundamental reform will address those issues. No single change alone is enough. National standards, inspection, information sharing, training, national and local structures, all need to change if we are to achieve real changes in culture and practice. Radical reform is needed to organise our services around the needs and priorities of children. I believe that the proposals that I am publishing today meet the reform challenges identified by Lord Laming. Our task is properly to put them into effect.

The central theme of the Green Paper is that every service, every professional, every community and every family must take responsibility for the protection of children. Child protection must not be ghettoised and seen to be the responsibility of only one profession—social work. It must be the responsibility of everyone, and so must be at the heart of all public services.

Equally, it is vital that every organisation has a positive vision of young people and high expectations for all of them, whoever they are, and wherever they live. Every Department is already trying to tackle the reasons why children are held back, whether through poverty, poor schooling, violence in communities, lack of activities for young people, or lack of access to health care, and I can confirm that we will continue this drive, rightly shifting the emphasis to prevention.

The Green Paper sets out comprehensive reforms to ensure that this approach is carried through. I believe that they extend the principles of our sure start programme, which have been widely welcomed, to all areas of child care in this country.

There are four main areas of reform, the first of which is supporting families and carers. We all know the critical influence that parents have on children, yet in the past we paid insufficient attention to the crucial role of families in improving children's lives. By bringing children's policy and family policy together within my Department, we will start to see how we can support families more effectively.

The Green Paper involves consultation on a long-term vision to support families through universal services providing information, advice and support, and through more targeted services. As a first step, we have created a parenting fund to build capacity in the voluntary and community sector, and we will introduce proposals to roll out nationally the current level of home visiting support provided by home start.

The second main area of reform is early intervention. For the majority of children, the combination of support from their families and schools is enough to enable them to thrive, but for a significant minority more help is needed. The potential of hundreds of thousands of young people is wasted, because help too often comes too little, too late. A child may be known to several services, but nobody shares the warning signs, so the necessary action is not taken. Children can be passed from agency to agency. They may be assessed again and again. They may be known to lots of professionals, but all are based in different places, working to different bosses and budgets, and—most damaging of all—with no one in overall charge.

We need to build a system that ensures that children receive help at the first onset of problems. Early intervention requires new forms of integration on the ground: information sharing systems; a common assessment framework; a lead professional coordinating packages of support; and professionals working together in multidisciplinary teams, based in and around the places where children and families spend their time—schools, children's centres and doctors' surgeries.

The Green Paper includes proposals to develop better early intervention on all those fronts, including legislating to ensure that professionals share information more effectively. We will always have to strike a balance between individuals' right to privacy and the need to share information to protect children, but I believe that the balance needs to be shifted towards sharing information better so that problems can be identified more rapidly and more effectively.

The third area of reform in the Green Paper is accountability and integration. Integration in practice means integrating our institutions, structures and professions. That is the real focus of the Green Paper, tackling the underlying barriers to improving our services. Lasting change requires new institutional arrangements, not new initiatives.

Let me set out the key changes aimed at delivering clear accountability and integration in serving the needs of children. First, we will legislate to create the post of a director of children's services, accountable for local authority education and children's social services. As Lord Laming made clear, we must have a clearly named person in overall charge of children's well-being and protection in every part of the country. Secondly, to ensure clear accountability politically, we will create a lead council member for children.

Thirdly, in the medium and long term, our aim is to integrate key services for children and young people under the director of children's services, as part of children's trusts, bringing together the local education authority, children's social services, health services, and potentially others, including Connexions and youth offending teams, in a single organisational structure.

Of course, as Members of Parliament for our own constituencies, we all know the very real difficulties in joining up across boundaries. Our approach is to seek to break down boundaries altogether, and to organise services around children, at the core of our overall services.

Fourthly, there will always be some organisations outside the new children's trust, such as the police. We will therefore require the creation of local safeguarding children boards, to bring together all agencies to improve child protection. As part of this approach, we will also legislate to place a duty on all services to safeguard children. We must ensure that our children's safety is a priority across all services.

Fifthly, we will support local changes through national change, including the development of an integrated inspection framework, led by Ofsted, to ensure that all services are judged on how they work together.

Finally, where national standards are not met and our inspection system indicates failure, we must be tough on delivering changes. We will therefore create within my Department a strong focus on sharing effective practice and intervening in areas that are falling below national standards. In addition, I can announce that the Government will legislate at the earliest opportunity to create a children's commissioner to act as an independent champion for children. The commissioner will develop effective ways to draw on children's views, locally and nationally, and make sure that they are properly fed into policy making.

The final area of the Green Paper is work force reform. The reforms set out in it have two aims, the first of which is to tackle the recruitment and retention problems that are particularly acute in social work by making working with children an attractive, high-status career. Secondly, to improve the skills and teamworking of the work force, we need to ensure that our professionals work together with shared goals, shared values, shared language and shared priorities. We intend to introduce a package of changes to develop this: new career pathways to enable staff to acquire new specialist skills, to enable sideways career moves, or to enable remaining in front-line services; a leadership programme to support the first generation of children's directors and their senior staff; a common core of training for those who work with children; reduced bureaucracy and work load pressures; and more flexible and attractive training routes into working with children, including expanding work-based training routes for graduates. To deliver this, we will work with employers and staff to create a sector skills council for children and young people.

I believe that the reform programme that we are delivering will mark a turning point in child protection. The legislation and institutional change that we are proposing will genuinely put children first. Reform will take time and will require commitment across government. Perhaps most critically and most difficult, it will require a process of cultural change, to build a society in which protection is embedded in all communities, professionals and services, locally and nationally. Our aim is to build a society in which truly every child matters, and in that spirit I commend these proposals to the House.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I am, as always, grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and of the Green Paper, which results from one of the most horrible cases of the torture and murder of a child that any of us can remember. The Victoria Climbié case—following other terrible cases such as those of Lauren Wright, John Smith and Ainlee Walker—showed the need, as the Secretary of State said, for radical improvement in our ability to protect our most vulnerable children. We should all be grateful to Lord Laming for his very thorough report on the Climbié case.

All those cases teach that that level of horrendous cruelty is, thankfully, unusual, but, appallingly, not very unusual. That is why the delay in the Green Paper's publication has been so damaging, especially as the only reason for it seems to have been the protection of the new Minister for Children. Can the Secretary of State confirm weekend press reports that the Green Paper was ready for publication in early July, and that the measures in it—many of which will be welcomed on both sides of the House—have therefore been delayed for two months entirely for reasons of ministerial convenience?

That delay has been particularly harmful for the local authorities whose practices most need to change as a result of the Laming recommendations. In July Councillor Alison King, the chair of the Local Government Association social affairs and health executive, described the delays as "frustrating and disappointing". Since then we have wasted another two months.

The centrepiece of the announcement is the creation of a children's commissioner. Opposition Members hope that it proves to be an effective step forward and we certainly welcome measures that will raise the profile of child protection issues.

The Secretary of State spoke about legislating at the earliest available opportunity. Will he confirm that legislation will be introduced in the next Session? Can he also tell the House how the commissioner's independence from the Government will be maintained, as that will be essential to preserving confidence in his work? Will he also confirm the wisdom of the view expressed by the Welsh children's commissioner this morning—that although a new commissioner will be useful, the real changes must come at local level among those who deliver the services?

The Secretary of State talked about early intervention, which we fully support, and about the need to share information better. Again, that is absolutely right. Does he accept that changes to the Data Protection Act 1998 will have to be made, and will he legislate to achieve them? He knows that what really matters for children at risk is the number of social workers, their training, local knowledge and ability to fit into a wider network of professionals. In that regard, how does he propose to deal with the issue raised by the chief inspector of social services when he said that another 50,000 staff were necessary to meet Government targets and revealed that 80 per cent. of some social work teams in some London boroughs are agency staff? With the best will in the world, they cannot be expected to have detailed local knowledge and sensitivities. Without that essential base, all the initiatives launched in the Green Paper will not be effective. Two years ago, the then Secretary of State for Health uttered similar words to those that we have heard today about attracting more social workers. Nothing happened before, so why should it be different this time?

One key message from Laming that I am glad to see the Government have taken on board—I hope that the Minister for Children, who has decided to leave our debate on this important document published under her responsibility, also accepts it—is the need for clear lines of accountability within local authorities and between national and local agencies.

Of course, we all hope that, after the changes, it will be necessary to identify much less often who was ultimately responsible for a failure of children protection. However, we also know that the buck must stop with an identified individual and everyone must know who it is. Can the Secretary of State confirm who the person will be and whether local authorities will have any say in establishing it? The response of local authorities will be key. From what the Secretary of State has told the House today, it seems that local authorities will have no freedom to decide how best to meet the need for clear lines of responsibility. It seems that they will have to adhere to his central blueprint, even when they are well advanced in changing their structures. Does he believe that top-down centralisation is the best way forward?

On children's trusts, how standardised does the Secretary of State want them to be and how will clear lines of accountability be established? What will be their role in the key task of sharing information between professionals and monitoring how effectively it has been done?

On the responsibility of schools and teachers within the framework, will teachers take on any extra responsibilities under the proposals? Will they require extra training, and what effect will it have on the work load agreement, by which the Secretary of State rightly sets so much store? What will be the schools' responsibility for children who seldom, if ever, turn up? Many of them will be precisely the children most vulnerable to long-term abuse.

The Secretary of State mentioned the police. On the necessary changes to police practice, the Laming report dealt with the level of priority given to child protection issues. Can he explain whether any new lines of responsibility have been created? Specifically, what authority will the children's commissioner, or the Minister for Children, have over police priorities? Is child protection now a priority for the police?

Can the Secretary of State clarify the role that he sees for the many excellent children's charities that have built up so much expertise in helping vulnerable children? Will they be engaged in a genuine partnership, and not just used to fill the gaps in professionally provided services?

Everyone, both in this House and outside it, wants the Green Paper to lead to a rapid and visible improvement in our system of child protection. That improvement will be measured not by the headlines or the number of initiatives, but by a thousand small local changes in information sharing, professional practice and the sensitivity of intervention. All the welcome intentions of the Secretary of State will come to nothing without the right people working where it matters. The Opposition hope that it works, and we give all our support to the social workers, health care professionals, teachers and volunteers who will help to make it work.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman raised nine questions that I could identify. His first point was about the timing of publication. As we said in the House in July, his points were entirely specious, and I hope that the substance of the proposals will be the basis of the debate. Since July the proposals have, in my view, been improved, and we have used the time well.

The hon. Gentleman's second point was about the children's commissioner. That is an important issue, which I want to get right, but it is not the centrepiece of the proposals. He is right to say that it is an important part of the proposals, but the centrepiece is the overall integrated approach. The hon. Gentleman cited what the Welsh commissioner said this morning, and he is right to say that what happens locally is by far and away the most important thing.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in accordance with convention, I cannot comment on what legislation may or may not be in the Queen's Speech, but I can confirm that we seek early legislation on this matter if possible. I can also confirm that the independence of the children's commissioner is essential; he or she will report independently and will report to the House entirely freely on what he or she has to say.

The hon. Gentleman's third point was about early intervention and data sharing, and the Data Protection Act. I can confirm that legislation to enable data to be shared is a high priority. I cannot tell him of the precise implications for current legislation, including the Data Protection Act, but I can tell him that the first requirement will be to ensure that data can be properly shared.

The fourth point was about the social services inspector, and I agree with her that the high proportion—in some places, the very high proportion of agency staff is an unacceptable state of affairs, which has to be changed. That is why the document gives such a high priority to work force reform and all the issues associated with that. This is not simply a question of pay, although some people argue that it is; it is a question of training, status and esteem, and in particular it is a question of the team-building approach that I have tried to highlight today.

The hon. Gentleman's fifth question was about where responsibility ends. Local authorities will not have a choice about whether there should be a director of children's services. It is right that in every local authority in every part of the country it should be clear that there is one individual who bears full responsibility for every child involved. Where there will be flexibility is about precisely what is the best way to get there; that will be part of the consultation process. As we said in the debate that the House had on these matters in July, there are some quite difficult dilemmas about the role of current directors of education, directors of social services, chief executives and so on. I acknowledge that it would be a mistake to take a particular blueprint for a solution and impose it on every local authority in the country. Equally, it would be utterly mistaken to allow local authorities to evade setting a key responsibility in the way that I have set out.

The hon. Gentleman's sixth point was about standardisation of children's trusts. I do not envisage that they will be standardised in every respect. The bids in our pilot—I think that there were 26 of them—had a variety of different formats and approaches. Again, I would expect local circumstances to inform the best way of putting it all together, but I expect that in every local authority there will be a consistent drive to develop the kind of integrated regime that I have described under the children's trust approach.

As for teachers' training and responsibilities, there is a need across the board for a common core of training among professionals; that is set out in the Green Paper. Children who turn up rarely are principally the responsibility of educational social workers in the local authority rather than that of individual schools—but as the hon. Gentleman said, they too need to be part of the team.

The eighth point concerned police responsibilities. The setting of priorities for the police is and remains the responsibility of the chief constable in consultation with the police authority, and nothing we do can override that. We propose to place the legal responsibility to give priority to child protection on every service, including the police service, and we think that that will properly reflect the need for priorities to be set.

The final question was on children's charities. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I take this opportunity to express my respect and admiration for the work of many children's charities up and down the country. We very much welcome a partnership with them. It is fair to say that many of them welcome these proposals as a means of building those partnerships in the right way.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and thank him for it. I warmly congratulate the Government on bringing forward legislation to establish a children's commissioner for England. He will know that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I have the privilege to chair, published a report on 12 May this year entitled "The Case for a Children's Commissioner for England". Members of the Committee will be delighted that they have helped to persuade the Government of the rightness of that course of action.

The Committee recommended the establishment of a children's commissioner who would be a champion for the children of England, independent from but working closely with central government and other agencies. The commissioner would use the principles of the convention on the rights of the child

as a guide and measure in considering delivery of services to children by government and public authorities. and would involve children as much as was appropriate in its work. Does my right hon. Friend recall that one of the most telling findings of Lord Laming was that Victoria Climbié's murderer—her great aunt—time and again had interviews and assessments with professionals, but not one person thought to ask that little girl what was going on in her life? Does he agree with me that the establishment of the post of a children's commissioner will at long last give our children the protection and advocacy that they need?

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Her commitment on this subject, with which I am familiar, and the commitment of the Committee that she has the honour of chairing, have been important to the Government in coming to the view that they have. I pay tribute to the Committee for its report for the reason that she gave. Children need a voice, and her Committee's report referred to a champion for the children of England", which is precisely what we need. One of the most depressing things for anyone in my position is the feeling that people sometimes do not listen to children enough. We must listen to children and understand what they say, and that applies right across the public services. I hope that the children's commissioner will help us all to do that better.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I rise on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to welcome much of the Green Paper and much of the Secretary of State's statement, especially the proposals to make local responsibilities clearer, and to establish a children's director at a local level and a children's commissioner in England. The Liberal Democrats have long called for the establishment of the post of children's commissioner for England.

In response to the Victoria Climbié case, it is right and vital that we acknowledge that responsibility does not lie just with the services and agencies, but that a response is required from the whole society if we are to ensure that the tragic death of that little girl is not just one of many in the future.

Will the Secretary of State say a little more about how he intends to ensure that at a local level all the agencies responsible for child protection policy and practice are genuinely working together? Will he institute a review of targets at a local level to ensure that agencies are not distracted from working together by targets that actively discourage them from doing so? Could not the children's director be charged with that responsibility at local level?

Will the Secretary of State explain why, having established pilots for children's trusts—which the Liberal Democrats have welcomed—he now seems to be prejudging that process by announcing an end-date by which most local authorities will have to have moved to such a model? Why has sure start not been referred to as one of the things that could be included in children's trusts?

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about the arm's-length nature of the children's commissioner. How will the commissioner report to the House, and how will he or she be accountable to children, so that they can have a say in what the commissioner does?

The Green Paper talks in terms of services for children and young people, and of responsibility for adults and service providers, but it says nothing about children's rights. Why does it say nothing about the proposal of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to incorporate the UN convention on the rights of the child, so that this country has a clear foundation of rights as the basis of law to protect our children?

I welcome the fact that we are seeking to make sure that there is a clear information flow, free and confidential, between agencies, but what about the rights of children and young people to have access to that information to ensure that it is correct? Will that information survive once the child becomes an adult, or will it be destroyed?

How will the consultation that the Green Paper launches ensure that the views and aspirations of children and young people are actively sought? The Green Paper does not say how that will be done; indeed, it makes only two references to involving children and asking their views.

Liberal Democrat Members welcome many of the proposals and will actively work with the Government to support them when legislation is introduced in the House. There have been too many delays in publishing this Green Paper and as a result too many children have died. We must end those deaths and take measures that can reduce the risk of such deaths in future.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there have been too many deaths. As I said, there has been a steady average of about 80 deaths from abuse each year for the past 28 to 30 years. That is a staggering figure and an appalling state of affairs. That is why I argued in my statement that it will not be a particular initiative or stunt that will solve the problem but the ongoing development of practice.

I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his remarks about the need for a whole society response. I am influenced by the observation of the workings of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which many police described as one of the most successful legislative measures that they had experienced. That is because the Act makes it absolutely clear that crime is not the responsibility of the police alone; it is the responsibility of the whole of society working together to solve the problem.

Exactly the same is true in child protection, where social workers have felt beleaguered and pushed from pillar to post, having to make hard, almost impossible, choices between intervening too much and intervening too little, with disasters and tragedies occurring time after time. It is critical that the whole society approach that the hon. Gentleman described is part of how we operate.

There will be joint work at local level. That is why we have a director of children's services and it is why we are establishing children's trusts and the local safeguarding children boards. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that may require a review of the targeting regime, both nationally and locally, to ensure that targeting is correctly focused.

On the pilot scheme and the end-date, we have, as the hon. Gentleman said, had a wide variety of submissions on children's trusts, and we have looked at those carefully. Nevertheless, we need a basic national structure of children's trusts. I mentioned the sure start approach at the beginning of my statement because I believe that its principles are very important—too important to be left to the relatively small number of sure start areas in the country—and need to be in the mainstream of everything that we do.

I will take the hon. Gentleman's question about how the children's commissioner will report with his final point about consulting children. Obviously, the report has to be made to the House, but it will be made to children as well. We will encourage discussion with children's commissioners in other countries to see how that can best be done. We specifically want children's responses to our proposals; in fact, one of the documents that we published today, "Every Child Matters—What Do You Think?", is a digest of the Green Paper which is directed at children and young people and aims to encourage them to respond to the proposals through their various organisations. I agree that children and young people must be involved in what we do, so I take this opportunity to encourage as many of them as possible to read the digest and respond to it.

On children's rights, I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, said in welcoming the Green Paper. Let me make one fundamental point that follows from Lord Laming's report. The catalogue of key failures that lead to these avoidable deaths are failures in the practice of a wide variety of our public services.

I make no apology in saying that putting those things right is my priority. That is where we have to be. No right has meaning unless it is backed up by agencies and public services that can deliver. The right to live is the most fundamental of all rights. That does not need to be restated. We are failing in too many areas, and putting that right is my No. 1 priority.

I hear what has been said about access to data, but I want to treat the matter with care. I am aware of a case where a child died as a result of a failure of the probation service and the social services department to share data because of perceived blockings on the sharing of data. It was an appalling case. It was not a question of the young child having access to the information, important though that is. The key thing is to ensure that professionals know where the problems occur and can intervene properly in the right sort of way.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

May I inform my right hon. Friend—I do not want to take away anything from the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee—that I represent a constituency where Brian Jackson, who wrote "Education and Social Class" many years ago, campaigned for 20 years for a children's Minister and a children's commissioner? This is a happy day for me, as a trustee of the charity that Brian Jackson set up, because something that he campaigned vigorously for has come about after so many years.

In welcoming the children's commissioner, I would point out that there is one way of giving him or her more independence, and my right hon. Friend knows well what I am about to say. The commissioner will have more independence if we make him or her responsible not to my right hon. Friend but to Parliament through the appropriate Select Committee. It would be an important step if my right hon. Friend made that announcement as soon as possible.

My last point—I know that many Members want to ask my right hon. Friend questions on this important statement—is not only to welcome the statement but to say that we will not eradicate deaths and other terrible things will happen to children in our country. Those of us who knock on doors in our constituencies know that poverty, drug addiction and the lack of a family—not the presence of a family—so often make our children vulnerable. I see the voluntary sector—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to put a question, but he has not, and I do not think that the Minister need respond.

Mr. Sheerman


Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I broadly welcome the restructuring of local authority services that the Secretary of State has announced this afternoon, which will result in statutorily reinforcing cooperation between education and social services. I note also that in the creation of local children's safeguarding boards the right hon. Gentleman expects to net in police authorities. Will he tell the House whether that proposal will also, in his view, net in health authorities? Can he give the House more details about the practical role of the children's commissioner? We need—I believe that he shares my view on this—services that do what they are supposed to do to protect children and not, as Lord Laming said, another commentator.

Mr. Clarke

I can confirm what the right hon. Lady says about health authorities, but I can say a bit more. As for mental health services and primary care trust services, there is a division of children's services within those responsibilities. It is entirely imaginable and feasible that in certain areas the PCT or the mental health trust will commission out their children's services so that they are within children's trusts more generally, so that they are even more intimately involved. Where that is not the case, they will be caught more directly, as the right hon. Lady implies, by the safeguarding children arrangements that I have described. We felt that we could not go so far as to say that every PCT or mental health trust should hive off its children's services into children's trusts, even though there might be logic for that, because lifelong responsibilities and serious bureaucratic issues are involved.

On the right hon. Lady's second point about the children's commissioner, I can confirm that the approach that we take to the commissioner is designed to ensure that he or she is the champion of children's rights, and is ready to intervene constantly on every point that I have already outlined. The precise way in which the commissioner works will be a matter for general discussion once we have established the necessary legislation.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

In welcoming every syllable that my right hon. Friend has uttered this afternoon, may I congratulate him and the Government on rejecting one aspect of Lord Laming's report and standing up for the independence of a children's commissioner, thus putting themselves in a position where they could be criticised by someone who had such independence? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the participation of children and young people in decisions that affect their lives both locally and nationally is the key to developing the radical transformation of services that he set out today? Will he explain how the national service framework for children fits with what is in the Green Paper?

Mr. Clarke

The national service framework is, and will continue to be, part of the overall arrangements that we have established. As for the participation of children and young people, I agree very much with my hon. Friend. It is important that in schools and children's services children's voices are heard and reflected in what happens. Of course, that will take place in various ways, and I do not wish to appear too prescriptive. However, we are right to be prescriptive in one sense—the establishment of a children's commissioner is meant to signal as strongly and clearly as possible that in every service the voice of children and young people should be heard and reflected in the way in which those services are run and organised.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

With a Green Paper published in September which was originally promised in the spring, it will be no surprise to the Secretary of State if we focus on issues of timetabling. According to the written text of the statement, the Secretary of State was going to say that "in the long term" services would be integrated into children's trusts. However, when he delivered the statement he said "in the medium to long term". Perhaps he will now elaborate on the prospective timetable for children's trusts because, in the absence of such an explanation and of legislation providing a framework that services can use in coming together at a local level, there will be a degree of planning blight and uncertainty which may last for years.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on timetabling in general. However, I modified the written statement with the words "medium to long term" because in politics and life generally the phrase "the long term" tends to imply a time that is a long way away. The message that I wanted to send was that we need to move more quickly. As the hon. Gentleman knows, progress has already been made in some parts of the country—I want to encourage and extend that. We will therefore publish a timetable. It is important for the reasons that I gave earlier about the way in which we operate that we consult properly on the timetable with everyone who has to put it into effect, and that is what we will do.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition of the fact that the potential of literally hundreds of thousands of young children is wasted because, as he put it, help is too little and too late. Does he agree with two things? First, if there is to be information sharing, it must be sufficiently good to track children as they move around the country, and not simply operate in each individual local authority area? Secondly, if we are concerned about hundreds of thousands of children, it will not be good enough to aim to refer them all to specialist services. We will need to bend some mainstream funding within schools, the health service and social services to enable the professionals to intervene much earlier. Indeed, we will save money if we intervene when a child is five, six or seven, rather than wait until they are a criminal, a drug abuser or have an unwanted pregnancy at 14, 15 or 16.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with both points made by my right hon. Friend. First, on tracking children as they move across the country, I am sure that he is correct about that. As a former Minister with responsibility for the police—an experience which I share—he will know that even without the complication of tracking movements around the country, there is not sufficient sharing of data between agencies. Even without addressing the point that he made, there is an enormous amount to do if we are to get things right but, of course, he was correct in what he said. As for specialist services, I focused on the need to generalise the sure start experience because it is universal in every relatively small community where it operates. It ranges from early intervention, even before birth, to early co-operation between various professional services. We must extend that model to every aspect of what we do.

My right hon. Friend is quite right that that does mean bending mainstream services to deal with particular people. One of the problems is the definition of risk, so to speak, in how we operate. There is a vast hierarchy of work that he, when he was responsible for the children's fund, led in highlighting the types of risk that exist. We must consider the matter from that universal base, targeted on the particular risks that cause the most danger.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

As the Secretary of State has recognised the need for widespread change, what plans does he have for improving education in schools so that at an early age, children are taught the value of marriage and the stable family?

Mr. Clarke

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the first aspect to which I drew attention when reporting the areas of action for the Green Paper was strengthening the role of children and families. That is a key aspect. Whatever the form of family relationship, a stable family background is the key foundation for any child to move forward. The bringing together of services as proposed will enable that to happen in a much more focused and stronger way. The focus that we have given to ethics and morality in school is important and right, and should move forward. The extended school approach that is already beginning to roll out gives a real possibility of creating such an overall approach. My fundamental answer is that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but it is not simply a matter of an exhortation or a statement of principle. It is a matter of establishing services that put strong families, strong parenting and strong communities at the core of every child's education.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of the sure start programme. It is a disappointment to many of us that we do not have a sure start programme, as we have seen elsewhere how successful it has been in ensuring that every child can develop its potential. Is a timetable set in the Green Paper for sure start or a similar model to be rolled out to every area, urban and rural?

As regards my right hon. Friend's concerns about protecting children and the exchange of information, in Gloucestershire we had a considerable report after the West case. One of the findings after that inquiry was that not enough information was gleaned from the domestic violence network information and the refuge information. Will that be included in the collaboration between agencies to protect children?

Mr. Clarke

I think that sure start is an outstanding programme. The reason why it has been focused—rightly, in my opinion—on the communities where there is most deprivation is precisely to intervene in the cycle of decline that can be so damaging in so many different areas. It is critical to establish the principles of sure start in every community in Britain. We cannot do that simply by adding to the number of existing sure start programmes and multiplying by a factor. We must change the practice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was suggesting, of education and social services more generally. I am extremely committed to that approach.

Ideas such as children's centres and extended schools are a central part of that approach. We will publish a timetable for achieving that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) mentioned. I discussed that in July with a major conference of people working with children, and they welcomed that approach. However—this is a tough message, but a true message—unless the culture of some of the public services involved in looking after children is changed in the way that I described in the Green Paper, we will not achieve the aim that my hon. Friend and I share.

On domestic violence issues, yes, we will seek to exchange information widely. It is one of the tragedies of the West case as I recall it that a number of those who lost their lives were people whom the system lost in the gap between primary and secondary education. The idea of a proper school record is a key element in trying to address that problem.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appreciate that this is a very important topic, and it is one to which the House will no doubt take the opportunity to return in future. We must now move on to the next statement.

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