HL Deb 03 June 1991 vol 529 cc463-74

4.56 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister for Health on the report on Staffordshire children's homes. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the report on residential care for children published during the Recess by the Staffordshire County Council. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

"The House will know that after a thorough inquiry Allan Levy QC and Mrs. Barbara Kahan have reported on the so-called "Pindown" approach to the residential care of children that had been practised in some Staffordshire residential homes. They say that this was,

'in all its manifestations intrinsically unethical, unprofessional and unacceptable:'. They also conclude that the children who were in Pindown, 'suffered in varying degrees the despair and the potentially damaging, effects of isolation, the humiliation of having to wear nightclothes during the day, … and of having all their personal possessions removed; and the intense frustration and boredom from the lack of communication, companionship with others and recreation'. "Their report says: 'It has been suggested that "Pindown" by any other name probably exists the length and breadth of the country, and is probably more prevalent than anyone would officially care to admit. We received no such admissions in evidence. The practice of Pindown has ceased in Staffordshire. If it exists under any other name elsewhere it should be summarily terminated'. "The report covers a number of other related issues. It examines in detail allegations that known adult sexual offenders were on occasion permitted contact with children in a home: and that county council officers arranged for a young person for whom they had responsibility to obtain accommodation in a house owned by a convicted sexual offender.

"Their findings on these points are drafted with scrupulous care. They found inadequate vetting and notification in the cases they examined and made recommendations of general importance.

"The Government will respond with the greatest seriousness to these.

"The report also criticises Staffordshire's supervision of arrangements known as 'Fundwell'. Under these, from the mid-1970s until 1987 a council officer set up and developed a network of voluntary organisations and private companies which in some instances contracted their services directly back to the social services department. The district auditor is undertaking a further investigation into financial aspects of these arrangements.

"When honourable Members read this comprehensive report in full, they will recognise the lucidity, balance, compassion and firmness of purpose of its authors. Looking after the often extremely difficult and disturbed children and adolescents in residential care has become increasingly challenging for those responsible. But Parliament has laid a statutory duty on local authorities to, `give first consideration to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child … and so far as practicable, to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child'. "The House, like the Government, must deplore the position revealed in Staffordshire up to 1989.

"The report was commissioned by Staffordshire County Council in June last year after consultation with the Department of Health. It examines the Staffordshire issues in the wider context of national policies. It makes valuable recommendations for social services departments about the objectives, management and control of children's homes and the recruitment and training of their staff. Many of these reflect existing good practice around the country.

"As the House knows, the Children Act 1989 is to be implemented in full on 14th October this year. By common consent it is the most important reforming measure in the children's field that we have had in this country in this century. The Government, after consultation, have already issued four substantial volumes of regulations and statutory guidance on its implementation.

"The volume which covers residential care and secure accommodation was issued for consultation in September of last year. It will be published in amended form this month. Many of the recommendations in the Levy Report are already addressed in this document. These binding regulations and statutory guidance will require scrutiny of residential care for children throughout the country and its reform where necessary.

"The Government are not content to rest on the significant work already in progress. We are today issuing a statutory guidance circular charging all social services authorities to check immediately that their residential care practices are wholly free of the abuses found in Staffordshire; and that they conform with the statutory provisions and regulations governing these matters made by successive Secretaries of State. We are also urgently requiring them to ensure that a statutory complaints procedure is in place and readily understood by all children in residential care.

"The House will already be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has instructed Sir William Utting, the Chief Social Services Inspector, to undertake a special review of residential child care concentrating particularly on questions of monitoring, control and implementation in the light of this important report. Sir William will consult independent experts outside government. We will publish his report and promptly address its conclusions."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for reading the Statement made by his honourable friend in another place. From these Benches I also express our thanks to Mr. Allan Levy and to Barbara Kahan for what is a very remarkable, though sad, report. In my view they brought the best of their skills to the task. Those of us who have known Barbara Kahan for many years are grateful to her for the wisdom and experience contained in the report.

I have a modest interest to declare in that about 18 months ago some young people from NAYPIC (the National Association of Young People in Care) with which I have had contact over many years, came to see me with much of the evidence which was presented to the inquiry. They were deeply concerned because they could not get anyone to express an interest in the situation or to undertake an inquiry. Therefore, on their behalf, I wrote to the county council and to the social services department urging that there should be an inquiry into the matter. I was then asked whether I would care to give evidence. However, I had no direct evidence and therefore I did not avail myself of the opportunity. Nevertheless, I took an interest in the matter from that time onwards.

This is an unusual case in that the inquiry did not follow the death of a child. I suppose that it is worse in the sense that the inquiry was into a regime called Pindown which had existed since 1984 and which was imposed by a fully qualified social worker over a period of roughly five or six years.

The report tells a terrible story. Pindown was not a clandestine policy. The routines of punishment and control were recorded in council records. However, the social services inspectorate officers who visited three of the homes in 1977 failed to detect the dangers of Pindown; though the circumstances which existed at the time in those homes must have been drawn to their attention. Similarly, the local authority's supervisory visits did not identify the problems. I believe that we must ask why it was that the social services department did not realise the extent to which they were not only in breach of practice but also in breach of the law. We must also ask how it was that the SSI officers did not report the existing circumstances to the Secretary of State or even to the local authority.

Only yesterday the Minister, Mrs. Virginia Bottomley, accused Staffordshire social services department of having, singularly failed to discharge its responsibilities". She said it was unsatisfactory that unqualified youngsters in their first job should be trying to care for disturbed children. I entirely agree with that statement. However, she went on to say: We need our streetwise grannies back in the children's homes". I wonder how that aim is to be achieved and whether the Government will say what further funding will be made available. Further, will the strategy of training recommended in the report be implemented? That seems to me to be one of the most disturbing aspects of this and, indeed, other cases. Staffordshire County Council, in a statement on the issue of staffing resources, said that, only central government can resolve the constraints upon Staffordshire and other local authorities trying to deliver good quality residential care for children". I agree with that. However, it is not good enough that the buck should be passed back and forth between local authority social services departments and the Department of Health. Both of them must share the responsibility for what has happened. They must also share responsibility for putting the matter right. I hope that this excellent report will lead to positive action. I also hope that it will lead to a complete overhaul of the way that we treat children and young people who do not fit in with society.

From these Benches we call, first, for an independent national inquiry into the complete range of children's homes, including resource levels and complaints procedures. I believe that what has been done thus far is just not good enough. Two days before the Levy Report was published the Government commissioned an inquiry into the state of children's homes which is to be headed by Sir William Utting, the Chief Social Services Inspector. It is said that the report is expected to be published within seven weeks; that is, before Sir William retires on 19th July.

Having known Sir William Utting for many years, I must stress that I have the greatest possible respect for him and for his abilities. However, I do not believe .it is proper that the inquiry should be conducted by the head of the inspectorate who quite patently did not discover the circumstances which gave rise to the report. I believe that there needs to be an independent inquiry which must be able to draw on a wider range of information than will be possible in the seven weeks available to Sir William Utting. He says that he will have completed the report by the time he retires on 19th .July. It is difficult to see how adequate research and analysis can be brought to his attention in that time.

Secondly, we hope that there will be a more positive attitude on the part of the Government towards funding, staffing and inspection. Staffing levels are dangerously low. Social services are failing to attract people with relevant training and experience. Indeed, social services directors were reported only yesterday in the Observer as having difficulty in recruiting suitable staff. It is said that new recruits often leave after only a few weeks. Moreover, there are currently 2,000 vacancies for residential social workers with a starting salary of £8,000. I hope that we shall hear a little more about what the Government intend to do as regards training.

I quote from paragraph 17.22 on page 154 of the report: Recruitment policies and practice clearly indicated that filling gaps was more important than obtaining the services of qualified and experienced staff. Some of the holders of unqualified social work posts had, in our opinion, inappropriate experience and education for such work and should not have been expected to carry it out". It is important that the Government should recognise the fact that the training of residential social workers is crucial to finding a solution to the problem.

In conclusion, perhaps I may make two points. I do so without in any way retreating from the condemnation in the report, which I entirely accept, of appalling practices. First, it should be pointed out how incredibly difficult many of these young people are properly to discipline, control and help. They represent a quarter of those in care. The other three-quarters of those in care are fostered. Those in residential care are probably the most difficult of children. The girls are as bad as the boys. Many people with experience know that to be true. Secondly, I wish to say how difficult is the social workers',.task. My heart goes out to them. Every time there is an inquiry it is into something that has gone wrong. No one has an inquiry into something that has gone right. It is a thankless but crucial professional task. At the same time as handing out criticism, we should give credit to the many dedicated and highly efficient social workers who perform a remarkable service.

Lord Meston

My Lords, we too wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I pay tribute to the painstaking work done by Mr. Allan Levy QC, who has been known to me for a number of years, and to his colleague Mrs. Kahan. There is the inevitable sound of the stable door being belatedly shut when one reads such a report and hears the governmental response to it. That is not a criticism but a fact.

In this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has just observed, we are not dealing with one incident or episode but with a regime which had amazingly been in place for a number of years. Children in children's homes are almost certainly already vulnerable and damaged. It is also hard in retrospect to imagine how such wretched practices could have been encouraged by the supposed carers of such children. It is also hard to imagine how they can have gone on for so long unchecked. One reason was that Pindown was practised behind closed doors. In that respect, I welcome the proposed review to be undertaken by the Social Services Inspectorate. Is it intended to encourage truly unannounced inspections of children's homes? They would seem to be a necessary feature of the future work of the inspectorate. Will the review to be undertaken by Sir William Utting be published sooner rather than later?

It is opportune that the guidance and regulations which are still in draft under the Children Act 1989 will provide an opportunity to close the gap between good practice and what has apparently been happening on the ground. Another more worrying reason why these matters went unchecked was the acquiescence by the officers and middle management of the social services department concerned; combined, it appears, by the admitted cover-up by the chairman of the social services committee who tried to justify Pindown by attempting to minimise it as an isolated occurrence.

In that context, I wish to pay tribute to the persistence of Mrs. Christina Jebb, the local Liberal Democrat councillor, who tried to expose a cover-up. Your Lordships may have read the disturbing report contained in the Sunday Times yesterday which claimed that an injunction banning the Pindown method in council homes was kept hidden from members of the social services committee for six months even though the council had lost a High Court case in which details of the procedure had come to light. The report claims that requests for meetings and information about Pindown were postponed repeatedly, and delays were an attempt to prevent damaging disclosures in the run up to a by-election. That is a worrying aspect of the matter. It is astonishing that the matters were suppressed for so long and that the chairman of the social services committee then tried to explain it as merely an isolated incident.

Surely the Government should address the problem of installing mechanisms to ensure that such matters cannot be kept from the social services committee in such a way. I hope that the Minister will give us some insight into the Government's response to what was reported in the Sunday Times.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said about training and the many dedicated social workers who get things right. We must remind ourselves that we hear only about things when they go wrong. It is important that social workers should not have a siege mentality if effective social workers are to be recruited and retained.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I join both noble Lords in offering my further praise for the authors of this excellent report. I also join them in yet again condemning the bad practices that existed in Staffordshire until 1989. I shall deal with some points raised by them. First, and predictably, the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, asked for a national inquiry into the matter. We see no point in setting up such a large-scale inquiry. The key moment will be the implementation of the Children Act on 14th October. The inquiry suggested by the noble Lord would take one and possibly two years. The major changes in progress are reflected in regulations and guidance to be issued later this month. We already have a comprehensive report. It is the one that we are discussing. It has made valuable recommendations.

In the Statement I mentioned the guidance that has been issued today to all social services authorities. That guidance will bring to the attention of those social services authorities the report and the recommendations contained in it. Again, as I said in the Statement, we have already commissioned Sir William Utting to undertake a quick, special report to ensure that we cover all the issues involved in the implementation of the Children Act. We shall obviously consult outside independent experts. The noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked whether unannounced visits could be considered. That is an issue that will be covered by Sir William in his report.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, asked why the SSI had missed the Staffordshire problem. One should read the report on that point with some care. It contains no criticism of the SSI which was never told of Pindown when it visited the two Staffordshire homes in the course of its wider investigation of residential care management arrangements. In particular, one should look carefully at the finding that those Staffordshire homes were not residential homes but had become secure accommodation, and that at no stage did Staffordshire take legal advice on their status. Had it done so it would have discovered that due to the amount of secure accommodation it would have had to seek my right honourable friend's approval under the secure accommodation regulations which have been in force since 1972. Such approval is never given without a full SSI inspection directed wholly at the care regime in the individual facility. It would never have obtained the necessary approval in this case.

Where approval is given, regular and detailed subsequent inspection of the facility by the SSI is automatic. We are confident that such inspections of the Staffordshire homes would have uncovered the problem and led to a remedy or have prevented the problem occurring in the first place. It is misguided and unreasonable to confuse the two visits to homes in the context of the wider exercise undertaken for a different purpose with the targeted, more detailed SSI inspection that there would have been had Staffordshire realised the true nature of its homes.

Again predictably, the noble Lord complained of under-funding and blamed the Government. I agree that the report shows that the lack of resources in residential child care in Staffordshire was due largely to poor priority setting by the county council over a number of years. It may be worth quoting from the report the remarks of Mark Fisher, one of the MPs for the area who is a member of the noble Lord's own party. He said at paragraph 3.28: historically we have been negligent both in expenditure and in policy … not just in social services. It is traditional … I think they are probably right in saying that the money is not there because they have always set very low budgets".

I accept, however, that Staffordshire's net expenditure on personal social services has risen from £18.4 million in 1979–80 to £57.2 million in 1990–91. That is an increase in real terms of 43.7 per cent. However, Staffordshire spent 4.5 per cent. less in 1988–89 than its grant-related expenditure figure for that year. Thus we must blame Staffordshire County Council and its social services committee for the lack of resources. It spent less than other comparable authorities on these services.

The noble Lord mentioned staffing and training. It is not the Department of Health that employs those working in personal social services. The provision of adequate staff and any analysis of the workforce and planning are for local authorities to determine, depending on the policies and priorities they decide on locally for the client groups for which they have responsibility. It is for those authorities to give enhanced grading to residential child care posts, to ensure that staff can obtain qualifications and are given proper training and to provide to residential care staff, proper management, supervision and support from appropriate senior levels in the social services department.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with unqualified people carrying out certain tasks in these homes as long as there is adequate supervision and management from the department. That must be a matter for the social services department and the social services committee of Staffordshire County Council. It is to them that we should look and they should consider their position. They decided on the level of resources.

The noble Lord asked what support the Government give to training. The training support programme has been continued and extended. The central grant was increased from £19.4 million to £24.8 million in 1991–92. The local authorities have been urged specifically to target the training needs of the residential child care staff.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked about requests for meetings with the social services committee which were not met. He said that the Government should put in mechanisms to deal with them. We feel that it must be a matter for the local authority and its electors, the people of Staffordshire.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the points made by the two noble Lords in their remarks. I welcome their support for the report and for the skill and expertise that went into it from Mr. Levy and Mrs. Kahan. I hope that noble Lords agree with me that the Government's response, particularly in issuing guidance today to local authorities, has been both swift and effective.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in the light of my noble friend's rejection of a general inquiry, can he assure the House that the Government are confident that no establishments run on the Pindown principle in other parts of the country and that no other local authority operates such a system? Are the Government confident of that?

Further, in the light of what can happen, as this case has shown, is there not a great deal to be said for ensuring that the continued detention of children in such establishments should be subject to an order of a competent court?

Lord Henley

My Lords, on whether Pindown exists in any other part of the country, I can only say that we do not believe that it does. In the guidance which I mentioned and which we issued today to social services departments, we brought to their attention the remarks in the report that if the practice exists elsewhere under any other name, it should be summarily terminated. The report also said that the authors received no admissions in evidence that the practice was continuing. If my noble friend has evidence that it is continuing, we shall be pleased to receive it. We shall try to ensure that it ceases.

My noble friend also asked whether children kept under restraint should be subject to a court order. My understanding is that it is and will be the case under the Children Act that a court order will be necessary in future if a child is to be locked up. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, if a local authority operated a home as secure accommodation, it woulc need the permission of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the one thing we cannot do is, as he said over and over again, to leave this to the local authorities? In the wake of the cases in the Orkneys and Cleveland and this affair, there must now be a form of;uperimposed control. This would be not only supervision but training standards. My noble friend said that it did not matter whether the staff were qualified, but surely it is asking too much of these well intentioned young people to do their best without adequate training. Training costs money. Staff should have a kind of pupillage, as we do at the Bar, perhaps for three or more years, to acquaint themselves, as they do in other countries, with the nature of their duties ard how to deal with such people. There should be standards of excellence and qualifications for people when they have learnt their profession. They should be paid according to their merits or the degree they have taken.

We cannot just let this go, sweep it under the carpet and say that it is all a matter for the local authorities. There must be a sound regime, with adequate supervision and reasonable working hours. Do your Lordships realise that some of these young social workers work so hard over long hours that probably many have never had a chance to read the Cleveland report? It is no use blaming the social workers. One blames the colonel of the regiment. That is the only thing to do. The Government must be responsible. There is no other way in which we shall ever come to grips with the problem.

I am not criticising the Government, because the problem was not apparent on this scale until the facts were revealed. It is not a criticism, but I suggest that now the situation has been revealed, it is idle to say, "Oh, it's a matter for the local authorities". Yes, in part it is; but the responsibility must lie with the Government of any political party.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept that the Government have a responsibility. However, it is important to accept that the elected local authority in the area has a responsibility. Failure in one part of the service does not mean that there is no need for services or that the local authority is not capable of performing those services. In the main, local authorities perform the services very well and properly. We believe that it is right that they should have the responsibility for this area. As I said earlier, I do not believe that the Government are sweeping this matter under the carpet. As I have made quite clear, we have issued guidance rapidly today to all social services departments bringing their attention to the Levy Report. We hope they will take note of that.

I wish to pick up a point which my noble friend made. He implied that I had said that it does not matter whether staff are unqualified. I was trying to say that in certain situations it does not matter whether staff are unqualified provided they are adequately supervised and managed. That management should have been in place in Staffordshire, but obviously it was lacking. However, it is misguided to say that the policy we are discussing was instigated by untrained staff. The policy originated with Mr. Tony Latham who I believe had obtained a qualification in social work from Ruskin College. Therefore he was distinctly qualified in these matters. The fact was that he came to the wrong conclusions.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I was not suggesting that the people we are discussing are unqualified. I never said that.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I apologise. I thought my noble friend was picking me up on a point I had made and was suggesting that I had said it was perfectly permissible for unqualified people to carry out such work. I repeat that I said it is perfectly proper for unqualified people to carry out certain work if they are adequately supervised. What was lacking in Staffordshire was adequate supervision and management of such staff. That must be a matter for Staffordshire County Council and the social services committees in Staffordshire to discuss. I hope that the local electorate will bear those matters in mind.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, the Government send directives to local authorities on other matters. Will they therefore send a directive to local authorities that all members of social services committees should visit the homes for which they are responsible? Most of us have served on such committees as unpaid members. We regarded it as an obligation to make unannounced visits to children's homes, old people's homes and schools so that these kinds of incidents did not occur. The Government are failing in their duty if they do not at least suggest to local authorities that the members of social services committees have obligations which they cannot opt out of. The Government are good at sending suggestions to local authorities about money and the community charge, so why cannot they send a directive on this vital matter?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Baroness started by asking the Government to issue a directive. Normally noble Lords opposite do not like the Government to issue directives to local authorities. As I have said, we have issued guidance on this matter. As regards the substantive point the noble Baroness made, I agree with her that it must be good practice for members of social services committees to make unannounced visits to homes in their areas. I certainly did so when I served on a social services committee in my local county council. I am sure that most social services committees follow that practice. However, I do not agree that that is necessarily a matter for Government. Local authorities must decide their own priorities. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that all members of social services committees should make visits, preferably unannounced, to local authority homes under their jurisdiction within their areas.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, as regards the final point my noble friend made, it is laid down under regulations that members of social services committees should visit children's homes. As regards my own local authority—the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will know this is the case—the social services committee has to report at every committee meeting on visits made to local authority homes. It is essential that those regulations are fulfilled.

I understand that we should not use the occasion of a Statement to indulge in a long debate. The report contains 39 recommendations and none of us has had time to read the report fully. I suggest to the House that we might consider through the usual channels holding a debate on the report at some stage.

I have two comments to make on the report. The first comment concerns training. Many other noble Lords have referred to this. Recommendation No. 23.45 of the report states: We recommend that a strategy of training for the next five years is developed as a matter of urgency with a particular aim being to increase the numbers of trained and qualified staff in residential care without delay". Although it is the business of the local authority concerned to ensure that it engages qualified staff, and although Her Majesty's Government have provided more money for training, the money has only just been provided and the training for residential staff in this country is totally inadequate. A number of training courses have been closed down. When I worked in Oxford I recommended strongly to the then central training council that the polytechnic should instigate a training course for people aged 35 and upwards. That course was most successful and a number of married women whose children had grown up completed it, as did a number of retired army and navy personnel. Those people became qualified and they made splendid social workers. The course was, alas, closed down. The whole issue of training for residential and field social workers needs to be considered.

I repeat what I said in this House some time ago. Is it right that the Treasury should dictate social policy in this country? The poor resources that are available for training are not the fault of local authorities. They are the fault of the Treasury. At one stage we recommended a three year training course for social workers. However, the Treasury turned down that suggestion. We must look closely at the position in France, Germany, the United States and Italy, all of which offer training courses lasting three to four years for both residential and field social workers.

That brings me to my second point which concerns the philosophy of residential social work with children. The Minister has said that the person who is most involved in the incident we are discussing was a trained and qualified social worker. That is true, but I maintain that the philosophy of our residential work has gone awry. I believe it diminishes every child and young person to make excuses for wrong doing. Such young people have done wrong and have committed misdemeanours. But having accepted that fact, we need to adopt a therapeutic attitude and to offer therapeutic training for those young people. I refer to the Caldecott community in Kent where there are 60 deeply disturbed children. Most of the girls have been abused. That community offers therapeutic treatment for those children. The chairman of the committee of the institution is Lord Brabourne. Pepper-Harrow also offers therapeutic treatment for its inmates. Its president is Lord Justice Butler-Sloss. Those institutions have instigated a training course at Reading University that is run on therapeutic lines. Many homes run by the National Children's Home, Barnardo's and the Church of England Children's Society are splendid institutions. Nevertheless we need to consider the matter of training. The various ministries have taken little interest in institutions such as the Caldecott community and Pepper-Harrow. We need guidance from the top as regards training, the way homes are run and the philosophies behind their administration.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her remarks. Should there be a debate on the report, many of those points could be addressed. No doubt that is a matter than can be taken up through the usual channels. I wish to respond to a couple of points that my noble friend made. I thank her for her remarks about unannounced visits. The policy on this matter varies between different local authorities. My noble friend said that in her own local authority committee members produced a report that was presented at the next meeting of the social services committee. That is certainly not the case in all local authorities and it was not my experience with my own local authority. However, it appears to be a sound practice and it is something that I believe all local authorities might be advised to consider.

My noble friend then went on to make the rather extraordinary remark that the Treasury was dictating social policy. That is not so. However, obviously the Treasury has the interests of the taxpayer at heart and it must be a matter for those raising taxes to decide how money is spent. There is no bottomless pit from which money can come for whatever policy my noble friend wishes to pursue. In this particular case in Staffordshire spending was 4.5 per cent. below the GRE level. It is therefore a matter for the electors of Staffordshire and the Staffordshire social services committee and county council to consider where they should be putting their resources.