HL Deb 19 November 1997 vol 583 cc585-96

4.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to repeat a Statement on the Utting Report which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Statement is as follows:

"The House will know that last year, after the conviction of people in North Wales for sexual and other crimes against children in their care over a long period, the previous government commissioned from Sir William Utting a review of the adequacy of safeguards against the abuse of children living away from home. They also set up a judicial tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 into the events which led to those convictions. The North Wales judicial inquiry, chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, continues and is expected to report next summer.

"Sir William Utting has now reported to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and myself. We are publishing his report today. There is a comparable review for Scotland, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is also publishing today.

"Sir William's review was necessary because of continuing revelations of widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children living away from home, and in particular in children's homes over the preceding 20 years. In addition to the convictions in North Wales, there are investigations or prosecutions in progress in the North West, the North East, South Wales and some home counties.

"The report presents a woeful tale of failure at all levels to provide a secure and decent childhood for some of the most vulnerable children. It covers the lives of children whose home circumstances were so bad that those in authority, to use the jargon, took them into care. The report reveals that in far too many cases not enough care was taken. Elementary safeguards were not in place or not enforced. Many children were harmed rather than helped. The review reveals that these failings were not just the fault of individuals—though individuals were at fault. It reveals the failures of a whole system.

"The review team found evidence of good work done by many children's homes despite adverse circumstances. It believes that residential care remains an important option for looking after children, but that staffing is a chronic problem.

"The report makes clear the following major faults: many children are placed in homes unsuited to their particular needs, because there is too little choice and too little planning. Some children go through a damaging succession of placements. Children are at risk in small unregistered homes. Over a third of children in residential care are not receiving an education. Children in foster care can be at risk of abuse. Safeguards intended in the Children Act are not being uniformly implemented. There is no requirement for residential maintained special schools to be inspected for welfare regularly. Some children abscond from residential care and become homeless. Some remain untraced. Children who ran away and were traced, have been in the past often returned to the care of their abusers. Disabled children, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and young children are at higher risk of abuse or harm. Bullying and sexual abuse by other foster children was encountered. Bullying appeared to be ignored in some children's homes. The mix of fearsome children and vulnerable children amounts to abuse by the system which was supposed to give protection.

"Vetting of child care staff and foster parents must be improved. Unacceptable delays arise in checking criminal records. Staff who suspect child abuse can be deterred from coming forward for fear of victimisation by other staff or managers. Some directors of social services say they are reluctant to dismiss staff as their decisions can be overturned on appeal. The criminal justice system is ineffective in deterring offences against children and in securing convictions. Its failures are most marked where the victims are most vulnerable—the very young and the disabled. Prison Service policy to keep children in separate accommodation is not being achieved. Suicide, self-harm and endemic bullying occur. Boys aged 15 to 16 are still being remanded to prison because there is still not enough secure accommodation.

"The report concludes that, although there are no grounds for complacency, the repetition of abuse in children's homes on the scale of the past is unlikely. It makes 20 principal recommendations designed to: improve safeguards in foster and residential care, in schools and in the penal system; provide more effective safeguards and checks to deter abusers from working with children; provide more effective avenues of complaint and independent advocates to whom children should have access; provide more vigilant management; effective disciplinary and criminal procedures; and effective systems of communication between agencies about known abusers.

"The report calls also for changes to ensure that the criminal justice system provides children with better protection from abusers.

"I would like to thank those who produced this report. The situation it describes cannot be allowed to recur or continue. It must provide a spur to all concerned to make sure that in future children living away from home for long periods get a safe, decent and positive upbringing.

"This is a most serious report and the Government are taking it most seriously. We have set in train the following action: the Chief Inspector of Prisons has today published a report on young prisoners which reaches many of the same conclusions as Sir William Utting. The Home Office is making sure that standards to safeguard young people in prison currently being developed by the Prison Service incorporate the welfare aims recommended in the report. The Secretaries of State for Education and Wales will be making improvements to the welfare safeguards for children in boarding schools and will be working with the education service to achieve this. The Chief Social Services Inspector in England is assessing local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards which are supposed to be in place already. The Welsh Office is implementing with determination the Adrienne Jones report on child care and protection.

"We will be consulting widely and carefully with all the public and voluntary agencies concerned before giving a detailed and comprehensive response. The report acknowledges that the review panel was not able to assess the costs of implementing the recommendations or what the spending levels on children's services should be. It also emphasises that any extra resources must be matched by managerial and professional effort to improve performance.

"The recommendations made in the report will be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review covering the whole range of services for children, including social services, juvenile and criminal justice, and education.

"After careful consideration and consultation the Government will put forward a full programme of policy and management changes to deliver the safer environment to which children living away from home are entitled. This programme will be clear, affordable and enforceable. It will ensure that high standards are set and that whatever standards are set are met. The Department of Health and the Welsh Office are already committed to two important structural changes endorsed by the report—the creation of a statutory general social care council to regulate standards of conduct and practice by social services personnel, and the statutory regulation and inspection of small children's homes.

"We are actively reviewing the way in which the courts treat children and other vulnerable witnesses to allegations of abuse. We are preparing a White Paper on social services which will set out detailed proposals for improvements in the regulation of social services. We are setting up a ministerial task force led by me, involving Ministers from all the relevant departments and a small number of expert advisers from outside government. Its first job will be to prepare the full government response to this report.

"Finally, I should make it clear that many dedicated people are doing a good job looking after vulnerable children living away from home. This is never an easy task and they deserve our thanks. We owe it to them and to the children they look after to root out and punish the wrongdoers and also to put into place a system which helps rather than hinders their efforts.

"These vulnerable children living away from home are the responsibility of us all. Many have been let down. We will make sure that in future they are looked after better".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.19 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the Minister for repeating the Statement. There can be no one in your Lordships' House who does not feel the utmost revulsion at the thought of children suffering abuse in residential care homes, and the deepest sadness for those children whom the state system has let down so badly.

Sir William Utting's report, from my brief scrutiny of it, appears to be a cogent and thorough piece of work. The need for it is now, regrettably, even more evident than it was when the previous government commissioned it in June 1996. We join Her Majesty's Government in thanking Sir William for the effort and care that he has devoted to his task.

Although on these Benches we have clearly not had an opportunity to read the report or digest its implications fully, we stand ready to encourage and support Ministers in any fair and workable proposals that they may choose to bring forward to address the shortcomings in the system which Sir William has identified. I hope that the Government will act will all due speed to respond to the report's recommendations.

One of the report's findings is that over the past few years there have been fewer and fewer residential care places available to local authorities, as homes around the country have been progressively closed. The natural consequence of that is that fewer and fewer people have the relevant managerial experience of looking after residential care homes and the children in them. Unfortunately, it is a vicious circle in that in some areas caring for children in residential homes is regarded as a low status activity. Therefore, it is all too easy to see how paedophiles might have been able to infiltrate the staff of such homes.

Equally, a number of local authorities have no residential care facilities; they are obliged to purchase the service from outside. The inspection of homes is less straightforward; there is an increasing lack of choice of homes, which leads to unsuitable placements; and the risk of abuse and children experiencing bullying and intimidation from other children is accentuated further.

We should look seriously at Sir William's recommendation for a national child care strategy. Tighter standards, better supervision and better training will be a part of that strategy. Does the Minister agree that the possibility of an independent, nationally based system of inspection should be examined on a principle similar to the inspection of schools?

Since 1985 there have been three national inquiries into serious misconduct and abuse in children's homes. We should recognise that some progress has been made, although not enough, and, as the Minister emphasised, many good and caring people look after children in residential homes with skill and dedication. But the question which always arises when such a major report is published—and I put it to the Minister—is: how can we do better in identifying those individuals who pose a risk to children in care?

I am aware that there are blacklists. I understand that the Department for Education and Employment maintains such a list and that a similar list is maintained by the Department of Health. Are those lists co-ordinated? Is the system for collecting and disseminating information satisfactory? Can we examine ways of including other names on those lists; for example, an individual who is suspected of misconduct but who resigns from his post before being dismissed and being charged with an offence? Are the provisions of the Data Protection Act an insuperable problem to widening the scope of those lists to include the category of individual to which I have referred?

If the Data Protection Act is one of the obstacles, do the Government agree that the delicate balance between safeguarding the rights of children who need protecting and safeguarding the civil rights of individuals needs to be examined with care in order to ensure that vulnerable children are shielded from risk to the maximum extent?

I welcome the report and its recommendations. I wholly support the action which the Government have taken. I look forward to their detailed response and to the forthcoming White Paper on social services. We on these Benches undertake to adopt a constructive approach to both.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We welcome the report. It is serious in substance and deals with a frightening issue. The abuse of people is reprehensible, but when it is the abuse of vulnerable people, in particular children, it is worse again. When that happens in the context of a trusting relationship iniquity is piled upon iniquity. But the greatest nightmare of all is when children are removed from one abusive situation and put into another—trapped into further abuse at a time when they should have been able to put their trust in protection by the law and by others.

We have not had time to study the report in detail. However, the matter to which it refers, and the litany of failure and abuse referred to in the Statement, ensures that it is not merely major and significant but that it carries with it a moral imperative. There have been previous such reports dealing with one important aspect of the problem; that is, how to protect young people from the malevolent. I refer, for example, to the Warner Report published in 1992. Yet it appears that some of the recommendations—for example, the extensive vetting of those who seek to work with young people—have not been fully carried forward. The report needs to be fully considered and a great deal of work will be required. However, we seek the Government's assurance that those needs will not be used as an excuse for further delay and lack of implementation. We seek an assurance that the report will be implemented without delay in order to protect vulnerable young people from the malevolent.

There is another side to the matter, which is the protection of the vulnerable. Such young people, aside from the abuse they might suffer, are vulnerable in all kinds of ways. They are vulnerable, for example, educationally. We know that such young people are not performing at anything like the level of other young people. Some 75 per cent. of this group are leaving school without qualifications and are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school. We know, too, that their personalities are likely to be affected by the abuse that they have sustained. In their relationships with others it is not infrequent that the abuse is repeated. It is not easy to work with such young people.

That leads me to another group of vulnerable individuals, mentioned briefly in the Statement. I refer to the staff who work with those young people. There has been a movement to have more young people dealt with in the community. Out of 60,000, approximately 40,000 are dealt with in the institutional context, but one-third are dealt with in foster care. As we move towards those young people being dealt with out of the institutional environment, the concentration of disturbance within that environment becomes all the greater. The pressures on staff are greatly increased. If there are resource difficulties, staff under pressure, increasingly disturbed young people and heavier requirements and regulations, then the vulnerability of the staff in dealing with those young people is also greatly increased.

It is not sufficient merely to demand more professionalism and better management. We must also ensure real support and sufficient resources so that the staff do not become increasingly vulnerable and that the work is attractive to those who want to do what is best for the children. I seek the Minister's assurance that issues such as the educational vulnerability of the children and the vulnerability of the staff as regards supervision and treatment will receive urgent attention.

Finally, will the Government attend to the wise words of the NSPCC, which has so much experience of these affairs? It states that the standards and quality in different parts of the country are varied and that great attention should be given to ensuring equality across the country so that there are no pockets in which such incidents recur. The noble Earl pointed to one way in which that can be achieved. I look forward to the Government's response with eagerness.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for their constructive response to the Statement. Both noble Lords indicated the seriousness of the subject under discussion and reflected what I think the noble Earl described as the general revulsion at some of the material revealed in the report. I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for indicating that any constructive and forward-looking response by the Government, once we have gone through the consultation process which I described in repeating the Statement, will be supported on different sides of the House. I know that the Government will value that greatly.

The noble Earl referred to the general necessity to both underline and encourage the better training and screening of people involved in a professional way in looking after children living away from home. That is probably the crux of the matter and it is something to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, also referred. We shall of course give great emphasis to looking at that both in relation to the better training facilities which are needed and the better support to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred. Of course, it must be looked at also in the context of resources. As I said in repeating the Statement, the matter will be given attention in the cross-departmental discussions on the comprehensive spending review.

The noble Earl referred to the question of whether one should look to a national strategy to try to implement some of the report's findings and whether some issues should be approached on a broader basis. The chief of the social services inspectorate in England is now assessing local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards and, it is hoped, will be reporting to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health shortly after Christmas in terms of the national review of present practice and making some national recommendations for future activity.

We feel also that it will be possible to examine the whole problem in the context of a national strategy by the creation of the general social care council which will be able to regulate standards of conduct and practice by social services personnel throughout the country. We hope that it will provide some gold standards on that. I trust that that reassures the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that we take seriously the need to maintain national standards and have a consistency of practising policy which I endorse entirely.

The noble Earl referred also to the need to exchange more information about the selection, vetting and management of care staff. We agree that that needs to be looked at again, particularly in the context of some of the original recommendations of the Warner Report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred. One problem which arises from making those procedures compulsory is that that may take more time and may make appointments more bureaucratic and expensive to fulfil. But we understand that that is a very important issue and we shall consult those affected professionally in every other way before we reach a decision.

We accept that it is important to look at the possibilities of making it easier to exchange information both between departments at national and local level and between different groups of people involved professionally in looking after those children. It is likely that we shall be able to take that forward but legislation will be needed. There will need to be particular statutory reference to the exchange of information between departments because of the issues raised by the Data Protection Act and related matters.

We are encouraged by the thought that the Private Member's Bill on public interest disclosure, which the Government have said they will support, may address some of the issues but it may not cover all of the points which the noble Lord raised and additional legislation may well be needed.

On the more general point about the seriousness with which the Government take this report and the need to implement it quickly, I want absolutely to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that we shall take that forward as quickly as we can. The ministerial taskforce, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is to lead, will be established and will be up and running very quickly. It involves cross-departmental liaison but from the initial response to my right honourable friend's inquiries of other departments, everyone in Whitehall takes this as seriously as they should do. I hope that it will be taken forward very quickly at that level and that that will then be translated into both national and local action.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, my noble friend has explained the report, its 20 recommendations and the setting up of the ministerial taskforce. In my 35 years in Parliament I have heard many statements dealing with these problems and they seem to go on and on. Something should be done immediately. Are all the police forces aware of their responsibility in checking on, for example, teachers and people working in childcare establishments and other such fields? Is that being carried out properly? I know from my contacts with the NSPCC that it works with police forces in child abuse cases. Will the Minister check immediately to ensure that all police forces are aware of their responsibilities?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I share his concern that we seem to hear about these terrible events occurring time after time. It is almost as though there is a vicious cycle in terms of reports, as well as the actual activities which produce them.

As regards police responsibility, I shall check on that for my noble friend and write to him on the subject. He will be aware that there is a continuing discussion among the various departments responsible for those matters, both on the social services side and on the law enforcement side. There is continuing tension on the question of safeguarding the rights of individuals—the civil liberties problem—and the rights involved in safeguarding particularly vulnerable children. Those are extremely difficult matters. But I assure my noble friend that this report is a spur to looking at those problems yet again and perhaps reinforcing the legislation and some of the requirements of local police forces in the way that my noble friend described.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, in the course of the Statement the Minister mentioned that one of the points that Sir William Utting made was that a principal problem in this whole saga is the difficulty that members of staff have in reporting on one another and the difficulty that children have in complaining. That is an intractable problem on which I believe there has been some research fairly recently. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have looked at that, or, indeed, whether there is mention of it in the report, which I have not had time to examine.

I wonder whether it would be helpful to the Government if we had a debate, perhaps not a very long debate, in this House. We could then make sure that we do not just wring our hands, which we are inclined to do over this subject because it makes us feel absolutely sick. There is a good deal that can be said of a positive nature. We know that in this House there is a good deal of understanding and expertise in relation to the problem, and it may be that the Government would find it helpful to have a short debate.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for rightly suggesting that there is a good deal of authoritative evidence and opinion in this House from people with long experience in the field. The question of a debate would be for the usual channels. But I agree with the noble Baroness that an ability to tap in to the great expertise and authority of Members of your Lordships' House would be very helpful.

As regards research, the noble Baroness may be referring to research being conducted by Bristol University as to why there are so few convictions in this area and so few child witnesses involved in prosecutions. That research is expected to be completed early next year. The Government are aware of it and hope that it will be useful in leading to a path which helps us to understand ways in which we can better protect whistle-blowers on the staff side and protect children who may, in the jargon, wish to disclose experiences but not have the ability to do so or feel sufficiently safe with those adults around them to make any statement.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As she says, it is a shocking report which describes a woeful situation. I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who asked how we can do better. I feel extremely reassured by the fact that the Minister, in describing the work which is about to take place, committed herself—I am aware of her reputation—to setting up the formal mechanisms which can tackle the problem.

Does the Minister agree with me that there is a need also to be free of both dogma and complacency? I speak as a member of the local authority of the London Borough of Islington, which was the subject of allegations leading to an independent investigation into allegations of child abuse in our children's homes. That has taught me that we must be free of dogma and all join in the search for high standards of child protection without falling prey to rigid views.

Moreover, there is no room for complacency. Indeed, none of us can afford to think that it will not happen on our patch. It is dreadful to imagine the struggle that children have had to he listened to and awful to think that officials, and some politicians, have not wanted to know or hear. It would be inconceivable today to have a repetition of what happened in Islington five years ago when the then leader of the council accused the newspaper which first published the allegations of gutter journalism. I say that not for party political reasons but because it is a lesson to all of us: we cannot be complacent. I hope that the Minister agrees with me.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that this is not an area of complacency. The Government's initial response to the report makes it clear that certain actions are being taken immediately. As regards the point the noble Baroness made about the concerns of people who have a particular interest in the matter, whether they be from local authorities, local health authorities, from local education departments or others working at the national level, it is clearly important that the widest possible consultation is undertaken and that those views are taken into consideration. It is important that we listen to what people who have practical experience say. Moreover, as the noble Baroness rightly said, it is important that we do not proceed on the basis of any kind of dogmatic assumptions of what people's positions may be.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind words. However, I should point out to her that I only repeated the Statement. I did say that the ministerial

taskforce would be set up by "me", but I was of course referring to my right honourable friend in the other place. I was merely repeating a reported speech. My honourable friend Mr. Boateng is the Minister directly responsible for this area in the departmental context. I know that he will take the lead.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, we are all indebted to Sir William Utting and his committee for the report. I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the positive attitude which she and her colleagues in government are taking not only in redressing the wrongs of the past but also, more importantly, in ensuring that they do not happen again. I have three quick points to make in that context.

First, as has been said, this is sadly not news in many ways. Sir William Utting has drawn together information about a range of activities which, regrettably. have been known to childcare charities for many years. Much of that has been addressed by many of the major charities such as Barnardos and NCH Action for Children. Will my noble friend ensure that, in drawing up the programme, full account will be taken of the work that has been done to introduce new systems of training, supervision, management, complaints procedures, and so on, which, incidentally, are very expensive? If the Government will the end of improvement in that respect, we hope that they will will the means.

Secondly, when drawing up the programme, will my noble friend and her colleagues consider the possibility of the provision of more residential facilities? The rate of reduction in the provision of residential care facilities has been too fast in recent years. I accept that many of the old homes should have been closed and indeed needed to be closed, but we have seen the alternative of keeping children in the community—often finding them in young offenders' institutions rather than in properly secluded care, whether it be of the residential or educational sort. In that context, will my noble friend address her mind to the fact that one of the main reasons for the reduction has been the inability of local authorities to fund placements? As they have withdrawn young people from those homes, so the unit costs of keeping other young people there have escalated out of this world. That is just one consequence of the appalling financial situation in which local authorities find themselves. Will my noble friend look at the possibility of providing more facilities of the smaller and more specialist sort?

Finally, will my noble friend examine the implications of the sharp increase in private children's care homes, the number of which increased by about 30 per cent. in 1996 alone? That conceivably might be the Achilles' heel in the future of further instances of abuse. Will my noble friend ensure in her legislation for such homes that, irrespective of their size, there is adequate provision for inspection and monitoring and that regulations are made in that respect?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for highlighting the valuable work which the children's voluntary sector has done, both in drawing attention to some of the problems which are reflected in this sad report and also in its active involvement in translating its findings into practice and policy in the area. Of course we will very much want to take the views and the authoritative opinions that those in the sector have on the subject when we come to consider the consultation which will precede our considered response to the report.

My noble friend is right to say that many of the recommendations have been made before, especially in the Warner Report (published some years ago), to which reference has already been made, as regards the vetting and supervision of recruiting staff to residential homes. As I understand it, many local authorities now have other systems in place, but, as was said earlier, there is a discrepancy between the practices of local authorities. One of the things that we hope will emerge from some of the actions that we are taking as a result of the report is greater national consistency. We also hope that the recommendations of several previous authoritative reports will now be translated into national positions.

I find what my noble friend said about the question of extending residential care most interesting. As he noted, that has been in decline in the conventional sense in recent years. One of the areas at which we need to look—and this is certainly something which is addressed by Sir William Utting in his report—is the extension and the regulation of more foster care and more foster places, rather than the re-establishment of the traditional type of home.

I agree with my noble friend that we need to look carefully at the extension of private care in the area, both in terms of foster care where children are living with, so to speak, surrogate parents and also in the more conventional homes. My noble friend will know that one of the recommendations of Sir William is that there should be inspection of the recruitment and support of foster carers and that the Government should establish a code of practice on foster care. We agree that there is a need for a code of practice. As part of the chief inspector's review of children's services, to which I referred earlier, he will be considering current practice on the recruitment of foster carers, and will identify any needs for further development with the statutory and voluntary sectors. We expect a code of practice on foster care to follow this report.