HL Deb 05 November 1998 vol 594 cc375-86

3.38 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

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

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

"This was not just a failure by the care staff directly concerned. It was a failure by social services managers, councils, councillors, the police, the criminal justice system, schools, voluntary organisations, neighbours, the news media, the Government's social services inspectorate, government departments, Ministers and Parliament. Some people from all these institutions and in all these categories had worked hard to do a good job for these children. But too many had not. The whole system had failed.

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

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

"Today I am publishing the report of the task force. It sets out the practical measures it has proposed and which the Government have accepted. We want to make sure that in future children in care are looked after properly and get a decent start in life. We started from a recognition that if the whole system had failed these children, then the whole system had to be put right. Tinkering with a few aspects was not enough.

"Throughout our deliberations I asked everyone involved to look at things from the point of view of the children and to ask, 'Would this have been good enough for me when I was a child?' or 'Would this be good enough for my own children?' And that is what the task force has tried to do. As a result, our proposals are intended to ensure that those responsible, at any level, for children in care behave towards them as any good parent tries to behave towards their own children.

"With this in mind, the Government are implementing the recommendations of the task force. We have already launched a three-year programme called Quality Protects. Its job is to transform the care system for children by setting clear objectives and targets, putting action plans in place and measuring whether those targets have been met. It also provides new guidance to strengthen the hand of conscientious elected local councillors. That will call for joined-up government—all government departments, local authorities, the criminal justice system, schools, the police and voluntary organisations working together towards a common goal with clear targets and a demanding timetable. There can be no more excuses. All this cannot be done for nothing. So today I can announce that we are establishing a new children's services grant which will provide an extra £375 million over the next three years to help fund the improvements which are necessary.

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

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

"So that the task force could consider the question of when young children should leave care, and how they should be helped to do it when they do. I insisted that my officials produce a paper which spelled out what parents usually provide for members of an ordinary family between the ages of 16 and 18 or 21. Can I ask Members of the House to think for a minute about when they were between 16 and 21? Or what we did or are doing for our own children in that age group? And now can we think about having to do any of that? No home to live in or return to. No shoulder to cry on. No encouragement to do our work at school or college. No morale boosting chat before an interview nor anyone to console us if it went badly. No one to give us a lift, or to make us a meal. Nowhere to get our washing done for nothing. No mother or father to touch us for a tenner when we are skint. The list is endless. And it is a disgrace. It is just wrong. And this Government are going to change it.

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

"We are taking steps to ensure better school attendance by children in care and setting targets so that they achieve more at school than they do at present. We are taking steps and setting targets to reduce the number of children exposed to a succession of placements every year and to make sure that those placements are more suitable. We are taking action to increase the number of foster parents through new recruitment campaigns. We will also increase the skills of foster parents by providing new funds for training and by establishing a code of practice and national standards for foster care.

"We propose to bring all children's homes, whatever their size, and residential schools and independent fostering agencies within a new and more effective regulatory system, with simpler and faster action against schools and children's homes with unacceptable standards.

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

"The voice of the children involved has been ignored for too long. We will improve the arrangements for whistleblowing and fund a new group to provide a national voice for children in care and those formerly in care.

"We are taking steps to ensure that children in court as witnesses get better protection and children who are detained are kept separate from adults.

"These are just some of the major measures which the Government are starting to put in place. Many others are set out in the report. It will take time to thrash out the details of some; others will depend upon the availability of parliamentary time. But action is already under way.

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

"Finally, I should like to make clear that many dedicated people are doing a good job looking after vulnerable children living away from home. It is never an easy task and we owe them our thanks. But that is not all we owe them. We owe it to them and to all the children in care to root out and punish the wrongdoers and to put in place a system which really cares for children in care. Vulnerable children are the responsibility of us all. In the past the whole system failed. We intend to make sure that in future the whole system delivers".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.47 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The issues addressed by Sir William Utting in his report are of the most serious and disturbing kind. We welcome the importance that the Government have attached to considering Sir William's recommendations, both in depth and inter-departmentally. The previous government commissioned the report in June 1996 in the face of widespread reports of abused children in care. When it was published almost a year ago, I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that the Opposition would support any fair and workable proposals which Ministers chose to bring forward to address the fundamental shortcomings in the care system which the report exposed. I repeat that assurance today.

I welcome in particular the establishment of a new criminal records agency as a precursor to setting up a one stop shop for employers wishing to verify the backgrounds of those who apply to work with children. Can the Minister tell us what is the timetable for setting up that one stop shop? It is widely felt that there should be a single, readily accessible database—a single blacklist, if I can put it that way—to prevent the sadly all too common phenomenon of unsuitable individuals, sometimes people with criminal convictions, moving from one institution and being employed by another.

I have one or two further questions to put to the Minister. The Statement announces additional funding in the form of a special grant for children's services of £375 million over three years. Can the Minister say whether this is new money, or is it funded by a reduction in the social services SSA in the revenue support grant settlement? If it is not the latter, is it simply an allocation of money already announced within the totals of the comprehensive spending review?

My second question relates to local autonomy. We entirely accept the need for the setting of national standards to ensure the safety of children living away from home, but we also believe that local authorities should retain the autonomy to develop service provision to meet local needs. The risk of centralising any function is overprescriptiveness. It is right and proper that local councillors should be held responsible for the quality of the service they oversee. But alongside that, and within a framework of national safety standards, they must also be able to exercise discretion in implementing the delivery of a locally appropriate service. In other words, local authorities should not become merely an agent of the Secretary of State in the delivery of children's services to meet the targets which he will be setting.

The Statement makes no mention of Sir William Utting's recommendation that the rights and responsibilities of parents should be defined in primary legislation. My understanding is that the Home Secretary is reviewing that issue, but the recent Green Paper on the family made no mention of it. Can the Minister say whether this recommendation has been rejected by the Government?

Finally, can the Minister confirm that the announcement of a new and more effective regulatory system will include an inspectorate that is dedicated to children's services, or is it intended that there should be a broader, all-encompassing inspectorate with a wider remit? Can she say also whether the inspectorate, if it is to be set up, will be a nationally based system?

I recognise, as the Statement does, that the measures the Government have announced, which we broadly support, are aimed at a very small number of individuals—rotten apples in the system—and that the vast majority of those who work with children in care homes, boarding schools and other environments away from home are skilled, dedicated and of unquestionable integrity. The task now is to ensure that a robust system is set up which identifies the rotten apples at the earliest possible moment. From these Benches, we will follow the new initiatives in a constructive spirit. We wish them well.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement which introduces the Government's response to the Utting Report. Both the report a year ago and the Government's response today are substantial documents which undoubtedly provide blueprints for the future to reduce the mess to which the Statement refers.

Earlier this week we were being asked to consider more abstract questions of supporting family life. The problems being addressed today are the all too real problems of the state's response when family life breaks down or really does not exist at all and local authorities have to step in to take over parental responsibility. I welcome the suggested response of asking in almost every situation whether this would be good enough for our own children. Children who go into care following abuse of whatever type are particularly vulnerable. They must be protected from further abuse if damaged children are not to become damaged adults creating problems, generation after generation.

I welcome the safeguards proposed in the recruitment of those who work with children and the elementary precautions which must be taken to ensure that those who are manifestly unsuitable go nowhere near children's homes or foster care situations. In that context, it is noticeable that the Statement does not mention training, particularly the training of those who work in children's homes or residential care situations. That clearly needs investment in staff and in training.

I welcome the attention paid to 16 to 21 year-olds. We all know that family life does not dissolve when children leave home, or leave school at 16, or when they become legally adult. I welcome the extension of the statutory duty for children under the Children Act to the age of 18, although I cannot help wondering what in practice the reality will be in the absence of proper resources.

At the beginning of the care process, since the Children Act the courts have played their part in ensuring that care proceedings are dealt with quickly, a responsibility which both the courts and family lawyers take seriously. The difficulty is that once the court makes the order the court has no further function or responsibility. The court makes an order on the basis of a local authority care plan which it has to accept. It has no ability to review cases when care plans are not put into operation. I suggest that there is now a need for serious consideration to be given to giving the courts some ability to review care plans after a year if they have not been put into operation.

There is a recognition that all too often lack of resources means that children are exposed to a series of short-term placements. One of the most depressing features of dealing with child care cases is that, even by the time the case comes to court, a child may have been in two, three, four or even more placements before a decision is made. Even then, more placements are likely before a final placement for that child is found. That places an enormous burden on foster carers and defers and hampers what the Statement refers to as a decent start in life. Can the Minister say whether attention will be paid to the recruitment and retention of foster parents, who must be amazingly demoralised if they see that all the hard work they put in comes to nothing if a final placement cannot be found?

We hear about children's homes when things go wrong and we must await the North Wales inquiry with some foreboding. But, as the Minister said, a great deal goes right. However, putting children into homes must be a last resort. It is disappointing that the Statement is silent on the question of adoption services. It is disappointing that the Government have left the adoption Bill on the shelf where it was placed by the previous government. The most precious untapped resources for children in care are those who are willing and able to adopt children. I hope that the Government will heed the initiatives of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.

3.59 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome of both noble Lords for the broad principles set out in the Statement. I shall certainly try to reply to the issues they raised.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, raised the issue of national standards as against local autonomy. A balance has to be struck. In the past, too many services provided locally for children have not been adequate and have fallen below minimum standard. Too many children have suffered as a result. We therefore believe that we need a tightly monitored system in which there is central support and direction and funding. But there must also be a balance with regard to local decision making so that local authorities can decide on the changes appropriate in their areas and can listen locally to the voice of children in their areas. That is an important theme running through the response.

The noble Earl referred to the £375 million. This is new money which is ring-fenced grant in terms of the children's grant and is part of the total announced in the comprehensive spending review, as in the case of many other aspects. That money is for the children's plans and part of the Quality Protects programme, but all the other financial repercussions have been funded as part of the comprehensive spending review. Referring to the inspectorate, I must ask the noble Earl to be patient until the social services White Paper is published. That document will provide the details as to that. In addition, a circular will be published quite soon on the targeting of the special grant.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, raised a number of issues. He referred to the training and vetting of staff who work in children's homes. This is an enormously important area which must be tackled at both national and local level. This is an area to which we shall be devoting resources and attention as part of the implementation. The noble Lord also highlighted the importance of foster parents. We shall be initiating a campaign to recruit more foster parents and to give them more support and better training. We must recognise that sometimes we ask people to do very difficult jobs in these areas. It is hoped that both initiatives will help to reduce the number of placements to which children are subjected.

I deal next with the establishment of a criminal records agency. We are anxious to get on with that as soon as possible in order to improve and widen access to checks. The whole issue of the categories of people beyond those with criminal records that we do not wish to work with children is an extremely difficult one. This matter is being considered at the moment by an inter-departmental group. It is also looking at the question of abuse of trust. We hope that that will report by the end of the year so that we can see how to make progress.

It is also important that we make progress on the so far somewhat patchy implementation of the recommendations on recruitment and selection made in Choosing with Care. As soon as parliamentary time is available we want to put the consultancy index that lists social services personnel—rather than Department of Health or DfEE personnel—who are unsuitable to work with children on a statutory basis to make sure that it is an effective bar to employment and to put in place an appeals mechanism.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will not under-estimate the welcome that awaits the determination in this field. The report of Sir William Utting and the Government's policy—if they can bring it off—will be a landmark in the history of childcare. I hope that she will also not under-estimate the difficulty of what is being undertaken, particularly in the area of what is popularly known as joined-up government, which used to be called partnership. I cannot help recalling with a poignant pang the death of Maria Colwell about 20 years ago which was attributed to a failure in joined-up government or, as it was then called, communication between the voluntary and statutory sectors. It is a nettle that people have been trying to grasp ever since. If the Government are successful their achievement will be hugely welcomed.

The difficulty arises in part from the different languages that practitioners in various fields speak and the differing objectives set by their governing bodies. An important element is the training of all practitioners in a common language. That best starts as the Government's approach has started, from the position of the child so that everyone speaks from the same standpoint.

The subject of the child brings one to the essential element which government cannot introduce: compassion. A government can provide incentives, resources and administration. But what is essential to the growth of a healthy and (be it added) non-criminal child is love. Therefore, one must attract into the system not people who are looking for jobs but people with a vocation. That must be remembered in the recruitment programme.

With regard to selection, I should like to ask one question of the noble Baroness that is of particular interest to me and the DIVERT Trust which I chair. She said that there would be access to information about the criminal records and perhaps other characteristics of employees who might work with children. Can she now give an assurance—if not, can she strive to ensure that such an assurance is given—that that information will also be available to voluntary bodies who appoint volunteers they train but whom they do not pay or employ to take on equally responsible work?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, in his last point the noble Lord raises an important area. We must carefully work out the methods of implementation and the implications particularly for the voluntary sector which, as he points out, is extremely important. That is one of the issues now being considered by the inter-departmental working group, led by the Home Office, on preventing unsuitable people from working with children. We will need to consider that matter when the group reports. But I am aware of the wider concerns than simply those relating to people in paid employment. We are all aware of cases where abuse has taken place in settings other than paid employment.

The noble Lord rightly points out that the messages about joined-up government, inter-agency working, partnership—whatever it is called—have emerged from every one of the tragic inquiry reports. We do not under-estimate the difficulties arising from a whole range of specific policies and duties, for example, ensuring that a local authority looks at its total responsibility for the child, not simply the social services department. The joint planning guidance given to the National Health Service and to local authorities in which children are a priority is an example of trying to turn that into a reality. As to child protection, we shall be issuing further guidance next spring in relation to inter-agency and inter-departmental working. Therefore, the noble Lord is right to say that it is not something that is simple to put right. We must put in place the structures to facilitate it rather than stand in its way.

The noble Lord rightly said that the Government could take certain steps but could not ensure that there was compassion or love. However, the framework that my right honourable friend has set for the work of the inter-ministerial group in terms of looking at how any of us would feel as parents and trying to replicate, however inadequately, in a statutory and non-parental framework those kinds of values is the best way of beginning to ensure that non-family-based services have some of the qualities that we hope the family-based care of children also provides.

Lord Laming

My Lords, despite being one of the most junior Members of your Lordships' House, I hope that I, too, may welcome the Minister's Statement. It is a powerful and heart-warming Statement. I do not recall key Ministers from all the departments with responsibility for this matter, several of which are represented here today, coming together to produce an action plan committing them to take such detailed action.

Does the Minister agree that the responsibility given to local authorities to care for children, many of whom have been damaged in early life and who have had a poor start, is one of the most serious placed upon them? Does she further agree that the report outlines a great deal of detail which local authorities should be addressing without waiting for legislation? There are many recommendations in the report which local authorities can immediately put into practice.

If children cannot be helped entirely to overcome some of their experiences during the first years of life, at least they can be safeguarded from further abuse or exploitation. Will the Minister give an assurance that steps will be taken forthwith to ensure that all local authorities, not only the best, operate to the standards set out in this very heart-warming document?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord may be a junior Member of this House, but he is not junior in terms of his contributions in this particular area where his knowledge and achievements are well known. He makes a very important point. Although there are elements in respect of which we need to take legislative action, there are elements where we need to refine the fine detail as regards the key requirement of asking local authorities to set out Quality Protects action plans and implement them over the next three years. There are things that can be done and must be done immediately and the financing will be available. We are making very clear the criteria against which we shall judge those plans. As the noble Lord said, we must look not only to those who are leaders in good practice in this area, but ensure that we raise the standard of those local authorities which do not have a good record. There is no reason whatever for any delay.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps the Minister remembers answering a Question of mine on 21st October about the provision of refuges for under-16 runaways under Section 51 of the Children Act. She then said that the matter might be better addressed in the Government's response to the Utting Report. Perhaps I may ask the proverbial question: has she anything to add to that reply?

In reply to the Front Benchers, the Minister referred to the inadequacy of many services provided locally. Will she consider the possibility that in some cases the adequacy of those services may have been proportional to the adequacy of the standard spending assessment? Does she agree that in the concern for the funding of education, which I share, there is a risk that social services might become the poor relation and that that risk needs watching?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not believe that any Minister ever forgets an occasion when the noble Earl asks him or her a Question. I do indeed recall his Question on children's refuges. The report refers to the importance of refuges and of national government working with local government and the voluntary sector to strengthen its role and financial basis. I do not recall my exact words, but the spirit in which I answered was that the response to the Utting Report was important in terms of improving the standards of care in order to prevent the need for refuges in the first place. I hope that we have a comprehensive plan which will enable us to provide a system from which fewer children feel the need to run away and therefore need the breakdown service which a refuge provides.

As regards the inadequacy of some local services, I hear what the noble Earl says about the resource background of some of the areas which have failed. However, it is not a simple equation between the amount of money that is allocated and spent and the quality of the available services. It is also a matter of commitment and the rigorous monitoring of the quality of the services. There is also a special responsibility on local authority members which the Quality Protects initiative is keen to foster and improve.

Baroness David

My Lords, I, too, give a warm welcome to the Statement to which we have been looking forward for some time. I welcome in particular what is said about 16 year-olds and over who may be thrown out of local authority care with no support. That does not always happen, but it can happen and we try to do something about it. Indeed, Lady Faithfull was keen to do something about it when the Children Act was being debated in 1989. We really wanted to do something about 16 year-olds but it was not possible. Therefore, I particularly welcome that recommendation.

Perhaps I may make one other point about training. Workers in local authority homes are often ill trained or may have no training. Can we have a reassurance that there will be proper training and that properly qualified people will work in children's homes? Can we be assured that training will be given not only before they enter the homes, but that there will be ongoing training and retraining as time goes by?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I recognise the point made by my noble friend. It is important that we resource improvements in post-qualifying training, in the take-up of vocational training and in management development so that across all areas we are improving the quality, the training and the resources available to the staff in post.

I am grateful for my noble friend's welcome of the improved services for over 16 year-olds. Although in terms of legislation that may take time, we have made it clear that in the Quality Protects initiative local authorities must take action now to improve the services which they offer to care leaders, in particular in relation to young children who are thrown out into the world and, if I say, often "fail to thrive", it would be an understatement.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I wish to follow on the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Elton and the Minister's remarks about love and compassion. Does not that lie at the heart of good childcare? One can have all the action plans, targets and so forth, but if in the end there is not at least one person on this earth who is totally committed to the well-being of the child the service can never approach what has been widely welcomed—care comparable to that of our own children.

Furthermore, does the Minister accept that there is bound to be a "tug" between the desire to protect the child in a climate of child protection, with all the formality required to support it, and the circumstances in which positive childcare can flourish? Is the Minister aware that in my former constituency there is a splendid children's home in which the professional involved was involved in the Kincora study in Northern Ireland and reached the conclusion that the whole climate of fear in the childcare system, bolstered by regulations, legislation and departmental procedures, made positive, creative childcare almost impossible?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I listened with great care to what the noble Lord said. I certainly share his aspiration for the quality of service he was describing. I should not wish there to be anything in place which detracted from that creativity and the affection and concern he described which accompanies that.

We do not start from a position where even fundamental protection has been given to many of those children. Unfortunately, it is not a matter of increasing the level of compassion for some children who have been through the care system. Rather, it is taking fundamental steps to stop the dreadful abuse to which they have been subjected. I am afraid that that is why there is emphasis on areas of regulation which are absolutely inevitable, given the history of what has gone on before in this field.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, as someone who had the somewhat frustrating experience of introducing a debate in your Lordships' House some seven or eight years ago on childcare, may I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness and the Government on the Statement and all the intentions which lie behind it. However, if we look at the soil in which the roots of our social work system feeds, we come, do we not, to the training of social workers? In this respect, the Government are to be particularly congratulated on their decision to phase out or abolish CCETSW—the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. Will the noble Baroness tell the House what progress the Government are making to replace CCETSW with a system of validation of social work courses which produces more practical social workers with a genuine respect for human nature and less respect for outdated notions of social engineering? She will find that this is not just a question of money. It is a question of the content of the courses which the Government have agreed is pretty dreadful.

In this respect, the Minster indicated that the Government also agree that too many children may be taken into care. The Orkneys syndrome comes to mind. And so I hope the Government will stand up to the ideology which is being produced in large part by these courses and encourage more placements of children with suitable families rather than having them taken into care, whatever the colour of the family or the colour of the child concerned.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the Government have announced that they are to establish a general social care council to regulate the social care workforce for the first time and to register staff. Department of Health Ministers have said that they propose that childcare staff will be among the early registrants. That is one of the organisations which should become a driving force to increase the level of training and qualifications across the social care sector. We have several initiatives under way in that sphere, including the development of a new post-qualifying award for professional social workers. The first candidates will begin training in January 2000. We are setting aside funds for training for other childcare staff to national vocational level three, which will start this year and continue for a further two years.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I have been sickened by the events that took place in those homes. I feel that we all bear a responsibility for what happened. We should never forget that those children had already undergone a traumatic event in their lives, otherwise they would not have been in care. My concern today is the discretional care for those aged between 16 and 18. We should think very carefully before we support any lowering of the age of consent. If a homosexual relationship was established between a member of staff and someone in that discretionary care area he was looking after, would he fall outside the proposed legislation?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we recognise the concerns that have been raised as regards the potential for the abuse of trust if consensual sexual relations occur between a person in a position of trust and a young person aged 16 or 17 in his care or under his supervision. That is an area which the inter-departmental working group on preventing unsuitable people working with children, to which I referred earlier, is considering. The Government will need to decide whether new legislation is needed in that specific area in the light of the proposals from that group.