HL Deb 14 March 2000 vol 610 cc1434-7

2.39 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they propose to take in the light of the Waterhouse report on the abuse of children in care.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government are determined to learn the lessons emerging from this tragic inquiry. We are already making good progress on many of the recommendations contained in the Lost in Care report. The Government's response to the Waterhouse inquiry is being co-ordinated by the Ministerial Task Force on Children's Safeguards.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the Government deserve congratulations on their speedy and constructive response to the Waterhouse report on child abuse in residential homes? Is he also aware that in a lecture after the report was published Sir Ronald Waterhouse said that the abusers could by now have infiltrated the foster care system where they could prove more difficult to detect?

As far as concerns monitoring, does my noble friend the Minister agree that it would prove exceptionally difficult to monitor foster parents? Although the Government have said that they will monitor foster agencies, monitoring foster parents will be remarkably tough. Can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government have any plans to deal with that situation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The Care Standards Bill, which is currently proceeding rather slowly through your Lordships' House, will give power to the appropriate commission to inspect fostering agencies. I take note of my noble friend's point as regards the general issue of how to ensure that foster care is effective and that there are safeguards of high standard. We need better safeguards and support for children placed with foster carers, but I believe that the best approach is the one that the Government have adopted in establishing UK national foster care standards. These aim to raise standards and to improve practice on recruitment, assessment and training. In the 1998–99 financial year, the Government began funding a training programme for foster carers. I am sure that that is the appropriate way forward.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the proposal that there should he a children's commissioner for Wales? Is he also aware there is some talk that this proposal may be incorporated in the Care Standards Bill which is currently before this House? If that is so, can the Minister say whether noble Lords will have an opportunity to discuss the proposals, possibly on Report or at the Third Reading stage of the Bill?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I believe that the Report stage of the Bill will take place on 28th March. That will provide the House with an opportunity to discuss matters such as the children's rights director. I cannot inform the House of the outcome of the discussions which have taken place in the Welsh Assembly on the proposed children's commissioner for Wales. However, I understand that an amendment could be made to the Bill in another place if the discussions are successfully concluded. As regards the national care standards commission for England, we regard the children's rights director as having an important role in ensuring that an overview of children's rights is maintained.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is the Minister aware of two of the conclusions of the Waterhouse report; namely, that many boys aged between 16 and 18 were corrupted, damaged and sexually confused by the sexual abuse that they experienced, and that many teenage boys were abused by men who were not in a position of trust and would therefore not have been caught by the new abuse of trust provisions in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill which is now before your Lordships' House? Will the noble Lord consider dropping the Bill in the light of those conclusions?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I think that is a little outside my area of responsibility. However, in considering what action needs to be taken as regards those people who have a relationship of trust with young people, we need to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place. The Protection of Children Act, which has passed through both Houses and will, I hope, be implemented in the autumn, will provide children with much greater protection because of the responsibility it places on employers to report to the Department of Health instances where employees have shown themselves to be at risk of harming, or have harmed, children in their care. That will be an important protection in the future.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that important though standards are, public confidence and public expectations of the care system are equally significant? Does he further agree that when the new standards are in place and are monitored and regulated, as the Care Standards Bill will undoubtedly ensure, it will be important to make a great point of publicising them as widely as possible so that the general public know what standards we ought to provide?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I very much agree with those comments. We shall expect the commission to ensure that its work is brought to the public's attention and that the public can gain access both to its work and to the guidelines which will inform the inspection process. I believe that the new commission's work, which will undoubtedly lead to a much higher and more consistent standard of regulation, in conjunction with the provisions of the Protection of Children Act and the implementation of the measures in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, which is before your Lordships' House at the moment, will offer a much greater degree of protection to young people than has been the case in former generations. At the same time, we need to undertake many other measures to ensure that staff who work in residential care settings are given the training, support and leadership that is undoubtedly required.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Government examine the workings of the care system much more widely than merely the matter of abuse? I ask that because of the exceptionally high proportion of children who were formerly in care who come before the courts and who eventually receive custodial sentences.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right; the statistics for children who have left care are striking in terms of their low educational achievement and their records of homelessness and of crime. As I say, the Children (Leaving Care) Bill is before your Lordships' House at the moment. That Bill will enable much stronger support to be given to young people, particularly through the appointment of young persons' advisers who will advise each young person leaving care. A package of measures, including financial support, will be available and will give these young people a much better start in life than they have hitherto received.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Sir William Utting's conclusion to the previous report on child abuse is that the best safeguard is an environment of overall excellence? Therefore, does the Minister recommend the extremely high quality residential care staff training offered by Philip Stokoe at the Tavistock Clinic? Is the Minister aware of the evidence that such training reduces staff sickness and is therefore more than cost effective?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am not aware of the work of Philip Stokoe, although officials in my department are. I understand that he takes a psychodynamic approach to analysing people's behaviour while in residential care. We would, of course, want to take advantage of all support, training and counselling systems that are available. We should recognise that although the Waterhouse report revealed tremendous failings in the care system for young people, many of the people employed in residential care homes do a great deal of work and provide a good standard of care. However, we must ensure that all people working in residential care provide that standard of care. We must recognise that if they are to provide that standard of care, often in pressurised situations, they will require much more training, support and leadership than they have received in the past. The Government are determined to achieve that.