HL Deb 04 December 2001 vol 629 cc697-700

2.36 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to increase the proportion of time which social workers spend on caring for children by reducing time spent on administration and the implementation of new government initiatives.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the Government have made clear their commitment to improving child protection, ending child poverty, child deprivation and social exclusion. Our initiatives, which include substantial extra funding, are to provide an effective system to support social workers in their task of safeguarding children and young people and enabling them to achieve their full potential.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Is he aware—I am sure that he is—that the National Family and Parenting Institute recently produced a report in which it identified no fewer than eight government initiatives which social services had to cover in addition to their normal duties looking after children in need and children at risk? The initiatives are: Early Years and Child Care partnerships; Sure Start; Connexions service partnerships; youth offending teams; children's service plans; health improvement plans; Best Value; and Quality Protects.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that useful summary of the range of relevant government initiatives on this issue. They are not separate from the job of social workers. There are two central thrusts to the Government's attempt to improve social care outcomes for children, in particular deprived children. The first is to make it much less likely that we will see a repetition of some of the scandals of child abuse which during the past 15 or 20 years have led to deaths year after year. The second is to address some of the root causes of social disadvantage by trying to improve the chances that children from deprived backgrounds will receive better educational outcomes, will obtain work and will be more likely to lead successful lives.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has said, is it not time that the Government changed their mind and introduced a new independent children's commissioner for England, as they have done in Wales?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, no, I do not believe that that is necessary and it is not the Government's view that it is. We have introduced a range of measures to strengthen the regulatory framework over social services to try to ensure that the highest standards are being practised. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government are also promoting stronger inter-agency working and are trying to address the problem of different parts of the social care system having separate pieces of information about children potentially at risk. There will be a new integrated information system in place from 2002 which should substantially reduce the risk of children falling to their deaths through the gaps in the system. as we have seen in the past.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that some government initiatives—not those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, but others in which I declare an interest as interim chair of the General Social Care Council—will lead to a greater quality and regulation of social workers, particularly the registration of social workers and their deregistration if their work is not of sufficient quality?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reminder and for the excellent work she is undertaking as the interim chair of the General Social Care Council. In addition, the Government are developing with the social work profession national occupational standards for social work; they are developing a three-year degree course for social workers; they are promoting best practice to the Social Care Institute for Excellence; and they are strengthening inspection and intervention powers where necessary.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the database which he says will be in place in a couple of years will be United Kingdom-wide and not based on regions or other geographical or administrative areas? We may then escape the danger that children at risk are moved from an area in which they are on the register into an area in which they are not.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that the database will cover all of England and will seek to avoid some of the dangers we saw in the Victoria Climbié case of a child moving between four local authority areas, thereby compounding the difficulties. I am not certain whether it will apply to Wales and Scotland, but I shall write to the noble Lord with that information.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, how much training do social workers receive on conditions such as scabies so that the children most at need are not shunned like lepers?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the short and honest answer is that I do not know; but I shall look into that. I would hope that social workers would recognise the important tell-tale signifiers of potential dysfunction in the family. They also signal potential problems in the school environment and therefore the need for effective social work, school and home linkages to address those issues.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is a matter of life and death since every week in the UK two children die as a result of being abused? What are the Government doing to recruit and retain more social workers? Does the Minister accept that, compared with the £7 million per year spent on police recruitment advertising, the £1.5 million that is currently spent on recruiting social workers is a drop in the ocean and goes to prove that social services are still the Cinderella of public services? Are the Government really committed to changing that?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I agree that it is a matter of life and death. Even if it is not that dramatic it is an issue that affects the quality of life of very many children. One may not be killed by poor parenting or a poor care environment but one may still suffer very serious damage which affects for ever the quality of one's life. What are the Government doing? They have increased in real terms funding for social services by 18 per cent since 1996-97. They are currently addressing serious shortfalls in social work recruitment in some areas through the £1.5 million advertising campaign. The Government are also trying to raise the status of the social work profession and provide social workers with more administrative and IT support so that they are not swamped by some of the paperwork that tends otherwise to fall on them. Perhaps of greatest relevance to the question is that the Government are seeking to reduce the number of plans and bidding schemes that may in the past have distracted social workers from the fundamental core areas of their work.

Baroness Noakes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that despite the additional burdens imposed by government on local authorities in relation to children's services, such as children leaving care or adoption support services, they are committed to delivering improved services? The noble Lord will be aware that local authorities need adequate resources to deliver those additional services. Will he join me in regretting that the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report had nothing to say about plans for personal social services spending?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be greatly surprised to know that it is more than my job is worth to agree with her final comment! Despite that, I do not agree with it. I signalled earlier the significant increase in funding that has occurred over the past five years. I cannot forecast what will be announced later today in terms of the local government expenditure settlement, but we may well hope for yet another above-inflation real terms increase. I agree that social services struggle with very significant workloads. Every year there are 80,000 investigations into childcare issues and 30,000 childcare case conferences between agencies. They are real challenges. They do not represent the totality of the social services budget. About one-quarter of the budget is spent on childcare issues, of which child protection is itself only a part. I very much hope that the department, working with social services, will achieve yet more value from those resources.