HL Deb 28 January 2003 vol 643 cc1026-43

4.10 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

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

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the Victoria Climbié inquiry. The report of the inquiry is being published today. It is now available in the Vote Office. I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for your agreement that Victoria's parents should have had advance access to a copy of the report.

"My right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I established the inquiry in April 2001 under the chairmanship of Lord Laming, formerly the Chief Inspector of Social Services. We are both extremely grateful to Lord Laming and his advisers for producing a searching and detailed report and recommendations.

"Words in a report can never be enough for a family whose child has died in such terrible circumstances. I am grateful to Mr and Mrs Climbié for seeing me last week and allowing me to express, on behalf of the House and the country, the sorrow we all feel at the death of their beloved daughter, Victoria. Anyone who has had the privilege to meet Mr and Mrs Climbié cannot fail to be struck by their quiet dignity in the face of what happened to Victoria.

"I hope the report provides them with some comfort as it seeks to answer the questions any parent would ask. What exactly happened? What went so wrong? What needs now to change to prevent services that are supposed to keep children from harm failing in the way they failed Victoria so badly and so repeatedly?

"Lord Laming's inquiry lasted more than a year. His report runs to some 400 pages. We will study its 108 recommendations with care. Today I will outline the inquiry's findings and the Government's initial views. We will make our substantive response to the report as part of the Green Paper on children at risk which we intend to publish this spring.

"Victoria Climbié was part of a large, loving family living in the Ivory Coast. Her parents had agreed she could come to Europe in order to be educated. This was not about giving Victoria away; it was about giving Victoria an opportunity. All they wanted, as any parent would, was for their daughter to have the best education. Instead, she suffered the worst cruelty.

"Victoria arrived in Britain with her great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, in April 1999. Within a year she was dead—murdered by the people who had taken the principal responsibility for caring for her: Kouao, and her boyfriend, Carl John Manning. Both are now serving life imprisonment.

"The cruelty experienced by Victoria before her death is the stuff of nightmares. Manning told the trial that Kouao would strike Victoria daily with a shoe, a coat hanger and a wooden spoon. She would hit her toes with a hammer. Victoria's blood was found on Manning's football boots. He admitted hitting her with a bicycle chain.

"Victoria's final days, in the depths of winter, were spent living and sleeping in a bath in an unheated bathroom, in her own urine and faeces, bound hand and foot in a bin bag.

"Despite valiant efforts on the part of NHS staff, Victoria died of hypothermia, after months of abuse, on 25th February 2000 at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. She had 128 separate injuries to her body. She was just eight years old.

"It is a shocking but sad truth that around 80 children a year die from abuse or neglect. While a civilised society must do everything it can to protect children, sadly a few adults will always manage to perpetrate abuse, not least because those who do are, by definition, secretive and manipulative.

"What makes Victoria's case so appalling, however, is that while the unspeakable abuse she suffered took place in secret, behind closed doors, Victoria herself was never hidden from the authorities and the agencies empowered by Parliament to protect children.

"Victoria was known to three housing authorities and involved with four social services departments in Brent, Ealing, Enfield and Haringey. Despite receiving allegations that she had been abused, none of the councils even managed to undertake a proper assessment of her needs. Social services did nothing to help her.

"Victoria was known to two separate child protection teams of the Metropolitan Police. Despite being told she had probably been deliberately harmed, they failed to investigate the alleged crime. The police services did nothing to help her.

"Victoria was referred to the specialist Tottenham Child and Family Centre managed by the NSPCC. Despite marking her case as urgent, they failed to take any action to see Victoria. The NSPCC centre did nothing to help her.

"Victoria was admitted to two different NHS hospitals—the Central Middlesex and North Middlesex. Despite suffering scalding to her head and face and other evidence that staff saw of beatings and abuse, she was discharged and returned to her abusers. The health service did nothing to help her.

"Between April 1999 and February 2000. on more than one dozen occasions the relevant services had the opportunity to intervene to protect Victoria Climbié. More than 12 times in 10 months they failed to do so. This was not a failing on the part of any one service. It was a failing on the part of every service.

"As Lord Laming says: The extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable. Tragically it required nothing more than basic good practice being put into operation…doing the basic things well saves lives… Victoria died because those responsible for her care adopted poor practice standards". Lord Laming considers that the current statutory framework for child protection set out in the Children Act 1989 is basically sound. I take little comfort from that. Sound legislative policy and guidance is useless unless we can be sure that it is implemented effectively and consistently.

"Those who take on the work of protecting children at risk of deliberate harm face a difficult and challenging task. As Neil Garnham QC told the inquiry: Hundreds of children benefit every year from efficient and timely intervention by social workers, police officers and hospital staff. We would do children like Victoria no favours if we demonise entire professions as we seek to understand and remedy the weaknesses and deficiencies highlighted by a single case". "But while public servants should enjoy our support, they should not expect our excuses. There were failures at every level and by every organisation which came into contact with Victoria Climbié. There were problems with staffing and with resources. Haringey Council was spending substantially less than the SSA it had been allocated for children and families. Brent Council was spending just half of what it had been allocated.

"Lord Laming rightly describes as breathtaking the unwillingness of some of the most senior people in these agencies to accept that they were in any way accountable for these failures. It is his concern with this lack of accountability that leads Lord Laming to recommend change through the creation of new national and local structures for services for children and families. Lord Laming rejects proposals to separate child protection services, but calls for better co-ordination from top to bottom.

"It is an all too familiar cry. In the past few decades there have been dozens of inquiries into awful cases of child abuse and neglect. Each has called on us to learn the lesson of what went wrong. Indeed, there is a remarkable consistency both in what went wrong and what is advocated to put it right. Lord Laming's report goes further. It recognises that the search for a simple solution or a quick fix will not do. It is not just national standards or proper training or adequate resourcing or local leadership or new structures that are needed. It is all these things.

"In recent years there has been a renewed effort to improve safeguards for children: the Protection of Children Act 1999; the Care Standards Act 2000; programmes such as Quality Protects and Sure Start; and new work on systems for identifying, referring and tracking children at risk.

"Alongside the fuller response we will include with the Green Paper in the spring, I can tell the House that there are important steps which I intend to take immediately. First, the inquiry is highly critical of the local services that failed Victoria. Since her death, each has been subject to review. Some have been restructured. Some staff have been disciplined, others dismissed. In the light of the Laming report it will be for each employer to determine if further action is necessary against individuals, including those in senior managerial positions. In the meantime, the Home Secretary and I are asking the inspectorates responsible for health, police and social services to undertake further joint monitoring of these local services in north London to provide independent assurances that standards are improving.

"Secondly, the inquiry concludes that in all agencies there was a low priority given to the task of protecting children. The Home Secretary has made child protection a priority through the national Policing Plan. He has asked chief constables to review force child protection units and consider how to action the recommendations of the report and reflect them in their policing plans.

"Additionally, I am today writing to all chief executives in local health services and local authorities emphasising their duties towards vulnerable children and the need to reflect them in their budget decisions. Social services budgets will rise by an average of 6 per cent in real terms in each of the next three years. NHS budgets will rise by nearly 7 per cent. Extra resources should help employ more staff, including an extra 5,000 social workers, at a time when applications for social work courses, which fell for almost a decade, are now rising.

"Thirdly, the report highlights inadequacies in the training of frontline professionals. Training for police officers is already being reviewed and we will ensure that Lord Laming's recommendations are fully taken on board. Social work training is also being fundamentally overhauled. From September, a new three-year social work degree will be introduced to raise the status and standards of the profession. It will focus on assessment, communication and working with other professionals—the areas where Victoria was so badly let down. The Home Secretary and I also intend to ask the professional bodies responsible for training police, social services and NHS staff in child protection to oversee a review of training needs including interagency training.

"Fourthly, the report highlights the failure of agencies to adhere to common standards in the care of children. I believe that the Laming report re-emphasises the need for new national standards to which all local health and social services can work. I can tell the House that I intend to publish the first part of those standards—covering the care of children in hospital—next month and the remaining standards by the end of the year.

"Fifthly, the report says there was confusion about guidance on aspects of child protection. Within the next three months, I intend to secure the replacement of all the existing local guidance with new, shorter, clearer guidance which will reach every one of the 1 million professional staff dealing with the safeguarding of children. I also intend to simplify the wider range of Children Act guidance. It currently runs to over 1,500 pages. It covers 15 volumes. Some of it is out of date. Our intention is to reduce it by 90 per cent, to make it available in a single volume, and to update it on a regular basis.

"Sixthly, over half of Lord Laming's recommendations are aimed at correcting repeated failures in basic professional practice. We are today issuing a checklist of these recommendations. Police, health and social services are being asked to guarantee that, within the three-month deadline demanded by Lord Laming, these basic elements of good professional practice are in place.

"Seventhly, the report says there was a fundamental failure to translate good intentions into good practice. The Home Secretary and I have therefore asked the relevant inspectorates to supplement their planned joint inspections with a new programme of further visits to verify that these elements of good practice are being implemented, particularly where there are concerns about local services. We will also consider whether further powers are needed to intervene earlier and more effectively.

"Finally, Victoria needed services that worked together. Instead, the report says, there was confusion and conflict. Down the years inquiry after inquiry has called for better communication and coordination. Neither exhortation nor legislation has proved adequate. The only sure way to break down the barriers between these services is to remove the barriers altogether.

"Fundamental reform is now needed to pool knowledge, skills and resources to provide more seamless local services for children. I am, therefore, today inviting health and social services and other local services to become the first generation children's trusts. These pilot children's trusts will mean local services for children are run through a single local organisation. We will explore a range of models including children's trusts that could be led by local authorities and others that could be established as new public interest organisations drawing in the expertise of the community, private and voluntary sectors. In future, services for children must be centred not around the interests of any organisation but around the interests of the child. Nothing—no existing organisation, no existing structures—should be allowed to stand in the way.

"We will consider Lord Laming's recommendations for further structural changes in the Green Paper.

"These reforms cannot be the end of the matter. If some good is to come out of this tragedy, lasting change must come out of it, too. Lord Laming is determined that that is what should happen. The whole Government share his determination.

"Victoria's parents asked for nothing more for their daughter than the opportunity of a better life in our country. I am deeply sorry that she did not get that simple chance. We cannot undo the wrongs done to Victoria Climbié. We can, though, seek to put right for others what so fundamentally failed for her. That is what Lord Laming's report demands. It is what the Government are determined to do. I commend it to the House".

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

4.26 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, I begin, if I may, by associating myself fully with his expressions of appreciation and gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for all that he has done to produce his report. Those of us who have the good fortune to know the noble Lord will understand what an excellent choice he was to chair this extremely difficult and sensitive inquiry, with his immense experience of social services matters.

The death of Victoria Climbié would have been an appalling tragedy in any circumstances, but had it occurred as the result of the failings of one or even two public servants it might not have been the trigger for a public inquiry. However, the injuries of that little girl were known to four social services departments, three housing departments, two specialist child protection teams, the Metropolitan Police, two hospitals, plus a specialist child management centre run by the NSPCC. That catalogue tells us on its own why this inquiry was necessary and why the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was absolutely right to use the uncompromising language that he did and to ensure that the proceedings of the inquiry were in the fullest sense conducted in public. I congratulate him on a conscientious, thorough and hard-hitting report. It makes chilling reading. His conclusions merit the most urgent attention.

During the past 30 years, there have been more than 30 inquiries into the deaths of children known to social services. None of those inquiries has had any effect. This report, as the Minister rightly said, has to break the mould. Every week in this country there are between one and two deaths of children at the hands of parents and carers. The group of people who run the greatest risk of a violent death are children of less than one year old. My first question to the Government is therefore this. Will they, please, publish a firm timetable for action in respect of the key recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Laming? Some 82 of the 108 recommendations in the report are, in his opinion, capable of being actioned within six months. We need to get on with it.

I am immediately drawn to the recommendation that there must be a fundamental change, a systemic change, to the co-ordination of children's services locally. In that connection, I shall follow with great interest the formation of the children's trusts that are to be piloted. I completely agree that much more attention needs to be devoted to the training of frontline professionals, including health professionals, to the codification of standards and to the dissemination of those standards.

However, can the Minister reassure me on what I consider to be an especially important aspect of the findings of the noble Lord, Lord Laming: accountability? We do not want to encourage a blame culture, but if things go wrong, the buck must stop somewhere. That does not simply mean a chain of accountability in line management, although that is clearly important. It also means that incompetent social workers should be held to account by a professional body, in exactly the same way as are other professions—such as doctors, nurses and lawyers.

Do the government agree? If so, exactly how is that to be achieved? If—as I think that we all accept—we need to enhance the status of social workers, to value them, and to confer real professional responsibility on them, equally, they must expect to live by and be judged on a defined set of professional standards. The system must have teeth. We should not be content with a set of structures and reporting lines that amount to a giant talking shop and little else.

In that context, what recommendations have been made about the need for professionals to communicate directly with the children themselves? That conspicuously did not happen in the case of Victoria Climbié, despite the fact that it was her right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Proper communication between professionals is also vital, but how are the Government addressing the legal barriers to information sharing between professional agencies caused by the Data Protection Act 1998? That is a real issue. I should be glad to know how it is to be overcome.

The Minister will remember our debates during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 about the need to regulate private fostering. Victoria Climbié was subject to a private fostering arrangement. It is estimated—and it can only be an estimate—that currently about 10,000 children in England and Wales are fostered privately. Between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of them come from West Africa.

The Utting report highlighted the risks that those children are subject to, but nothing has been done. Will the Government now take urgent action? In the immediate term, what is being done to promote greater awareness among parents in West Africa about child abuse dangers? Is anything being done to encourage a culture of child protection among faith communities—especially in the sort of church that is popular with West African and Afro-Caribbean citizens? I believe that one such church was closely involved in this case.

On a separate but related issue, evidence was given to the Laming inquiry about unaccompanied child refugees being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation without regard to their safety. What is to be done to address that highly undesirable state of affairs?

I welcome much of what the Minister said about steps to be taken immediately, before the publication of the Green Paper. We on the Opposition Benches will support those and, indeed, all necessary measures, but he should bear in mind that we shall expect each programme of action to be properly resourced.

The failure to protect Victoria Climbié was not just a failure on the part of front-line staff, it was equally a failure by senior managers of all the organisations concerned to ensure that the necessary services were properly financed and staffed. That is as much a matter of resources as it is of ensuring that accountable, in-touch managers are in place.

Unless that happens, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will not have delivered the one thing that we all desperately want: never again should Parliament have to address the kind of catastrophic failings in our public services that so shamefully let down that poor little child.

4.34 p.m.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on performing what must have been one of the most difficult jobs. His frank and moving introduction to the report is testimony to the fact that he was indeed the right person to do that difficult job.

I also pay tribute to Victoria Climbié's parents, who throughout what must have been a harrowing process for them have displayed a quiet dignity that is humbling. Perhaps the saddest thing about the report is that little, if any, of it is new. We can go through the list of names: Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford and Victoria Climbié. Every time a report such as this is issued we return to three recurring issues: first, recognition of abuse; secondly, co-ordination and sharing of information across agencies; thirdly, the location of responsibility to act with an accountable person.

We welcome the report's recommendation of national standards for the definition of "risk" and "harm". At present, there are about 150 different definitions of harm operated across the country by different authorities. That leads to understandable difficulties with consistency of application and confusion in staff training.

We ought also now to consider giving children the same legal protection as adults in definitions of assault, so that abuse does not start at a low level and grow. The people who are not mentioned in the report but who are often the first to see signs of abuse are members of the public. In a culture in which it is still permissible to hit children, it is often difficult for them to make a distinction about what is abuse and what is not. That is a serious matter that the Government should consider.

The report is a damning indictment of children's services in England. The Government should therefore press ahead without delay to appoint a children's commissioner for England to ensure consistency of services across areas.

Staffing and staff turnover played a huge part in this case. One in 10 children's social services jobs is vacant; and one in eight social workers leaves the profession every year. In their response to the report, the Government should consider how to enable experienced social workers to stay in the front line and use their experience to protect children.

While the report was being compiled, much has been done by professional bodies, which are as horrified as anyone else at what happened. They have been considering what lessons can be learned by using the expertise within area child protection committees—especially by the involvement of general practitioners and teachers in such multi-disciplinary teams.

Pilots, such as the new model for delivering children's services, called Serving Children Well, which has been developed by the Local Government Association, the NHS Confederation, the Association of Directors of Social Services and education authorities, are beginning to prove that they may be the way to get around the central problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Laming—that child protection will always be the product of different agencies working together. Even if children's trusts are set up, their constituent parts will still play a separate role in looking after children. I therefore welcome the announcement in the Statement that the Government are willing to consult such bodies on best practice.

As noble Lords will know from our discussions during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, I believe that it is high time that private fostering is at least subject to registration. I hope that the Government will implement that and institute a programme to advertise the fact through embassies and consulates to parents in the countries that are most likely to be involved.

Finally, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that 82 of the 109 recommendations can be introduced immediately, because they concern the development of good practice—ensuring that good practice that has already been identified is spread. I hope that the Government will put their energy and resources into that, rather than into a process of reform that may simply lead to a new, different administrative muddle.

Today is not the day to give this report the full consideration that it most certainly needs. I assure the Minister that when we have time to do that he can count on the full support of these Benches who, like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, believe that this little girl was failed and that no child should ever go through the hell that she went through.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for their constructive and very serious responses to the Statement.

First, I echo their tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Laming. He was an excellent choice to chair the inquiry not just because of his previous experience as a very distinguished chief inspector of social services but simply because of the nature of his experience and his robustness. Shining through the nearly 400 pages of the report is an extremely robust procedure in which the noble Lord, Lord Laming, uncovers almost everything, if not everything, that there is to uncover. He subjected those who gave evidence—rightly, in my view—to stringent and rigorous tests as regards the questions that they were required to answer. The result is a very thorough report indeed as regards what happened to Victoria and as regards the almost daily and step-by-step disasters that occurred in the handling of the case. Victoria's case was considered by many different professionals, only one of whom needed to do the job properly for Victoria's life to have been saved.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, was right to refer to the number of inquiries that have been held into similar tragic cases in the past 20 or 30 years. I certainly agree with him that we must learn the lessons arising not just from Victoria's case but also from all those other inquiries. If the common theme running through almost all those inquiries is an inability on the part of professional people to undertake the basic tasks correctly, we must ask why that is so.

The noble Lord makes it clear that it is not the legal framework that is at fault but rather professionals who were not doing their jobs properly—for example, failing to write notes of meetings and failing to have an action plan which made clear which member of staff was responsible for taking actions forward. I refer also to a failure of supervision; supervisors who were seemingly unable to give effective supervision and support to fieldworkers; and a complete failure to monitor cases to help fieldworkers—who we all know come under a great deal of pressure—with proper advice.

We must learn lessons from the report. I say to the noble Earl and to the noble Baroness that we shall implement speedily the recommendations that can be implemented speedily. We shall replace the plethora of existing guidance to obtain uniformity. We shall reduce it to an appropriate number of pages so that one can expect workers in the field to understand fully what is being asked of them. We require all the services involved to assure us within three months that the basics of good practice are being followed. That will be followed up by spot checks. In the mean time, we shall look very carefully at all the recommendations to inform the Green Paper that we shall produce in the spring.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, raised the question of training. We must learn lessons in that regard in respect of individual professions. Let us be clear that this matter does not concern just social workers, it also concerns police officers and the National Health Service. The National Health Service does not come out of the report well. There were failures in both hospitals. We must look carefully al. the training of individual professions, but alongside that we must ensure that that training covers the integrated and collaborative approach that is required between members of different professions.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, rightly raised a number of points about accountability. The General Social Care Council provides the opportunity to ensure that the professional regulation of social workers is of a high order. But I have to say to the noble Earl that it is very important that the buck does not stop at the level of the individual practitioner. I do not exaggerate the position when I say that there was almost a breathtaking unwillingness on the part of some senior people in some of the authorities to accept their own responsibilities and accountability. Although I agree that it is right for individual practitioners to be subject to disciplinary, and professional disciplinary, action where appropriate, the lesson that I take from this is that senior people—people responsible for the organisations that we are discussing—must accept their own responsibilities for this matter. To leave field officers without proper procedures, proper supervision and proper support is inexcusable.

I agree with the noble Earl's comments about communication with children. One of the tragedies of Victoria's case was—I refer to all the contacts that were made with the different statutory agencies—the very limited time that was spent talking to Victoria herself. We must learn lessons from that.

We shall consider the issue of information services and the disclosure of information. But I have to say that disclosure of information without consent is permitted under the Data Protection Act if it is necessary to protect the vital interests of the subject. Some statutory agencies are in my judgment misreading what they are allowed to do under the law. But clearly we need to give proper advice to those authorities.

The noble Earl and the noble Baroness mentioned fostering. I understand the arguments in favour of further legislation. There is legislation, but is it sufficient and are local authorities doing what they need to do? We know that the situation is patchy. We shall review the matter and embrace it within our Green Paper.

As regards finance and staff, I do not want to denigrate the work of social workers, nor do I wish to say that they do not come under great pressure. Funding issues and workforce issues cannot be discounted. But the fact is that the evidence of the inquiry reveals an incredible amount of sloppy work undertaken by individuals which is not excused by staff or resource pressures. The great bulk of professionals involved in this area do their job properly, whatever pressures they are under.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about national standards. I welcome her support. She asked about children receiving the same legal protection as adults. There is a great difference between what might be described as reasonable chastisement by parents and abuse. In relation to the seriousness of abuse against children, one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was that the police must recognise that as being a serious crime. I am encouraged that the police force and the Metropolitan Police have very much taken that on board. I understand the point that the noble Baroness made about a children's commissioner. We shall consider that. It is important that that appointment, if it were ever to be made, should add value. The noble Baroness referred to children's trusts. I believe that voluntary organisations have a large role to play in this area. Some boundaries will always exist. It is important to ensure that children's trusts can work together with other local agencies, whether statutory or voluntary.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is 30 years since I came into this House. Almost the first major debate with which I was concerned was on Maria Colwell, and this case is a horrific repetition.

As summarised in paragraph 1.45 of the introduction of the report, the ignorance of the different agencies of one another's knowledge was devastating in its effect. It is reassuring therefore to hear the noble Lord say that social work degree courses will be extended for a further year, with emphasis on inter-agency work. Will similar extensions with similar emphasis be introduced for the training of the other agencies, so that they are common to all? In that connection, I mention the very laudable fact that the guidance is to be reduced by 90 per cent from 1,500 pages.

I have brief questions on two other points. The noble Lord led with a reference to the children's trusts. Will he explain how that does not cut across what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, says in the first bullet point of paragraph 1.30 in his introduction? It states: It is not possible to separate the protection of children from wider support to families. Indeed, often the best protection for a child is achieved by the timely intervention of family support services". What is the way round that?

What steps are being taken to see that the operation is not focused primarily on London, the South East or even England? How is good practice to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, on the extension of good practice, we very much want to work closely with the devolved administrations and will wish to keep them informed on any decisions that we make. It will then be up to them to consider what action, if any, they wish to take. If I remember correctly, we certainly took on board lessons throughout the rest of the United Kingdom from the tragic North Wales inquiry in relation to children's homes a couple of years ago.

I cannot say that we have any particular plans to extend the length of time that other professions undertake training. However, it will clearly be necessary to ensure that the training programmes, whether they relate to the police, nurses, doctors or social workers, cover the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming.

We need to think about social workers in particular. They have to undertake probably one of the most stressful jobs in the public sector, and are often subjected to a great deal of criticism. The headlines today inevitably focus around the failures of social workers, but the failures were not only theirs. The NHS failed. Those concerned with housing failed. The police failed. The NSPCC failed. We recognise that social workers need to be more professional, to come under the discipline procedures of the General Social Care Council, and need a three-year degree course to raise the stakes and their professional competence. At the same time, it is important to say to the country that the great majority of social workers do a very tough job, and I believe that they do it very well.

The noble Lord is right to pinpoint the great problem that so much guidance has been produced, has not been kept up to date and is inconsistent. Our aim will be to produce consistent guidance in a form that people can readily follow and understand. The aim is consistency, not only between different local authority social service departments. However, I accept the point that he raises in relation to interaction with health services, the police and other public sector services.

I understand where the noble Lord is coming from on children's trusts. There is no doubt that wherever one draws the boundary—one can cut the cake in any number of ways—there will always be a boundary issue. Although some people think that we should have a national child protection agency, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, decided against that, for the reasons stated by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Those are relevant reasons when it comes to the local organisation of services as well.

The advantage of children's trusts is that they will bring in a different range of services, provided by different statutory and voluntary agencies, and will lead to a more integrated approach. However, whatever way the cake is cut, boundary issues will still need to be developed. We will have to ensure that children's trusts work together with the other agencies as well.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister two brief questions. As a professional social worker, I can say that most social workers across the country are appalled by the case. We have to recognise that social workers are distressed, and would be as distressed as I am to read the report.

Will the Minister reinforce with all his powers the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that we do not go into major structural change? That is the request of social workers across the country. I have spoken to social workers who have talked about turbulence in their work, the inability to get consistency, and being overwhelmed by documentation. I therefore express gratitude about the fact that information is going to be made consistent.

As someone who has spent all their life against the background of childcare and children's services, I welcome children's trusts if they have the continuity to ensure that workers stay with their caseloads. Every time we have restructuring, social workers are moved from the people whom they are helping to another lot of people. Those children then have to make new relationships, and social work is all about relationships. We must have consistency and continuity as we go into any new boundaries. We must not spend a lot of time simply moving desks, but must move practice, training and professionalism.

My second question is about ensuring that quality of service is delivered. I too am shocked about the basic issues on professional need. As we go into yet another change under the commission for social care inspection, will the Minister ensure that inspections look at quality, and that the whole inspection, working with the inspection by the Commission for Health Improvement, looks at those issues in a solid and reliable way?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I fully recognise that the great majority of social workers will be appalled by what happened. I reiterate that it is very easy to knock the social work profession, and we should be wary of doing so. Actually, the profession needs support, at the same time as a rigorous approach to minimise poor professional practice.

I agree with the noble Baroness about the impact of major structural change. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, makes some significant proposals in terms of accountability at local level, to try to get over the problems that he identified with some area protection committees. Obviously, we will study them with great care. I fully understand the noble Baroness's point about turbulence.

The commission for social care inspection has a major role to play. Often it will need to act in concert with the health inspectorate and the police inspectorate. We will encourage that in relation to child protection procedures. I have indicated that we will carry out spot checks, which will be jointly undertaken to make sure that the basics are done right.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister a question about recommendations 6, 7 and 9, which are directed towards the responsibilities of local authorities and social services. All three recommendations are, according to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, feasible within three years.

The point is that counsellors from various departments of the authorities should work together as a committee. The board to serve that committee should be chaired by the chief executive, and a budget should be identified for the work of the committee. That appears to be an admirable and simple way of improving co-ordination. How does that tie in with the much slower process of establishing children's trusts? If a children's trust is an alternative to those committees, will it have the advantages of those committees? Those advantages are that the chief executive is the responsible reporting officer for that local authority; he is responsible to the government and to his members and he is responsible in the eyes of the Audit Commission.

5 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting question. I draw a distinction between the recommendations that the noble Lord makes in relation to the appointment of a local member committee for children and families, a management board for services to children and families and the director of children's and families services. In essence, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is making those recommendations to ensure proper accountability when different agencies are involved. I distinguish between those recommendations and the children's trusts, which essentially involve providing those services. Clearly, we will need to discuss the matter further with the noble Lord. We shall address such issues in the Green Paper, which we hope to publish later in the spring.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister about the establishment of the General Social Care Council. I declare an interest as its former chair, and I am a former social worker. The GSCC was established to ensure high standards and common standards in training and practice in social care, as the Minister knows. It is also charged with improving the profile of social care workers. As we heard today, that will be important in terms of recruitment if the morale of that profession is not to suffer. Does the Minister see any change in the remit of the GSCC with the establishment of children's trusts, which I am sure most noble Lords welcome? If the idea is to provide a seamless service, it would be a pity if workers were subject to different standards and expectations.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for the sterling work that she undertook in getting the General Social Care Council up and running. There is no doubting the fact that it has a very important role to play not only in upholding public safety and public standards but also in raising the status of the profession, which is vitally important. I agree with her that where one has different professions—whether they are doctors, nurses, social workers or the police—working alongside each other, within a consistent framework in relation to child protection, one needs a consistent approach towards regulation. I very much agree with her. We should encourage the GSCC to work with the other regulated bodies to ensure that that happens.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I have two quick questions for the Minister. Does he know why Brent council's spending was half what had been allocated? Is he in a position to give the House some reassurance that those members of staff who have since been dismissed will never, ever be re-employed in any way in any child-oriented agency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that some staff have been disciplined and some have been dismissed. That will be a matter for the employing authorities to deal with. I repeat my earlier point that it is important that when the authorities concerned review the question of staff responsibility in the light of the conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, they do not overlook the role of senior management in accepting its own responsibility and accountability. If one looks back over instances of failure in organisations over the years, it is striking that it is often the people at the lowest level who pay the ultimate price. That is unacceptable.

I do not believe that I can go into the details about why Brent made the decisions about its budget. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, found failures of priority and leadership within the local authority. He found that it had a weak management structure, that there had been service reductions and that there was a lack of senior supervision and monitoring. The evidence that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, found shows that the local authority was in many ways dysfunctional in terms of the way in which it dealt with social services. Our current aim is that, using the Social Services Inspectorate and our intervention powers, we intervene where we identify that local authorities are failing in that way.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, one of the most appalling aspects of this tragic case is that two professional people refused to visit Victoria Climbié because they were frightened of catching scabies. Will the Government place more importance on giving those concerned in such cases more training in infectious conditions of all sorts? Some people have a real fear of infectious conditions. Does the Minister agree that there should be far more control of infections? There should be more experts on call who can come in when people put their own safety in front of poor helpless little children.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. The rise in infections concerns us all, and we have a number of initiatives in place to try to reduce that. However, this is simple stuff. If there is effective collaboration between local authorities and the health service, it does not, frankly, take a great deal of organisation to ensure that the ready advice of NHS professionals on such matters is readily available—and it should be available.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister a question about language. I welcome his statement that there should have been much more effort to talk directly to Victoria. Victoria Climbié came from francophone west Africa, and it is reasonable to suppose that some at least of those people with whom she came into contact would have had no difficulty in speaking to her in French; I do not know whether that was the case in this instance. There must be many children who are in need of care or in danger of abuse who have little or no English. Is it possible to say with confidence that interpreting will be available in such cases to enable members of social services, hospital staff, the police and so on to converse directly with the children?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the report contains a number of instances in which social workers and other professional staff mentioned the need for an interpreter. In some cases, interpreters were present. However, this is a more fundamental issue. One of the problems is that many of the professionals involved seemed to be inhibited about talking to Victoria. That was not so much a question of language as about their professional practice. There was also professional confusion about which section of the Children Act related to Victoria at any one time. That confusion caused many problems and led to a hiatus in taking appropriate action.

The revised guidance that we issue will need to deal with the issue of the appropriate use of the specified section of the Children Act and the issue of communicating with the children concerned. I agree with the point about translators and interpreters.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I return to the important points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, about accountability. Much of what the Minister said was about accountability. Some years ago, when I was the chairman of an NHS trust, I chaired a committee that was investigating the death of a patient in hospital who should never have suffered what he suffered. He was an adult, not a child. I got the most unsatisfactory answer from a senior nurse on the ward. When we asked her, "To whom do you consider yourself accountable?", she said, "I am accountable only to the General Nursing Council". If there is not in addition proper line-management accountability of the practitioners on the ground to the senior professional managers who are in charge of them, one will have many problems.

When the Minister lays great emphasis—and I do not disagree with this—on the role of the professional bodies concerned, there must on the ground be a clear line of accountability, so that managers can deal effectively with the staff for whom they are responsible. I hope that in the further consideration of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming—and I agree with everything that has been said about him and the report—that can be taken into account.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord. One should look at the report's description of what happened at the Central Middlesex Hospital and at the North Middlesex Hospital. At the Central Middlesex Hospital one had a situation where nursing notes were inadequate; some of the doctors' notes were inadequate; and there was no effort to reconcile medical differences about whether Victoria had scabies or had suffered abuse. At the North Middlesex Hospital there was no formal attempt to speak to Victoria to find out what had happened; the record keeping was poor and there was a failure to get the notes from the Central Middlesex Hospital; no thorough examination of Victoria ever took place; and when she was moved to a different ward, nurses failed to record their observations.

The whole situation cries out for someone to be accountable. There is no doubt in my mind that, alongside getting the guidance right and getting consistency in practice, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is saying that there needs to be a clear system of accountability, so that within each organisation it is clear who is accountable. With his suggested arrangements at local level—a local member committee and a management board—he is trying to achieve accountability between the agencies so that someone can be identified as the person responsible for making it work.

That is not easy. We shall have to look carefully at what the noble Lord recommends. But there can be no disagreement about his aim, which is to try to pin down responsibility within each organisation and, when organisations have to work together, between those organisations, so that no one can run away and say, "I was not responsible".