HL Deb 11 September 2003 vol 652 cc475-8

3.21 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they will monitor the impact of the Green Paper Children at Risk.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Green Paper sets out five goals on which the Government are focused: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and economic well-being. These goals were developed through consultation with children and young people, and will form the basis of how the impact of reforms will be monitored.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and in doing so must declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Children Group. Does she agree that the paper represents a unique opportunity to improve the lives of children and young people, and as such should be given substantial debate in both Chambers? I am somewhat confused about the map at the local level of the organisations. What is the connecting chain of assessment between the organisations, and what is their relationship at both national and local level?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree that this is a unique opportunity, and I look forward to substantial debates in this House. We are setting out clear expectations of the standards that we require from each agency in relation to children, providing an integrated framework for children's services to ensure that they are judged on how well they work with and for children—I said in my Statement the other day that that would be led by Ofsted—and an improvement and intervention function to ensure that we are able to and do intervene where services are failing. All that will be monitored through the comprehensive performance assessment, in a direct line to the Minister for Children and her board.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as an ambassador for the NSPCC. Does the Minister agree that the impact of the Green Paper will to a great extent be affected by the ability of Ofsted to deliver high-quality and meaningful inspection services? Will she tell us how the Government plan to ensure that Ofsted has the appropriate skills and experience to move into the area of social services? Up to now, it has focused only on education.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Green Paper is very clear that the framework is meant to be led by Ofsted. One would not expect that Ofsted would carry out all inspections. The issue at hand is to ensure not only that individual services are inspected in terms of their professional ability, but that someone is responsible for ensuring that they are inspected in terms of how well they work together. It is the working together on which Ofsted will take the lead, as I am sure that it is quite capable of doing.

Lord Elton

My Lords, following the death of Maria Caldwell—I think that it was more than 20 years ago—registers of children at risk of non-accidental injury were established for the first time by each local authority. As a result of a series of other events those were eventually made common not to the United Kingdom, but to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the wake of this publication, can we hope to have a common register, thus eliminating the danger of children at risk being carried from a district where there is one register into another where they are not registered?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are consulting on a range of issues about the precise details that the noble Lord raised. As he will know, we are setting up safeguarding children boards and ensuring a statutory responsibility on all those involved with children to be mindful of their welfare. That is an important step.

The noble Lord raises an important issue, which is that children move. Families at risk often move more frequently than other families. One of the key aspects of the matter is what we call the IRT system—information, retrieval and transfer—which enables us,by working with our partners in local government and across services, to consider ways in which we can ensure that information is transferred with those families, and that whichever agencies they come into contact with can access appropriate information, obviously within the context of a confidential relationship.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that monitoring will happen at ground level? Would it not be a good idea for social and health workers who go into violent and difficult families to have a bouncer-type bodyguard to help them? If that had been the case, perhaps Victoria Climbié would be alive today.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important issue. We can all recite instances where children have not received the protection that they might have done because of fear from social services about going into the family. We have to ensure that no one is unable to carry out their duty towards children because they fear violence from adults. If anything, that points to a multi-agency response, particularly involving our police forces, which can support people going in. No child should be left in a household where adults fear to tread.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the consultation process about to begin on the Green Paper will take account of the role and potential of the voluntary sector in the delivery of services for children and in the protection regime that should be applicable to children? I remind the House of my close association with NCH, the children's charity.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the consultation should and must do so if we are to ensure real protection for children. My right honourable friend Mrs Hodge will have a board of stakeholders that will include the voluntary sector. Within our framework for children's trusts and centres for younger children, we require that the voluntary sector is consulted and involved appropriately. In the Green Paper, we refer to HomeStart and our desire to see that aspect of the voluntary sector rolled out nationally.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, in her Statement the other day, the noble Baroness mentioned joint training of staff from different disciplines. Can she tell us a little more about that? I hope she will agree that teachers, for example, need to be able to recognise the signs of disturbance. They also might need to be able to institute the first interviews with the child, which could tell how serious a matter might be.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, without focusing specifically on teachers, we recognise that there are common requirements for any professional coming into contact with children. The issue at which we are looking is whether we can find those core competencies and ensure that all professionals have them. When it comes to teachers and other professionals not directly involved in child protection issues it is absolutely critical, as the noble Baroness said, to recognise those features and to know what to do having recognised them. Again, an inter-agency approach should enable us to support children more effectively.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, bearing in mind the present shortages, I want to ask how the Government intend to ensure that there are enough skilled and trained workers, especially social workers, to meet the aspirations of the Green Paper.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. The Green Paper has a strong focus on the development of the workforce. Within the children and families directorate, we intend to have a workforce unit specifically dedicated to ensuring that we have the professional skills available. We want to ensure that we raise the profile and professionalism of and celebrate all the people who work very successfully with our children on a day-to-day basis, making sure that those involved in, for example, social work, have proper career paths and the opportunities to move into management, to move sideways into other careers and so on, so that we create a children's profession in that sense.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the breadth of the Green Paper. What special measures will be taken for children with disability who, by definition, may be those most at risk and who need the greatest care?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's congratulations. There are a number of particular aspects within the Green Paper. My noble friend will know that early identification, intervention and support for families is a critical part of what is needed for children with disabilities. We have many pilots running at present which, for example, give checklists to families of what they have a right to expect from services and enable closer working with them. Of the 35 children's trusts that are now being piloted, seven are focused specifically on children with disabilities. We intend to learn as we go the lessons from them, in order to ensure that we have that expertise. But children with disabilities are, as my noble friend has said, a critical part of ensuring that we support families.