HL Deb 09 February 2005 vol 669 cc838-71

5.35 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

rose to call attention to the prospects of children cared for by local authorities; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Minister recently drew attention to the fact that a quarter of the adult population in prisons had had experience of care. Theresa May, the spokesman for families for the Conservative Party, said that a third of 18 to 20 year-olds in custody had had an experience of care. I understand that about half of the children in custody have had experience of care.

A survey from the 1990s—it is somewhat out of date—reported that a quarter of girls or women leaving care were pregnant by the time that they left care. A further report suggested that, within two years, a half of the girls and women leaving care were mothers. We also know from the recent report of the Government's Social Exclusion Unit that if one's mother has been in care one is two and a half times more likely to enter care oneself.

Some years ago, as I sat with a young man in Piccadilly Circus outside the Burger King restaurant there—a young man with a long, dark, dirty beard, filth in his fingernails and a crack pipe by his side—a young woman whom I had seen earlier begging for money on the steps of Piccadilly Circus Tube station approached him to discuss how they might spend their money to buy drugs for themselves. I knew then that there was a more than even chance that one of those two had spent time in local authority care. So the prospects for many children in care are not what we would wish them to be.

However, many young people leave care and do extremely well. They run businesses, and they become actors on the screen and television. They even become Members of your Lordships' House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, informed the House some time ago during, I think, the helpful and important debate on the education of children in care that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, introduced in 2000.

There are approximately 60,000 children in care. About 40,000 of those are in foster care; about 6,000 are in residential care: and the remainder are in other settings. The majority of those have lower support needs, but still they do not do as well as we would wish them to do. A significant minority have high support needs because of the experiences they have had before entering care.

The one point that I wish to emphasise to your Lordships today is that the needs of all these children— particularly of the most damaged children among them—have not been recognised adequately in the past. We have not trained, supported or remunerated those who care for those young people, with dire consequences for them. The residential childcare workers and the foster carers—I think the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will include adoptive parents as well—need support. That is the key point that I wish to make in the debate.

Last night we heard a clinician working with the Oxford Parent Infant Project speaking to parliamentarians about the latest research into the development of a child's brain and the crucial period in the first year of life. The relationship with the mother at that time affects the way in which the frontal cortex of the brain develops, and the frontal cortex is vital in regulating and controlling the emotions. Some of the children coming into care will have lacked that kind of attention when very young. There is a further period of spurting growth in the frontal cortex during adolescence.

I very much welcome the emphasis that the Government place on the need to address instability. There is such a high number of different placements for children in care, particularly for those most damaged. They have the most placements because they are the most difficult to manage. We do not adequately support the carers. The son of John Bowlby, who was the foremost theoretician in this area, asked how many times a child could fall in love. At the end, if they have to experience so many different placements, they will say, "I've had enough". They can be so damaged, but there is little that can be done to help them deal with their emotions and to lead their life.

There are so many issues affecting such children in care and after they leave. I regret that there is not time this evening to do justice to them all. I shall concentrate on areas with which I have had a little acquaintance in the five years that I have been in your Lordships' House. I am particularly concerned about the training of residential childcare workers. In 1998, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of such workers had no relevant qualification for working with children. The Government set a target that 80 per cent of such workers should have a National Vocational Qualification Level 3 by January of this year. They have not succeeded in reaching that target. The new qualification is a welcome step forward, but it is a very basic award.

On the Continent, such workers have two to three years' training at university for work in such an environment. In Germany and Denmark, most care is provided in residential settings rather than in foster Settings, so many of the children are not as challenging as those whom we place in our residential childcare settings. That matter needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency.

A consequence of the failure adequately to train staff in such settings is that the work has become bureaucratised. We have depended on inspectorates and regulations to manage the people at the front line. Gradually—for understandable reasons, such as the history of abuse in care—they have, to a degree, lost their creativity and confidence as workers.

There is a recent report on work on the Continent. They show staff reports on what they did the last time they helped a young person with problems. They were asked about their responsibilities as regards the child whom they knew best. Fifty-nine per cent of the English staff said that their main responsibility was to follow procedures. Five per cent of the Danish workers and four per cent of the Germans responded in that way. Ninety seven per cent of the Danish staff said that their main function was to support the children in a children's home, as did 93 per cent of the German staff. Only 41 per cent of the staff in English children's homes responded in that way. That is understandable, given the history.

The remuneration of staff in children's homes in no way reflects the difficulties of the tasks we are asking them to carry out. In a recent article in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee reported on an interview that she had had with an investment manager. It was a discussion about private children's homes. She wrote: As a possible investor, I called the City broker to find out more". She said: There is nothing in the prospectus … about the cost of the staffing". The reply was: Oh, it's not that much…Carers will only cost £12,000–£15,000 a year". The conversation continued: 'So little?', I asked, thinking of the highly specialised needs of these children. 'I agree', he said. 'I was surprised at what care staff are earning"". Perhaps there is another relevant quotation from the article for noble Lords who believe that the best response would be simply to close all children's homes. Polly Toynbee asked why councils would spend all that money when they could halve their costs by running their own care homes and was told: many closed down all their homes and went in for fostering, but now find that they do need homes as well".

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, will shortly meet members of the Commission for Social Care Inspection to discuss how to remedy some of the problems. We need an urgent response to this tradition, which has continued for far too long.

I shall not discuss education today because there is an Education Bill and I have been able to raise a number of concerns in the past. I know that the Minister recognises that we are not doing what we should in improving educational attainment for children in care.

I turn now to advocacy for children in care. Given the neglect of this area of foster care and residential childcare for so many years, it is vital that the voices of children in care are well heard and that they are empowered to express themselves. Voice for the Child in Care (VCC) is a charity of which I have been patron for the past five years. It produced a document entitled Stories From Young People In Care: Shout To Be Heard. Two boys, Ian and Robbie, are brothers. Ian is 14, and Robbie is 12 years old. A year ago, there was a plan to move them from their foster home, but they wanted to stay. Their foster parents got an advocate from VCC to help them. They said: Our mother died three years ago and our aunt and sister tried to look after us. They could not cope and we got put in care. We were placed in a children's home and then we were moved to our foster home. We felt scared and angry when we were moved, but we settled in and we expected to stay here until we grew up. Our care plan said that we would stay in our foster home with a view to permanency. We planted a tree in a local cemetery in memory of our mother". Then they learned that the social services were planning to move them from that placement. They said: We got a woman called Mary from VCC to help us. She asked us what we wanted and then went to speak to social services. Mary came to our review meetings. If we did not understand anything, she explained it to us. We usually found these meetings very difficult, just the two of us, with six or seven adults. Mary helped social services and the fostering agency to come to an agreement about money and we were allowed to stay in our foster home". That is typical of the work that the VCC does. It has recently extended into young offender institutions, which is very important and needful work.

The VCC and the National Children's Bureau have a project looking at how one might develop a care system that better reflected the needs of children in care. It is entitled the Blueprint project, and its report, published last year, Start With a Child, Stay with a Child, has a number of number of recommendations that I wish to refer to.

As regards our culture of care and that on the Continent the report states: It has been suggested by contributors to Blueprint that a consequence of a more regulated and rule-bound culture within social services has been a loss of autonomy and confidence among the front line staff". Its key recommendation is that, there should be an investment in developing a workforce with a child-centred approach. The Government's workforce strategy should give priority to enhancing the skills of the front line workers and managers".

I am grateful to the Minister and his department for being supportive of the project and for taking an interest in it.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether he acknowledges that we are neglecting to invest adequately in foster carers and residential childcare workers. If so, does he acknowledge that that neglect must be remedied with the utmost urgency, if we are significantly to improve the prospects for children in local authority care, particularly the most vulnerable of them?

I have drawn some inspiration from a painting of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias hanging in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. The young Tobias is on a long and dangerous journey, accompanied and protected by the angel. The theme was popular in the 15th century. In one example, there is a prayer: Stay by my side as you stayed by Tobias in his travels". Those who daily, weekly, monthly or yearly stay by the side of sometimes very troubled and troubling children are somewhat like angels. If we want angels these days, we need to ensure that they are appropriately trained, supported and remunerated. I beg to move for Papers.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I thank him for introducing this important subject. My maiden speech in this House was in a small debate also arranged by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the need for counselling services for young people leaving care. My speech was three minutes long. That was two minutes more than I needed to convey what I knew about the subject at the time. That debate sparked my interest in a subject about which I had never thought before. The dedication of the noble Earl to this subject in this House keeps me thinking about it. Today, I pay tribute to the noble Earl for that and thank him very much.

I suspect that many of the speakers today will contribute on the subject of education, but I want to look at issues of health. In the short time that I have available to me, I want to look at the role of social services departments and statutory authorities in looking after the most socially excluded of all children, who are most prone to health neglect and unhealthy lifestyles and who have some of the greatest mental health needs.

Looked-after children are the epitome of the inverse care law. Not only may their health have been jeopardised by abusive and neglectful parenting, but care may fail to repair that damage and may create further damage. A study by Jackson in 2000 found that looked-after children fared worse for routine dental care, immunisation status and health-threatening behaviour. Emotional and behavioural problems were more prevalent, despite the high level of mental health referral, and very few children received the treatment that they needed. Less than 50 per cent of healthcare plan recommendations had been carried out.

Statutory annual health assessments for children are seen as one of the cornerstones of their life in care. But, in reality, healthcare assessments are patchy. More than that, children view their annual medicals as irrelevant and dispiriting episodes. The assessments do not concentrate on many of the things that the rest of us take for granted, such as oral and dental health.

Many looked-after children have disrupted school lives. They tend to enter and leave care settings very frequently, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said. Therefore, they fail to pick up on curriculum subjects such as PHSE and their informal health education, which many teenagers have, is disrupted.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, gave some figures about early pregnancy among care leavers. It is interesting to look at what lies behind that statistic. I was intrigued to find that when one talks to children who have been in care, they often do not see pregnancy as a bad thing. They see it as bringing them a role that they value.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is right that there are many examples of people who have made it through the care system and have done well. They are often sports people, for whom the defining point in their life was engaging in sport and discovering something that they were good at, and at which they could do well.

It has to be said that the Government have not been shirking on this issue. There has been a baffling array of initiatives such as Quality Protects, the National Childcare Strategy, Sure Start, education action zones, health action zones and employment action zones. But when one looks at a given area, it is difficult to see the impact of these piecemeal, often very short-term, initiatives—which come with targets and bureaucracy, the like of which one never sees in any other walk of life—as an effective base on which to build a strategy for children. Furthermore, despite all those initiatives, we do not have the routine, baseline collection of statistics about the lives of children from which to evaluate the impact of the initiatives.

I was intrigued by the noble Earl's comparisons with abroad. It was extremely telling when he talked about following procedures. In 2002, the Government produced a comprehensive document promoting the health of looked-after children. It looks at the participation of children and young people in the development of services, assessments of their health needs that recognise the inequalities that they have experienced, the arrangements for the design and delivery of service and effective parenting for vulnerable children. It is a very big document. I have read it a couple of times and it reads like one set of corporate priorities laid on top of another. It is packed with flowcharts and systems. At the end, one wonders what it would be like to be a child who is having that lot done unto him. It is not a very comfortable feeling.

That said, it is preferable to the business prospectus mentioned in the article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian the other day. I am very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to it. It is one of the most shocking articles that I have seen in a national newspaper for a very long time. He is dead right to draw our attention to it.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, very helpfully organised a briefing the other night in which many of the noble Lords taking part in this debate got the chance to talk to young people and to people working for Shaftesbury in a number of London boroughs. For me, the most startling revelation was that many children in residential care have contacts with their family. Those contacts may be episodic and chaotic and may not be with their parents, but they have them and they mean something to them. However, they are often ignored by the people who are providing services. That led me to think that we often see the provision of residential care as being quite separate from the family unit. It is difficult to see a clear intent in the Government's documents to recognise that children have come from families and that their goal is to return to families—if not to return to their own birth family, then to create successfully their own family. That ought to be the focal point of all their healthcare.

In the meeting, we talked about how the education system might help. There is a great deal to be done to assist young people who are looked after in residential care to understand and access healthcare systems for themselves, as one would as a private individual. The workers from Shaftesbury talked revealingly about engaging health professionals to come into residential homes to talk to children, not just about their immediate health problems, but also about the healthcare system. That is a model of integration that we should begin to look at and which has much to commend it.

Finally, I shall speak about a method of assessing children's needs in the design of services. I have spoken on this subject before. It is called family group conferencing. We touched on the issue during the debate on the Adoption and Children Act. As many noble Lords know, family group conferencing is a mechanism where extended family members and friends are given support and the opportunity to take a lead in deciding how best to meet the needs of children in care who need help and protection. Here and in places such as New Zealand it has proved extremely effective at reuniting children with their families and avoiding the need for residential placements—avoiding court proceedings. in many cases—and reducing the time that children spend awaiting permanency decisions. However, the service is patchy in this country and is not available in all local authority areas.

As it is promoted by the Family Rights Group, will the Government encourage the dissemination of good practice which already exists and assist in ensuring that family group conferencing becomes a norm, rather than the exception, in the making of care decisions for young people?

6.1 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, I share the House's real appreciation of the noble Earl for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues. His commitment to children and young people who live with great vulnerabilities and distress is widely respected and enriches this House.

To pick up on the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, we need to remind ourselves that one of the vocations of human life which I suspect we are in danger of persistently underplaying and undervaluing is parenting. It is the bedrock of a decent human society and a means of stability and humanity for all household members. We must say that children have a right to good, responsible parental oversight and love. The danger in debating an issue such as this is that in dealing with vulnerable and needy children and young people, we can go for second best and forget that they have a right to the best like everybody else.

Making sure that parents have the emotional and material resources to fulfil their responsibilities in the complexities of today's society is one of our most important collective responsibilities. Together, we need to go on working for a culture that values and underscores the role of parents. Reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography reminds us that in some societies which are materially quite pressed, there are cultures of family support and community networking which work extremely well for children in need. We too, in our own history and society, have important traditions that surround wider family members: grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbours and community members. Where these structures are strong, we have a climate in which it is possible to begin tackling some of the issues.

Today, as noble Lords will be aware, is Ash Wednesday, when some of us are reminded of the fault line that runs through human life. We all fail. We mess up and get caught in a vortex of destructive behaviour. That happens to families as well as to political society. As in politics, so it is in families: the victims of such experiences are always the weak, the poor and those least able to protect themselves. In families, children especially become victims.

When parenting fails it may be under the weight of addiction, a history of abuse and violence—as we have heard—or mental health issues and family breakdown, plus the sheer lack that so many have of any model of good parenting. When children are the victims, society is bound to come to their rescue. So social services and local authorities have some of the most difficult decisions to make, which have a moral and ethical basis when dealing with the question of whether to take a child into care. If we are weak on parenting in our society, I support the noble Earl's comments that we are particularly weak in the adequacy of structures and provision for care.

My wife is a social worker who has spent all her professional life in family and children's work. So in a sense I have, for many years, literally slept with some of the issues. In recent years we have reduced the length of social work training. The noble Earl raised questions about the training of people in residential care. Bishops meet with a variety of local authorities around the country and it is quite clear that, in some. social services are a Cinderella service. There is a lack of clarity in many places about the structure, purpose and order of social services. Some parts of children's services are put with education while others are put with health. What structures are we working with? Where are the clarities now, since the Seebohm report and all that followed it? No doubt we are in a different world and need something else, but there is a lack of clarity about the structure.

So the stories develop about children in care having a succession of social workers with little sense of a coherent strategy for helping that child, or group of children, on to a clear, determined end. Often, able and dedicated workers are working with poor structures. poor resources, inadequate management and a drifting political and public environment. It is important to say that local authorities cannot take on the parental role. So when they act in a crisis it is surely to begin to unwind the knotted problems that surround a child in such a condition, and to work to a strategy of helping to recover their life in a decent environment.

We are in danger of our society drifting into a return to institutionalising people. It is good to hear that the number of children in institutions is as low as 6,000—that was, I think, the figure given. Yet the number of people in prison is going up and the number of children and young people held in secure units has gone up. Is that a way of dealing with their needs? The Churches and faith communities have a long and honourable history of working in this field. We have Barnardo's, NCH and the Children's Society. Dioceses had, in the past, a long run of adopting and fostering agencies—so much of the work has been rooted in institutions with clear ethical values and commitment.

In Essex today, with over 1,000 children in care, the Churches are forming a partnership with public authorities, to see if we can find a new, wider generation of people to become foster parents. Much good can be done to distressed young people and children by really good foster homes that give some sense of stability to children at these points of transition. Not only must we press for more fostering opportunities and for families to consider taking on hard-to-place children. We must support them with good emotional and material resources. This is where partnerships between public authorities and voluntary or community-based agencies become really profitable.

If we are to tackle these children's needs, we need a clear commitment in our society to up our valuing of parenting and family life. We need a clarity of purpose, structure and support for the professionals who have to make these tough decisions. We need better training and resourcing. We need more people involved in providing help and support.

Children in care do not win votes, so the subject of our debate is an issue which tests the moral credibility of our politics. It is therefore good that the House has an opportunity today to consider these needs—and to see what we can do to help the lives of so many blighted children.

6.9 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the consistent and determined way in which my noble friend Lord Listowel has drawn the Government's attention to the plight of looked-after children. All of us, especially the children concerned, owe him a very great debt.

The other group to which I should like to pay tribute for its concerted efforts on behalf of looked-after children—indeed, of all children—is the consortium of children's charitable organisations. Some have been responsible for the recent manifesto for children, which contains important press evidence of the problems of these children. The statistics make dismal reading, with 6,000 or so—I thought the number was higher—remaining in children's homes rather than being fostered.

The reasons for entering care in the first place are, inevitably, disturbing. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford has outlined them so I shall not repeat them. However, a particular concern is that ethnic minority groups are over-represented, with one in five looked after compared with one in 10 in the population as a whole.

Sadly, as we all know, the state as parent has not helped the majority of these children's prospects through the education system. Thirty per cent suffer from school bullying. Crucially, only 9 per cent achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above, compared with 53 per cent of all other children—a quite massive gap. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that no more than 1 per cent go on to university, compared with 35 per cent of their peers.

A major contribution to these dismal education figures is, of course, the multiple moves that such children experience. In 2003, just under 30 per cent were based outside the area of their original placing authority. As the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, commented last week at the launch of the children's manifesto, if children are constantly moved around, changing schools and foster placements, they cannot have the continuity of education or the stability in their emotional life that is so essential.

With the sheer waste of human potential that this represents, added to the financial cost of residential placement, at around £1,840 per child per week, it is clear that a completely different approach is needed. If one adds to that the yearly cost of a prison place—I shall not expand on that, but we know that no less than one-quarter of the entire prison population has previously been in care—the case becomes overwhelming. Far more emphasis, therefore, is needed on prevention, early support and intervention for families at risk.

As someone who was chairman of an inner London juvenile court for some 20 years, I am sad indeed to see how little, if at all, the situation and prospects for these children have improved. We tried, above all, as I am sure magistrates do today, to keep children within their community and provide support for their families if humanly possible. But when violent sexual abuse or complete family breakdown occurred, taking some children into care was inevitable.

Ever since it became apparent, some time after I had left the juvenile Bench, that we had often been sending already physically and sexually abused and disturbed children to be further sexually abused in these homes, I—and, I am sure, many of my fellow magistrates at the time—have felt a very real sense of responsibility for what happened to those children. I am not, of course, suggesting that this necessarily continues in today's children's homes, although in People Like Us, bullying and physical abuse were both clearly identified as the biggest danger. However. I am suggesting that if we are clearly continuing to fail these children, now is the time for a radical rethink of all policies.

The time is most obviously ripe because the Government have accepted the clear evidence of the failure that exists and are determined to change things. The co-ordination of all children's social, educational and other services—set out in the Children Act 2004 and being reinforced in the Education Bill currently before your Lordships' House—will help considerably. Rights being enshrined under the Disability Discrimination Bill will also significantly buttress the situation of children with physical, mental health and special educational needs issues.

There are still a number of specific questions that I hope the Minister will address. First, given the priorities of different local authorities, what strategy do the Government have for preventing, or at least greatly reducing, the frequency with which children are moved from one care facility to another?

Secondly, there is a considerable shortage of foster carers—10,000, 1 believe. They currently house more than two-thirds of looked-after children, doing so at about one-sixth of the cost of residential care. Does the Minister accept that one reason for this shortage might be the concern felt by some foster carers that they are not given enough resources or enough basic information about the child fostered to do this important and difficult job successfully? To put it crudely, they also feel rather patronised by the professionals with whom they are meant to be in partnership. Whether the Minister agrees with that or not, does he think that enough effort is being put into recruiting, training and paying foster parents adequately for the valuable role they undertake for the whole community? Is enough use being made of older would-be foster carers, including members of the child's family, who, with some extra help and resources, could take on this responsibility?

My third question is about the slippery slope of school truancy. There is, alas, a high truancy rate among looked-after children. So I was somewhat surprised to see the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to the Written Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on 31 January, when he asked what percentage of pupils truanting the Government estimate to be involved in some form of criminal activity. Although quoting a MORI poll which showed that 45 per cent of those at school who admitted an offence said they had played truant, the Minister concluded that there was, no conclusive evidence about which comes first, truancy or offending".—[0fficial Report, 31/1/05; col. WA 15.]

That is directly in conflict with my experience. During a total of 24 years sitting in a juvenile court, dealing with children brought to court for committing a criminal offence, I found that these children had a long-standing truancy record in at least three out of every four cases. One quite effective use we made of the court's powers was to postpone any sentence to see whether school attendance could be resumed if it was not too far down the broken attendance path.

If there really is no conclusive evidence on such a link, has not the time come for some really authoritative academic research, not least because of the considerable relevance of this subject to looked-after children?

Finally, a most important need for looked-after children, especially those without contact with their own families, is to have a friend outside the system who can act on their behalf. This point has been emphasised by my noble friend Lord Listowel. There is, at least, in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the right for a child leaving care who wishes to make a complaint to have an independent advocate. But surely more is needed, such as a friend throughout the period.

Above all, is the Minister convinced that enough support, both practical and financial, is given to help care leavers throughout that very testing transitional period from care to full independence? The results from those children lucky enough to have been in the care of Shaftesbury Homes—a best practice case study if ever there was one—once again point to far better outcomes for all concerned if sufficient resources are spent at that point.

Like the rest of your Lordships, I shall look forward eagerly to what the Minister has to say. In the mean time, once again I congratulate my noble friend Lord Listowel on securing this debate and on all he does for looked-after children.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Listowel must feel weighed down by the compliments and gratitude. May I add to his burdens? I admire the way that he leads us again and again to the issue of looked-after children. Last Wednesday we were talking about parenting. When we talk about cared-for children, we are concerned with parenting in particular. As the Government have said in their White Papers, parenting is fundamental to children's prospects.

I want to concentrate on foster carers because that is where two-thirds of children who are looked after find themselves. I thought I would inform myself about those people. Thanks to my noble friend Lord Listowel we had some help in obtaining information from the Fostering Network, the Frank Buttle Trust and Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa. But when I came to look for detailed, authoritative research about foster carers I did not find it. If there is to be a sound basis for government policy, there must be an evidential research base for it. When children have so much at stake It is so important that such information is available.

Last Wednesday I gently raised the issue of research-based policy, and I find myself doing it again tonight. Perhaps I am inhibiting myself by expressing unresearched views—maybe I shall be slightly tempted to do wrong. From what we have been able to learn, a high percentage of foster parents are less well-off, less well-heeled members of our society, perhaps with less advantageous educational backgrounds and achievements than is normal; and, going with that, less advantageous homes and environments in which children can develop and be encouraged with learning.

We all know the sadly close correlation between the social class background of parents and the achievement of children. If that information about foster parents, their backgrounds and circumstances is right, the inescapable conclusion is that unless they are greatly assisted the educational outcomes for children in their care will be disappointing.

My noble friend Lady Howe quoted some figures; I shall give another dimension. We talk of the 50 per cent of average children who achieve A-star to C passes in GCSE. The normal statistic quoted in the Government's statistical bulletin on education for looked-after children is not the number of A to C passes they achieve, but the percentage who achieve one pass at A to G. The percentage for that is less than the 50 per cent for those who achieve five A to Cs. What a comparison: it is devastating.

Some looked-after children do achieve five A to C passes—all credit to them. My noble friend Lady Howe quoted nine; I had seen a figure of six. But it is of that order compared with the 50 per cent. The immediate conclusion, even if it is not research based, is that those foster parents need a great deal of help to serve those children well. I have no doubt about their dedication, but they are serving the most disadvantaged, difficult-to-help children in the land.

What about the allowances; the financial support they receive? Again, there is not a research base of information. I am delighted that the Government are going to instigate such research and, in the light of that, I hope that they will make regulations about minimum levels of financial grants to foster carers.

The information available to me, such as it is, is that, typically, to assist in meeting the costs the range of assistance is between £100 and £200. It can be as low as £50. That is not big money. My noble friend Lady Howe said that it costs £1,800 per week to keep a child in a care home. I do not begrudge that, but let us make the comparison.

Of course there can be money by way of a modest salary to foster carers, but I am told in what I read that half of them do not receive anything, so the financial provision is patchy. I am also told that there can be a difference of £100 per week in the payments made by neighbouring authorities. Come on; if we are going to help foster parents—who are the key to these children's futures—we must do better than that. The Government are right to embark on a research-based policy and then to take action

. The children can also be helped at school. I hope that I recall correctly what Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa told us: that their present one well-qualified teacher was dedicating himself to helping seven of the children in school, to support them. That is real tutoring, but what about the foster parents' kids: do they receive it? They need it. Those children need extra support because they have extra need. I know that the Government care about this and I hope that they will bend their minds to it as a major issue of conscience facing us all.

It was suggested to me that I might say a little about higher education. I refer to the 1 per cent of looked-after children who make it to higher education, as my noble friend Lady Howe quoted. I tried to find out a little more than I already knew about the golden 1 per cent. I read the first report by the Frank Buttle Trust published after the first year of its research on the children. It said, going to university from a care background is a courageous decision".

Two academics, Sarah Ajayi and Sonia Jackson, who worked for the Frank Buttle Trust, wrote in another document: Previous research found they often have to overcome low expectations and discouragement from social workers, a severe shortage of information and advice, and acute financial problems". They start with great handicaps and they move, if they can with a high dose of courage to face financial uncertainty. They go to university without parental support. They feel scared, like strangers, and lonely.

They have to worry about getting the money to go for interviews at universities and for overnight accommodation. They have to worry about the deposit that a landlord may require before they let them into accommodation, which is normal. Then there is the worry about managing the budget and facing the complexity of all the government systems for financial support for students—for which I have been responsible in my time—and tuition fees.

The Frank Buttle Trust did some research and came forward with some recommendations about helping children with accommodation—for example, giving them priority for accommodation in university hostels, so that they can socialise and have access to the university's facilities. They cannot afford a computer themselves. The physical advantage and financial support are obvious aspects of that recommendation. There are some examples of good practice, which the Frank Buttle report cites, such as bursaries in Manchester and help with deposits in Kingston. Hampshire County Council, working with its local universities, has established contacts to assist students—and there are other examples. But when the Frank Buttle inquiry was first made, of the 96 universities that were approached only a minority were aware of looked-after children as a special category needing assistance. There is work to be done.

I understand that Sir Martin Harris, the chairman of OFFA, a body that is concerned with access to universities— and perhaps the Minister, too—will be taking part in the launch of the report on the longitudinal Frank Buttle study. I hope that OFFA will feel, in the light of that, that it has a special responsibility to share with all universities the recommendations on good practice that come out of the study. I hope, too, that the Government play close attention to research funded by the Higher Education Funding Council on good practice and disseminate that information to local authorities.

My final suggestion is that, because access to information is so difficult, consideration be given to setting up a well supported, well maintained website on which looked-after children can have easy access to the kind of information that they need about the mysteries of finance, whether government or local authority, and how to deal with the UCCA application form, which is difficult, as well as local information about accommodation. I am sure that that would he a great help, whether it was done through the Higher Education Funding Council, UCCA or the department itself.

To return to the place where I started, let us look at the parenting. The foster parents are the key to the future of these children.

6.32 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate.

Most children taken into care have been emotionally damaged already in their early life, so we cannot blame local authorities or foster parents for the problems that they have when they come out the other end of the sausage machine. I suggest that we need to define what we are trying to do for those children. Are we trying to give them the therapeutic care that they need to solve all the emotional, social and other problems that they have collected in their early years? Are we trying to find, at the other end of the scale, simply a parking place—somewhere they can live in safety until they get to an age when they can live independently? Are we trying to return them to their families and, if so, with what objective?

I ask the Minister whether, as part of the research project that I understood from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, he has in mind, he would consider looking realistically at the financial burden of doing what all noble Lords around the House have discussed, proposed and recommended, as well as all the other things that the officials and experts know need to be done. At the moment, it is a bit like my family's holiday budget, with people saying. "Maybe we could spend a little bit more on that, but let's forget about the other thing because although we'll obviously have to pay for it in the end, it would make the total too big now". We want to get a realistic, honest picture of the cost, which I suspect would be about double what we are spending at the moment on those children. I suspect that it might amount to about £4 billion, but it might be only £3 billion. After that, we can face up to whether we want to go ahead with those plans, or not—and, if not, whether there may be cheaper ways in which to reduce the number of children who need extreme remedial care

. At the moment, we are not doing it properly, and we are relying on the generosity of a lot of people who provide their services as fosterers and in other ways at their own expense. But there is another constraint. Even supposing we had the money, children's services today are terribly overstretched. They are failing to guarantee the safety of all the nation's children and they do not have the capacity to secure for those children the love and care that they need. The reason is that there is a serious shortage of people, which shows not only in the staffing levels in local authority care, residential and social work, but in the hiring of unqualified staff for residential care and the lack of training. Providers simply do not have enough staff cover to send staff away on courses. I know from the experience of the Caldecott Community that that is a real problem.

Residential children's services in general have to deal with children who have very complex, demanding problems, often because other services have failed them. So they need the best staff, top quality training, expert management, sufficient resources and right values, attitudes and motivation if they are really going to work. Those things ought to be built into a budget and then, if we cannot afford them, let us face it and see what else we can do—or else, let us grit our teeth and jolly well afford them, but let us not kid ourselves.

I shall merely touch on fostering because the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and others have already dealt with it fully. One of the great problems is the chopping and changing of placements, which is partly if not wholly due to the shortage of appropriate foster carers. It is one of the worst features of the system because almost all children who come into care have suffered from a deficit of loving attachment to adults they can trust and with whom they can hope to continue to have a firm attachment. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, referred to family group conferences, which are of great importance. The Family Rights Group is doing good work on that.

Does not everything that I have said suggest that there may be a place for lateral thinking? I refer to the Frank Buttle Trust, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Listowel, which suggested the possibility of a part-time arrangement for fostering. If we want more fosterers, we have to change the bowling a bit and make it in some way an easier, better and more attractive job. One thought was to take some of the stress and strain out of being a foster carer by having the young people board weekly at school. Such an arrangement would take a lot of the stress out of the workload of foster carers. They would have perhaps every other weekend to look after the children, and in the holidays. As my noble friend Lady Howe said, that might make it easier for family members to take on the job of fostering, whereas they cannot quite see their way to doing it at the moment. It would be much easier for grandparents and older people to come into the ring of foster carers.

Your Lordships may look askance at the idea of boarding schools being brought into this matter, but many boarding schools either are, or would prefer to be, non-elitist, if only they had a way to cover their costs. I have had good experience of both state boarding schools—one called Bowden House in Eastbourne—and of boarding schools in the private sector that have taken children from modest home environments. The children have made very good progress in weekly boarding. Somehow the framework of an orderly community during the week with lots of sporting and other activities, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, particularly suits boys. Such activities often enable them to find themselves and to thrive.

The real solution is to reduce the number of children in care. I shall not spend too long on this, but improving the attractiveness of adoption is one of the most obvious ways to do that. The other way is to catch parents earlier so that problems do not arise. Nearly all mothers and the vast majority of fathers want to be good parents. They want to do the best they can for their child. In varying degrees all parents today need help.

In that context, I shall quote from a client of Parentline Plus who says: I feel totally exhausted. My toddler never stops and I feel so alone. I was in care and now I am bringing up the kid on my own. I just don't know how to be a good mum and there is no one here to help me".

I shall conclude by giving an example of a scheme which is now becoming widespread in the United States and which I encountered recently in Florida. It has potential here. In Key West, all women who are pregnant with their first child are given the opportunity to opt for a screening to identify whether they qualify for help after their baby is born. Help is free or heavily subsidised and takes the form of a home visiting programme by a trained mentor for up to five years, starting with visits once a week, then once a fortnight and then once a month. The help is carefully structured and the child's progress is monitored. I heard only yesterday that a hospital in Nottingham is experimenting with this idea.

Will the Minister consider having his officials look into the matter to see whether there is a case for a similar scheme in this country? It could have an early pay-off. It is not like so many projects when we say, "Well, the money will come back when the children are not in gaol 15 years later". If we look after young parents, we shall save children going into care perhaps only one, two or three years later. In this Budget period, even the Chancellor of the Exchequer might not think that a bad idea.

My time is up, but I want to say simply that we we must look at prevention, prevention, prevention.

6.43 p.m.

Baroness Murphy

My Lords, I am no childcare expert and my direct experience of residential care settings and fostering is with frail older people. However, in discussion with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, before Christmas, we talked about the great similarities in the inadequacies of training and difficulties of supporting the staff in residential care settings at both ends of the age spectrum. Two highly disadvanted needy groups of people are cared for by some of the worst paid and least adequately trained staff.

While digging around an area with which I am familiar, such as mental health problems, I was shocked by the facts and figures in the Government's own publications on mental health problems of looked-after children. I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising the debate if only because, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, it has stimulated my interest in an area of which I was quite ignorant. I have listened with great interest to the contributions so far and have learned a great deal, so I look forward to the rest of the debate.

I shall confine my remarks to the issues surrounding the mental health of those children and what we might do about them. I am especially grateful to my friend Professor Philip Graham, formerly the Dean of the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and to Dr Stephen Scott at the Institute of Psychiatry for sharing their wisdom on these matters.

Last year's survey by the Office for National Statistics assessed that 45 per cent of children who were looked after by local authorities had a significant mental disorder. That compares with about 8 per cent of children overall. Of those between the ages of 11 and 17 who are in residential care rather than fostered, no less than 68 per cent were mentally disordered in some way, mainly from conduct disorders, emotional problems and hyperactivity. Eleven per cent had autism and there is very grave over-representation of psychosis and drug misuse. That adds up to an unbelievably vast amount of unhappiness and distress for those children.

There has been surprisingly little research on those problems because of the difficulties of studying them. Problems arise because of frequent changes of placement, changes in social worker, poor school attendance, or mistrust by the children themselves. Health and social care services use different languages. While a social model of care is advocated if it excludes and stigmatises a clinical model and denies the possibility of a mental health diagnosis, affected children may be denied appropriate care. I shall come to something that tries to bridge that gap later. Data collection has been very poor, too, so we do not always know what we are dealing with.

We do know that children are far more likely to have experienced the risk factors that predispose to mental disorder, which very often are the reasons why they have been taken into care. Physical abuse and neglect, family dysfunction, disability, parental illness or disability, acute stress and low income all precede the admission to care.

Of course, there is a complex interaction between disturbed family relationships and anti-social behaviour. As we have already heard, the children are nearly all educationally disadvantaged and underachieving. The fact that staff are poorly trained to manage mental health problems means that matters often go from bad to worse as a direct result of poor practice in residential homes and bad fostering. That is not to say that I do not think that people are trying very hard. There are very many examples of good practice, but probably an insufficient number.

From the point of view of the children and young people, I gather that some are clear that entering care was the best thing that could have happened to them at the time, and they have subsequently made new attachments and had positive experiences of family life. But far too many enter a vicious cycle of failed placements, poor school achievements and escalating anti-social behaviour.

There have been about 40 published studies of a range of interventions to see whether we can improve the foster care experiences of those most challenging young people, however difficult the research is. The most promising has been the multidimensional treatment foster care, which was devised by Chamberlain and his colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Centre.

In the UK, Palett, Scott and their colleagues were sufficiently impressed to conduct an early pilot study, and are now involved in replicating the treatment foster care model in England. I understand that the Department for Education and Skills is commissioning 21 pilot centres across England between 2002 and 2006. Nine are currently funded and more are coming on stream. The programme is being evaluated nationally and co-ordinated by teams at the Maudsley Hospital and Booth Hall children's hospital in Manchester.

I do not have time to describe in detail what the programme consists of, but crucially it involves foster carers becoming the core part of the multidisciplinary team. At the heart is a social learning model, which both health and social services and education staff can relate to easily. That is a crucial part of it. It requires intensive supervision and is demanding of social and clinical staff, but the approach is very promising. It is neither a social nor a clinical model but both.

To develop and evaluate a high quality, evidence based programme across the country is going to be difficult and, let us admit, costly. Other speakers have said that we need more money for these children. Current provision does not have the capacity to respond to the challenge. But what is the alternative—further investment in secure homes run by the private sector at a phenomenal cost to local authorities and producing unprecedented profits for investors? Other speakers were struck by Polly Toynbee's article in the Guardian of 28 January which pointed out the dangers of such a system and the profits to be made by entrepreneurs in a system that is largely about containment. It gets the kids out of sight and out of mind, until, that is, the trail of human wastage fetches up in our prisons, medium secure units and special hospitals, beginning the vicious cycle for a new generation. Local authorities spend fabulous sums on care that contains when they might spend more on care that cures and protects.

One very practical and simple step might be taken. I have listened to young people talking about what happens when they leave care. Even when they are linked to child and adolescent mental health services, it is clear that often when they leave care there is no appropriate transition to adult services, and that they fall down the trench between the two systems. We could at least demand that there is some kind of agreed protocol in all local mental health services regarding the transfer of these children to appropriate support as they make the transition to adult life.

I want to end on a note of optimism. We should applaud the initiative of the Department for Education and Skills on treatment foster care, wish it well and hope for a positive evaluation and a rapid expansion nationwide. We can do something to diminish the pain of these children's lives, and we need to use the evidence we already have to get on and do it.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I join in the thanks that have been offered from all quarters to my noble friend Lord Listowel. He is right to keep drawing our attention to the needs of this particularly vulnerable group of people. I am glad to say that his remarks are strongly echoed throughout the Cross Benches.

I would like to concentrate on the two-thirds of all children in public care who are looked after by foster parents. On any one day up to 50,000 children are living with foster families. The majority of those children go back to their natural families within a year, though some stay much longer. The Fostering Network estimates that 10,000 more foster homes are needed. These would ensure that children do not have to be placed far away from their relations, friends and existing schools. The current shortage means that temporary placements may have to be used before a really suitable home can be found for a given child. Here I echo what my noble friend Lady Howe said.

Last October I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, about the importance of stable fosterings and the need to find more good quality foster parents. I would like to thank him for his full reply of 11 November 2004. After the Green Paper, Every Child Matters, it is clear that the Government grasp the importance of improving foster care so that the child's interests are always upheld. I welcome the extra £30 million in this financial year to help local authorities to strengthen and expand their fostering. It is good that foster carers are now protected for state pensions while they work for other people's children. I understand that the national advice line and the award scheme should both be in place by the end of next month. However, when will the Government issue guidance on the best ways of planning and commissioning services for children in care?

Good will and good guidance do not solve all problems, particularly money worries. Such worries arise in three main areas: allowances; fees; and the cost of training. Foster parents receive allowances that are supposed to cover all the extra costs that they incur as a result of taking in children. The direct costs are obvious but there are often extra ones for record keeping, attending courts and meetings, keeping up contact between children and their own families or helping with assessments and inspections. The Fostering Network publishes recommended minimum allowances, updated annually. Yet over half of all local authorities pay their foster parents less than the recommended rate. In my region two authorities are close to the recommended level but Somerset and Gloucestershire are substantially below it. A recent survey found that six out of 10 foster carers said that the allowances failed to cover their necessary expenses. This is a serious situation since it must be wrong to exploit commitment and good will to these particularly vulnerable children.

I mention fees first because it is important to pay a worthwhile retaining fee to foster parents during gaps between placements of children with them. It is most desirable that fees should also be paid in recognition of the time and effort that foster parents devote to their charges. Where the children have learning difficulties or behaviour problems, and sometimes both, high levels of skill and care are required. Nevertheless, the majority of long-term foster parents receive no fees. When they are paid, their rate of pay is usually less than that of residential care workers, which does not allow for saving towards a private pension.

Training is the third cost factor. Ideally, foster parents should receive this before acceptance, on starting work and for in-service development. The result of low allowances and fees and lack of training is that quite a number of foster parents leave the service or go to work for independent fostering agencies. These agencies almost always pay more than local authorities and incorporate a wage element. They often provide better support and training for their foster parents. Some parents have moved to the agencies for that reason rather than just for better money.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that the care and fostering of children cannot sensibly be done on the cheap. Here I agree with my noble friend Lord Northbourne. The cost is an investment in the future not only for the children in question but for society generally. This extra investment is likely to be recouped through savings in criminal justice later on. I agree that this may take some years but I think the savings will be very considerable.

Have the Government studied the Manifesto for Change published by the Fostering Network last December? Do they agree with its conclusions? Will they ensure, as far as possible, that local authorities and independent fostering agencies work together and not as rivals? Will they take steps to help collaboration and to identify best practice and spread it across the country? Best practice is what children who have suffered ill treatment and neglect so urgently need. I am sure that your Lordships and the Government are deeply concerned about teenagers on remand, young pregnant mothers and children with serious bad behaviour. These are some of the problems that fostering can help.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to try to give this whole subject much greater priority than it has had in the past. Can they today give us some good news on current progress?

7 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on introducing this important debate and on turning our attention constantly to these needy children. It has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. That makes winding up extremely challenging for the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and me since we have less time in which to do so than the other speakers. However, I shall do my best.

It does not take long for the damage done by the inadequacies of the care system to show itself. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, emphasised the link between those who have been in care and those involved with the criminal justice system, possibly even in custody, and the link with young women who have an unwanted teenage pregnancy. He also spoke of the cycle of care where people who have been in care do not know how to parent; and their children in turn find themselves in the care system.

Sadly, the number of looked-after children has increased. In Wales from 2002 to 2003 the number increased by 9 per cent, and increased again last year. Overall in the UK there was a 1 per cent increase last year. That figure does not seem great but it represents a large number of children whose lives are in great difficulty.

The only way in which we can halt that increase is by giving more support to parents to keep their children with them. All noble Lords agree that the best place for most children is with their parents—unless there has been serious abuse. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Northbourne, and others have spoken of the importance of support for parents. But it must be universal support, available to all parents. That is the only way to avoid the stigma which sometimes goes with taking up those services. We must remember that family difficulties are not restricted to those who live in deprived circumstances.

Many noble Lords spoke of the majority of children in care with foster parents. Since I came to this House I have heard a number of presentations from fostered children and foster carers and some wonderful tributes to foster parents by children who had their lives turned round by wonderful foster parents. However, noble Lords have drawn attention to three major issues. First, on fees and allowances to foster carers, although improvements were made by the Children Act 2004, more needs to be done. We all know that people do not become carers for the money. What we do not know is the number of potential foster parents who have been put off even from inquiring about foster caring because they know that they will not be able to afford to do so because sometimes such caring costs more than the allowances they receive.

Secondly, a number of noble Lords mentioned the importance of training for foster carers as well as those working in children's homes. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, about an important pilot scheme for treatment fostering, with additional support and specialist training and services available for the most difficult children.

The third issue is the need for more networking and support opportunities for foster parents to interact with and learn from each other about strategies which will help them and support them emotionally in undertaking the care of these sometimes very difficult children.

Shortcomings in all those areas mean that there are shortages of foster parents in some areas. That means that children are often moved from one placement to another. The average placement in Wales is for only 286 days; and 11 per cent of children last year were in more than three placements. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, put it, that is chopping and changing and one cannot do that with children. They must sometimes feel more like a parcel than a human being.

Those children cost a lost of money but is the money well spent? I understand that those in children's homes cost £95,784 a year which is four times the cost of sending them to Eton. Yet, the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, emphasised the low level of training and pay of workers in such institutions. One has to wonder where the money is going. Some is going into profits for private enterprise.

Even the average budget of over £25,500 for looked-after children is more than the cost of sending a child to Eton. I was most interested in the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about weekly boarding, with foster parents looking after the children at weekends and holidays. I am sure he is right: that family members may be able to cope with that situation where they could not cope full time.

One has only to look at the difference in educational attainment between children at independent schools and children in care. Eighty per cent of pupils in independent schools attain more than five GCSE grades A to C and less than 10 per cent of children in care gain those. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, mentioned that 43 per cent of looked-after children leave care with only one GCSE or GNVQ compared with the national average of 95.8 per cent of children achieving at least that. That means that 57 per cent had nothing—even less than one GCSE—so what possible chance in life do they have?

Fortunately, NGOs—some have been mentioned today—such as Centrepoint, to whom I spoke earlier this week, pick up some of these children. They give them a home after they have left care and an opportunity to rescue their education or to go into further or higher education. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, how difficult it is for these children to go into higher education.

My noble friend Lady Barker talked about the health of children in care. I understand that about 44 per cent have high levels of mental and emotional disorder but their needs often go unnoticed. Twenty-seven per cent of them have statements of special educational needs compared with only 3 per cent of the general population. They are four times more likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. Routine healthcare such as dentistry is less good than that of the general population. We cannot undo the damage done by the trauma many have experienced before going into care but we should be able to mitigate the effects. The least we can do is to fulfil the healthcare parts of their care plan for all of the children, not just half of them.

To guide us in this area, we need to look at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 20 states that a child deprived of his family environment should be entitled to special protection and assistance and have due regard paid to the desirability for continuity in his circumstances. Unfortunately, although we spend a lot of money it does not always result in special protection and certainly not in continuity. Many speakers have emphasised the importance of continuity. We need to base our policies firmly and transparently on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am sure the new Children's Commissioner will do a great deal to promote the rights of children in that respect even though his brief is not as firmly based on the convention as some of us would have wished. Do children in the care system really feel looked-after—or are they just coped with or, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, put in a "parking place"? What a sad expression but how true.

The eight areas which need particular attention include opportunities to make friends, support and training for carers, stable long-term funding, investment in emotional and mental health services, safe and appropriate housing for care leavers, improved systems for maintaining continuity in services, greater consultation and involvement for the children—whether in family group conferencing to avoid a child going into care or afterwards—about the details of their care, and, finally, education.

I wish to address the first area. Children in care lose their friends because they usually have to move away and go to a different school. Often they move frequently. Children's well-being depends greatly on their friends. I well remember crying piteously when I had had a falling-out with my best friend and the sense of isolation when she was not speaking to me. Imagine how much worse that must be for a looked-after child who already feels alone in the world.

Also, they often feel somehow apart from other children at the school who go home at night to their families. I was discussing the subject the other day with a friend of mind who said that he well remembered that, when he was a little boy at school, there was a group of boys who always stood apart in the playground. They did not play with other children. He said: "We felt that they were somehow different and clearly they did too". One of the state's aims for looked-after children, for whom the state is a corporate parent, must surely be to give them the continuity and quality of care that means that they will no longer feel somehow apart and different.

7.10 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I very much associate myself with other noble Lords who have congratulated the noble Earl on introducing this immensely important topic for debate. We all appreciate the authoritative way in which he introduced it, for we know how strongly he has championed the cause of looked-after children in your Lordships' House for a good number of years. I have listened with great care to all the contributions to the debate and I am sure that the Minister, with his acknowledged commitment to this policy area, will be keen to respond to all of them in his normal constructive and sympathetic way.

The breadth and depth of the problems faced by looked-after children have been well covered: the lack of educational attainment and the likelihood of unemployment, criminal behaviour, homelessness and single parenthood. One thing that I cannot accuse the Government of is turning a blind eye to those matters. Indeed, since they took office, we have seen a series of worthy measures designed to promote the life chances of children in care, not the least of which was the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the far-reaching 2003 report of the Social Exclusion Unit and, most recently, the Children Act 2004.

The issue for us today is to get beyond the statutes and official reports and consider what needs to happen on the ground. If you talk to those who work in local authorities and to organisations such as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering or the Fostering Network, a pretty consistent picture emerges about the shortcomings of the system. We need more people willing to foster—probably about 10,000 more. The fewer fosterers we have, the more we have to resort to children's homes and the worse the outcomes for the children are likely to be.

We need to minimise the number of times that a looked-after child is moved. The more you move a child, the more likely it is that he will go on to develop one of the classic problems of state care, attachment disorder, which leads not only to the child's inability to establish trusting relationships, whether at home or at school, but to low self-esteem and a disengagement from studies and homework. So the downward spiral begins.

Yet, typically, a child in government care gets moved about 10 times, often as many as 40 times. Some infants under 12 months old have been found to have been moved four times in the first year. What is even worse, an estimated 16 per cent of such moves are done not for welfare reasons but for reasons of administrative convenience.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is right. Potential foster parents need to feel valued. One way to do that is to offer them proper training. Another, as several noble Lords have said, is to recognise the financial burden that they carry by paying them a reasonable allowance. Half of foster parents are still unpaid and two-thirds receive an allowance that does not cover their out-of-pocket costs.

There is still little support for those fostering difficult children and what support there is varies widely in quality around the country. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield, who would have liked to have spoken in this debate, tells me exactly what the right reverend Prelate emphasised: in Essex, it is extremely difficult to find enough foster parents with the right calibre and age and money for training is very thin on the ground. There is good evidence that support for fosterers after a placement can be highly effective in preventing a breakdown of the fostering arrangement and promoting the child's educational attainment, a need to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, rightly drew our attention.

At any one time, there are about 90,000 children in the care system. If we take out of the reckoning those who are looked after for short periods, we see some pronounced trends. Between 1994 and 2003, the number looked after on a longer-term basis rose by more than 20 per cent, with a marked increase in children under 12 months of age. If we then analyse the reasons underlying those figures, we see something equally serious. In 1994, 18 per cent of looked-after children were taken into care because of neglect and abuse. In 2003, the percentage was 62. That should ring alarm bells.

My view is that no child should be taken into care unless there is an absolutely overwhelming case for it. There is some anecdotal evidence of over-zealousness on the part of social workers post Climbié, although that is clearly hard to substantiate. It is easier to verify the growth in the levels of drug and alcohol dependency among birth parents as the trigger for care orders.

If one talks to organisations such as Parents for Children, whose chief executive came to speak to the All-Party Group on Adoption last week, it is easy to get depressed about the intractability of the whole issue. Two sorts of children present the greatest difficulties when it comes to foster care: those with severe physical and learning difficulties; and those who have suffered mental damage very early in their lives. In recent years, we have learnt that children with severe physical and learning disabilities are comparatively easy to help. The hardest to help are those who in their formative years have been severely maltreated.

We know that when a baby is very young, the development of the brain, if it is to be normal, depends critically on day-by-day, if not moment-by-moment, interaction with the mother. The noble Earl was right to make that point. Brain development is a sequential process. If the mother neglects the child emotionally—that is to say, if she does not interact and engage with him as a normal mother does—the child's mental development is impaired not temporarily but permanently. Normal children, as they grow from babyhood, come to realise that other people have thoughts and feelings. Children who suffer emotional neglect grow up without that understanding.

The implications of that finding are of course enormous. The statistics tell us that children who are placed in foster care or who are adopted when they are less than a year old tend to develop quite well. If they are not placed until they are 18 months or older, the damage is very hard, if not impossible, to heal because the child is neurobiologically disregulated. Behaviour is wayward and hyperactive and the child is uncommunicative and aggressive. No matter how well trained the foster carers are and how much preparation of the child is done, the outcome is exactly the same. Those are the findings from recent work by Farmer at the University of Bristol and Sinclair at the University of York. Even high quality one-to-one psychotherapy does not work if the child is over-active and unamenable to that kind of treatment. Such children simply do not to respond. As the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, rightly said there are a great many such children. Of young people looked after by local authorities, 45 per cent are assessed as having a mental disorder.

However, before we get too depressed about that, there are some rays of hope. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, mentioned one. Work done in the United States during the past 30 years at the Oregon Social Learning Centre has demonstrated the benefits of what is known as filial therapy, which involves training foster parents and carers in techniques using play. In simple terms, the play techniques tell you what is on the child's mind and it becomes possible to communicate. Good behaviour in the child is then reinforced by a system of rewards. That process in turn leads gradually to emotional attachment.

I have to say that any adopter or foster parent who takes this on deserves a medal, because it is intensive stuff. It requires them to keep daily checklists on the child's behaviour; it involves strict control of the child's diet; and there are weekly support group meetings. But the results of the early intervention foster care scheme are impressive. There is a hormonal marker which distinguishes the levels of stress in normal children from those typically found in children who are fostered. After six months in the scheme, children develop more normal levels of the hormone. This results in a far lower incidence of disruption in foster placements and fewer disruptions upon return home to the biological parents. Indeed, children who are in the scheme and who move placement are as successful as foster children who do not undergo multiple moves. Even more significantly, children who receive filial therapy are far less liable to indulge in offending behaviour.

If the Minister is interested, I commend to him in particular the work of Rise Van Fleet at York University, as well as the work done in Oregon which has recently been documented in the Journal of the American Psychological Association.

In any debate of this kind it is useful to identify the manifestations of the problems associated with looked-after children and, as many noble Lords have done, to examine a range of remedial measures. Many of the measures devised by the Government—designated teachers in schools, personal education plans, a statutory duty for local authorities in the Children Act—will, I am sure, do good. The noble Earl spoke of the need for advocacy for looked-after children and training for care home staff. He is right. However, we also need to look behind the manifestations of the problem for the underlying causes.

Families are breaking down. Forty-four per cent of cohabiting couples become single parents within the first four years of their child's life. Our goal should be to promote stability for children, not just when they reach the care system but before they ever get to it. Inadequate and ignorant parenting, drug and alcohol dependency among young adults, the lack of practical parenting advice for new parents—these, I suspect, are the areas that will most richly repay study and effort if we are to have any hope of reversing the dismal trends about which I and others have spoken.

7.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I wish that I had 20 minutes to respond to perhaps one or two of you rather than all of you, because there is so much that needs to be said.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was right to start with the problems that children in care have had or demonstrate, because it illustrates the problem. They are eight times more likely to have serious special educational need problems; 10 times more likely to be permanently excluded; six times more likely to get poor GCSEs; three times more likely to offend; and, most significantly, perhaps as many as 45 per cent have mental health disorders as a consequence of what has happened to them early on. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, was right also to signal the increasing worry of drug and alcohol dependency in our society damaging children very seriously and making interventions more difficult.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in touching on the relationship between children in care and offending, raised an eyebrow at me in relation to a rather literal response that I gave. What I said was true: the research is not there. What is also true is that if a child is in school it is less likely to offend. Therefore, I do not think that we need more research; we need more efforts to get children into school. I hope that she will therefore take that in the spirit in which it is intended.

Let me try to paint the picture a little wider. It is easy—I have been guilty of it myself—to have a view that children have a terrible crisis, go into care, stay there for 18 years or so, and then move on. That is not the case. There are 60,000 in care at any one time. There are 90,000 who will have been in care in a year but, most tellingly, nearly two thirds of children go out of care after less than two years in care. That is not to play with statistics, but to make the point that there are very many more children who have been in care and are now back with their family than are in care at any one point in time. Most of what we talk about are snapshots of those who are in care at the time. It can therefore give the impression that that is the problem—those in care. Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than that: it is those who have been in care but who are now back in—how shall one put it?—less-than-perfect circumstances, because the world has not been transformed.

I make a second point. The line between who goes into care and who does not is not tightly defined. There are many children in poor, risky, damaged or damaging situations who do not go into care—it may be the right judgment—but who are equally at risk of poor outcomes. Therefore we are talking, not specifically and literally about those who are in care at any one point in time, but those who, because of what has happened to their nurturing and their environment, are at risk of having very poor outcomes in their life. So I am afraid that the problem and the set is bigger, and we should not just focus—although we must—on those who happen to be in care at a particular time.

If I am right in that perspective, that emphasises two things. It emphasises prevention, but also the focus of the Every Child Matters agenda. The Every Child Matters agenda is seeking to look at the totality of children in a wide range of circumstances. It recognises that we have to focus on a wider group who are at risk, not just those who are literally in care at this minute. We have to look at a wider range of interventions. If services focus just on those in care and do not focus on those who have been in care but who are back with their family or who might be in care but have similar risk factors, we will completely miss the point of the problem. It is therefore a bigger challenge for local authorities and care services than simply good outcomes for those who are literally in care. That is the relevance of the Every Child Matters agenda, and I want to emphasise that.

I agree strongly with the points about prevention. If we can prevent and get better outcomes without taking a child out of its home environment, we would be foolish not to. Again, it is relevant to Every Child Matters. I recollect that the 1963 Act had as one of its goals—which shows how long one has been around—preventing taking into care, if it was avoidable.

I share the interest of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in family group conferencing. I have discussed it recently with the Family Rights Group. I want shortly to set up a round table with a range of experts, looking at alternative ways to prevent reception into care—not so that you can avoid the state doing things, but you can find better ways of the state intervening to help.

The issues of mental health support and intervention for the mother and the child, which were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, are absolutely central. I will not go into detail, but you know what we are doing on CAMHS. We are trying to rebuild CAMHS very strongly and also the level of funding that is going into that. That will take a while to develop, though there is now a CAMHS worker in most local authorities, dedicated to children in care.

I suggest that preventing more children coming into care will not solve those children's problems unless, at the same time, the services for those who do not formally go into care are also better at supporting them and their parents, in order to achieve better outcomes. We will not have cracked the problem just by not bringing them formally into care.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, spoke of the development of the social brain and its centrality to reflection on public policy at the present time. We talked about it again recently, and it was good to hear him say so. In our debate on parenting, I gave a clear signal that it was strongly on my agenda and also that of the Government. Serious questions are raised about what that new knowledge we have about the centrality of the social brain development says about how we support parents and how we protect children. Let me turn to education of looked-after children. You know as well as I do why it is crucial: if they do not get better educational outcomes, their life prospects are clearly written in the sand—or the propensity to do less well in life is clear.

We have set a strong PSA target to narrow the gap in educational retention, building on the Social Exclusion Unit report. We have placed a new duty on all local authorities to promote educational achievement, and we have a detailed action plan to take that forward. Guidance is about to be issued, and it is firmly the focus of many local authorities as they prepare for implementation of the Children Act. We will legislate again on the Education Act in that respect. There will be a further measure on that, with which I shall thrill certain noble Lords when we come back to it in a couple of weeks' time.

I shall touch briefly on some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, on access to higher education. I agreed with the broad thrust of his remarks; all children need support to go into higher education. We have good examples, as he indicated. I mention also Ealing, which managed to get 14 per cent of its care leavers into university compared to 1 per cent in others. There are good practices that show you can break the mould. Local authority support for the transition from 18 into adulthood and for people going to university is very important.

I am not certain that we need a website; we have some at present. I agree that we must focus above all on raising the aspirations of those who support care leavers or children in care. They have as much right as anyone else to get into higher education, and if they are not doing so there is a failure in the system. I would love to join Sir Martin Harris's launch, if he invites me. He probably has and I have forgotten—no matter.

The Social Exclusion Unit report signalled also the centrality of stability. It talked about stability in the context of educational attainment, and it was right to, because children constantly moving school, with the emotional disturbance that goes with that, are less likely to learn well, for obvious reasons. Stability is important for other reasons, as a range of speakers signalled. All of us know, from our own lives, about the emotional turbulence. If we constantly move a person who already has significant emotional damage as a product of being brought into care from one care situation to another, we are worsening the situation. Raising stability is a central policy goal. By and large, local authorities agree with us; the need is to ensure that something happens.

A related issue is out-of-authority placements, which I was amazed were not mentioned. Someone mentioned that there was a high number of such placements. My apologies—the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, did mention it. I am sorry; I cannot remember every one. The figure of 30 per cent of placements out of authority is far higher than can be justified in the care decisions for the child. It is a product of crisis purchasing of placements for children and of failing to develop an adequate supply of foster parents and children's homes in the locality. It is the product of deciding that it is easier to place somebody elsewhere rather than having a tough debate locally about how to develop the services.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked when we would issue the guidance on better commissioning to local authorities. We will do so in a couple of weeks. I am horrified that it requires government to give advice about better commissioning of such issues, because what should be done is self-evident, and good authorities do it already. I will do more than that, as I have a bee in my bonnet about it, as noble Lords can probably sense. I shall write a fairly brisk letter to local authorities setting out why we think that it is bad for children— the evidence says it—why it is often more expensive; why there are worse outcomes; and why it is more difficult for the local authority to provide the support that it is statutorily obliged to give a child or to intervene into the disturbances that often occur because of distant placements. So it will not do.

We are determined to drive up the quality and skill of residential care staff. By happenstance this week I met David Behan, from the Commission for Social Care Inspection. We talked about his first year's experience of inspecting children's homes. He started the job in April. We talked about his perception of the quality of training and care. He will do some reflective work and come back to me shortly with his view about where between us we must put pressure on the system to improve it. I am tempted, as Ministers are, to jump to the first three or four things that strike me, but we want to put pressure where it is most likely to result in improvements. The quality of care, training and support will not do in some situations. One does not want to destroy the supply suddenly, but we wish to issue a clear warning that things must improve. I was delighted that David Behan was four-square with me on that discussion.

None of that says that there is not a role for children's homes. Although we have seen an enormous contraction of children's homes over the past 20 or 30 years, there is a continuing, but focused, role for them. However, their role must add considerable value. Given the costs involved, as mentioned by noble Lords, one would expect to get more than a hotel function.

Much has been said by many noble Lords on fostering. I agreed with an enormous amount of the remarks. With a shortage of 8,000 foster carers, there is a call for local authorities to think more imaginatively. The quality of support and training varies greatly. We have introduced a power in the Children Act 2004, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others will recall, to prescribe minimum payments for foster carers. We have a working group with local government, ADSS and others to look at how we research that, understand what is happening now and identify how we work collectively to get better minimum payments across local authorities with a firm legislative stick in the cupboard, should we need to use it. We would be foolish to jump to that without having the thoughtful process that is under way already. We plan to commission a comprehensive assessment of the state of training. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that we do not have a detailed analysis of the skills and experience of foster carers. Although, I suspect, we have a pretty good rough feel, we ought to have a better feel of it. We will build up a picture of the number of approved foster carers and their characteristics across the country and ensure that foster carers have the skills they need to do it. That data will then be fed into our children's workforce strategy, which I hope to sign off on Thursday night, prior to publication, before too long. Some of those issues will clearly feature in that, as well they should. We need to know more, but in some cases we also need to get on with it, because what we know is sometimes good enough for action rather than delay.

I am delighted to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, was saying about the work of the excellent leader of Essex County Council to improve the recruitment of foster parents. That seems good. I agree strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that it is not just a matter of recruiting; you must support and involve fosterers as partners in the care process. They must feel valued. When you do that, they stay and are more likely to contribute to the care plan. Some of those points are blindingly obvious, but we must break some of the previous moulds of practice that left the foster parent outside the door when discussions were taking place about the child.

There is a lot to be done. Obviously, the world has moved on from the historic model of the woman at home with nothing else to do, happy to take one more on because there was a bit of spare space and she had a big heart and a big kitchen. That is why we are experiencing some of the problems. I am not doing justice to all the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. When I met David Behan this week we talked also about foster parents.

Having said all that, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others are right to say that we should think about other patterns of care. I gave one hint when I was thinking about the early intervention work. In patterns of care itself rather than prevention, lateral thinking and a radical rethink are constantly required, when the present approach is so expensive, so difficult to sustain and not good enough.

We should not pretend that it is easy stuff. It is not a situation of children who somehow, by some tragic accident, have lost both parents and are being cared for. In most cases, they are highly damaged children who have been on a merry-go-round of difficulties and disadvantage. We know how difficult it is for many to care for them.

I do not need to say much about the multidimensional treatment foster-care programme built on the Oregon Social Learning Centre, because the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, ably helped by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has spoken about it brilliantly. They have rightly signalled that we are investing in this different model of intervention. I cannot go into the details of what it covers now. I will meet representatives of the Oregon Social Learning Centre in a couple of weeks' time to talk about their experience, and we will have a conference on the matter. It is clearly an important area. It is a classic role for government to experiment and to try to improve practice.

We have not talked much about returning from care. Given what I said about how short the time in care is for many children, we should be as concerned about the quality of the return process from care into the family and the support that is wrapped around. The danger, if social services—or children's authorities, as they will be—focus simply on the care process is that, when it is decided that children no longer need to be in care and they are sent hack, unless they receive a package of support the risk that they will be back into care in a few years' time is increased. So they cannot be returned and then forgotten—not that good authorities do that.

As regards children leaving care, there is a lot to say on that but not much time in which to do so. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 requires local authorities to assess the financial support needs of care leavers. Each care leaver must have an assessment of his financial needs, including support needs for further and higher education. Ealing illustrated a brilliant way of doing that.

I agree with the noble Baroness that more needs to be done, but I firmly assert that the situation is vastly better than it was as regards the statutory obligation to make an assessment, the duty to continue the corporate parenting role at least to the age of 21 and beyond, if necessary, and the duty to provide housing. They are all new measures that did not exist before 1997. A lot has been done, but there is a lot more to do.

What else is there to say about Next Steps? As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, signalled. I agree that we need to continue an evaluation of what works. Sometimes it is surprising that Britain does not have a very good practice evaluation of what works. I am discussing that with officials. If, for example, we find that family group conferencing works, in those situations it is indefensible that people do not do it. Therefore, I will think about that. I do not want to imply that we are being dirigiste from the centre, but it is indefensible not to have it when we find out what works. We need a tougher process of challenging those who will not listen to what evaluations show and then do not have the capacity to manage such situations.

As regards the shortage of people, both in numbers and skills, we will signal some of those issues in the children's workforce strategy. That will be the start of the process. As one would expect, we will not get instant, magic answers, but the issues have to be up the agenda.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others spoke about the cost of children not getting better care. A number of them will have mental health problems for the rest of their lives as a consequence of the risk of drug dependency and of drifting into crime. I do not want to pathologise all people in care, because that is not true. Clearly, if the care process has been poor, the state and society do not escape further costs when the care process ends.

Again, I should not talk just about the care process. The quality of care given before a child goes into care—preventing the need to go into care—and the support given to a family after a child leaves care also add to the totality of how we as a society try to remediate some of the serious disadvantages in a family's circumstances that has led to emotional and developmental damage to a child. We would be fools if we thought that that was a simple set of processes.

Clearly, there is great relevance to the Every Child Matters: Change for Children process as a part of that. The challenge to me and to local authorities is to make the Change for Children process mean something for those children who are in care; those who, but for better inventions, would have been in care; and those who have returned from care to home. So our mindset must not be the narrow one, but the wider one, as part of the implementation of the Change for Children programme and the Children Act.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for again stimulating us to reflect and challenge each other as we need to on that agenda.

7.43 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I rise briefly, first, to thank the Minister for his extensive reply and his clear commitment to this work. We very much look forward to the publication of the workforce strategy.

The Minister referred to the context of children's lives in care, which was very helpful. When I spoke with foster carers recently, they emphasised that when a child is in care there is an opportunity to make an intervention that could be a vast resource to that child when he goes hack to a family. When children leave care it is so much harder to work with them.

The Minister referred to the social brain, which it may be helpful to put in the context of mental health. After all, 10 per cent of children in the general population have mental disorders. We need to recognise those with the most profound needs and those who have suffered most awful trauma. Some children are very resilient and can do well, but we must recognise that we need high aspirations for such children. For the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, gave, some of those children are not doing as well as they should.

I regret that my noble friend who was going to speak about current achievements in care was unable to take part. There will be a meeting on 15 March in Portcullis House—the Prime Minister may be present—to celebrate the achievements of children in care. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part today. It is encouraging to see such an interest and such a range of expertise. I thank the Minister for his response and look forward to working with him in the future. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.