HC Deb 03 February 2000 vol 343 cc251-86WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dowd.]

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his Budget statement in March he said that children form 20 per cent. of the country's population but represent 100 per cent. of its future. I think there is common agreement that tomorrow's prosperity will be built on the success and skills of today's children. That is why the Government are committed to ending child poverty within 20 years, and are modernising services for children and their families at every stage of their lives. All children should be able to develop confidence and a sense of responsibility for themselves and for others. The most vulnerable children need protection, care and the best possible chance of success throughout life. Every child deserves the opportunity to live in a stable and safe environment, to enjoy the best physical and mental health possible, to thrive at school and to make a successful transition to adulthood.

The Government have a strong belief that the children of today will shape tomorrow's society. That means that every single one of us has an interest in making sure that children thrive, and are helped to grow up into healthy and socially responsible adults. Children thrive best in a stable family environment. Families are, therefore, the core of our society. In recognition of that, we gave a commitment in our manifesto that we would uphold family life as the most secure means of bringing up children. In doing so, we have focused on five key areas.

First, we are improving family prosperity, through the tax and benefit systems such as, for example, in-work benefits. Secondly, we are making it easier for families to balance work and home—through the development of family-friendly employment policies, and a national child care strategy to expand the provision of early years care and education. Thirdly, we are reducing the risks of family breakdown. Fourthly, we are ensuring that all parents have access to the advice and support that they need to raise their children successfully through our sure start programme, and other initiatives. Finally, we are tackling the more serious problems of family life, such as domestic violence, juvenile offending and teenage pregnancy. Action is under way to tackle each of those issues.

Tackling child poverty is also a priority for the Government. Poverty is complex. Of course family income and prosperity are crucial, but it is also about poor housing, poor health and poor education. It is also about a lack of opportunity as a child and the lack of a job as a parent. There is a poverty of expectation that leaves many jobless parents expecting no better for their children than they have experienced themselves. Desperate situations can often lead to desperate measures: alcohol, drugs, domestic violence and crime. Many of those factors are closely interlinked. Together, they create a crushing spiral of disadvantage—one that all too often persists throughout people's lives.

Many of these children and families will need the specialist care and involvement of professional social services. Some children need to be protected by social services. Some need the local authority to take on a parental role for them. Whatever their difficult and traumatic experiences before being taken into care, children who are looked after by local authorities are entitled to the same opportunities as all children. They are entitled to a good education, to the health care and other specialist help they need and to consistent support, advice and practical help to guide them into adult life. The majority are in care not because of what they have done, but because of family breakdown. These are children with real potential and talent, and it is our responsibility to ensure that those talents are allowed to develop and grow.

Improving children's social services is therefore part of the Government's wider strategy to tackle the problems of social exclusion and provide better support to children and their families. The social services' contribution to that work is crucial. Social services are closely involved with the sure start programme to help pre-school children, which is worth £450 million in England; with the new youth support service ConneXions, which is being announced today; and with the youth offending teams designed to cut youth crime.

However, the evidence is that too many children were failed by the services that should have been helping them. There has been too much inconsistent and poor management in children's services. For example, we know from the children's safeguards review reports and the shocking testimony of those young people who suffered abuse in children's homes that the risks for children living away from home in the 1970s and 1980s were seriously underestimated, but we cannot dismiss that as a problem of the past.

In the 1990s, evidence from the social services inspectorate and joint review reports of children's services showed continuing problems, and not only in children's homes. SSI reports and joint reviews have demonstrated inconsistency, both within and between authorities. They have sometimes shown that poor assessment, planning and case recording have led to very unfocused work with families, that decisions about who receives a service are often made on a haphazard basis and that poor planning for the children being looked after has resulted in unnecessary delays and inappropriate placements.

For all those reasons and more, in September 1998, we launched the "Quality Protects" programme, which is to help local authorities improve the management and delivery of children's social services. We announced that the programme would be supported by a £375 million new special children's grant, which is being paid to local authorities over the three years of the current spending review.

"Quality Protects" is part of our wider plans detailed in the White Paper "Modernising Social Services" to tailor services to the real needs of people and deliver them efficiently and to the highest standards. Today's public services have to be shaped around the people who use them, not the other way around. Social change, growing public expectations, an ageing population and shifts in family structures call for a modernised system of social care. That is why, when we launched "Quality Protects", we announced for the first time new Government objectives and specific targets for children's services. That major step forward has, for the first time, provided a clear framework in which to develop those crucial public services.

In particular, we want to provide protection and care for the most vulnerable children and families, which is precisely what the Care Standards Bill will do. The Bill has two key aims—first, to protect vulnerable people from abuse and neglect; and, secondly, to promote the highest standards quality in the care that people receive.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a new independent national body—the National Care Standards Commission—which will have significant responsibilities for safeguarding the welfare of children. All types of children's homes will be regulated and subject to rigorous inspections. Local authority homes that are currently exempt and small private children's homes for fewer than four children will be included. That loophole in the current law has long been considered a scandal, and rightly so. Good-quality care must be provided in all children's homes, whether in the private or voluntary sector, or in those run by local authorities. Children must be protected from abuse and their welfare promoted, whoever is responsible for running the home. In the past, problems have occurred in all types of homes, but in future, all homes will have to meet the same rigorous standards.

The Bill will introduce for the first time regulatory regimes for fostering agencies and residential family centres. The National Care Standards Commission will regulate the crucial and very specialised work of voluntary adoption agencies in a way similar to the current system operated by the social services inspectorate.

In recognition of its role in safeguarding children, the National Care Standards Commission will appoint a children's rights director, whose job it will be to ensure that children's rights and welfare are at the heart of all its responsibilities for regulating children's services. The children's rights director will fulfil a crucial function in developing the work of the commission in protecting and safeguarding the interests of the children being looked after by local authorities. We are also taking action on child protection.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Will registration arrangements under the Care Standards Bill apply to children and young people in supported housing, but not in local authorities' formal care? I am thinking of vulnerable families placed in supportive environments who receive housing benefit. However, because they do so, they are not classed as receiving social care. Therefore, many such establishments—a large proportion of which do excellent work—fall outside the remit of the inspection regime. That is a lost opportunity.

Mr. Hutton

The hon. Gentleman raised several technical issues. He is wrong about young people receiving housing benefit being excluded from receiving social care services. That is not the case. However, if the hon. Gentleman looked at the Bill, he would see that we are trying to provide a more effective regime for the regulation and inspection of children's homes—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman tells me that he has looked at the Bill. He should therefore see what the Bill's definitions relate to.

The hon. Gentleman asked about supported housing schemes. I need to consider what he might have been driving at, and I am more than happy to discuss the issue with him later. However, the Bill focuses on providing a more effective regime for children's homes and closing some of the loopholes that I mentioned earlier and that have given rise to considerable concern. As a matter of principle, it is not right that the protection that children and young people are entitled to expect from the care system should be determined by the size of the children's home in which they have been placed. We must ensure that all children's homes providing residential care are covered by the stronger and more effective arrangements in the Bill.

Two key developments forming part of the "Quality Protects" initiatives are the revision of the inter-agency guidance "Working Together to Safeguard Children" and the development of the new framework for the assessment of children in need and their families. The aim is to ensure that the way in which we safeguard and promote the welfare of children involved in prostitution and assess their needs is consistent with the approaches used for all children.

At the end of last December, following extensive consultation, the Government published new guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. "Working Together to Safeguard Children" replaces the previous guidance published in 1991 and takes full account of new research, experience and legislation relating to child abuse.

The new guidance emphasises the importance of agencies working together to help families and children before abuse and neglect take place. It provides a clear framework for social workers, the police, teachers, health service staff and others to work together and with families in order to secure the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children and young people.

The new guidance provides several essential safeguards against abuse which apply in every setting in which children live away from home. When services are not directly provided, basic safeguards should be explicitly addressed in contracts with external providers.

In September 1999, the Department issued new draft assessment guidance focussing on assessing the needs of children and their parents' and families' capacity to respond to those needs in the short and longer term. That guidance is underpinned by the latest knowledge of the impact of adult problems, such as domestic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, mental health and sex offending, on children's development. We shall publish the final version of the assessment framework in the next few weeks.

The new "Working Together to Safeguard Children" guidance and the assessment framework form important components of a wide-ranging programme of work across Government to strengthen protection for children and improve the support given to vulnerable children and families.

Earlier, I referred to child sexual exploitation and prostitution. The Government take seriously the threat posed by those who would exploit children for sexual purposes. There are no accurate national figures on the number of young people abused through prostitution. However, Barnardos recently conducted a survey of 48 agencies in England, Scotland and Wales. It reported being in contact with 55 young boys and 267 girls under the age of 16 and 94 young boys and 338 young women aged between 16 and 18 whom its staff believed to be involved in prostitution. Of course, the actual numbers are likely to be far higher than the figure of 750 in the Barnardos survey. It is therefore absolutely essential that we have a strong and effective system in place to protect children who are involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in, prostitution.

In December 1998, the Department of Health and the Home Office published draft guidance on children involved in prostitution which sets out a new multi-agency approach, based on local agreements, to address these problems. It establishes that the primary law enforcement effort must be against abusers and coercers who break the law and who should therefore be called to account. It stresses that children who are involved in prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation should be treated first and foremost as the victims of abuse. Their needs require careful assessment. The final guidance will be issued in the spring, but we know that a lot of excellent work is already taking place across the country.

Last month, for example, at the first ever social care awards ceremony at Lancaster house, I presented Nottingham social services with a prize. It was the overall national winner for its project on a multi-agency approach to child sexual exploitation. That ground-breaking project, which is a joint venture involving the police and local voluntary organisations, is preventing many vulnerable young boys and girls from ending up or being trapped in the world of prostitution.

Another important part of the Government's strategy is the preparation of the first national plan to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The United Kingdom was a leading participant at the 1996 Stockholm world congress to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. We agreed on an agenda for action, one of the key features of which was for each signatory state to provide a national agenda for action by the year 2000 with indicators of progress and set goals and time frames. We will meet that obligation in full. We consulted last year about what should be in the national plan. A steering group consisting of Government Departments, statutory organisations represented by the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Association of Chief Police Officers and wider voluntary organisations, including Barnardos and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, has been taking forward that work. We intend to publish the plan in the summer.

But protection is not enough. We must ensure that all children have the love, care and support that children need for the whole of their childhood and that the children for whom social services are responsible gain maximum life chances from education and other opportunities. In particular, we want to see looked-after children achieving more at school and more care leavers in training, education or employment; we want to see fewer moves between placements for children who are looked after by local authorities and the level of offending among looked-after children brought down. Where appropriate, we want to see children being adopted without undue delay and we also want to see better service for disabled children. Those are tough objectives, but we believe that they are achievable. Indeed, they must be achieved if we are not to continue letting these children down.

"Quality Protects" has been grasped with enthusiasm by all concerned. No one challenges the need to transform the quality of care and the chances in life of our most vulnerable children. The challenge for us now is to make that happen. In the programme's second year, the challenge for local authorities will be fully to implement their action plans, improve services and achieve much better outcomes for children and young people. Next year, we are increasing the grant from £75 million to £120 million and we expect to see real improvements delivered in return for those extra resources. In the third year of "Quality Protects", the grant will rise to £180 million.

The early evidence is that we are starting to deliver on our objectives. All authorities expect to be meeting their statutory duties to inspect children's homes by the end of March. We have also seen an increase in the number of adoptions and in the support that is given to care leavers. Increasingly, councils are listening to what young people have to say about their futures.

One of the key priorities for "Quality Protects" is to improve the supply and choice of placement options for looked-after children. One important choice is adoption. Research shows clearly that, in general, adopted children make good progress through their childhood and into adulthood compared with children who remain in the care system. Adoption provides them with a unique opportunity for a fresh start as permanent members of a new and stable family, allowing them to enjoy a sense of security and well-being that has so far been denied them in their young lives. The Department of Health 1998 circular "Adoption—Achieving the Right Balance" has had a strong impact on adoption practice. I am pleased to say that our monitoring shows that most local authorities have reviewed and taken action to improve their adoption services. I am also pleased that 200 more children found adoptive families in 1998–99 than in the previous year. That is approximately an 11 per cent. increase, which is good news; however, much remains to be done.

We recently launched the publication "Messages from Research—Adoption Now" which shows how adoption has changed. We know that there are now few babies needing adoption. We also know that many adopted children have faced great difficulties and that some are disabled. We are actively considering how we can promote more co-operation between statutory and voluntary bodies in this field. But we must also tackle the problem of delays in the adoption process on the part of local authorities and the courts. We have recently commissioned research on how we can minimise such delays. It will consider evidence from authorities with different records on adoption and it will also examine the role of the courts. At the same time, the president of the family division's adoption committee is looking at measures to reduce delays in adoption proceedings in the courts.

We must modernise our adoption service to meet new circumstances. We need modern standards of service from the moment that someone expresses an interest in being an adoptive parent through to post-adoption support. Such services must be quick, supportive and professional.

We also need to ensure that good-quality foster care is available. At the moment, despite the fact that there are around 32,000 existing foster carers, there is a national shortage. I am pleased to say that work is under way to develop the first national foster care recruitment campaign. It will be run by a steering group consisting of the Department of Health, the National Foster Care Association, the ADSS and the Local Government Association. That is an excellent example of how central and local government and the voluntary sector can work in partnership for the benefit of young people. I hope that the campaign will lead more people to consider taking up the unique challenge of caring for children from other families by becoming foster carers.

To support and supplement that work we have introduced, for the first time, national standards for foster care. We have asked local authorities to put more effort into better support and retention of our foster carers. Foster care can be a challenging and demanding task. Too many foster carers give up because of a lack of support. We must invest in ensuring that foster carers receive all the training and support that they need in order to gain and develop the appropriate skills. I am delighted to say that, in the first year of "Quality Protects", local authorities allocated nearly £30 million of the £75 million that was available to them in the grant to support their local placement and adoption services. That was money well spent and I am sure that it will continue to make a big impact.

I am also pleased that services for care leavers are starting to improve. For some time we have been concerned about the support that they receive from local authorities. Every year about 5,000 young people aged between 16 and 17 leave local authority care. There has been an increasing trend towards discharging young people from care early. The proportion of care leavers aged 16 to 18 who left care at the age of 16 increased from 33 per cent. in 1993 to 46 per cent. in 1998. That is a trend that we must reverse. It has resulted in too many children leaving care without a single qualification and too many being unemployed and homeless.

The Government believe that care leavers should be able to expect support from their parent—the local authority. That is why the Children (Leaving Care) Bill gives local authorities a new duty to assess and meet their needs, from their needs for the essentials of living—accommodation and maintenance—to their needs for development. Those needs will include needs for education and for training, any special needs and the ordinary needs that any child has when learning how to live independently: how to shop, how to manage a budget and how to cater for themselves. The Bill obliges local authorities to provide a young person's adviser and a pathway plan for all eligible young people. The latter will map out a route to independence for these young people, including a consideration of when they might be ready to leave care. There will no longer be any incentive to push young people out of care until they are ready to go.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that the statutory age up to which young people leaving care are the responsibility of local authorities should be set at 21 rather than 18? Such an approach has been advocated by all leading child care organisations and by Sir William Utting, who spoke in support of it only last month. Does my hon. Friend further agree that statutory responsibility should be extended to the age of 24 for young people in higher education?

Mr. Hutton

I agree. My hon. Friend takes a close interest in these matters and he should remind himself of what we said in the document entitled "Who, Me, Survive Out There?" There are strong arguments for increasing the duty to cover young people up to the age of 21, but we have tried to make our position clear. As such a responsibility would be new and additional and would carry financial implications for local authorities, we would want to extend the current duty only when resources were available to deal with the new burden. I do not, however, disagree with my hon. Friend; of course 21 is the optimal age. The average age at which young people who are not being looked after by local authorities leave the family home is about 22. That must be addressed sooner rather than later.

As many hon. Members will know, beacon status has recently been awarded to four local authorities for their excellence in helping care leavers. The specialist leaving care teams in those local authorities have developed some excellent programmes. They are aimed at developing new partnerships with statutory and voluntary sector bodies to deliver high-quality services in housing, health and education. The authorities have also been developing innovative methods to assist care leavers in preparing and planning for adult life and have undertaken initiatives on education and employment for young people, which are aimed at providing basic skills training and intensive support to sustain young people on college and training placements. Finally, the authorities have been involving young people in shaping and influencing the development of high-quality local services.

We are determined that all authorities should give care leavers high-quality services. Local authorities were instructed to explain in their second management action plans produced under the "Quality Protects" programme how they were improving services to care leavers and putting in place plans to implement the new approach. The new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will link closely to the development of the new ConneXions service for young people aged 13 to 19, which was launched this morning. This new, joined-up, modern service will connect services provided locally to young people and will radically transform the support that they receive as they make the transition from adolescence to adult and working life. It will also raise the expectations and aspirations of young people of all abilities and from all backgrounds by ensuring that they receive the support and advice that they need to make a success of their lives, when and where they need it.

The new arrangements are a complex and ambitious undertaking that will require a lot of detailed and ground-breaking work. We are determined to build on what works best for the future. I am especially pleased that councils have begun to listen to children and young people in their areas. Listening to children helps to protect them from harm and low expectations. If children speak up and are heard, abuse is less likely to happen. Children and young people demand and need a voice in all decisions that are taken about them. That should apply not only to the big issues such as education, health and placements, but to day-to-day big issues such as pocket money, sleepovers and bedtimes. Young people can and want to contribute to making the care system more effective. Children's participation will help local authorities provide higher quality and more effective services. It will also help them to implement one of the key responsibilities under the best value requirements. Councils must become more responsive to the people to whom they supply services, including young people.

To practise what we preach, we are organising a series of regional events that will occur later this year and at which I and senior members of the Department of Health will hear directly from looked-after children. To plan the events, we are working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the ADSS and a small project team of young people from A National Voice, the National Children's Bureau and Save the Children. The activities are designed to ensure that the views of children and young people on day-to-day issues such as pocket money, being listened to, finding a flat, support for learning at school and funding for higher and further education are heard. There will be separate discussion activities for adults. We should like the events to give children and young people locally a chance to hear about "Quality Protects" and local and national activities.

Improving services for disabled young children is a key priority for "Quality Protects". We know from inspections and research that disabled children receive a poor service. The Government also recognise the needs of parent carers of disabled children.

The Carers and Disabled Children Bill, which I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) for promoting—it has its Second Reading tomorrow—introduces direct payments for parents of disabled children to purchase the services that they have been assessed as needing. That will provide much greater choice and flexibility for those families.

Following an assessment of the needs of the disabled child and the child's family, the social services department will discuss with the family the options for receiving a service. They will be able to receive a service that is provided either by the local authority or by a provider that is commissioned by the local authority. In addition, instead of a service, the family can receive a direct payment to purchase a service of the family's choice. For example, following an assessment, it may be decided that the family should receive support to care for their disabled child. The local authority could offer a weekend break for the disabled child every other weekend or a direct payment to cover the cost of that service. We are confident that parent carers will find that a significant step forward, and that together the new measures will make a marked improvement in the support that is provided to parent carers.

I recognise that, for "Quality Protects" to be a success, authorities need to be able to recruit and retain staff. For "Quality Protects" and the whole social care modernisation agenda, local authorities and other employers need to be able to recruit and retain staff of the right calibre and number. A high-quality work force is essential to the delivery of high-quality services.

We are well aware of the concerns expressed in the media and directly to us by local government about the shortages of professionally qualified social workers and other care staff that jeopardise our modernisation plans and "Quality Protects" in particular. It is important to see that against a general background in which the social work work force has been fairly stable. The latest data show that vacancies for social workers are at the lowest level for a decade. Vacancies have declined from 10 per cent. in 1990 to 7 per cent. in 1998. Turnover rates over the same period have also declined from 14 per cent. to 8.5 per cent. Those overall trends mask particular difficulties in some service sectors and some parts of the country, which may be exacerbated by the demands of service developments like "Quality Protects".

It is the responsibility of local authorities in the first place to address their work force needs. The Government are not the employer. We are therefore particularly pleased that the Local Government Association has recently taken an initiative to set up a work force task group with the express purpose of identifying practical measures that can have a more immediate impact.

Dr. Brand

It was good to hear that the number of vacancies has fallen, but could the Minister tell me how many social workers were employed over the same period?

Mr. Hutton

I could, but not now.

It is true that the number of people who are enrolling for professional social work training courses is declining substantially. I think that applications have dropped by nearly 50 per cent. in the past six or seven years. That is a serious worry. Fortunately, the number of students who go on to those courses has remained broadly stable. It has fallen by about 10 per cent. But we need to do more; I am not pretending otherwise, and I shall say more about that later.

The Government have a role to play. It is not just the responsibility of local authorities. We are partners in the process. We have agreed with the LGA to build on this early work, and to work on a programme of action for implementation over a longer time scale together with wider employment interests throughout the whole social care sector, not just public authorities. We are, therefore, making arrangements for a work force summit to be held by the end of March. Among the issues to be discussed at that summit will be: addressing the image and status of social care, including conditions of service, family-friendly employment policies, and encouraging return to work among those who are professionally qualified as social workers, but who have left the profession for a variety of reasons; developing the existing work force, including the skill mix; and problems of recruiting students to social work.

The Government are already taking action to raise the quality of social workers and other social care staff. The Care Standards Bill, now being considered in another place, provides for the creation of the General Social Care Council. That body will have a statutory duty to promote high standards through codes of conduct and practice for all social care staff. We have already commissioned the initial drafting of those codes, and the council will have the necessary powers to ensure that social work training is fit for the purpose.

In the next few weeks, we expect to publish the reports of the external consultants whom we engaged to advise us on the content and delivery of professional social work training. We are currently considering our response to those reports, with a view to implementing a programme of substantial reform of professional social work training.

The Government accept that to build the ethos of excellence in social services that we all desire, we need the whole social care work force to attain the highest standards. It is salutary to remind ourselves that, of the million-strong work force in social care, 80 per cent. have no qualification of any sort. So low a level of qualification is unacceptable.

The essence of modernising social services lies in raising standards. We must have a new ethos of excellence, not excuses. We must drive up standards and drive out failure. At their best, social service authorities are capable of just that sort of excellence. That is why we shall shortly issue a quality strategy Green Paper for social services. The quality strategy is the Government's next step in a modernising agenda for social care. It will set a national framework for raising local standards, reducing unacceptable variations in practice and achieving an ethos of excellence in social services. It will build and consolidate existing initiatives to improve quality, two of which I have already mentioned: the National Care Standards Commission and the General Social Care Council. The quality strategy will propose the creation of a new institution to support the drive for quality and a social care institute for excellence. It will emphasise partnerships: with users and carers to define quality services; between the new and existing institutions in social and health care concerned with quality; and with local government and other stakeholders to develop and implement strategy, spread good practice and support change at local level.

In conclusion, "Quality Protects" is a key part of our strategy to raise the quality of social services. Through "Quality Protects", we shall work in partnership with local authorities and the voluntary sector to bring about the improvements that we need. This is a phased and monitored programme. There is no question of waiting until 2002 to achieve what must be done, because children cannot wait that long. We are taking action now to get the management and services right. Through the "Quality Protects" programme, we will help the most vulnerable children in society in ways that we have previously been unable to help them. Our expectations for such children have been too low for far too long, and we can no longer afford to let them fail because the future costs for them and for society as a whole are too great.

3.8 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I am disappointed to see Westminster Hall so empty this afternoon for such an important debate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Waterhouse report, which will make an important contribution to the debate on children's services, is due to be published "shortly"—I believe that was the word that the Minister used in response to a written question from the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). The information that I have from the House of Commons Library is that that report is due to be published on 7 February so, in some ways, it is unfortunate that this debate is taking place now. Had that report already been published, I am sure that the Chamber would be full. I expect it to prompt us to ask many questions, not necessarily in a party political way—I believe that debates in Westminster Hall are intended to be somewhat less party political than some others—but because, as the Minister said, as politicians, we must together try to do something about children's services, with their tragic history. I am sure that the report will raise important points, which we will want to debate.

Mr. Hutton

I reassure the hon. Lady that we do not intend to circumvent or truncate debate on Mr. Justice Waterhouse's report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will make a statement, and there will be plenty of opportunities for hon. Members on both sides of the House to question him and raise other issues. The timing of today's debate has nothing to do with the publication of the Waterhouse report.

Mrs. Spelman

I accept that the timing of today's debate is an unfortunate coincidence.

There is no room for complacency in discussing children's services. I have had to come up to speed on this subject at fairly short notice and I was struck by the history of one inquiry after another investigating abuse of children in care. I was left depressed by that, and by the thought that, tragically, more may emerge. We shall probably have to deal with the outfall from serious abuse cases for many years.

There is no question but that the "Quality Protects" programme and the resources directed to it by the Government are helpful, and it would be churlish to say otherwise. It is still early days, but good progress is being made, above all in getting agencies to work together. Paramount is the genuine sense that the most important group in all this—the children—will be listened to.

The Minister, in a debate about the special grants for children's services under the "Quality Protects" programme in July, admitted: More recently, social services inspectorate reports and joint reviews have demonstrated that the quality of children's services is inconsistent".—[Official Report, Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 22 July 1999; c. 3.] I went, for the most up-to-date statistics available, to the Department's website. The most recent figures in the bulletin of provisional statistics for children looked after by local authorities are for the year ending 31 March 1999. Sadly, they reveal plenty of inconsistencies. The average number of children looked after in the local population per 10,000 children is 47, but it varies from just eight per 10,000 in Rutland to 124 per 10,000 in Kingston upon Hull. We can readily understand that in terms of a correlation with social deprivation or social breakdown in different places, but I was much more alarmed by the variation that was shown in the quality of services.

The Minister has mentioned the concern that exists about the impact of frequent changes of placement for looked-after children. The Department has set a national target of 16 per cent. for the number of children with three or more placements in a year. My eye was immediately caught by the figure of 38 per cent. for my local authority, Solihull, compared with the national average of 19.3 per cent. for the year ending 31 March 1998. I looked into the matter and found that, although a small local authority might have the average number of available foster places, it would lack the range necessary to provide a good match. The lesson was learned that a small authority must strive for an above average number of foster places to get an adequate range. Matching is the key to stability in placing children, especially those aged 14 plus who are probably the most difficult to place.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does the hon. Lady accept that there can be a problem with remoteness in larger authorities? Milton Keynes went from being under Buckinghamshire county council to being a new, much smaller unitary authority. Under the original arrangements, the problems had resulted from remoteness and the fact that decisions were taken well away from where people actually lived.

Mrs. Spelman

The hon. Gentleman knows better than I that a range of difficulties is associated with large authorities. But living on the shoulder of a large authority in Birmingham, I am well aware of such comparisons and contrasts. On balance, it is undoubtedly more difficult to provide quality services in larger authorities, and to deliver a joined-up approach within local government, because of the scale involved. The silo walls between departments somehow seem that much higher in larger authorities. The hon. Gentleman's point was well made.

I am pleased to note from the figures submitted to the Department on Monday that my local authority's change of strategy in seeking actively to increase the number of foster places available to get the good match has reduced the average frequency of placement among children in its care to the national average. It shows that lessons learned and applied can deliver the results needed.

The flow of children in and out of care reveals the lack of real progress made with older children, especially boys, who are the most difficult to place back in the community. I encountered a strange attitude to children aged 14 plus among the professionals who deliver the service. I was told that, in their view, it was inappropriate to try to place children in foster or adoptive care at that age. I find that attitude difficult to understand. In Northern Ireland, there is a unique register of the 50 older children a year requiring a family. By a proactive approach, it has proved possible to place children happily in an adoptive setting, even those aged 14 plus. We may successfully be able to apply lessons learned from Northern Ireland in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The lottery of provision can be harsh for the life chances of looked-after children. One of the major models for the purposes of contrast is local authorities that successfully place children with foster parents and subsequently find the children a long-term stable environment with adoptive parents. At the end of March 1997, nearly 11,000 children were placed in local authority care and in registered children's homes in England, but only 1,500 were adopted from public care. Almost half those came into care because they had been neglected or abused, and half were placed in care before they were a year old, half of whom were babies under one month. Four out of five were never returned to their natural parents. On average, children waited two years after coming into care before they were placed with families that would later adopt them. I am pleased that the number of adopted children has risen by 11 per cent. in the past year, but there is still a long way to go.

I challenge local authorities to become more proactive about helping children out of institutional care and into long-term, stable family environments. That might involve returning children to their natural parents with adequate support, or finding adoptive parents for them.

There is much in the expression "adequate support". I am sure that hon. Members will have had experience of constituency cases similar to my own. I had a case just last month of a child aged nine who suddenly appeared on the doorstep of his former neighbour. The child was barely clothed and without shoes, having run away from home after yet more physical abuse of the sort that the former neighbour had witnessed before the child's family had moved away. The child begged her to look after him. Social services became involved, and asked the neighbour to take the child in because no suitable foster place was available. She agreed to do that but, because she had three children of her own and was of limited means, she asked for financial provision for the child. She came to me because the financial provision was intermittent—she might receive a cheque but then nothing for another six weeks, which made it difficult to plan the household budget. She is aware that the child needs psychological help, and has flagged that up to social services. The child had had no formal education at school from the age of five. Social services holds her responsible for getting him to school every day, but it is difficult to keep him there. She is convinced that he needs psychological help, but it is not forthcoming.

Despite going through the hoops of all the checks to become a registered foster carer, she still does not receive the financial support that she was promised at the outset. That is a good illustration of the way in which, despite all the fine words, the system fails such people, as we practitioners on the receiving end of such circumstances know.

There have been repeated and urgent calls for an overhaul of adoption laws, to which we, the official Opposition, have added our voice. Adoption services vary widely across the country, as parents seeking to adopt are all too aware. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering was commissioned by the Department to study the adoption policies of 115 local authorities. Some had a strict policy of refusing foster carers the right to adopt children, even when they had a good settled relationship. Such an anomaly is difficult for the ordinary person to understand.

I have another constituency case that highlights the problem caused by the inconsistent application of rules between local authorities. A couple who already had four children of their own, but who regularly used to foster disabled children, were asked to take in a new-born baby because the young mother was unwell. They fostered the child for two years because of the delays that ensued over the suitability and capability of the mother to take the child back, and the uncertainty over the child's future.

Two years is a long time in a child's life. That time might be crucial for the child to establish a bond with the adults looking after it. The couple had fostered the child for two years and had come to the point of enfolding it into their family, although they had not wished to adopt at the outset. Having reached the perfectly intelligible human position of not wanting the child whom they had cared and loved to go through the experience of being torn away from the family, they offered to adopt. However, they hit the hard rule that, having been foster carers, they could not adopt the child.

Such anomalies make nonsense of the present adoption laws. I welcome the sign that the Government are considering harmonising some of the rules between local authorities. Parents on the receiving end of our adoption system are all too aware of the anomalies because they compare notes with people living in other local authority areas. They find that what has been denied them has been made available to friends or relatives in other parts of the country. The inequality by postcode must be seriously addressed.

The general lack of resources for recruiting potential adoptive parents from ethnic minorities is ill matched with the desired aim of social services to place a child in the adoptive care of people of the same ethnic origin where possible. The inconsistency must be examined.

The number of adoptions before the 11 per cent. increase was a quarter of what it was two decades ago. Children who entered care after the age of five waited an average of five years before being adopted. Many adopters find that they have little financial or other support for the children whom they have adopted. It is time to rethink the way in which children are treated in our system of social care. When the Waterhouse report is finally published, there will be important lessons to learn. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) will take a great personal interest in the outcome of that report, which he was instrumental in initiating when he was at the Welsh Office.

The Government will need to measure the proposals in the Children (Leaving Care) Bill and the Care Standards Bill against the failures that occurred in children's homes in north Wales. Naivety is a factor in the inadquate protection of children in care. It is born of the simple fact that normal people find it almost impossible to get their minds around the lengths to which the depraved will go to prey on children. Many of us in public life have been guilty of naivety in relation to the need to protect children more thoroughly.

The NSPCC is right when it says that the key to protecting children in care is independence. I support its call for an independent UK children's commissioner who has statutory powers to act as a child protection and welfare watchdog. How will the new UK children's rights director fit the role that the NSPCC envisages for an independent commissioner? Perhaps the roles are similar. I want the Minister to assure me that the director will be truly independent.

Indpendence is the key from the top to the bottom of the system. The NSPCC also calls for an independent visitor for all children in care. That person should be a safe, adult, trained friend with a child's best interests at heart. In another place, the noble Lord Hunt of Kings Heath gave the desirable specifications for people who might fulfil the role of a young person's adviser. The list included social workers, foster carers, teachers, careers advisers and, at the bottom, voluntary workers. The voluntary sector should not be marginalised from the independent role of an adviser to a young person. Many of the other people are seen as authority figures by children and are linked to the system that they believe has failed them. What about appointing properly trained adults who have been in care? They would understand what it is like. Having got out and got on with their lives successfully, they could offer a role model to young children that might help them to get away from the downward spiral of lack of educational attainment, unemployment, homelessness and crime that all too often occurs in life after care.

How independent are aspects of "Quality Protects"? As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) in last July's debate explained: One problem is that the same management who failed to tackle the needs of children in our area"— Hillingdon— have also prepared the management action plans"—[Official Report, Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 22 July 1999: c. 7.] under the "Quality Protects" scheme. When a local authority is the substantial provider of care, it is imperative that the assessment of the adequacy of that provision is independent. Perhaps that could be provided by a neighbouring authority.

Another dreadful case of child abuse in residential care came to light by the intervention of a neighbouring local authority. A person who was appointed to run a children's home in the borough of Lambeth subsequently applied to be a foster parent in the neighbouring local authority area of Wandsworth. It was only when Wandsworth was making the customary checks that it was discovered that the applicant had a criminal record of sexual offence. It alerted the neighbouring authority to the problem, but it was a matter of years before anything was done. A conviction in court was successfully achieved only last year, in Liverpool. That is a salutary example of how exposed and vulnerable children can be at risk for long periods, even when a neighbouring local authority is aware of a problem. A large number of children suffered through the lack of independence in the process and it was a long time before the matter came to court.

The most important thing about the independent assessment is that it must be seen to work, and whoever conducts it must have teeth. That is where an independent commissioner would have a clear role. The care system may be safer today, but it is not safe enough. One abused child in care is one too many. We all have a responsibility towards children in care and we must do everything in our power to improve the present system and to ensure that we do not let them down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should inform hon. Members that a Division may occur at 4 o'clock. In such an event, I shall suspend our sitting for 15 minutes and ask hon. Members who wish to continue to participate to return promptly.


Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate in Westminster Hall. The opportunity to debate for some three hours a matter as important as children and social security, which would not in the normal run of events receive the scrutiny that it deserves, is welcome. Indeed, it is a shame that there are so many empty seats when we are discussing such a vital topic.

For 15 years before entering the House, I worked in children's services and latterly managed residential care, foster care, adoption and day care services for children in Lancashire. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the Waterhouse inquiry. It is obviously essential that the House should debate the report in full when it is published. I am glad, however, that today's debate precedes that inquiry.

In all of our discussions about children and social services, we are tempted to stress only the very real and serious problems of social care, but I should like to redress that balance in some respects. I do not know of any hon. Member who has come away from a meeting of the all-party group for children and young people in care and leaving care, of which I am chairman, without having been enormously impressed with the knowledge, ability, commitment and sheer intelligence and resilience of the young people who have attended and who have come through the care system. There are terrible cases of young people who have been failed and let down by that system, with disastrous results for their lives. However, we should always acknowledge, bearing in mind the parlous circumstances in which the care service has been, the many young people who have come through with courage, resilience, intelligence and fortitude. Such people have often made great successes of their lives and been a great credit to themselves. I shall not name the young people who have been involved with the group for fear of omitting some who have also made excellent contributions. Children and young people in care are a great resource; I look forward to their benefiting more from the care system and thus being able to give more to the country in future.

I want to say some positive things about people in social work. I winced when the hon. Member for Meriden was talking about institutional care, which brought visions of the workhouse and Oliver Twist. That is very far from the experience of the dedicated people who have given their lives to working in residential care, creating a homely, caring environment in ordinary streets and towns where some young people choose to be, rather than staying at home, going into foster case or being adopted.

It is important to reflect on the social work task when we consider the subject. It is tempting to say that all Members of Parliament do constituency work so we are all, in a sense, social workers, because we give advice. Recently, a teacher told me that social work was what teachers did in their free time after school had finished. I do not agree with those views of social work; the task is much larger than that, and fundamentally different from it. Social work is a craft and a skill. I was not good at it, but I know some people who are. They are people whom I respect absolutely; they listen well, with more than just their ears, they pick up subtleties, they are intuitive, they build professional relationships and they have an unconditional, positive regard for some of the most unlikely people.

Social workers keep an unerring eye on the best interests of a child when they are under pressure themselves from all sides, including their own organisations, and they do so even when they are verbally or physically threatened by other organisations. Social workers do the most delicate work with the most vulnerable people, helping them to face and sometimes to embrace the most difficult decisions that people will ever have to take, such as the decision to give a child up for adoption.

They have to decide when parenting is not good enough and a child needs to be removed from home, and when circumstances have changed enough for a child to go back home. They encounter the most vile abuse and neglect and stay sane and decent; they have a sense of humour and an ability to be creative and imaginative. They have to be able to write a report that clearly expresses the truth and to give evidence that stands up. They can put up with smart barristers and with ignorant, insensitive people who are in responsible positions. They can build trust with people who have every reason to be distrustful of them, of adults, of authority; they are people who can keep enduring, and keep on keeping on.

Good child care social workers should be well paid, intelligently supervised, properly valued and supported by employing organisations. They need first-class post-qualification training and time to recuperate and recharge. If some people that I know were listening to the debate, they would probably anticipate the sound of pigs' wings flapping through Westminster Hall, but until Members of Parliament show that they value social workers—I was so pleased to hear the Minister speak of the social care institute for excellence—we shall never have the high-class service that vulnerable children need.

Yesterday, I asked some former colleagues for their comments on the current situation in children's social services. I have also been reading the Children Act report, an excellent publication that summarises much of the research that has been carried out into the workings of the Children Act 1989 between 1995 and 1999. Some of the views that were expressed to me yesterday resonate with the views set out in the report. The report says: Commitment to working in partnership with parents was strong but sometimes led to excessive attempts to rehabilitate children home. That is similar to the view expressed to me that there can be too much commitment to partnership with parents, especially in cases involving drug or alcohol dependency. In such cases, workers feel that too much emphasis is often placed on the needs of parents, sometimes to the detriment of the children.

Mr. White

Does my hon. Friend realise that one of the problems that social workers encounter is trying to fit their priorities into the priorities of other agencies? Often, the most difficult hurdle to overcome is to get other agencies to recognise the issues that affect them.

Mr. Dawson

I certainly do recognise that and I shall return to that issue later.

Perhaps most worrying is the refocusing agenda. We heard from the Minister about how child protection services are being developed and revised in light of research findings, with a recommendation that there should be a refocusing of children's services away from what was regarded as an over-emphasis on child protection conferences and statutory child protection measures towards a more family-oriented and preventive service.

We are at an early stage in that process, but I have heard many concerns expressed that the refocusing of services is clouding the issues of child protection without necessarily helping children or parents. That may be related to issues of resources. Certainly, people talk about a lack of resources and a lack of trained social workers. People talk about the length and drawn-out nature of care proceedings and about an apparently genuine confusion about section 8 orders under the Children Act 1989. Apparently, in my constituency, there is no use at all of child assessment or family assistance orders. Of course, the Act is only as good as the local authority that implements it. That is only a snapshot, but it is a very recent one and one that comes from very experienced and capable people.

I promise not to take up the rest of the afternoon and to conclude my remarks by the time that we go to vote, but I think that the messages from inspection contained in this recently published report are instructive, and I should like to speak about some of them. In doing so, I shall come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White).

The document speaks of an overwhelming impression of lack of strategic planning across local authorities. I can relate to that impression, bearing in mind the huge departments that deal with education and social services and which are based in the same local authorities but often appear to live in different worlds. Sometimes they will work with the same individuals but have completely different priorities and there will be a dramatic lack of communication. Even with a lot of good will, we must recognise the problems of trying to match the objectives of shire county councils with those of district councils, of co-ordinating the policies of health trusts with those of local authorities and of matching the different disciplines of psychology, psychiatry and social work amidst key procedures to protect children and to prioritise need.

What passes for policy making often ends up driven by finance rather than dealt with as carefully costed social work priorities. We should bear in mind the ease with which a fad or ideology can drive policy that should be rooted in the participation of children and parents and in the rich knowledge and experience of people at the coalface, who are doing the fieldwork in children's homes and foster care. Such policy should be driven by a Government who are committed to improving quality standards in care. A stifling bureaucracy and sheer lack of vision often undermine flexibility and creativity in local authorities. I am heartily glad that the Secretary of State has put local authorities on their mettle to plan and deliver much better services.

The Children Act report also mentions a lack of long-term perspectives in care plans and refers to crisis-driven work. In my experience, a lot of care work was crisis driven and done with an absolute emphasis on child protection. However, we have heard that, when services are refocused, sheer lack of resources, skill and flexibility often leaves worrying gaps through which children might fall.

One success story referred to throughout the Children Act report is family centres, which in my experience have been very successful. They can get closer to parents than statutory powers and can provide the skilled and intensive work that so many families need. We are still a long way, however, from achieving the networks of family centres that we must have. I was disappointed that the supporting families document, which was excellent in all other respects, signally failed to mention the role and work of family centres. I duly took the matter up with the Home Secretary.

Lack of long-term planning undermines placements and adoption, which is the epitome of careful planning and permanence. Adoption is a very important option for children and is easily the best way of catering for the long-term security needs of some children. I have placed children for adoption, and I do not suppose that I shall ever do anything more important. I have also assessed prospective adopters. However, I would not want adoption to be thought of as some sort of panacea as there are lots of other options. We need high-quality residential care. We have heard from the Minister about the importance of supporting foster care properly with better professional support and about the importance of financial support for foster carers. Local social workers need more opportunity, more time and more support to carry out the careful work with families and children that allows them to be safely reunited. The vast majority of children who enter care go back home. It is important to make that return home stick. Children cannot bounce in and out of the care system throughout their childhood.

There are serious concerns about adoption. Government guidance has been sensible and in line with what people would regard as basic good practice. In some quarters, there is the idea that social workers and local authorities are ideologically opposed to adoption. I do not know enough about social workers or local authorities to deny that, but I suspect that problems with adoption have more to do with the mundane reality of chronically overstretched social workers who have to deal with day-to-day priorities. Adoption is a difficult long-term process. It involves finding the correct adopters and making the placement, which is playing God in itself, and preparing children for that move.

We need a new Adoption Act. The Adoption Act 1976 predates the Children Act 1989. We should bring adoption firmly in line with the 1989 Act. There should be a statutory duty to provide better support for parents and children post adoption. Some of the worst cases are when adoptions break down. Adolescent years are often challenging. Adopted children might have an idea their parents are much better than the lot they have been stuck with. That is a real challenge. Those cases are tragic.

We need better support for all placements. Foster carers need training and realistic financial help. Residential workers should have real career prospects. They receive training, but unless they are absolutely dedicated, they leave the sector as quickly as possible to go into fieldwork. If they do not, they will end up working long anti-social hours. But residential workers provide the best opportunity to build long-term relationships with children and perform good, creative social work. Their role is fundamental to the system. Until we sort out that problem, the residential care sector will continue to be prone to scandal.

We do not have enough placements. The Minister talked about the reduction of placements for children aged 16 and over. That reveals a disgraceful statistic. In 1992, 12,200 children in placement were aged 16 or over; by 1998, there were only 9,400. Maths is not my strength, but that is nearly a 25 per cent. reduction in placements for children aged 16 and over. Thousands of young people have been ejected from care on to the streets or into inadequate accommodation. There is another worrying statistic. One local authority has 26 per cent. of its cases unallocated. It is creating an appalling rod for its own back because there is a child care tragedy waiting to happen.

The Government face a shocking legacy of neglect. There is a serious staffing problem. The service has been denigrated for too long, and is riven with crisis and scandal. We need to move on and I am so pleased to hear about the proposal for a work force summit. It is commendable that the Government are starting to address these issues.

There is provision in the Care Standards Bill for a general social care council, and new provision for training and post-qualifying training. "Quality Protects" enjoins all local authorities to be good corporate parents and reminds me of that universal measure of all things in social work for children—the question, "Would this be good enough for my child?" When that is taken to heart, it clarifies things right away. There is no stronger message to give to people in local authorities in positions of responsibility, so that they may be held accountable. We need serious investment. We need management action plans. We need the closest scrutiny of those plans and of the work of local authorities to ensure that they deliver and that, where they do not, someone else does. Some things need to go further. The commitment to care leavers needs to be developed now, not just at some unspecified time in future. The commitment and the investment in "Quality Protects" must go on and on and on.

Splendid initiatives such as A National Voice need to be encouraged. The voices of children and young people who are looked after should be heard in every local authority and throughout the Department of Health. It is great that the Government have employed young people from care in the Department of Health. That should be an exemplar for local authorities throughout the land. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Meriden talk about the employment of care leavers as mentors and independent visitors to young people in care. There is a vast untapped resource of skill, experience and commitment. We should use that absolutely.

However, at the end of the day the Government need to emphasise that the profession of social work with children and families is good work, as well as hard work. Many people in it, despite all the scandals, the lack of resources and the problems, do great work. They can be encouraged to do even better and we can get more people to do more. I hope that we can attract many more to something so often vilified but which is an appropriate and rewarding career for the very best people in this country.

3.58 pm
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) who spoke not only sensitively but with knowledge and common sense. That should be valued. I was especially pleased that as chair of the all-party group he reminded us that there are often good outcomes from care. We tend to forget that sometimes.

The Minister was right when he said that children are our future. How we treat our children determines our future. It is good to be reminded of the cycle of deprivation—of people who do not have the expectation of a job because their parents and grandparents did not have a job. The abused so often go on to be the abusers. Children treated as criminals often end up as criminals. It saddens me when I go around the prisons in my constituency, especially Camp Hill, to see how many inmates who are locked up for minor crimes come from a background in care or one where they were not cared for.

That is the theme of this afternoon's debate. It is about caring for those children. Being in care is a technical term and at times the care element has been missing. Children's social services, like all other social services, depend on teamwork between people of different disciplines and backgrounds. That is especially important for children's social services. There must be close relationships between education departments, health services and the police.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We have a bare quorum. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) was speaking when the sitting was suspended for the Division.

Dr. Brand

I was talking about teamwork, and I am sorry to have lost some of the team on the way.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre spoke about teamwork. We are often extremely good at producing joint strategic macroplans: indeed, everyone thinks that they are wonderful. Those plans are supposed to influence what happens in the various agencies that contribute to the joint planning process. My experience as a family doctor is that, on the whole, people working together at the client-patient level work brilliantly as a team, as they have a common interest in looking after individuals with certain needs. However, my experience is somewhat soured by the lack of a direct connection between the global strategic plan—which usually sounds so good—and the resources devoted to the work at the user-client level. There tend to be blockages at intermediate management level, where people hold budgets for individual resources. Despite all the fine words we hear in the House and the fine aspirations of joint planning, like a shuttlecock, individuals' needs are bounced between education, health and social work departments, often driven by police departments.

Matters have moved in a positive direction in the past few years. I commend the Minister on the initiatives that are being taken. I was ashamed to be a member of a community which, until 10 years ago, had no place of safety for an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old boy, apart from the local police station. The adult psychiatric services would not have him, and our only residential home could not cope with him. Being on an island, we could not ship him to a mainland unit that would take him then and there. Such an occurrence was not infrequent: that must be shaming for a society such as ours.

I am pleased to say that this debate is a sign that we are taking seriously the needs of our children and young people, but we still have some way to go. We are still overly driven by crisis intervention. It is right that a child's safety should come first. However, I sometimes worry about resources in children's units being concentrated on child protection teams rather than used to support and protect children and, more importantly, support families and children as a joint unit. Bewildering things happen to families once children or young people get in touch with or are allocated to a child protection unit. The children are safe, as they are taken into care or out of the difficult situation, but their families are often left without an advocate of their own. There are few opportunities for the families to access a social worker so that they can have things explained to them by someone who to them appears to be more neutral than the person who removed the child in the first place.

Changing access to legal aid may make it more difficult for people to get legal advice in a timely way, especially when very small children are taken into care when physical abuse is suspected. In a career of 20-odd years, I had two cases in which babies were taken into care as a result of non-explained accidental injury. Following a lot of legal advice, matters went to superior courts at a very late stage. That was because, initially, the parents did not know that, once their child had been in care and fostered for a little while, they were at risk of not being able to challenge an adoption decision. In both instances, further medical evidence was submitted to demonstrate that there was a medical explanation for the possible injuries that were detected.

It is absolutely right that the safety of children comes first. However, resources must be available to ensure a balanced approach so that parents have access to advice and justice. Children are supported by the child protection team and local authority and have a guardian ad litem. Parents often have no one from whom to seek advice and frequently get into a catch-22 situation: unless they admit to something, they will not even be considered for a rehabilitation package with the child. In the majority of cases, that may be the right approach, but it is extraordinarily harsh in relation to cases such as the two that I mentioned. I genuinely believed those parents, although I do not have the skills that a social worker with more experience of such cases has. My findings were endorsed by the courts, yet those parents had been at risk of never seeing their child again. That is not right, so I hope that the Minister will tackle the matter.

Once children are taken into care, it is vital—especially for slightly older children—that the care assessment includes a diagnosis of the problem. Social workers are skilled in assessing the social make-up of a family and the risk elements within it. They also need to find whether the child itself has particular psychological or emotional needs so that an appropriate placement is made. At the moment, emergency action is often taken, a child is placed and it is hoped that the placement will work out. When difficulties associated with the child emerge, a series of placements starts in the hope that eventually the child will end up as a square peg in a square hole and be looked after.

Resources to assess children with psychological or psychiatric problems are desperately lacking. The tribal divide between psychologists and psychiatrists is an enormous hurdle. It is the exception to find a team that works together, rather than as two departments at war, each using valuable resources inappropriately, often not in the interests of the child, and competing with each other. I see some nodding heads, so my experience is not unique. The Department must address that matter. We must determine who should be the lead agency and how to encourage teamwork.

When the child is in care and, we hope, placed in an appropriate foster home, the future must be considered. I am much encouraged by the various initiatives in care management planning that are emerging. It would be helpful if that process were speeded up to provide uniformity in planning so that children taken into care by one authority could go to another after the assessment procedure, and people would know what language was being spoken. It is important to realise that, although fostering is excellent, it covers a wide spectrum of ways to fulfil needs. All foster parents are caring and universally motivated, but they do not all have equal skills or the aptitude, the time or economic resources to do the job. Opportunities are missed because various categories of foster parent may be treated differently.

I agreed with the Minister's predecessor who said that foster caring should be a vocation. That is absolutely appropriate in the majority of instances, but if a foster family is asked to take on one or two particularly difficult children with emotional or physical needs, they need to give more care than one would give one's own child. Those people should be compensated for their lack of employment opportunities and paid for the expertise that they acquire. It is not uncommon for those who have worked in our psychiatric or psychology services to want to help on a one-to-one basis and to foster children. Their expertise is an enormous asset. They can provide an alternative to placing a child in a residential home or an expensive residential facility for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children.

I make a plea that we become more flexible about considering alternative placements. There is no reason why some residential schools could not be used for some children with particular learning or emotional difficulties, provided that the school can cope. That can often be much cheaper than waiting for arrangements to break down and placing children in specialist units which may cost up to £120,000 a year.

I also make a plea that we consider the role of grandparents. It is extremely difficult for grandparents to foster children. It is difficult to bring up children on a state pension. Grandparents are often the only relatives that the child knows, and such placements can often be appropriate. We all know of such examples from our constituencies. I know of a grandparent whose grandchild is in residential care in Birmingham, but Birmingham social services will not even assist the grandparent—or worse, will not ask Isle of Wight social services to assist the grandparent—to discover whether the placement would be appropriate. That is an extraordinary waste, not only of public money but, moreover, of an opportunity for the child. The boundaries, not only in departments and local authorities, but among local authorities, must be looked at.

Adoption is often the best permanent, stable solution for children. I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), that it is nonsense to preclude foster parents from becoming adoptive parents. It is almost as though a fostering stream is being protected without considering the fact that adoption is often an appropriate placement.

Mr. Dawson

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the nonsense of having such an apparently strict rule, but does not he agree that there is a clear distinction between fostering and adoption, and that it is sometimes important to give foster carers a clear message that the foster placement that they are undertaking is not a prelude to adoption because that is not part of the child's care plan?

Dr. Brand

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The problem is that there is another part to the equation: fostering should not involve the permanent care of a child—for two, three, four or five years—because that is extremely unkind if the option to adopt exists. Adoption must always be in the interests of the child, rather than in that of the service.

The Select Committee on Health studied the way in which migrant children used to be treated. The emotional, economic and other pressures that were put on parents to give up their children for adoption are horrifying. Such treatment is not unique to migrant children or to the past. Young women are still put under pressure. They are not told about the benefits that may be available and are pushed—perhaps not by social services departments, but by other organisations—to give up their children for adoption. I know that many women still feel guilty about having given in to the awful pressure that they were put under some 30 years ago. We owe those women an apology for not protecting them and allowing them to choose to look after their own child. Whatever happens to the benefit system, I hope that women will not be put in the invidious position of being told that the only way in which their child will be properly cared for is if they give it up for adoption. That cannot be acceptable in a country such as ours.

I was glad to hear the Minister say that his aspiration is to instruct local authorities to care for care leavers until the age of 21. I am afraid that I have gone off aspirations; people either do things or they do not. Merely to have that aspiration is disappointing, given that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) gave a commitment to the Select Committee that the current situation was unsustainable and that any proper parent, including a local authority, would not abandon their children until they had finished further education. The money involved would not be great because of the other benefits and methods used to support such children.

There is not enough liaison between the policy making of the Department of Health and the decisions on local authority funding of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the one hand and the Department of Social Security on the other. Because of the amazing complexity of the situation, we are in danger of gearing our care towards the most easily accessible funding stream. That is the thinking behind my earlier question.

With regard to the funding of supported housing for young care leavers, for example, if the excellent and well-thought-out foyer projects are to depend on housing benefit funding, they will not qualify as residential institutions—for want of a better word. The emphasis would not be on the supported element of the housing that they provide. It appears that they will not come under the supervision of the new inspectorate, which saddens me. These places ought to be giving social support to those who live there—that is their purpose—so they should be brought within those regulations.

We have talked about children who were formerly in care, but the title of today's debate is "Children's Social Services". There is a lot that social services departments, in conjunction with education and health departments, can do to avoid children being formally placed in local authority care. There are particular problems with children who have educational or behavioural difficulties because, as I said, there is still a lot of shuttlecock diplomacy, especially with children who have behavioural or autistic spectrum disorders. Education departments say, "It is not for us because it is not a special educational need", and social services say, "Well, they're in school, so it's not for us to support them." Those parents and their children are getting a raw deal because no one has thought out whose responsibility the children are.

I want to make a plea for the children of my relatives, friends, and neighbours. We sometimes forget that all children have needs, not just the unfortunate ones with special care needs. We need to have a little more input to meet the aspirations and needs of all the children in our communities, through youth clubs—although they are now a bit passé—and outreach workers for those who are involved in minor vandalism, drugs or glue sniffing. It is important that we put on the street people who are trusted by young people.

We must do something about allowing young people to make a noise and occasionally let their hair down. The best social provision in my home village is the bus stop, because it is the only place where they can all meet. They are a bloody pain sometimes, but when we complained that they had made a mess of the bus stop, they all turned up one Saturday morning and painted it. They have taken ownership of the bus stop because it is their social gathering place. Supporting that sort of thing informally is probably much more cost-effective than funding yet another youth club somewhere, which might give them access to social interaction one night a week.

We must become much more imaginative. It is good that the Minister and his group are travelling around the country. I suggest that he obtains slots on local radio and gets some of the more outrageous DJs to take part in the process, because until we hear what young people want—I do not know what they want, but I am always happy to listen—we will not target the often minor resources, which nevertheless have an enormous impact, as appropriately as we should.

Although the debate is about social services, I must commend our police authorities who often do much more imaginative work than our local authorities do through social services. They recognise the value of some of those extraneous activities that we middle-aged citizens might not necessarily appreciate and certainly would not want to take part in. There is a need for all young people to explore, find out about themselves and become the citizens of the future.

4.40 pm
Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

I came here to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a brief question. I have no expertise in this and I am not driven by either support for or hatred of social workers, but given the topic and what my local authority has done I thought that I would expand my question into a few comments.

First, I welcome what my hon. Friend said in his introduction. There are a lot of positive initiatives, which I welcome. Like most hon. Members, I have heard horror stories. One of the key messages is that taking children into care has an impact not only on the child but on the rest of the family and the extended family, with all the attendant pressures. There was a group of families in my constituency whose children were taken into care. They got very angry about it and created a group called Families Fight Back, and a number of initiatives were started as a result. That brought home to me a number of the issues that have been raised today.

My local authority was one of the new unitary authorities created in 1997. In the run-up to the creation of Milton Keynes unitary authority and the transfer of Buckingham social services, we carried out a number of consultation exercises, which included children and young people. One clear message that emerged was that the old style of the social services department with its silo here, the education department with its silo there, and the housing department with its silo somewhere else was not the right way to organise things. We do not have a housing department, a social services department or an education department; we have a learning and development department, which brings together children, social services, education and economic development because they are all linked, and one person is responsible for it.

We then put adult social services in with housing, because there are many links between housing and adult social services. I believe that we are the only authority in the country to do that. Complications are caused because certain Acts require there to be only one director of social services. But the idea was to create a community of interests so that psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers were all in the same team and dealing with problems in schools. It was no surprise that, during the discussions, the then leader of the council and the current leader of the council—one a housing officer and one a teacher, who came from two totally different viewpoints—both came to the same conclusion. Ironically, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who was the leader of the opposition, came to the same view, but from a health point of view. It was quite an interesting exercise in consultation and cross-party working. To be fair to the Tories, they also agreed the structure, so this is not an attack on them.

One interesting feature that emerged when the social services functions were transferred was that not all the children who were on the register had an allocated social worker—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was making. A report identified serious problems that the old shire county social services departments had created over the years. One of the lessons of the creation of unitary authorities and smaller social services departments is that those who carried on the old shire county social services continued the problems into the new unitary authorities. Research needs to be done into that changeover and the opportunities, missed or taken, in the reorganisation of a social services department.

One of the critical points to emerge was that the IT systems were just not up to date. One lesson that I learned was that the investment that was required was needed several years ago, but it must be made available now. I have nothing but praise for the vision of the senior managers of the new authority, who are bringing educational practitioners and social workers into that way of working which crosses and breaks down boundaries.

Interestingly, the hospital trust, the community health trust and now the new primary care group, which is going for trust status, together with the local social services and education departments, have created something called a health forum. It has joint chairs and will tackle issues of cross-departmental and cross-organisational partnership. Although Utting recommended that, unfortunately the Government chose not to accept his recommendation. Perhaps, however, there is hope for the future.

That link with education is important, as is a link into economic development. It is not just about being in schools; it is about jobs and the quality of life. Families that have jobs and are prospering have much better life chances than those with the problems that were being picked up by social services. It is critical that organisations, such as the new learning and skills councils and regional development agencies, link back into what children's services are providing. Too often, they think only in terms of their own area, but learning and skills councils can provide tremendous opportunities for 16-year-olds, for example. They must not be allowed to neglect children in care, or to disregard the input that children's social services can make. I hope that when the Government set out the terms of reference for learning and skills councils, they make that point.

One of the problems that many authorities have had over the years is the loss of funding for youth services. I entirely agee with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) that many local authorities have had to switch resources from youth clubs to outreach work and community development. Again, in my experience, that leads to innovative ideas on the ground about how to get young people to interact socially. There are various examples of such ideas throughout the country, but it is important that the informal links that tend to be created do not get lost in regulations; they should be encouraged. The Government's best value programme for local authorities will be a tremendous opportunity for the user's voice to be heard so that the necessary synergies can be created.

More problems arise from the fact that many placements are made away from the local area. This comes back to the point that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was making about social services. Out-of-town or out-of-county placements can cause real problems, particularly when children are continually moved from authority to authority. The point has already been made, but we must tackle that problem. Although I welcome the fact that targets are to be set, many social services departments have not yet got to grips with this.

Another problem, which Families Fight Back brought to my attention, is the speed of the courts in decision making. There are feelings of isolation, loss and of not knowing what is going on when cases go to court. Moreover, people often do not understand the consequences of decisions that are taken around that time. Families who have made decisions for the best of reasons find, six or nine months down the line, that those decisions have unexpected and unintended consequences. Communication at that early stage of involvement needs to be worked on.

As I said, Families Fight Back was created by families whose children have been taken away. It began with a whinge: "The local authority's terrible; it's taken my kids away." Then the local authority, in conjunction with Families Fight Back, entered into a project, supported by NCH Action for Children, to create an advocacy group for families going through that process. Many lessons have been learned by the local authority's social services department and other sections. The project is still running. The key matter to have emerged so far is the lack of support for families, which leads to children being taken away. It is critical that advocacy and support for families and children, and the impact on friends and relatives are taken into account.

The Minister mentioned sure start, which is a brilliant scheme promoted by the Government. Unfortunately, that scheme is limited to pilot areas and two roll-outs. It has yet to reach the whole country, so many people have not seen it and are saying, "What's sure start got to do with us?" I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister takes note of that, as it is critical that the Government speed up the roll-out of sure start so that it goes to every part of the country. It has real benefits which are not yet reaching everyone.

Partnership is a key word in our debate. It is not just a buzz word, but represents a genuine challenge. It is easy for the Government to change policies, but extremely hard for them to alter an organisation's culture. Sure start is about changing the culture in which children's social services operate. We should not underestimate vested interests or the resistance to change. We must recognise the benefits of changing a culture. Even when we do not seem to be achieving our goal, we must push on.

The question of poverty was raised earlier. A key problem in my constituency is the large number of people who are not on income support, but are on an income level just above that. They, therefore, do not get access to child care tax allowance or income support housing benefit, and have serious problems with available support. The change from income support to the income level just above it poses a critical challenge to the Government. I am sure that they will address it, but it is crucial that children in those families get the support that they need.

I mentioned the isolation in the project that I described. That isolation was physical, as some families were from rural areas and felt isolated from the town. We must improve how we tackle the social services' role in dealing with children from rural areas. Since Norman Tebbit famously spoke about "getting on your bike" and finding a job, family circumstances have changed. Families are often isolated. They live a long way from their extended family and their roots may give rise to difficulties. Coming from Milton Keynes, which is built on that premise, I am more aware of the problem than others, but in many areas, the lack of family support is a serious concern. Isolation within the family and not being able to talk to people is also a problem and should be tackled.

I am anxious about the role of guardians ad litem, whom it is difficult to recruit. That narrows the experience and breadth of such people, as only one social class or a particular type of person applies for such a role. I am anxious that we should increase the number of people who are prepared to be guardians ad litem and improve their support and training.

One of the best initiatives introduced by the Home Office concerns parenting skills and parenting orders. The project showed that parents do not have enough support. Many problems would not have existed if they had had decent parenting skills, but they had nowhere to turn to in order to acquire them. There are a few such facilities in the mediation services and the voluntary sector, but many families do not know that they exist when they need them or when they would be of most benefit, and thus they repeat their mistakes time and again. We need to break that cycle.

The Government proposal is part of the modernising government agenda. Issues affecting children should be based on proper research and on the facts, as the recent Performance and Innovation Unit report stated. It is crucial that research on the matter continues to be up to date and that decisions are taken, and policies made, on the basis of that research.

It is important that all Government Departments sing from the same hymn sheet. The Home Office and the Department of Health have taken a good lead, as has the Department for Education and Employment, through its early years learning programme. On the receiving end, each initiative has 90 per cent. commonality with the others, but there are some matters on which that commonality is lacking, and confusing messages are being sent. It is crucial that the modernising government agenda ensures that Departments' initiatives are coordinated, so that any confusion, or overlap, is eliminated. Massive strides have been made in that respect since the Government took office, but there is more to be done.

Mr. Dawson

Does my hon. Friend accept that he is making a powerful case for a children's rights commission to bring together initiatives relating to children, to be a focus for children's rights and to ensure that Government action is co-ordinated?

Mr. White

I would come to that conclusion, if I had my hon. Friend's expertise. He has long championed the case for a children's rights commission, which was taken up in the report of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I agree with his suggestion.

I conclude by saying that I am saddened by press vilification of social workers. Whether or not they take a child into care, they are accused of getting it wrong. Social workers must be more valued and the difficulty of their job must be recognised. It is important that action is taken in partnership. When the Minister introduces regulations in the national framework, he should allow scope for local diversity to deal with the conditions in each locality and with local innovation. It would be a shame if there were no such innovation from the bottom. I hope that the Minister will accept the need for local innovation and diversity.

4.58 pm
Mr. Hutton

Only four other hon. Members have taken part in the debate and they have all made high-quality contributions, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). There is no substitute for front-line experience; he has that in spades, and it showed.

Several important messages and themes emerged from the debate. One issue that we are trying to grapple with and to make progress on is the years of indifference towards children's social services, which are crucial. For all the reasons that hon. Members identified in the debate, they have not received the attention, in terms of policy development and of resources, that they have been crying out for for years. The touchstone—the crucial area—where deficiencies have repeatedly been displayed, is the public care system. For many years, insufficient attention and resources have been given to children who are looked after by local authorities, and Governments have failed to deal with the matter satisfactorily.

I take comfort from what has been said today, and what social services departments throughout the country tell me, that we are beginning to turn a corner. The consensus is that we have a long way to go, but we have made a start and I am confident that the "Quality Protects" programme will make a lasting difference to how children's social services are delivered. It is not just in the public care system that children's social services need to be transformed and modernised; there are a range of different scenarios and areas, some of which have been alluded to by hon. Members, where a change is needed in how care is delivered.

We must consider how to link the delivery of children's social services with crucial, front-line public services and services delivered by voluntary organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) spoke eloquently about the changes in the local authority in his constituency. There will be further such changes in the next five to 10 years. There will be a significant broadening of the way in which social services are delivered both for children and other client groups, and that will be very exciting. The best type of service delivery, as the hon. Member for Isle of White (Dr. Brand) said, can make connections between different key services, such as education, health and social services.

The hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) spoke of their worries about mental health services for children. I did not refer to that subject in my long opening speech, so I shall do so now. We are investing £90 million in the current spending review period to provide a basic capacity in core child mental health services, which do not exist in some parts of the country, as the hon. Gentleman said. That is a tragedy that has ruined the lives of many young people who have not been able to use those services.

As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and others said, the best way to deliver those services is in a spirit of partnership and co-operation in the statutory sector. We want social care and health care professionals to work together, not in isolation. They should spend more time crossing the boundaries that exist between the two services rather than patrolling them. When staff spend their time patrolling the boundaries, we do not get the service delivery that we expect and which young people should receive.

Much wisdom and common sense have been shown this afternoon about these important issues. In addition to trying to focus attention on developing children's social services in a consistent and coherent way for the first time, we are trying to make connections. That is why the new support service will be a very important development, why our initiatives on child and adolescent mental health services are central and why some of the other changes that hon. Members have referred to will be important. We want primary care to be increased and to be delivered in conjunction with social services and social care. That is a sensible model and we are hopeful that there will be progress in all those areas.

I shall refer briefly to specific matters that have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Meriden referred to her anxieties about adoption law, and the case for reform. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre also referred to that matter when he called for closer co-ordination in the application of the Adoption Act 1976 and the Children Act 1989. Notwithstanding some of the difficulties that have been expressed, there are grounds for optimism. I am not entirely convinced that there is something fundamentally wrong with the construction of the adoption law. I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre about the need for closer synergy between adoption law and the Children Act 1989, but we are right to focus on the practices used in social services departments as there are a number of areas where improvements can be made.

The Government have never ruled out the need for change to the Adoption Act 1976, and we have an open mind about that. In the meantime, we are trying to focus attention in social services departments on improving adoption practice. There have been many regrettable examples in which that practice was not right and in which ideology has got the better of common sense. We must find a way of ensuring that that does not happen in future. Many hon. Members have made it clear that the only interests that we should serve in adoption issues are those of the children. There are no higher interests at stake, so we must ensure that the children's interests come first at all times.

The hon. Member for Meriden expressed concerns about the quality and adequacy of the management action plans that are being prepared in the context of the "Quality Protects" programme and called for an element of independent inspection. I assure her and other hon. Members that, as part of the prcoess, the management action plans are scrutinised independently by officials in my Department, including the social services inspectorate. We have a network of new regional development workers who work closely with local authorities to ensure that management action plans are of the right quality. We have repeatedly made it clear to local authorities that if the plans are not satisfactory there will be no question of paying the grant. We shall not make grant allocations unless we are satisfied that the plans are sufficiently robust, and local authorities understand that. None of the management action plans failed that test the last time that they were considered, and we do not want any to fail this time. We want the benefits of the "Quality Protects" progamme to be felt in every local authority in the country. As I said, we have told local authorities that there will be no question of paying their grants if their management plans are not up to it. I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden will be reassured about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre expressed concerns about the working together guidance. I assure him that there is no question of those working together procedures diminishing the focus on child protection—I will not let that happen. We consulted widely on the amended working together guidance, and I was reassured to see that it drew strong support from the organisations consulted, including local authorities and children's organisations. We made a great effort to ensure that there was no such lack of focus. I am pleased also with the response given to the guidance by social services and other interested organisations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre made several good points about residential care workers, especially in relation to the importance of children's residential care workers. We recognise that imporance, which is why we are introducing a new post-qualification award for residential children's services. That is a very important initiative. At a wider level, we must build into social services a lifelong learning and training culture. I do not think that such a culture has been in place, which is one of the most substantial weaknesses in social care and must be addressed. Many hon. Members will be aware that the training organisation for personal and social services is currently consulting on a new national training strategy for social services, in which we are taking a close interest. It is an employer-led strategy, which is perfectly appropriate, as it deals with responsibilities that are ultimately for employers.

It is a priority to improve the qualifications of the social care work force as a whole, especially in the area identified by my hon. Friend. That must be seen as part of a national effort to improve the training infrastructure in social care so that on-going career development and training will become the norm for social care professionals as it is for other care professionals. People working in the field of health care would also accept such a need, and we are working with health profession bodies to ensure that such a system becomes better established; the same logic applies to social care. I think that my hon. Friend and I are at one about that.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked me about the number of social workers and I can reassure him about that. In 1988, there were 28,000 qualified social workers or whole-time equivalents in England, and in 1998, that figure rose to 33,500, so we are making progress. However, there are concerns about certain parts of the country and certain specialisms, where it is right for both employers' organisations and the Government to work out how to address the problems. I accept that one of the background issues that we must consider and resolve is the poor image of social workers. Social workers always get the blame when things go wrong and they very rarely get the credit when they take the right decisions. We must strike a better and fairer balance, certainly in the press and in the House, in recognising the achievements of social care, which are many.

Today we have spoken about children and social services and, in my opening remarks, I emphasised the outstanding work that has been done in Nottingham by the police, social workers and other agencies, working together to rescue children from child prostitution. That is the most miserable and evil trade but, working together, Nottingham social services, the police and other agencies have saved dozens of young boys and girls from that wretched life. We should celebrate that and recognise and reward that sort of work where we can. That is the sort of effort that we need to make to promote social care as a noble and caring profession, which is crucial for a decent society.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight raised certain concerns about partnership working. I hope that I have resolved those issues. I agree with him about the need to improve support for foster carers. In particular, we need to consider how we can support foster carers out of hours, because it is not much help to foster carers to find that they cannot obtain support if things start to go wrong at 9 o'clock at night. We are considering how we can improve those services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East referred to changes in the way in which social services are being delivered. Those sound like promising developments, which we will follow with interest, but it struck a chord with me when he said that we needed a change of culture. I agree with him. We need a change of culture not only in children's services but across the board. Wherever possible, we need to get away from the "council knows best" paternalism that does not encourage independence or allow people to take control of their lives. Good social care professionals are not in favour of either of those results; they do not want to trap people in dependency and they want people to take more control of their lives. In framing legislation and policy, we must ensure that we give front-line professionals the tools to do their jobs more effectively. I agree that resources are part of the solution, but so are policy, legislation and inculcating and developing the proper culture and practices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre was very supportive of our plans to establish a new social care institute of excellence. That will have an important role in spreading good practice and establishing an authoritative central body to help solve problems on the front line. In general terms, this has been a positive and constructive debate. We have much to do and we are not in the position from which we would like to start—something that is especially true of the public care system—but we must start from here whether we like it or not. We are making progress and the Government want to continue that progress, not for the sake of the organisations and services involved, but for the sake of young people because we in the House have a moral and ethical responsibility to promote their welfare at all times and in all places.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o 'clock.

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