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10.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) on securing this important debate on the case of Dominic McKilligan.

The death of any child is desperately sad, but the death of Wesley Neailly was particularly tragic, and I should like to take this opportunity to express my sympathy to his family.

As my hon. Friend has said, Dominic McKilligan was only 18 when he murdered Wesley. Dominic was a damaged young man who had exhibited very dangerous behaviour and had had a great deal of contact with statutory agencies over several years. He had significant contact with social services, mental health services and the criminal justice system. As a child, he was the subject of a care order to the local authority, and following his conviction for sexual offences as a young teenager, he received treatment for his offending behaviour.

Dorset, and then Bournemouth social services, however, had lead responsibility for Dominic's welfare and were ultimately responsible for ensuring that his care plan encompassed all aspects of his treatment and that there was very careful planning for his discharge from the care system on turning 18.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, given the risks that Dominic presented, a very high standard of assessment, planning, intervention and review was absolutely essential, but there was clearly a failure in this case. Let me make it clear, however, that the requirement for thorough assessment, planning, intervention and review is nothing new. The Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) Regulations l99l, under which local authorities are required to draw up care plans, and the Review of Children's Cases Regulations 1991, under which reviews are required to take place to enable the plan for the child to be reconsidered and any necessary changes to the care plan to be made, are in operation.

Wesley's death rightly gave rise to very serious questions about how effectively the agencies responsible had worked together to plan and provide for Dominic's care and treatment. Without doubt, there are important lessons to be learned from this case for a number of agencies. They include how to ensure that people and the current systems work correctly and that people and resources develop to minimise the possibility of such an event happening again.

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It was because of the clear need to learn from this tragic case that the responsible area child protection committees—ACPCs—for Bournemouth, Durham and Newcastle decided to carry out a serious case review, under the "Working Together to Safeguard Children" guidance, into the management of the care and treatment provided to Dominic McKilligan. In parallel with this review, Newcastle and North Tyneside health authority, which is the host commissioner for the Kolvin unit that oversaw Dominic McKilligan's treatment programme at the Aycliffe centre in Durham, commissioned an independent inquiry into the health care and treatment of Dominic under the terms of the health service guidance in circular (94)27. As my hon. Friend said, the report of the inquiry was published, along with a summary of the serious case review, on 14 November 2001.

Both the serious case review and the independent health authority inquiry have identified specific issues for local authorities, the NHS, and their partner agencies to address through their ACPCs. The serious case review, which makes recommendations to the three ACPCs that commissioned the review, concludes that Wesley Neailley's death could not have been predicted. However, it highlights how important it is for the key professionals involved with young people who have committed violent or sexual offences to carry out, on a multi-agency basis, effective assessments of young people's needs and the likelihood of such offences being committed in the future; to use current research findings to inform professional judgments and decision making; and to ensure responsibility and accountability for the implementation and reviewing of plans across agencies.

Those, along with other recommendations, have been the subject of detailed action plans drawn up by each of the ACPCs and the NHS trust involved in this case to take forward the review's recommendations.

My hon. Friend made an important point about how we monitor implementation and future progress. The implementation of these plans will be rigorously monitored by the Department of Health, through its regional offices and the social services inspectorate.

Key recommendations from the independent health inquiry included the premise that the Department of Health should issue further guidance which reinforces the requirements of agencies responsible for young people that need mental health treatment; and that the Department should review existing guidance to local authorities and provide written notification to other agencies when young people are discharged from care and placed in other areas.

The Department will consider seriously whether any additional guidance is required. My hon. Friend made an important point about the failure of the discharge process in this case. In terms of planning for discharge, since 1 October 2001 local authorities have been required to comply with the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. The principal aim of the Act, which was implemented this October, is to improve the support available to young people leaving care.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, we know that Dominic left care at the age of 18 already a deeply troubled young man, and that he then became lost to the system. The provisions of the Act, had they been in force at the time,

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might have gone some way to preventing this tragedy. Dominic would have left care at 18, but the Act imposes a new duty on local authorities to keep in touch with care leavers until they are at least 21 and to make sure that they receive the support to which they are entitled.

My hon. Friend asked for further work to be done in relation to the health responsibility and, in particular, to the responsibility of the Kolvin unit. I am glad that Newcastle and North Tyneside health authority and Northumberland Mental Health NHS Trust, which is now responsible for the Kolvin unit, have taken action to review their involvement in supporting treatment programmes that are undertaken by other organisations, so as to ensure that responsibilities for clinical oversight are clear. In future, any arrangements for the provision of specialist treatment programmes or of training support to other organisations that are delivering such programmes will be unambiguous with regard to the important issue of clinical responsibility, and will have clear standards against which the programme can be monitored. Under the Health Act 1999, the Commission for Health Improvement has responsibility for inspection of NHS provision. I hope to comment further on inspection and common standards.

Mr. Cousins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for going through these matters and take heart from the changes that she mentions. However, she will recognise that the report illustrates that the procedures of the time were not properly carried out. Does she know whether the action plans relevant to Durham county council, Bournemouth social services or the Kolvin unit have resulted in disciplinary action or acceptance of responsibility by the staff?

Jacqui Smith: I do not know whether the action plans have led to disciplinary procedures. As I emphasised, they are a key part of the response to such problems and will be closely monitored. Durham social services department has carried out an internal inquiry. Perhaps I could write to my hon. Friend on that specific issue.

The serious case review also made the important recommendation that area child protection committees should make representations to Ministers, and highlighted the urgent need for a national strategy to be developed for the management and treatment of young, violent and/or sex offenders. My ministerial colleagues in the Home Office are giving that careful consideration.

The youth justice board is preparing an effective practice strategy for working with young people who sexually abuse. To inform that, a number of pilots are being conducted in the community, with plans to extend them to the secure estate. The board is also ensuring that all youth-offending team staff receive appropriate training and that work is monitored and quality assured to measure effectiveness. The Department of Health is also closely involved in those discussions.

Dealing effectively with the most dangerous individuals, including young people, is a key part of modernising the criminal justice system and making it more responsive. We have made substantial improvements to the way in which we treat and rehabilitate young people in particular. It may reassure my hon. Friend to know that if a 14-year-old boy were to be convicted today of the same crimes as Dominic

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McKilligan committed as a 14-year-old, he would be required to register with the police under the provisions of the Sex Offenders Act 1997.

Multi-agency public protection panels exist in every area of the country, bringing together agencies with a statutory duty to co-operate to manage high-risk offenders. As Dominic approached 18 years of age, he would have been the subject of one of those meetings, which would in turn have been part of the pathway planning process because he was a child leaving care. A senior member of staff from Newcastle college would have attended that meeting and been part of the discharge planning process. I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that a college that has not been properly notified is unable to take the necessary action.

An inter-agency inspection of safeguards for children is scheduled for this winter. The inspection will focus on the range of safeguarding measures that are in place in council areas. It will incorporate judgments about services that are provided by social services, health, the police, probation officers, education and custodial establishments, and the courts, and it will consider the agencies' individual effectiveness as well as their effectiveness in the corporate arena, such as in area child protection committees and the community safety forum.

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