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Royal Assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Act 2009

Business Rate Supplements Act 2009

Saving Gateway Accounts Act 2009

Broads Authority Act 2009

2 July 2009 : Column 511

Estimates Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Department for Children, Schools and Families

Looked-after Children

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 111, on looked-after children, and the Government response, HC 787.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1.13 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to open this debate on the recent report of the Children, Schools and Families Committee following an inquiry that took us a long time. I should like to take the House briefly through why we decided to spend many months investigating looked-after children. We adopted the phrase “looked-after children”, but as the evidence sittings went on, we realised to our embarrassment that what we had thought was the up-to-date phrase had reverted to “children in care”. However, we all know the children about whom we are talking: those whose family situation is such that they are deemed to be better off in the care of the state than in the care of their own parents.

We chose the topic because those of us who had been in the Education and Skills Committee and transferred to the Children, Schools and Families Committee wanted to make it clear to everyone that we took the new Department and our new responsibilities very seriously. After serious discussion, we decided that the best way to start was to show that we wanted to understand the situation of the most vulnerable children in our society—looked-after children. We proceeded.

Not many people outside this place know how we work, but I should say that we had a seminar in which we decided that we should investigate the issue and could add value to it. Colleagues should remember that in Select Committees we do not try to think of high-profile issues that get a lot of publicity—we genuinely look to where we can add value. We may feel that the Government are not paying much attention to a particular part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families remit or are spending an awful lot of money that we are not sure is being spent wisely. That is the central scrutinising role of a Select Committee, and we take it seriously. So we decided to conduct a thorough inquiry into looked-after children because we believed that it would add value.

There is another thing that those who have never been members of a Select Committee do not realise: we operate by listening. We take evidence, read and publicly announce the terms of the inquiry. We then get a great
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deal of evidence. I remember that when the Education and Skills Committee considered special educational needs, there were 300 written evidence submissions. There were even 30 such submissions for a short one-day report last week on allegations against teachers. The world, of course, is divided into the 50 per cent. who are desperate to give evidence to our Committee and the 50 per cent. who would rather leave the country. We have to choose carefully who we need to appear before us so that they can be interrogated and so that we can find out the situation in their area of expertise. That skill has developed over time, and those of us who have served on Select Committees know that that is an apprenticeship that we have to get through and develop.

I emphasise how important the listening part of the Select Committee’s job is. When we were examining the issue of looked-after children, we made visits to look at good practice in various places. We went to Denmark to look at the system there; many people believe that the Danes do things differently and, in some ways, better than we do. In any other field of human activity, we would take it for granted that one should listen to the people most affected, so we spent a considerable time ensuring that we met looked-after children—children who had been in care, were in care and had the experience of care—so that they could tell us first hand what being in care was like in the 21st century in our country.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and his Committee on this very important subject. Did he specifically consider the position of children who had been trafficked into this country—a concern of the Home Affairs Committee in our last report—and had then been left in care, but escaped soon afterwards to carry on being abused by those who brought them here?

Mr. Sheerman: We did so peripherally, mostly in terms of children who turn up in this country with no obvious parents and are in care because of that. One of the other skills of a Select Committee is to determine where to draw the line, otherwise the inquiry would never get finished. Often, when one is doing a good inquiry and really getting under the skin of the issue, that leads to the next inquiry, so my right hon. Friend should not give up hope—we might get there.

When one looks at the care of children in this country, one sees that so much always comes back to the quality of the work force and how they are recruited, trained, paid and supported. That is absolutely central to the level and quality of care that is given. As we went on, it became obvious that we had to undertake an inquiry, which we are now doing, on the training of social workers. The two reports will go very well together. My right hon. Friend will know all about that process from his own Select Committee; it is part of the technique. That is how we conducted ourselves, and that is how we wrote, I think, a good and positive report.

When the Committee has taken all its evidence and made all its visits, we have to spend considerable time coming up with a report that we think someone will listen to and will make the difference that we hoped it would. Part of the process is ensuring that the Government listen to what we say—and it is a remarkable opportunity to be here on the Floor of the House being able to debate and discuss the report that we produced. Of course, another part of our role is to tell the outside
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world, through the media, what our conclusions were on the matter and what changes we want in Government policy. There is no point in producing a report that is put on the shelf, gathers dust and makes no difference to the children in our country.

Let me allude to some figures. In England, there are at any one time about 60,000 children in care, and in the course of a year about 90,000 children will go through care. One can immediately see the difficulties that we face. It is an unstable population. Some children go into care early and stay for a long time—perhaps for all their childhood—while many do so very late having been greatly damaged by their experience in their birth family. There is sometimes an easy perception that England does a poor job in terms of corporate parenting. We found early on in the process of learning the lessons that a high percentage of children who go into care do so very damaged and quite late. Extrapolating the statistics, we found that children in care perform badly in GCSEs and other examinations and in going on to higher education. As one hears the evidence, one does not wonder why that is, because it is clear that many of these children have not been supported in their education; indeed, they have not been sent to school. They have had such a turmoil of a life that going into corporate care is an attempt to bring the shattered pieces together and rebuild it. That is very difficult to do in the case of a child who goes into care at age 13 or 14; I think that some of my colleagues who have worked in the sector will endorse that.

We have to be extremely careful about laying blame and saying that what local authorities and the Government do is much worse than what anybody else does. I do not believe that that is true. This is very difficult area to work in. The churn—the movement in and out of care and the resulting instability in children’s lives—is at the heart of our concerns.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The figures that I have from the SSDA903 return state that in England between 7,000 and 8,000 children a year are going into care. That does not entirely reconcile with the hon. Gentleman’s figure of 90,000. Can he explain the difference?

Mr. Sheerman: The figures I cited were given to the Committee; the hon. Gentleman can read the report and check them. His figures may be different from ours, but we were told that on average 90,000 children go into care every year and, if one looked today, 60,000 children would be in care.

It is not rocket science to know that what a child who has had a very poor experience in their birth family needs more than anything else is stability and a loving relationship with someone. This is difficult, because we do not deal in apportioning and evaluating love, but we know that if a child does not have love in its formative years, it has little hope of growing up into a mature, decent and fully functioning citizen.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, who is making some important points. Did the Committee consider the fact that some children do indeed love their parents
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from their birth family, but their parents have been unable to provide for them in that way, so such children have a loving relationship but it is insufficient for their needs? When a child then develops another relationship with a substitute carer, that can create a conflict that is a difficulty for them in settling down in a new family.

Mr. Sheerman: That is the danger of letting a real expert intervene on one’s speech. Of course, my hon. Friend is right—that is one of the real strains in a child’s life.

We found that as far as possible we want, of course, to keep families together. The most important work in our country is done by social workers and other people in the social care field in maintaining families in a good state. We looked at projects in places such as Morden, one of the London boroughs, where there is an excellent family support unit. Its job is to identify a family in trouble, with stresses and strains within it that had come to people’s attention through a GP, a social worker or a health visitor; or it could have come by many other means. One of the jobs of a local authority is to keep good antennae identifying where children and families are in that stressed state. In areas with good practice, we saw that where a family was deemed to be in need of support, in came that support. The whole Committee was very impressed by the Morden experience, where an all-singing, all-dancing support team would go in to support the family for six months, see if it could get them back on the right road, and then step back and let them get on with their own lives. Then, if it did not work, the team could do it again. The general point is that good social work support is essential; if it can support the family and the child in the family, that must, in many cases, be the right route.

We found that the most difficult aspect of all this is the decision on when to take a child into care and striking the balance in deciding whether that child is better off in a rather dysfunctional family, perhaps with a history of mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. A large number of families have serious problems, but that does not mean they cannot maintain a family life of some quality. It is a question of identifying the problem and then supporting the family, but at a certain stage making the decision. When we compared our experience with that of Denmark, we found—certainly this was my perception as Chair of the Committee—that what was being done in Denmark seemed to lead to a better reputation for the social work process. It seemed from the evidence we took and our experience in Denmark that people did not consider it the end of the world for their children to go into some form of care; it was seen as a reasonably positive thing. We talked to families and experts and found that, in certain care situations, a good relationship with the birth family was maintained. The family would visit, even if there was a background of abuse, including sexual abuse. That relationship was maintained, and many families felt that it was right for their child to be in that situation. They valued the fact that they still had access and that that loving relationship could continue.

When we took evidence from children who had been in care, one strong voice was that of children who said that they did not want a substitute family. Some quite liked the family that they had, and had the type of loving relationship that my hon. Friend the Member for
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Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) mentioned. Perhaps others had had too much struggle, strife and stress from the family that they had come from and did not want to try another one. Some children in that situation said that they would prefer some form of residential care.

We found that in this country there is a history of saying, “No, no, no” to residential care, because there has been a background of large-scale residential care and there was a period in which evidence of widespread child abuse came to light. Now it is very difficult to persuade people that residential care is appropriate. In Denmark, we saw small units of not more than 12 or 14 children, which had a good atmosphere and came close to recreating a family relationship, but a caring one. They were open to parents and visitors.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Danish experience is not just that children are happier because of how they are looked after in care, but that their educational outcomes and thus their life chances are transformed?

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend—it is difficult to call him “the hon. Gentleman”, as we work together so closely that I regard him as a friend, except when we fall out—is absolutely right.

That brings me back to the lessons that we learned in the inquiry. Families should be kept together if possible, but a really difficult decision is at what stage a child should be taken into care. Why does Manchester take double the national average into care, the highest proportion in the land? Ironically the City of London is next, but hardly anyone lives there. Other areas take only half Manchester’s proportion into care. Is Manchester doing a wonderful job of seeing children who need to be in care and reacting quickly and positively, or is it Morden, in London, that is doing the fantastic job? We did not find the answer, but as the report shows, we started considering the tension that exists in the system.

Of course we must have child protection. Two thirds of the way through the inquiry, we discovered the horrific news about the death of baby Peter. We extended the inquiry a little to examine the balance between what we had been considering and what was happening in child protection. The lesson that we learned was that only the most thoughtless politician will say that there will never be another child death. Anyone who serves on our Committee or knows anything about the matter knows that given the level of mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse, there will be other child murders and deaths, and they will be horrific. We have to be aware that that will happen and react in the right way when such tragedies occur, to find out what went wrong and how to minimise them. My colleagues and I suspect that we will never be able to eradicate such events. Even in countries such as Denmark there is a pretty serious rate of child murder, despite all the resources and attention put into the matter.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Before we leave the Danish comparison, is there not a deeper cultural issue, which is reflected in how the Danish state sees the status of child care workers? It is similar in the other Scandinavian countries. Is not one lesson to be drawn from the Committee’s inquiry, and previous inquiries into the early years phase, that we in the UK have
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historically dramatically undervalued the status of those working with children? Does that not say something about our national cultural attitude to the importance of child rearing in our society?

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend knows that I will agree, and I was just going to come to that.

Any parliamentarian has to face the fact that, as we want to get the best level of child protection we can—it should be as good in every local authority as it is in the best—we must have better systems. Ofsted must be better, as must leadership and the sharing of best practice, to ensure we protect every child as well as we humanly can. I feel that very strongly. We must balance that consideration with the danger that, after a tragic death, all the resources are rushed into child protection, which can starve resources for the support of families and good-quality social work. That is an interesting tension.

The Committee said in our report, I suppose quite dramatically, that we do not believe we will ever eradicate child murder. However, really high-quality care can substantially reduce child misery. A problem that we can never really resolve is finding out to what degree a child is in misery and living a blighted life without society being able to identify that miserableness—is that the right word?

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Misery.

Mr. Sheerman: Thank you. The question is how we can ensure that we intervene. It all depends on having good systems and high-quality, trained people. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) put it correctly, because I know of no business in the world that cannot benefit from high-quality people who are selected well and have the right personality, qualifications and enthusiasm. They must be supported to do their job, and they must be paid a decent salary and given a career ladder that will keep them in the profession and motivate them to do good work.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend highlight the consequences in later life of the child misery to which he referred? Children who are miserable in care often end up being victims of sexual exploitation when they leave care. They frequently fail to get any qualifications, and they remain unemployed and turn to drug addiction not because it is inherited but, overwhelmingly, because they have been unhappy and feel like failures. We as a state—their parents—have failed to prepare them for the realities of the adult world.

Mr. Sheerman: I think my hon. Friend knows that I agree with that. That is where the line is drawn—we must ask whether a child is miserable with their birth family and whether they would be miserable in care. A fundamental conclusion of the report was that care has to be a very good option. Children who have been failed by their family do not deserve to be failed again. I get the feeling that the general view out there is that people expect us to stand up for the very best standards for children in care, because that is the litmus test of a civilised society. Children in care are the least fortunate and the most vulnerable children in our society, so we should be judged on how we look after them, and we should look after them as well as we can.

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