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Children

3.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The Statement is as follows:

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    in communities, lack of activities for young people or lack of access to health care, and I confirm that we will continue this drive, so shifting the emphasis on to prevention.

    "The Green Paper sets out comprehensive reforms to ensure that this approach is carried through. I believe that they extend the principles of our Sure Start programme, which have been widely welcomed, to all areas of childcare in this country.

    "There are four main areas of reform. The first is supporting families and carers. We all know the critical influence parents have on children's lives, yet in the past we have paid insufficient attention to the crucial role of families in improving children's lives. By bringing children's policy and family policy together within my department we will start to look at how we can support families more effectively.

    "The Green Paper consults on a long-term vision to support families through universal services providing information, advice and support, and through more targeted services.

    "As a first step, we have created a parenting fund to build capacity in the voluntary and community sector, and we will bring forward proposals to roll out nationally the current level of home visiting support provided by HomeStart.

    "The second area is early intervention. For the majority of children, the combination of support from their families and schools is enough to enable them to thrive. But, for a significant minority, more help is needed.

    "Yet for hundreds of thousands of young people, their potential is wasted because help comes too little too late. A child may be known to several services, but nobody shares the warning signs and no action is taken.

    "Children can be passed from agency to agency. They can be assessed over and over again. They may be known to lots of professionals, but all are based in different places, working to different bosses and budgets, and with no one in overall charge.

    "We need to build a system that ensures children receive help at the first onset of problems. Early intervention requires new forms of integration on the ground: information sharing systems; a common assessment framework; a lead professional co-ordinating packages of support; professionals working together in multi-disciplinary teams, based in and around the places where children and families spend their time—schools, children's centres and GP surgeries.

    "The Green Paper brings forward proposals to develop better early intervention on all these fronts, including legislating to ensure professionals share information more effectively.

    "We will always have to strike a balance between individuals' right to privacy, and the need to share information to protect children. I believe that that balance needs to be shifted towards sharing information better so that problems can be identified more rapidly and effectively.

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    "The third area is accountability and integration. Integration in practice is possible only if we integrate our institutions, structures and professions. This is the real focus of the Green Paper—addressing the underlying barriers to improving our services. Lasting change requires new institutional arrangements not initiatives.

    "Let me set out the key changes aimed at delivering clear accountability and integration around the needs of children.

    "First, we will legislate to create the post of a director of children's services, accountable for local authority education and children's social services. As Lord Laming made clear, we have to have a clearly named person in overall charge of children's wellbeing and protection.

    "Secondly, to ensure clear accountability politically, we will create a lead council member for children.

    "Thirdly, in the long term our aim is to integrate key services for children and young people under the director of children's services, as part of children's trusts. These will bring together the local education authority, children's social services, health services and potentially others, including Connexions and youth offending teams, into a single organisational structure. We all know the difficulties of joining up across boundaries. Our approach is to seek to break down these boundaries altogether and organise the services around children.

    "Fourthly, there will always be some organisations outside the new children's trust, such as the police. We will therefore require the creation of local safeguarding children boards to bring together all agencies to improve child protection. We will also legislate to place a duty on all services to safeguard children—we have to ensure our children's safety is a priority across all services.

    "Fifthly, we will support these local changes through national change, including the development of an integrated inspection framework led by Ofsted to ensure all services are judged on how they work together.

    "Finally, where national standards are not met, and our inspection system indicates failure, we must be tough on delivering changes. We will therefore create within the department a strong focus on sharing effective practice and intervening in areas that are falling below national standards.

    "In addition, I can announce that the Government will legislate at the earliest opportunity to create a children's commissioner to act as an independent champion for children. The commissioner will develop effective ways to draw on children's views, locally and nationally, and to make sure that they are fed into policy-making.

    "The fourth area is workforce reform. The workforce reforms set out in the Green Paper have two aims. The first is to tackle the recruitment and retention problems, particularly acute in social work, by making working with children an attractive, high-status career.

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    "The second is to improve the skills and team-working of the workforce—we need to ensure our professionals work together with shared goals, values, language and priorities.

    "We intend to bring forward a package of changes to develop: new career pathways to enable staff to acquire new specialist skills, enabling sideways career moves, or enabling them to remain in frontline services; a leadership programme to support the first generation of children's directors and their senior staff; a common core of training for those who work with children; reduced bureaucracy and workload pressures; more flexible and attractive training routes into work with children, including expanding work-based training routes for graduates.

    "To deliver this, we will work with employers and staff to create a sector skills council for children and young people.

    "I believe the reform programme we are delivering will mark a turning point in child protection. The legislation and institutional change we are proposing will genuinely put children first.

    "Reform will take time and will require commitment across government. Perhaps most critically, it will take a process of cultural change—to build a society where protection is embedded across all communities, professionals and services, locally and nationally. Our aim is to build a society where truly every child matters, and in that spirit I commend these proposals to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.8 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for this Statement. It is welcome though somewhat overdue. One thinks with great sadness of the loss of Victoria Climbie, Lauren Wright, Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford and many others, and of how they were failed by the established system and those who should have provided the greatest protection and security of all—their own parents, guardians and carers.

Once again we have a Statement that has been well trailed on TV and radio and outside this House, and, of course, our House is last in line to receive the information. I ask the Minister why the Statement has been delayed. We understand from a leaked Whitehall document that the Statement was ready in July but was delayed to spare the embarrassment of the then Minister, Mrs Hodge. We were told at that time that the Prime Minister was undertaking personally the presentation of a Statement to Parliament but, understandably, he could not at that time due to time pressures on the diary.

The delay is serious. Every week children across the country are failed by the system; therefore, reform of the system is urgent. So why the delay?

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I have had very little time to absorb the detail of this response from the Government; therefore, an early debate would be welcome to explore the detail in more depth. Are there any plans to give parliamentary time for such a debate?

There is no mention in the Statement of the vexed and current issue of trafficking in young people, many of whom end up as victims of abuse. Does the Government's response cover that issue? If not, will it be included as a distinct part of what happens to children in this country?

The call for more working in multi-disciplinary teams, which was mentioned in the Statement and has been proffered as part of the solution, fills me with dismay, because there is now a plethora of multi-disciplinary arrangements at local—and, indeed, regional—level. It is important that we at least know what is different in this case.

On a practical level, the role of schools will be very important. Has there been an assessment of the additional burdens imposed by these proposals, such as their financial impact and burden on teachers' time? Things are far from easy for schools at the moment and I believe that additional calls on their time or resources will prove to be the straw that breaks the camel's back—to coin a phrase.

What protection is there for teachers who are in the position of having to make accusations against parents? I know that many teachers feel vulnerable and it is important for the Government to give some reassurance that, when a child is at risk, there is some protection for the teacher involved. Making accusations is extremely serious and it is important that plenty of advice and support is available.

It is also worth mentioning that all confidential records kept by schools must be made accessible to all parents, which increases the vulnerability of the staff in schools who have to record key information.

Another issue that was not included in the Statement and may not be a part of the response is the call for more research into the distress caused by wrongly accusing parents of abusing their children. Not infrequently, such parents are, if anything, being over-protective. There is also the vexed issue of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, when parents call out for help only to be wrongly accused of being abusive parents. Such instances put social services in a very difficult position, but I have heard some blood-curdling stories of parents being almost destroyed by the system when, at the end of the day, they are only being over-protective—if it is possible to be an over-protective parent. I make no judgments, but there is a case for urgent research.

How many of the recommendations of the Laming report have already been implemented? How many recommendations is the report intending to implement and what is the timescale involved? I am sure that the Minister will agree that many children who are seriously at risk are not in school at all, either because

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they are not sent to school by the parent, carer or guardian, or because they are not of statutory school age.

The use of volunteers is also pertinent. There must be very clear guidance about how they are used. For example, it will not be possible for volunteers to have open access to people's homes. Therefore, although the voluntary sector is important, there will need to be clear guidelines as to how that sector is used when such dangerous situations are afoot.

Although they are not solely responsible, because we recognise that the main responsibility rests with parents and guardians, social services are nevertheless on the front line of this work, which is particularly difficult work for them. The annual report of the Chief Inspector of Social Services claims that vacancy rates are running at 11 per cent when they should be only 5 per cent or less. It is also known that more social workers are needed to provide the continuity and stability that are crucial in these cases. I understand that many urban local authorities, especially in London, are using very high numbers of agency workers, which is both expensive and creates instability. What is being done to deal with that state of affairs?

Much will be expected of local government. However, there is a dichotomy: the Government make financial demands on local government concerning educational expenditure or expenditure on other services, but in many local authorities, there is only one place from which the money can come, which increases the pressure on social services. It is important that there will be some respite for local authorities in terms of how they will meet the additional costs implied by this report.

The welcome centrepiece of the Statement is the establishment of a children's commissioner. However, we must heed the words of the Children's Commissioner for Wales today, when he said that the appointment of the commissioner will not in itself make things better. It is important that the change is effected at local level. Will the Minister assure us that the commissioner will be entirely independent in the way he sets about his work?

I do not doubt the Government's intentions in this matter. However, I remain nervous about what appears to be the most complicated web of bodies, lines of accountability and bureaucracy. Also, there is no mention of costs in the Statement whatever, which is a critical aspect.

The very real test will be whether children in this country, especially vulnerable children, will be more secure and better protected as a result of these changes. We can only wait and see. Meanwhile, we wish the proposals well.

4.16 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. We on these

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Benches warmly welcome many of the measures contained in it. I also remind the House of my unremunerated connection with the NSPCC.

We, too, regret the delay in the publication of this paper until the end of the Prime Minister's summer holiday, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the question asked about that matter by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, while we all mourn the children who died, we must move forward.

I have some comments and questions about the generalities at the beginning of this Statement. First, we welcome the commitment to address the problems of weak accountability, poor integration and workforce pressures. However, one solution is more resources and training. Will there be more money for that work?

Secondly, we welcome the commitment to everybody being accountable. The obligation to take responsibility must, of course, be backed by workable management structures and lines of reporting as well as good training. How will that be delivered? Will the performance of the Minister for Children also be assessed, and, if so, by which Select Committee?

Thirdly, we welcome the commitment to shift the emphasis on to prevention. However, one of the main problems in recent years has been disintegration of youth services. How do the Government plan to address that? Will there be more money for an accelerated spread of the Sure Start programme to reach all children in poverty, even if they live in an otherwise affluent area?

The first of the Minister's four detailed areas relates to supporting families and carers. We very much welcome the commitment to creating a parenting fund, support for parents and parenting training, which is very important. There have been nowhere near enough resources for that in the past. Will the Minister explain in more detail how that will be administered?

We very much welcome the commitment to early intervention and the integration of the work of professionals. However, will the multi-disciplinary teams be truly multi-disciplinary, involving not only education and health, but social services, including strong links with the criminal justice system?

On the problem of privacy and striking the balance, how can we be sure that privacy will be dealt with sensitively and that children will not be deterred from speaking out, knowing that information will be shared?

On accountability and integration, we welcome the creation of the post of director of children's services, but how will that person interact at the first stage of the reform with the local delivery of children's health services? The Statement mentions only education and social services. We also think that the establishment of a lead council member is a good idea, but how will such people—and the directors—be appointed? To whom will they be accountable?

The Minister mentioned children's trusts at, I think, the second stage of reform. What will be the timing of that? Will all local authorities have one? Will they be

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standardised? Will the local safeguarding children boards be statutory, as I understand? If so, what will be the timing of the legislation? It is important that the people on the boards are sufficiently senior to be able to make decisions and allocate resources so that they can make things happen. What happens if a board fails to operate effectively?

The Minister said that monitoring and inspection would be led by Ofsted. Does Ofsted have the skills required? It has only just bedded down into the inspection of nursery settings. We agree that national standards are needed, but who will set them? Will there be a national child safeguarding board? To whom will the standards apply?

I welcome very much the announcement that there will be a children's commissioner for England. It has long been called for by all the children's organisations. This is an example of how the Government have listened to the experts, and they must be congratulated on that. We hope that the commissioner will be the strongest children's commissioner in the UK and that we will learn from experience in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I echo the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch: will the commissioner be truly independent and act for all children, not just those in care? We would like to know more about his or her powers. For example, will he or she be consulted on all new and proposed legislation? Will he or she have the ability to lead inquiries and investigations? Will he or she have unlimited access to information and organisations? Will there be more than one commissioner, or will there, for example, be a commissioner for each region? To whom will the commissioner report? Those are important questions that must be asked.

There are two gaping holes in the Statement. One is the fact that our attitude to violence against children must change. There should be no protection in the law for someone, whoever they are, who violently assaults a child. Do the Government intend to address that? Also, there was nothing in the Statement about listening to children. That is vital, and I hope that there will be something in the Green Paper about it.

4.22 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me if I keep my preamble brief and say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Blatch, that I am grateful for their support for the thrust of what the Government are trying to do. I will endeavour to answer all the questions as briefly as I can.

There has been much speculation about the Statement in the press. We have tried hard to make sure that we followed the processes properly, so the speculation has always been precisely that. Noble Lords will forgive me if I make the point that we talk carefully to our partners. There was a lot of discussion before the Statement was issued. There was a delay because—I can vouch for it myself—the Prime Minister wished to be involved in the launch, and noble Lords will know that, this morning, he was. That

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was the basis on which the timetable was set. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that there should be an early debate. I would welcome it, and I believe that, between us, those of us on the Front Benches can ensure that it happens.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, immediately raised the issue of the trafficking of young people. That is a very important issue. The needs of such young people are considered to be as important as those of any other child in need, and they remain part of the thinking behind the Green Paper.

The description of the multi-disciplinary teams is different from the traditional one. That is partly because we are removing barriers, including those affecting budgets, by means of the children's trusts. That will enable money to flow more freely and remove one of the great institutional barriers, as professionals have told us and, no doubt, other noble Lords. It will also make sure that we bring together the different parts of our society. I trust that, when noble Lords have had the chance to read the Green Paper, they will see that we involve a range of agencies, many more than have traditionally been involved in health, education and social care. In the Statement, I mentioned, for example, the important role that the police would play.

It is important that we do not place extra burdens on teachers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. Our purpose is to decrease the burden on teachers. If services are working in schools—providing, for example, speech therapy, social care, educational welfare and so on—several things happen, not the least of which is that children have such services provided at school and need not travel outside school and disrupt their education. Teachers also find that they have other professionals to talk to and that a better plan of action can be taken forward. That is our purpose, and we will ensure that that is what happens.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, it is important to protect teachers. We issued new guidance in May, entitled What To Do If You're Worried A Child Is Being Abused. It sets out for teachers and other professionals precisely what they should do, covering the points about protecting youth professionals, while ensuring that they know where to go, what to do and who to talk to.

It is important that we recognise the need for confidentiality, and it is of paramount importance that we should be able to share information. Noble Lords who have read the report of the Climbie inquiry and other such reports will know that the sharing of information is critically important. I take the points—they have been made forcefully by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in correspondence and in your Lordships' House—relating to the particular circumstances surrounding, for example, Munchausen syndrome by proxy. None the less, the thrust of what we are doing is to ensure that children are protected. Sharing information is critical if we are to achieve that.

From the report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, we have started to implement in some form about 83 proposals. It is difficult to go through them

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in detail now. The responses to the noble Lord's work published alongside the Green Paper show that we have accepted 86 proposals totally and 19 in principle. We have rejected one, accepted one in part and accepted one in principle in part. I know that the noble Lord is pleased with our response in that respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised the issue of finance. Some 45 billion is spent in this area. Much of our work concerns the reassessment of how we can use the money more effectively, as noble Lords would expect. Discussions on funding are ongoing as part of the spending review.

Training is critical. Noble Lords will see in the document that core training for social workers, in particular, and for all those involved with children will be the same throughout all services. That is very important. The performance of all Ministers is monitored through Parliament. As far as I understand, the relevant Select Committee is the Education and Skills Select Committee, although that may change.

Discussions are continuing about how to use the parenting fund of 25 million to ensure that those resources are used better and more effectively. We also have an ambition to see a children's trust or something similar in each local authority area. That is our preferred model, and we will legislate at the earliest opportunity to ensure that all the issues can be dealt with.

Listening to children was a critical part of the work done in preparing the Green Paper. Noble Lords will see in the information pack that, as part of the overall consultation, we have designed a specific consultation document to allow children and young people to respond.

4.28 p.m.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I welcome the Statement made by my noble friend the Minister. To achieve their objectives, the Government must use all the levers at their disposal.

There are three specific issues that I would like to ask about. It seems that the final shape of the corporate performance assessments for local authorities will be crucial. Can the Minister comment on that? Also crucial will be the outcome of the 2004 spending review. That is code for—I echo a question that has already been asked—"Will additional resources be made available?". Thirdly, noble Lords will not be surprised that I wish to raise the issue of the children's voluntary sector, which can be a potent agent for change. In many respects, the proposals require statutory bodies to become more like voluntary ones, with more flexibility and more use of partnerships. Many in the voluntary sector already deliver children's services. My noble friend said relatively little—nothing at all, really—about the role of the voluntary sector, so I would be grateful for her comments on that.


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