“Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system…People have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is our duty to restore their trust. It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”
Mr Jenkin: Following the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), my Liberal Democrat colleague on the Public Administration Committee, will the hon. Lady commit her party to supporting our recommendation that the independent adviser should be able to instigate his own investigations?
Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman’s Committee has done this House a great service in publishing the report that is tagged with this debate. I think that situations have evolved since decisions were taken in the past. I certainly think that the suggestion that the independent adviser should be allowed to initiate investigations needs a fresh look in the light of the circumstances that have arisen. I, for one, have an open mind on that. He raises a very important subject that the House should debate. The Committee’s work on this is invaluable in the changing circumstances, and I look forward to its continuing.
The Prime Minister’s decision not to ask the independent adviser on ministerial interests to investigate the Culture Secretary totally contradicts the commitment that he gave in his own foreword to his own code. It also totally disregards clear, prima facie evidence that the code has been breached and that there are good grounds for an investigation. That prima facie case was set out very powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and hinted at in slightly shyer terms by the right hon. Member for Bath.
It took the Prime Minister 20 minutes from the conclusion of the Culture Secretary’s oral evidence to the Leveson inquiry to announce that there was no case to answer, but the Prime Minister was not considering the evidence, he was not interested in protecting the integrity of his Government, and he disregarded the need for Ministers to be straight with Parliament. That is a very important matter for the House. All he wanted to do was to protect his chum.
To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have decided that they cannot go along with the Prime Minister’s cynical charade. Good for them, but I struggle to see why they should not join us in the Lobby for the vote. They should be in the Lobby with us, upholding the integrity of the ministerial code and supporting our call for the Culture Secretary to be referred to the independent adviser. It is not too late. The right hon. Member for Bath said there were still questions for the Minister to answer, but he did not go into detail on what they were. Liberal Democrat Members have said that they believe a referral to the independent adviser is in order, and I hope that even at this late hour they will reconsider their position and decide to join us in the Division Lobby to send a powerful message to the Prime Minister that the House will not stand by and tolerate being lied to and the ministerial code being an optional extra.
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The integrity of the Government’s relations with Parliament is at stake. We have an independent adviser on the ministerial code who was appointed on a not inconsiderable retainer of £20,000 per annum. He has been in place since November 2011 but the Prime Minister seems extraordinarily reluctant to call on his services. The Prime Minister blocked Sir Alex’s predecessor from investigating the former Defence Secretary. He now blocks Sir Alex from investigating the Culture Secretary.
Ministers have recently taken to telling the country that we all need to be working harder, but we have a ministerial adviser champing at the bit to launch an investigation, and the Prime Minister keeping him locked in a cupboard. What are we paying the independent adviser for? This something-for-nothing culture needs to end. Let the independent adviser do his job. What does the Prime Minister have to fear?
We heard today from right hon. and hon. Members how even a perfunctory look at the facts demonstrates that the Culture Secretary has a case to answer. Paragraph 1.2c of the ministerial code requires Ministers to
“give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.
“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 973.]
Yet it turns out that the Culture Secretary was firing off memos to the Prime Minister backing the bid, and wanted a meeting with the Business Secretary to lobby him. I do not know what the Culture Secretary’s definition of “intervention” is, but it is not one that would be found in any English dictionary.
“the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 961]—
and that he had—I quote exactly—“zero” conversations with Michel. Yet it has now been revealed that he texted Michel directly when he had responsibility for overseeing the bid. In the Culture Secretary's “dictionary of convenient definitions” it appears that neither “contact” nor “conversations” mean text messages.
“all the documents relating to all the meetings—all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]
He had published all the documents, all the meetings, all the contacts except the 191 phone calls with News Corporation, the 158 e-mails with News Corporation, and the 799 text messages with News Corporation. What on earth does the Culture Secretary think “all” means?
We know that the Secretary of State is a keen dancer. Indeed, we have one of his Cabinet colleagues to thank for telling us that he has installed a sprung floor in his home, so that he can practise his “Strictly Come Dancing” routines. However, it is dancing on the head of a pin to claim that he did not intervene, that he was not in contact and that he had published all the evidence.
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Parliament deserves better than this. It is crystal clear that the Secretary of State’s former special adviser effectively opened an improper back channel of direct communication with News Corporation. If the special adviser had gone rogue, one would have thought that on uncovering his activities the Culture Secretary would have fired him immediately. But no, the Culture Secretary first told his special adviser that he had done nothing wrong. The next day—I suspect after looking at the front pages—he told his special adviser,
“Everyone here thinks you need to go”,
Why has Adam Smith resigned when the Secretary of State feels that he himself has no case to answer? Is he expecting us to believe that he had no idea what his special adviser was up to in such a key area of policy, in which he had shown such prior interest? Paragraph 3.3 of the code makes it clear that Ministers must take responsibility for the actions of their special advisers. The Secretary of State must accept his responsibility.
We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had not intervened when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had had no contact with News Corporation lobbyists when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had published all the documents when he had not. The Prime Minister knows all that, but he says that there is nothing for the adviser on the ministerial code to investigate. Who is he kidding? He cannot even persuade the Deputy Prime Minister of that fact.
Today, the House has an opportunity to make it clear that the ministerial code matters, that Ministers are accountable to this House and that the public can expect the highest standards from Ministers. The motion calls merely for Sir Alex Allan to investigate and for the existing system of ministerial accountability to this House to be used, rather than abused. I commend it to the House.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): Although I wish that I could say that this has been a good debate, and despite some good contributions to it, it has not been. At business questions, I am asked by Members on both sides of the House for serious debates about matters of interest to our constituents. I contrast that with the miserable, opportunistic debate that we have had today. This has been a wasted opportunity, when we could have been debating issues of real interest to our constituents, such as Syria or the eurozone. Instead, we have been diverted on to this matter.
Let me deal with some of the contributions. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made no distinction at all between the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before he assumed responsibility for the bid and those that he took afterwards. That was seized on by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who said that it would have been astonishing if the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport had had no views on the issue before he took responsibility for it, but that he subsequently made it absolutely clear that he was acting properly and in accordance with the law in dealing with that responsibility.
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My hon. Friend also made the interesting point that it was the last Labour Government who changed and expanded the role of special advisers—a matter that has now been referred to Alex Allan. Along with other hon. Members, my hon. Friend referred to the Public Administration Committee report, to which the Government will respond in due course.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) made an uncharacteristically partisan speech. He focused on the performance of this Government, but conveniently overlooked all the failures of ministerial performance in the previous one. There was a gap in the account that he related to the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) made it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State handled the bid by the book, to use his words, and had at several points taken decisions against the interests of News International. He said that one or two issues remained, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, they were not defined. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath implied that the failure to consult was behind the Liberal Democrats’ decision as much as anything else.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I am not one of those who has disputed the Secretary of State’s honesty, but there is the question of responsibility for special advisers. The ministerial code states that responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including, but not only, discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment. How did the Secretary of State effect that responsibility for the management and conduct of his special adviser?
Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement to the House shortly afterwards and was cross-examined on that specific issue for a substantial time. He explained exactly what his responsibilities were and the action that he had taken.
I very much regret the intervention that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Despite Mr Speaker’s ruling, I believe that it did nothing to enhance Parliament’s reputation. I very much hope that at some point the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing what he said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) referred to the thoughtful report that his Committee had just produced—before the recent controversy, as he pointed out. He rehearsed the argument for the role of the adviser on ministerial interests being self-starting rather than his having to wait for a referral. The Government will of course respond to that report in due course. He also touched on broader issues to do with the civil service and special advisers.
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The best speech from the Labour Benches, if I may say so, came from the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), but he missed the point by not distinguishing between what my right hon. Friend did before and after he assumed responsibility. He produced no evidence at all of my right hon. Friend’s decisions being in any way contaminated by what had happened before he assumed responsibility.
Mr Denham: Surely the issue for today’s debate is not the Secretary of State’s conduct on the merger but how he acted in relation to the provision of information to the House. My contribution did not deal one way or the other with his conduct on the merger; it was about his failure to disclose to the Cabinet Secretary his attempts to influence the decision before it was his responsibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) contrasted the actions of the previous Government with Labour Members’ criticism of the coalition Government, implying that they expect higher standards of us than they expected of themselves.
The hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) said that today’s debate was the only opportunity for the House to deal with the matter, ignoring the role of Select Committees, the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made and the urgent question answered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) made a robust defence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and rightly made the point that the ultimate decision rests with the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) said that the Opposition’s fox had been shot by the exchange of letters published today.
On the matter at hand, the controversy surrounding the Culture Secretary’s handling of the BSkyB bid first arose on 24 April. The next day, the Prime Minister responded to questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time and the Culture Secretary came to the House to give a full account of himself for just over an hour. The following week, the Prime Minister answered questions for 52 minutes, and two weeks ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State appeared in front of Lord Justice Leveson for almost eight hours. And yet when did the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) first call for his resignation? At 4.30 pm on 24 April, before a single question had been raised in Parliament and before he had had an opportunity to respond to any of the allegations.
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Sir George Young: When the right hon. and learned Lady was questioned on the BBC on whether she had read the evidence before calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, she said:
“I already had formed the view that Jeremy Hunt had acted totally inappropriately even before those emails were published because when I saw James Murdoch’s evidence to Leveson, it was quite clear the Culture Secretary had given James Murdoch to understand that he was not impartial in the bid, that he was on his side”.
The right hon. and learned Lady is a former Leader of the House and I have respect for her, but is that not an extraordinarily ill-judged intervention for a qualified solicitor, a former Solicitor-General and an honorary Queen’s counsel? In what kind of banana republic would a lawyer convict somebody without a shred of evidence and before having had the opportunity to cross-examine a witness? If she is so quick to trust the word of a Murdoch at face value, will she today back Rupert Murdoch’s version of his telephone conversation with the former Prime Minister?
The truth is that the only people who made up their minds before looking at any of the facts were the right hon. and learned Lady and the Leader of the Opposition, not the Prime Minister. She has at least climbed down from the initial demand for resignation. She is now asking for a referral to the independent adviser—[Interruption.] That is the motion on the Order Paper. She has engaged in a humiliating climbdown.
Let us look at the case for referral. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has already been referred to, and attended, a forum that is, in a sense, far more rigorous than any process that Sir Alex Allan could follow. What could be more rigorous than eight hours of questioning by an experienced barrister, in public, on TV, under oath, in front of a judge-led inquiry?
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to the House and the Secretary of State answered a written question on 7 September, and on all the occasions to which the Leader of the House has referred, did they choose not to correct the record? The Secretary of State never chose to point out that he had written to the Prime Minister and been in correspondence with him, or that everything he said in the Chamber had been a lie?
Sir George Young: Not only has the hon. Gentleman made an accusation, he did not substantiate it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered in his initial remarks all the hon. Gentleman’s points.
A number of Opposition Members referred to the Public Administration Committee report on the role of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. The Prime Minister has simply followed the precedent established by the previous Prime Minister. When the Committee recommended in the previous Parliament that the independent adviser be allowed to initiate his own inquiries—precisely the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex—the outgoing Labour Government responded:
“it must ultimately be for the Prime Minister to account to Parliament for his decisions and actions in relation to the appointment of his Ministers.”
The Opposition’s charges against my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary have been answered at length by my right hon. Friend and by the Prime Minister. On the question of misleading Parliament, the Culture Secretary has today responded in detail to each and every one of the Opposition’s allegations and he has swatted them away with relish. On the matter of special advisers, which is specifically referred to in the motion, it is unfortunate for Labour that that subject has been brought up in the same week as the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), sat before the Leveson inquiry and denied, as only he could, any knowledge that his political team briefed against his fellow Ministers and unleashed hell on his Chancellor. Indeed, it was lucky that we could see the former Prime Minister on our TV screens at all given that the air was thick with the smell of cordite from the smoking guns pointing in his direction.
“I would hope not. I have no evidence of that.”
“On Damian McBride, when I was a Cabinet Minister, I did raise a specific concern that I had with Mr Brown, I believe in…2008, about some of Mr McBride’s activities.”
As the shadow Justice Secretary said this morning on the BBC, they cannot both be right. It ill behoves the Opposition to lecture this Government on Ministers taking responsibility for their special advisers when the former Prime Minister took no responsibility for what his advisers got up to.
The issues we have been debating today will not divert the coalition from its core task of dealing with the huge deficit we inherited and rebalancing the economy. The Opposition are one party united in their opportunism; we are two parties coming together to sort out the mess they left behind. I urge the House to reject the motion.
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The House divided:
Ayes 252, Noes 290.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
Allen, Mr Graham
Anderson, Mr David
Bailey, Mr Adrian
Bain, Mr William
Balls, rh Ed
Barron, rh Mr Kevin
Beckett, rh Margaret
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benn, rh Hilary
Betts, Mr Clive
Blears, rh Hazel
Blunkett, rh Mr David
Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Brown, Mr Russell
Buck, Ms Karen
Burnham, rh Andy
Byrne, rh Mr Liam
Campbell, Mr Alan
Campbell, Mr Ronnie
Chapman, Mrs Jenny
Clarke, rh Mr Tom
Clwyd, rh Ann
Cooper, rh Yvette
Crausby, Mr David
Cunningham, Mr Jim
Darling, rh Mr Alistair
David, Mr Wayne
Davidson, Mr Ian
De Piero, Gloria
Denham, rh Mr John
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr Brian H.
Doran, Mr Frank
Eagle, Ms Angela
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Field, rh Mr Frank
Flint, rh Caroline
Francis, Dr Hywel
Glindon, Mrs Mary
Godsiff, Mr Roger
Goggins, rh Paul
Hain, rh Mr Peter
Hamilton, Mr David
Hanson, rh Mr David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr Tom
Havard, Mr Dai
Healey, rh John
Hepburn, Mr Stephen
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
Howarth, rh Mr George
Johnson, rh Alan
Jones, Mr Kevan
Jones, Susan Elan
Jowell, rh Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Khan, rh Sadiq
Lammy, rh Mr David
Lewis, Mr Ivan
Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn
Love, Mr Andrew
MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
Mahmood, Mr Khalid
Marsden, Mr Gordon
McCann, Mr Michael
McDonnell, Dr Alasdair
McFadden, rh Mr Pat
McGuire, rh Mrs Anne
McKenzie, Mr Iain
Meacher, rh Mr Michael
Meale, Sir Alan
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh David
Miliband, rh Edward
Moon, Mrs Madeleine
Morris, Grahame M.
Mudie, Mr George
Murphy, rh Mr Jim
Murphy, rh Paul
Raynsford, rh Mr Nick
Reed, Mr Jamie
Riordan, Mrs Linda
Ritchie, Ms Margaret
Robinson, Mr Geoffrey
Roy, Mr Frank
Ruddock, rh Dame Joan
Sharma, Mr Virendra
Sheerman, Mr Barry
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Slaughter, Mr Andy
Smith, rh Mr Andrew
Spellar, rh Mr John
Straw, rh Mr Jack
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry
Thomas, Mr Gareth
Timms, rh Stephen
Umunna, Mr Chuka
Vaz, rh Keith
Watson, Mr Tom
Watts, Mr Dave
Weir, Mr Mike
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Winnick, Mr David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woodward, rh Mr Shaun
Wright, Mr Iain
Tellers for the Ayes:
Nic Dakin and
Amess, Mr David
Arbuthnot, rh Mr James
Bacon, Mr Richard
Bellingham, Mr Henry
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr Brian
Blunt, Mr Crispin
Bone, Mr Peter
Bottomley, Sir Peter
Brady, Mr Graham
Brazier, Mr Julian
Buckland, Mr Robert
Burley, Mr Aidan
Burns, rh Mr Simon
Burrowes, Mr David
Cameron, rh Mr David
Carswell, Mr Douglas
Clark, rh Greg
Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth
Coffey, Dr Thérèse
Cox, Mr Geoffrey
Davies, David T. C.
Davis, rh Mr David
de Bois, Nick
Djanogly, Mr Jonathan
Dodds, rh Mr Nigel
Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.
Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen
Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain
Dunne, Mr Philip
Ellwood, Mr Tobias
Evennett, Mr David
Fox, rh Dr Liam
Francois, rh Mr Mark
Gale, Sir Roger
Garnier, Mr Edward
Gauke, Mr David
Gibb, Mr Nick
Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl
Goodwill, Mr Robert
Gove, rh Michael
Grant, Mrs Helen
Gray, Mr James
Grayling, rh Chris
Greening, rh Justine
Grieve, rh Mr Dominic
Gyimah, Mr Sam
Hammond, rh Mr Philip
Harper, Mr Mark
Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan
Hayes, Mr John
Herbert, rh Nick
Hoban, Mr Mark
Hollobone, Mr Philip
Holloway, Mr Adam
Howarth, Mr Gerald
Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy
Hurd, Mr Nick
Jackson, Mr Stewart
Jenkin, Mr Bernard
Jones, Mr David
Jones, Mr Marcus
Knight, rh Mr Greg
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lansley, rh Mr Andrew
Lee, Dr Phillip
Leigh, Mr Edward
Letwin, rh Mr Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian
Lidington, rh Mr David
Lilley, rh Mr Peter
Main, Mrs Anne
Maude, rh Mr Francis
May, rh Mrs Theresa
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick
Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew
Morris, Anne Marie
Mundell, rh David
Murrison, Dr Andrew
Newmark, Mr Brooks
Nuttall, Mr David
O'Brien, Mr Stephen
Offord, Mr Matthew
Osborne, rh Mr George
Paice, rh Mr James
Paterson, rh Mr Owen
Pickles, rh Mr Eric
Poulter, Dr Daniel
Prisk, Mr Mark
Raab, Mr Dominic
Randall, rh Mr John
Redwood, rh Mr John
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, rh Mr Andrew
Robertson, Mr Laurence
Scott, Mr Lee
Shapps, rh Grant
Shepherd, Mr Richard
Simpson, Mr Keith
Smith, Miss Chloe
Soames, rh Nicholas
Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline
Spencer, Mr Mark
Stanley, rh Sir John
Streeter, Mr Gary
Swayne, rh Mr Desmond
Swire, rh Mr Hugo
Syms, Mr Robert
Tapsell, rh Sir Peter
Timpson, Mr Edward
Turner, Mr Andrew
Tyrie, Mr Andrew
Vaizey, Mr Edward
Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa
Walker, Mr Charles
Walker, Mr Robin
Walter, Mr Robert
Whittingdale, Mr John
Willetts, rh Mr David
Wilson, Mr Rob
Yeo, Mr Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Noes:
Jeremy Wright and
Mr Shailesh Vara
Question accordingly negatived.
13 Jun 2012 : Column 390
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That this House notes the updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children published on 12 June 2012; and calls on the Government to ensure that the needs of the child are at the centre of all assessments and decision-making processes regarding safeguarding, that appropriate information and guidance is provided to young people so they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation, that all local authorities and decision-makers are upholding the highest standards when it comes to integrated care access and multi-disciplinary and multiagency working, and that early intervention programmes are promoted on the best available evidence, and to clarify who is responsible within Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance.
Yesterday the Government published updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I am sure that all parts of the House will welcome the opportunity to consider the Government’s proposals today. Our motion has been tabled to provide for such a debate, and it sets out five areas of concern.
Modern society places huge pressures on children and young people. Although the influences of adult life on children are not new, it is clear that the advent of social media, new pressures on parents and the increasing availability of sexual content are accelerating the process. The term “child protection” covers a wide spectrum of issues and crosses several Departments. From online grooming, child neglect and forced labour to the trafficking of minors, the challenge of ensuring that children get a safe and happy start in life has a moral imperative—a view that I know is shared in all parts of the House. However, it is not just a moral necessity we face: the long-term impact of child abuse—to take one important example—has been well documented. It is therefore critical that we invest in early intervention, not just for young children, but for older children as well, in order to reduce the long-term risks and costs.
It is one of the foremost duties of any civilised society to protect its most vulnerable members. It is clear that that duty was breached in the most horrific way in the recent case in Rochdale, and in the tragedies that befell Victoria Climbié and baby Peter Connelly. The Government were right to establish the Munro review, to provide a thoughtful, calm analysis of the challenges affecting the child protection system. I want to focus on the five areas that we have identified in the motion as being of particular importance, though I make no claim that they are fully comprehensive.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab):
I am sure that the whole House will appreciate the approach that my hon. Friend is taking to this subject. I should like to give him some information to emphasise the urgency of this debate and the need to approach it in this atmosphere. Part of Birkenhead is so rich that it makes Hampstead look downmarket, but parts are not so advantaged. A couple of months ago, I asked three head teachers from the more challenged areas, in different meetings, what percentage of families they would not wish to be part of if they were a child. Independently, all three said about 40%. I then asked them what proportion of children they would like to see in care today, if there were no restriction on budgets. I am not saying that that is desirable, incidentally. They said 20%. So I have an
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image of a group of poor social workers having to fight over inadequate budgets—whatever party is in power—and thinking, “If I get the resources, I might be able to prevent a child’s murder. If my colleague is not as powerful as me, perhaps the murder will take place elsewhere.” Will my hon. Friend stress that this is not just about resources, however—they are important, but we will never have enough to deal with these issues—and that it is about what is happening to parenting more generally?
Stephen Twigg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution. He has a long-standing record on these matters and is respected in all parts of the House for his work in this area. I will touch on some of those issues later in my speech.
The first of the five areas involves ensuring that we have a child-centred system, and that the needs of the child are the first consideration of the many professionals who are involved in child protection and safeguarding. This was at the heart of the Children Act 2004, and of other reforms brought in by the previous Labour Government. They include the establishment of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the focus on five clear outcomes through Every Child Matters, which helped to deliver some of the previous Government’s most successful policies, including the reduction in child poverty. Yesterday’s report from the Child Poverty Action Group reminded us of that achievement, and of the real danger that that progress could be reversed by the present Government.
Let me place on record our support for the work of Professor Eileen Munro, who has done a service to the Government and to the country in promoting this child-centred approach. She is absolutely right to focus on the journey of the child through the system. Any shift from a process that is focused excessively on compliance to one that better values the expertise of professionals is one that will have my support. However, we need to strike a balance between allowing professionals the flexibility to make a judgment on a child’s needs and the need for clear rules and principles. There is clearly a danger that a big reduction in the amount of guidance could take us from one undesirable state to another.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that child protection is no longer specifically included in the Ofsted framework, although I am told that it is implicit? Does he also share my concern that the Education Act 2011 puts more power into teachers’ hands and puts children at risk by allowing a teacher of the opposite gender to search a child without another adult being present? Does he agree that we should look into those issues more carefully?
Stephen Twigg: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s current and previous work in this area, including her chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on child protection. She has raised a number of proper concerns about the changes that have been made, and I will return later in my speech to some of them—including the involvement of Ofsted and the well-being of children.
“the Government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children.”
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In its response, published today, to yesterday’s announcement, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that it supports the slimlining of guidance, but it is worried that the downsizing might have gone too far so that vital information is no longer included. It provided the examples of training, lessons from research and, in particular, the safeguarding needs of particularly vulnerable groups, mentioning forced marriages, female genital mutilation and victims of trafficking.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that children in care, including those trafficked for purposes he has mentioned, including sexual exploitation, who find themselves up against the law should be treated first as children and victims, not as criminals? Something needs to be done to ensure that all agencies, including the police, regard that as a first principle.
Stephen Twigg: I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern in that regard. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that when he responds. The consultation on the draft guidance issued yesterday may provide an opportunity to clarify some of these matters. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that when he speaks after me.
“reducing prescription without creating a learning system will not secure the desired improvements in the system.”
We should remember that only one of her 15 recommendations is about reducing bureaucracy. The bulk of her report is about improving training and leadership in the system. As the Government make the move away from prescription, it is important that they are clear about how they intend to ensure robust checks and balances in the system and rigorous training and supervision and staff.
“there is so much change related directly both to child protection but also to the health and police reforms…we cannot be quite sure how they pan out in reality and whether we end up with some unintended clashes so there are gaps in the way services are being provided.”
Taking the example of today’s Government announcement on shared parenting, while the principle of parental balance is of course important, it is vital that the change does not create more confusion and delays in the courts, which would not be in the interests of children, families or, indeed, of the taxpayer. David Norgrove in the family justice review cautioned against such a move, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has said:
“Children’s best interests should be the paramount consideration in decisions affecting them. That principle has been clear in law for over two decades. Ministers should think very carefully before they decide to weaken it.”
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Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): David Norgrove is, of course, talking principally about equality of time. In family court cases in which I was involved, it was clear that when people started to talk about 9 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening and shared arrangements of equality during the week, it often proved divisive, whereas trying to reach agreement is in the best interests of the child. What I think the Government are trying to achieve through their shared parenting considerations is children receiving a shared time of quality care from both parents, which is a very different model from simply trying to cut the time in half.
Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman, who I know has campaigned and spoken out on these issues for many years both before and after he came to the House, speaks with authority. What I am saying is that we need to tread very carefully, as these changes might have unintended consequences. I believe I am right in saying that evidence from Australia suggests that a similar change resulted in greater litigation and greater resort to the courts there. [Interruption.] The Minister says that the position is different there. Let us learn from the experience of other countries. We will study the Government’s specific proposals in detail today.
“children and young people should be given age-appropriate information to explain what is happening when they are involved in cases.”
They should be offered a menu of options setting out the ways in which they can do that if they wish. The court process is clearly an important part of that, but I think that we also need greater clarity from the Government on how we can ensure that children’s views are taken on board in the rest of the care system, which includes social workers.
We have been looking at the issue in our policy review, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the work that she did on it when she was in the shadow education team. Children often stress the importance of the monitoring of placements by social workers, and the importance of being able to talk to their own social worker alone. Often a social worker is a source of constancy—a rock—for a child who is moving between different foster carers or residential homes.
The second aim of our motion is to ensure that children and young people are given appropriate information and guidance so that they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation. We fear that in too many cases young people may not be clear about how to report instances of abuse or exploitation, and that some may not understand that the acts in which they or their friends are involved constitute sexual abuse. I am sure that we were all shocked by yesterday’s “Channel 4 News” investigation of Habbo Hotel, a very popular website which is used by children as young as 10 and has 250 million users globally.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling what I think is an incredibly important topic to be debated on the Floor of the House. I only wish that as many Members were present now as were present for the debate that preceded this one, because I think that this one is far more important.
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main problems is the accessing by children of inappropriate material on the internet, and does he welcome the Government’s commitment to formally reviewing an opt-in system? Many Members in all parts of the House believe that that would be a step forward, and a very good way of keeping our children safe.
Stephen Twigg: I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. As she says, that proposal has full cross-party support. My colleagues in the shadow home affairs team made the call, and she has made it as well. I think it vital for us to explore all practical options to ensure that the material that is available is age-appropriate.
The “Channel 4 News” investigation produced extremely disturbing evidence that children using the Habbo Hotel website are being sexually propositioned and encouraged to engage in inappropriate activities. I understand that the programme’s considerable body of evidence has been passed to the Government, and I should welcome an update from the Minister on what further action they will be taking in response to its investigation.
Voluntary organisations have a significant role to play in the provision of information, advice and guidance. Many organisations, including Beatbullying and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have played an important part and will continue to do so. There are also ways in which the media can be used to raise the profile of abuse and how it can be reported. As we know, the overwhelming majority of young people are confident about gaining access to online material, and as the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) pointed out, we need to ensure that that material is age-appropriate as well as accurate. There are obviously ways in which television resources can be used: soap story lines, for example, can be effective. I am certainly not suggesting that Ministers issue instructions regarding the plot lines of “Hollyoaks” or “EastEnders”, but there are smart and subtle ways in which we can raise awareness among young people.
Schools also have an important role to play, but I fear that the direction taken by the Secretary of State for Education is squeezing well-being out of the school environment. Ofsted is no longer required to measure well-being. The Secretary of State has described it as peripheral or even a distraction from academic education, although evidence shows that it can be an important foundation stone for academic success.
The third element is to ensure that all local authorities and decision makers are upholding the highest standards. We know there is huge variety within the system. Some places are pressing ahead with reform, while others are struggling with their caseloads and are unable, or even unwilling, to make the necessary changes. There is a widely held view that the Government’s top-down reorganisation of the NHS will mean, to quote Professor Munro, that
“child protection will get lost by people who do not directly deal with it and so do not fully understand its significance”
The Government need to clarify exactly where child safeguarding sits within the new NHS structures. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has today said that we need a detailed safeguarding accountability framework from the Department of Heath
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which covers all the safeguarding issues and sets out the roles and responsibilities of each of the new commissioner and provider organisations.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that multidisciplinary and multi-agency teams, such as Operation Messenger in my constituency, have a key role to play in identifying children and young people at risk from, for example, sexual exploitation? Does he also agree that although the guidance goes some way in the right direction, it does not go far enough? We must support such partnerships and ensure the practices they follow are based on evidence.
Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend is right, and I hope we will have an opportunity in today’s debate and the consultation period the Government have set out to make those very important points so the guidance is stronger than the draft guidance issued yesterday.
I want to highlight some excellent practice in the London borough of Hackney, which has been well evaluated. Hackney is one of a number of London boroughs that have established MASH—multi-agency safeguarding hub—teams to bring together the key services in one place. London boroughs are leading the way in such respects. Clearly, trustworthy and supportive relationships are key to ensuring a focus on the needs of the child.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing a debate on this topic. Does he recognise that since the baby P case there has been an increase across both London and the country in the number of children being taken into care? In Haringey there has been a 40% increase. Does he recognise that we still have to do more to encourage parents and carers to contact social services before problems arise, and that there is growing concern about fear in relation to social workers? This hits the most deprived. Social work is not on the whole an area known to Britain’s middle classes.
Stephen Twigg: My right hon. Friend speaks very powerfully on this issue, and makes the case on why the relationships I am talking about are so important. He also, by implication, makes the case for something I shall come to a little later: the importance of enhancing the status of social work as a profession.
These relationships should, of course, be challenging. Hackney has developed approaches whereby mistakes by people working in the services can be openly acknowledged and addressed without fear of reprisal. That is fostering a culture that should ensure systematic learning, including learning from mistakes. The role of local safeguarding children boards in this process has been invaluable. The boards were originally established by the Children Act 2004, and they bring the key partners together in one place to focus on safeguarding. There is significant variation in the quality and effectiveness of these boards, of course, but I hope the work that is now being done to ensure lessons are learned between them, such as through networks of board chairs, will go
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some way towards addressing that. However, there is concern that in the context of reduced regulation, the Government must remain vigilant to make sure that that learning process moves forward.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend, who is getting to the heart of the matter, share my concern? When I chaired the Select Committee, the inquiries that we did on this subject showed time and time again that people did not learn from their mistakes and that the core management and training were at the heart of all the problems.
Stephen Twigg: That is absolutely right, and I shall come on to one or two of those themes. As a principle, that makes sense, and not only in social work—there are similar lessons in other areas of public service.
As well as integrated services, I want to emphasise the importance of leadership. Professor Munro has said that local authorities should protect the role of director of children’s services and the lead member for children’s services, as established in the 2004 legislation. There is evidence from some authorities of those roles being combined with other functions, typically adult social care responsibilities. Professor Munro made it clear that she opposed that, and I urge the Minister to respond to her concerns.
If the Government are to meet their aim of improving professional expertise and flexibility, there is a need, as I have said, to improve the status of the social work profession. The British Association of Social Workers has warned that the proposals set out yesterday do not address sufficiently social workers’ concerns about issues to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) referred—unmanageable case loads, stress, plummeting morale and cuts to administrative support staff. We need to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility and professional expertise in the system, including on the important issue of neglect. Given that extreme, high-profile cases have, understandably, been well publicised, occasionally there is a tendency for the system to, as it were, neglect neglect. Professor Munro has said that the processes are
“better designed to deal with an urgent concern about an incident of physical or sexual abuse, so neglect, which is about a chronic pattern of parenting, does not come up as a serious case.”
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Education is carrying out a detailed inquiry on child protection. Although many issues have emerged—and the report has yet to be drafted—there is clear concern about neglect, the inconsistent thresholds across the country for services to families, and the fact that in cases where older children are clearly at risk they do not necessarily get access to the services that they need. Those are three areas of serious concern for the Select Committee.
I know that my hon. Friend raised those matters directly with the Minister when he gave evidence to the Select Committee yesterday. I wish to put on record our appreciation of the detailed work that she and other members of the Select Committee
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have done on this important subject. I am sure that all Members look forward to that report, including its recommendations.
Services such as ChildLine have done an immense job in identifying the problems facing children and young people, but the increasing work load for its staff—similar to the increasing work load for social workers and council staff—and the fact that the processes for dealing with referrals are often bureaucratic, is something that the Government should address.
On early intervention, Labour supports the Munro recommendation that a statutory duty should be introduced on local authorities and relevant agencies to secure the provision of early help. Early intervention is vital in the prevention and detection of abuse. These services need to be expanded, but are under a great deal of pressure, not least from spending cuts. I wish to put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for the excellent work they have done on this very important area of early intervention. They have outlined the importance of early work in identifying challenges and managing to tackle them at an appropriate stage.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): On that point about early intervention, the Government have marked out a route whereby they want to see special treatment for 120,000 families who meet five of their seven criteria, but the fact that they meet five of those negative criteria almost automatically suggests to me that they are past the point of early intervention.
Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is taking us into an important territory that merits consideration in a further debate in the House, because those are big challenges we face.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his generous remarks and for the way he has couched the motion, which allows all Members across the House who are concerned about the issue to support what I hope Members on both Front Benches will say today. He talks about early intervention, and obviously there are catastrophic consequences for individuals when things are not done right and social and emotional capability is not given to babies, children and young people, but there are also tremendous economic consequences. Does he agree that if the Chancellor wants an enormous deficit reduction programme, early interventions that mean we do not have the costs of later interventions, which are not only expensive but often only partially successful, suggest that the way to go is to have a little, but early, rather than a lot, wastefully, later?
There are positive signs that the system has been improving. Three years on from the baby Peter case, a review by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service into care applications found that local authorities are intervening much more quickly and in a much more timely way. However, we are concerned that many essential early intervention services are being cut.
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An important innovation has been the family drug and alcohol court, which provides intensive support to parents alongside a series of carrots and sticks to help them make progress. The close relationship between the court and families can serve to improve the speed of decision making and provide crucial therapeutic help at an early stage. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said earlier, it is so important to work with parents to improve parenting skills. Parental support was a key element of Labour’s Sure Start programme, and the national evaluation of Sure Start found greatly improved outcomes for children in Sure Start areas, with more consistent discipline from parents, less chaos at home, parents making more use of local services and fewer children suffering in accidents.
There is a wealth of evidence on the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse, as the Minister acknowledged yesterday when he appeared before the Select Committee. We are concerned that we have seen a 31% cut in funding for refuges and specialist advice, which is surely undermining action to deal with domestic violence. On the subject of unintended consequences, I have a real concern, which I think has been expressed in the Select Committee’s deliberations, that in some cases the legitimate desire to protect a child from domestic violence can lead to the child being taken away from the non-violent parent, usually the mother. I would be grateful for any further information the Minister has on that.
Finally, let me say something about the importance of clarifying who is responsible within the Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance. Professor Munro has said that she feels on occasion that momentum is not being maintained, and I think that, one year after her recommendation to appoint a chief social worker, and three years after that was first proposed, the Government need to move swiftly to appoint someone to that important new post. At the end of her one-year progress report, Professor Munro says that there should be continuing oversight of the whole system so that progress is maintained. The Government need to make it clear who will be responsible for that oversight, and I note that Professor Munro says that it should not be her, but a “fresh person”.
Mr Sheerman: Before my hon. Friend finishes his excellent and even-handed contribution, like those from Members across the parties, will he take it from many of us who have been in the field for a long time that there is a crisis not just of children at risk, but of childhood? There are sometimes unintended consequences, and Opposition Members have been complicit in that, given our attitude that there should be votes at 16—with no attention paid to its implications in terms of shortening childhood. That is an unintended consequence, but two parties in the House had the measure in their election manifestos—with no thought about the implications for the protection that childhood until 18 offers so many children.
Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend tempts me, as a long-standing supporter of votes at 16, down a different road. I am sure that it was not a consideration in his making the intervention, but it is a debate for another time and place.
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We also need to safeguard the safeguarding system. Studies have shown that the vast majority of care proceedings are appropriate and taken in the best interests of the child, but we need to ensure that there is a suitable mechanism for the occasions when that does not happen. Yesterday the Minister said that he was considering a form of “appeals process” to enable that, and I am sure that the House would be grateful if he could elaborate on his thinking.
I said at the beginning of this speech that child protection and safeguarding covers a range of issues and Departments, and, in addition to my warnings about unintended consequences and the well-being of children, I am concerned by the Government’s somewhat incoherent approach: on the one hand, Ministers like to lambast local authorities, yet on the other they are removing regulation and placing more power in the hands of local authority social work staff; on the one hand, Ministers say they want to reduce bureaucracy and red tape, but on the other they are introducing adoption scorecards for every local authority; and, on the one hand, Ministers say that early intervention is important, yet on the other they have not taken forward Professor Munro’s recommended statutory duty to do “early work” on child protection.
The British Association of Social Workers has raised a series of concerns about the state of the profession, particularly case load and the pressures on administration. In a survey that we conducted, more than 80% of the directors of children’s services who responded said that cuts to other services would affect their ability to safeguard children, and in a survey by the BASW 90% of social workers expressed concern that lives “could be at risk” as a consequence of cuts to services. The Government need to explain how they will address those challenges.
Ian Mearns: At a previous session of the Education Committee, when the Secretary of State was in attendance, I asked him whether he thought that it was a good idea for his Department—he being the Secretary of State for Education and children—to undertake an impact assessment of the Government’s proposed benefit changes on the welfare of children and their educational prospects. He subsequently said that he did not think that it was his responsibility, and he was doubtful about the veracity of such assessments anyway. Is that a surprise to my hon. Friend?
The Government have to explain how they will address the challenges that I have set, and there needs to be a robust training and continuing professional development framework not only for social workers, but for other staff in the relevant agencies, especially those in the health sector. It is crucial that we have robust supervision of social work practice by experienced senior staff and consultants who are accountable for the exercise of professional judgment. We know that the lack of good supervision was a significant issue in the baby Peter case.
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that they can make as professionals, they need to learn from mistakes that have been made in the past. We have heard about the horrendous cases of baby P and others, which have led to a number of serious case reviews. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to make sure that we shine a light on the mistakes that were made in those particularly appalling cases and learn those lessons from the past, it is important that we have full publication of serious case reviews, albeit anonymised in the appropriate places?
Stephen Twigg: I am going to tread carefully on that issue. I am being advised to say yes by my esteemed colleague in the shadow team, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), but I recognise that that would be a change from the position that my predecessor took. I will undertake to look at it and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
Let me finish by saying something about the Government’s broader policy with regard to children and families. When the Secretary of State took over two years ago, he renamed the Department, removing the words “Children” and “Families”. I am a passionate advocate of innovation, rigour and high standards in our schools and colleagues.
There is no contradiction between high standards and promoting the well-being of children; indeed, the two can and should go hand in hand. That was the core ethos of Every Child Matters, yet this Government have moved away from that. An internal DFE memo in 2010 said that reference to the five Every Child Matters outcomes was now forbidden and that the rather nebulous concept, “Help children achieve more”, was to replace it. Achievement is important, but so too is the broader well-being of children and young people. I urge the Government to think again on this. The principles of Every Child Matters are as relevant and powerful in 2012 as they were in 2004. Indeed, they are the principles that lie at the heart of this very important debate. It is a debate that enables the House to consider the Government’s proposals, gives Members in all parts of the House an opportunity to raise questions and concerns on behalf of our constituents, and, above all, should send out a clear, cross-party message that Parliament is determined to do all that we can to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): Let me first say what a contrast to the previous debate this has been—calm and measured, and about important things that are affecting our constituents and vulnerable children around the country but do not get the airing that they should.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on using an opportunity such as this, as I always did in opposition, to try to flag up these really important issues, which are not terribly fashionable
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in the press or among some of our colleagues but are absolutely crucial to many of our most vulnerable citizens. It is absolutely right that we should do that. The hon. Gentleman raised, in a very measured way, a lot of important matters, most of which I covered in my two-hour grilling in front of the Education Select Committee yesterday, and many of which I will cover in my comments today. Let me pick up just a few of his points. I do not want to speak at length, because other people want to contribute to the debate and that is very important.
I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Eileen Monro’s report, which was excellent. She had the time and space to come up with some very well-considered proposals instead of giving a knee-jerk reaction to the latest tragedy that had happened. Her report was universally well received. It is a great joy to me to be able to put into practice everything that she recommended. Some of the recommendations are a bit more problematic than others, and with some, just as she took time to consider them, we will take time to come up with the precise nature of the solutions.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the chief social worker. Before this debate, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), and I interviewed the four short-listed candidates; in fact, I gather that they interviewed us. There have been some very high-calibre candidates and we hope to be able to appoint that person shortly. I want them working alongside me and the Health Department as soon as possible. That key recommendation from Monro will make a big difference.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the family drug and alcohol court, which Nick Crichton runs. I have sat in it on many occasions. It is fantastic and a really smart way of dealing with very problematic cases. I want to see more of that rolled out. My own authority is looking at a joint venture with Brighton in east Sussex to see whether we can bring it to our part of the country, and there are other examples.
The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he praised Munro for wanting a child-centred system. The review was entitled, “The Child’s Journey”. We are all here not to make sure that the system works better or that processes are followed more efficiently, but to make sure that the qualitative outcomes—the impact that the system is having on children who need to be helped, safeguarded and put in a safe place—are improved. We often forgot that in the past, which has been one of the weaknesses.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned training. One of my continuous pushes is on continuous professional development, which he mentioned as well. It is crucial, which is why we put £80 million into social work reform in 2011-12, and why we have some good new social workers coming forward from other walks of life, as well as through training in our universities. We put £23 million into the local social work improvement fund in 2010-11 to support improvement on the front line. We have 3,700 newly qualified or first or second-year social workers who have joined the professional development programme. There are 400 extremely high-calibre people. I have met many of them. I am handing out awards to many of them from the Step Up to Social Work programme.
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There is a great deal going on. Safeguarding children is not a partisan issue, but something that we all want to achieve, so I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgement that a real momentum is building in efforts to make our children safer—although never completely safe. It is unrealistic, as Professor Munro pointed out, to suggest that we can remove risk and make every child absolutely safe. It would be complacent to think so. Our job in government and the job of those in opposition working with all the professionals around the country is to make children as safe as we possibly can.
Mr Sheerman: The Minister knows of my interest in the subject and I do not want to upset the apple cart or the bipartisan nature of the debate, but this is not the first such debate that the Secretary of State has not attended. There is a crisis facing children. All the evidence that we have received over the past months suggests that many vulnerable children are in a dreadful situation in our country. We need the leadership of the Secretary of State, to show that he is interested in children’s issues as well as in broader schools and education issues.
Tim Loughton: The Secretary of State is hugely engaged in the issue. I have been around the block a little longer than he has. Having been shadow Minister with responsibility for children, having dealt with safeguarding since 2003 and having been appointed to this position, I perhaps have a little more experience of the subject. When the current Secretary of State took up his position as shadow Secretary of State, his interest and his knowledge of serious case reviews on some safeguarding issues was extraordinary. He has driven the programme and enabled me and others to carry forward the proposals from Munro and others in the way we have. I remind the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that the very first review that was established in the Department for Education under the new Secretary of State was the Munro review on child safeguarding. It was nothing to do with schools or education; it was on child safeguarding. That speaks volumes.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): That is good to hear, but when both the Minister and his hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) said that this debate was much more important than the previous one, is it not fair to point out that the Secretary of State chose to attend the beginning of the previous debate, but not to attend this debate?
Tim Loughton: I am sorry that we seem to be descending into the village frippery of the last debate. This debate was announced yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to shift various engagements to attend the House earlier and is not able to attend this debate. He trusts me and my ministerial colleagues to speak about this issue from the Dispatch Box. He follows these issues very closely. The fact that he has put the resources of the Department into ensuring that we have safeguarding improvements that are working is the test of the commitment of this Government, this Secretary of State and this ministerial team to the subject in hand.
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Let us get back to the important business of saying what we have done and responding to the points that have been made. I welcome this opportunity to debate safeguarding children. It is appropriate that we should have this debate now because, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, only yesterday we launched a consultation on revised statutory guidance, as part of our wider proposals to reform radically the child protection system in England. It is radical reform, and it is also about changing mindsets.
Before I remind hon. Members of the action that the Government have taken to keep vulnerable children safe, I want to pay tribute, as I am sure we all do, to the many thousands of professionals, social workers and others around the country who work hard to do just that, for which they receive little recognition and praise in the media or among our constituents. I often refer to social workers as the fourth emergency service. That is not an overestimation. Our reforms are designed to help those professionals to get on with their jobs better and to keep vulnerable children safer.
Although it is essential to tackle poor practice, I believe that we can and should do a great deal more to celebrate successes and to support those on the front line when they use their professional judgment to take tough decisions. I have met many hundreds of social workers over the past few years and spent a whole week in Stockport as a social worker a little while ago. They have to exercise the judgment of Solomon, often on a daily basis. It is not an exact science. They have to make difficult judgment calls, and we expect them to do so as part of their daily job.
As many hon. Members will know, the widely welcomed review completed by Eileen Munro last year laid the groundwork for a new approach to child protection. As I have said, it was the first review that we established. We are rapidly turning its recommendations into practice. Professor Munro found that the system had become overwhelmed by prescriptive bureaucracy and box-ticking, and that social workers were spending too much time on form-filling and not enough with families and vulnerable children. Endless procedures had been imposed on professionals to minimise risk, even though it is fanciful to believe that we can wish danger and insecurity away simply by ticking the right boxes. As a result, the professionalism and judgment of frontline staff had been undermined. The most important thing—the central focus on the needs of children—had been largely lost.
The answer that Professor Munro proposed was simple: we need to get back to basics of best practice. We need to allow social workers to spend more time with children and families, getting to know and understand them and responding to their particular circumstances and needs. As she put it, we need to focus
“not only on whether we are doing things right but whether we are doing the right thing.”
We accepted Eileen Munro’s findings and have been acting on them. We are beginning to see the fruits of the change of emphasis. We are seeing greater flexibility, with eight local authorities, including Knowsley and Islington, testing new approaches to the assessment of children’s needs over the past year. We have given them the freedom, through a special dispensation, to set their own local frameworks and to replace rigid time scales with professional judgments based on the needs of each child.
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The feedback from the trials has been encouraging. Social workers are telling us that greater flexibility leads to more quality time with children and families, and better assessments, particularly for families with the most complex needs. Many also feel an enhanced sense of ownership over their work. We are, I hope, restoring confidence to the social work profession, which had taken such a knock.
Local authorities are telling us that with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. They have been reporting back to us about the need to monitor cases robustly to prevent drift. We are seeing a greater practical emphasis on multi-agency working and a drive towards transparency, which is essential in improving services and strengthening public confidence in the work that they do. We are seeing a stronger focus on supervision, with social workers having more time with their managers to discuss complex cases.
I am also encouraged to see an emerging greater emphasis on learning, another key point that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. Increasingly, the sector is taking the lead in sharing lessons from good practice and from when things go wrong. We can learn from mistakes only if we understand how and why they happened, hence our policy on publishing serious case reviews, which I am delighted to hear the Opposition have now come around to. We are also considering how we can improve serious case reviews to make them more effective tools for learning lessons that are widely shared and that lead to action and sustainable improvements. That could not happen while only very limited executive summaries were in the public domain.
Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we announced a further important step in our overhaul of the child protection system in England. It is a measure at the heart of the Munro recommendations: the revised “working together” strategy. That new statutory guidance for safeguarding children will help create a new culture of trust among health professionals, teachers, early years professionals, youth workers, police and social workers.
We have published three draft documents for consultation—and it will indeed be a consultation. Some of the points made by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, as well as others that the hon. Gentleman raised, absolutely need to be fed into that consultation. That was why we did not just plough ahead, much though Eileen Munro was urging us to do so. We want to get things right, just as she got her recommendations right. We want to ensure that we put them into practice in the right way so that they work properly.
Our three draft documents will replace more 700 pages of detailed instructions with 68 pages of short, precise guidance and checklists. They will be punchy but clear and give professionals space in which to exercise their professional judgment. The revised guidance proposes giving local areas more freedom to organise their services in a way that suits local needs. It will allow more face-to-face time with children and families, which is crucial, and provide a clear framework within which professionals must operate.
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It does not tell GPs and other health professionals, teachers, police and social workers exactly how to do their job, but it provides a checklist setting out their duties and what is expected of them. It also sets out how the role and impact of local safeguarding children boards can be strengthened. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are crucial to the reforms, and they play an absolutely vital role in holding local agencies to account and getting all the key players around the same table and talking the same language.
The second document is new guidance on undertaking assessments of children in need. Informed by evidence from the eight trial local authorities, it proposes replacing nationally prescribed timetables with a more flexible approach. That approach will be focused, as it should be, on the needs of each child. It will absolutely do what the motion asks for—it will put the child’s needs, rather than compliance with inflexible time scales and recording processes, at the centre of assessment.
The third document is new guidance on learning and improvement, to help all services learn the lessons from serious case reviews. It comes from our strong belief that serious case reviews need to be much more strongly focused on learning, rather than process, and that the reports must be published so that lessons can be shared nationally and locally. In those reviews, we need to get to the heart of what went wrong and what action at what point by which individual led to a decision being made that might have contributed to a tragedy.
“We are finally moving away from the defensive rule-bound culture that has been so problematic. I believe an urgent culture change in our child protection system is now underway.”
“We support changing the emphasis within the system to enable professionals to take responsibility for safeguarding the welfare of the most vulnerable children.”
Ian Mearns: At the same time as doing the work that he is undertaking to do, has the Minister given any additional thought to updating the legal definition of neglect? I believe that next year is the 80th anniversary of that definition as it is currently enshrined in law.
Tim Loughton: We had this conversation yesterday in the Select Committee on Education, of course, and I said that in response to the Action for Children report we had examined closely whether there needed to be an update to the law, which goes back to the 1933 definition. We were strongly advised that we did not need to change the law, which the courts and children’s services are interpreting in a contemporary way. As I was speaking yesterday, we were putting on the website a neglect toolkit, designed with Action for Children and the university of Stirling. It includes some practical tools for detecting, intervening and dealing with cases of neglect. That is a much more practical way to achieve real results now.
Revising statutory guidance is clearly not the only thing we need to do—far from it. The consultation forms part of a much wider programme of reforms that includes Ofsted’s new inspection framework, which began in May 2012 and has a stronger focus on the quality of practice and the effectiveness of help provided to children.
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It is much more children-centred. From June 2013, the planned new joint inspections will make a further important difference by looking at the contribution of all local agencies to keeping children safe. We are reforming inspection so that it makes judgments about the things that really matter, and so that it looks at how agencies work together to safeguard children more from the perspective of the qualitative outcomes for the child.
Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that moving looked-after children from one local authority to another creates greater difficulty, namely ensuring that case notes are transferred and that the conversation between the different agencies is sustained? When children are moved, their longer-term safety is eroded because of the distance and lack of contact between the source local authority and the receiving one.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend knows exactly what I think about that—we have discussed it at length. She has become something of expert in this matter because it is an issue in her constituency, as it is in mine. As a result of her approaches and events in Rochdale and other alarming cases, we will announce shortly, as I told the Committee yesterday, the results of the additional work done by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner on how we ensure that children are placed out of area only when appropriate, and when they can be safely and appropriately looked after. That should happen at the moment, but it does not in practice. The sufficiency principle, which we have overhauled once, needs more work. I will be happy to make those announcements in detail within the next few weeks, because this is a serious matter.
“to be promoted on the best available evidence”.
We know that the earlier help is given to vulnerable children and families, the more chance there is of turning lives around and protecting children from harm. We are therefore continuing to work with children’s services, police and the NHS to shift the focus on to earlier intervention and early help.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend. I just want to be helpful. Does he agree that having more early prevention programmes—including, for example, psychotherapists to whom social workers could on-refer—would help to back-solve the problem of the overloading of social workers and health visitors? If we had such programmes, social workers and health visitors would
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have somebody who could deal with the problems, support them and enable them to release some of the burden of their case load.
Tim Loughton: I have known my hon. Friend for more than 30 years and she has never been anything but helpful. Her work on early prevention, which is germane to the Government’s work on neglect and early help, absolutely confirms that the sooner we can detect problems, such as detachment, deficiency and others—the work with troubled families is important in this respect—the more likely we are to step in at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner to avoid such problems leading to greater harm to a child. She is absolutely right, as she knows, and as she knows I know.
Understanding families and the experiences of children within them can be complex and signs of what appears to be low-level neglect can be misleading. Yesterday, as I have said, we published materials commissioned from Action for Children and the University of Stirling to help on that.
We are already seeing some notable successes from earlier intervention. I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is no longer in the Chamber, for his work on that. For example, the integrated access team in Suffolk is taking and handling quickly cases that would previously have been dealt with by children’s social care, with a £7 million saving on top of better social outcomes for those children. Tower Hamlets is operating a multi-agency integrated pathway and support team to deliver early help, reducing by 50% the number of referrals to children’s social care. That is happening in practice, and we now want more of it around the country.
As the motion indicates, it is important that professionals know what early intervention works best. To support them in that, the Government have recently invited bids for the establishment of an early intervention foundation and we expect the foundation to operate independently of central Government to support the needs of local commissioners and to build a solid evidence base.
I referred at the start of my speech to the importance of a high quality social work work force. Building on the work of the social work taskforce established by the previous Administration, we have focused heavily on improving the capacity and capability of the social work profession. In 2011-12 we invested £80 million in a national programme of social work reform to improve skills for social workers and tackle high vacancy rates in child protection. Together, all those reforms will shift the child protection system from a culture of compliance to a culture in which children and families are at the centre and social workers and other key professionals spend less time in front of their computer screens and more time face to face with vulnerable families and children, which is what we all want to see.
The motion rightly refers to the importance of young people understanding the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation. Tackling child sexual exploitation is a major priority for the Government and it has been at the top of our agenda over the past 12 months. Back in May last year, I made a speech at a Barnardo’s event in which I highlighted the importance of its “Puppet on a string” report. I said then that sexual exploitation of children
“is happening here and it is happening now”
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“I think it’s a much bigger problem than it may appear now on our radar.”
For far too long, the issue was something of a taboo in this country. It was little spoken about, little appreciated and little acknowledged or dealt with. Few local authorities had much idea about how prevalent child sexual exploitation was in their areas and, as a result, there was a real and tragic failure to grasp the scale of the problem. The high profile verdicts in the recent Rochdale case and others show that the situation is changing. The country is at last waking up to the fact that child sexual exploitation is a real problem in this country, but although the issue has been extensively discussed and debated in the media, there is still a good deal of misunderstanding about it.
Much of the coverage of the case in Rochdale focused on the fact that the perpetrators were British Asian men and the victims white teenage girls. We must not shy away from difficult issues about culture—I have said that on many occasions—and the Rochdale case does raise very troubling questions about the attitude of the perpetrators, all but one of whom were from Pakistani backgrounds, towards white girls, but it would be mistaken, and dangerous, to assume that that is the form that child sexual exploitation generally takes. We know that perpetrators of that appalling crime and their victims can be found in all backgrounds, in all parts of the country and in all social and ethnic sets. As Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, told the Select Committee on Home Affairs yesterday, this is not just a crime that takes place in northern metropolitan boroughs. She quoted a police officer from a
“lovely, leafy, rural part of the country”
“there isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited”.
We owe a debt of gratitude to several organisations and individuals for putting the issue on the map, such as Safe and Sound Derby and, in particular, Sheila Taylor, to whom I pay tribute. Barnardo’s also did an enormous amount to raise awareness through its excellent report and its continuing “Cut them free” campaign. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre carried out a major assessment last year and reported practitioners telling it
“if you lift the stone, you’ll find it”.
There are many others, including many local projects and voluntary organisations, with whom my Department continues to work closely. We acted, I brought together all the major players and in November of last year we produced the tackling child sexual exploitation action plan. That is one of the pieces of work in my Department of which I am most proud, and it is beginning to have an effect. It is intended to lift the lid on the true nature and extent of this crime and to set out practical responses to it, and as a result many practical measures are already coming into force, although we need many more to take effect.
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to intervene so that we can help children and families who are caught up in sexual exploitation. Once they have been rescued from it, we need to help them get their lives back on track. Finally, we must secure robust prosecutions and improve court processes to ensure support for victims and their families, including ensuring that we do not retraumatise teenage girls and other victims, who have to go through the whole episode in court in front of a phalanx of defence barristers. That is why the Attorney-General’s influence and involvement are really important. We must and can do better and shortly we will publish a progress report on how a range of Government Departments and national and local organisations are implementing the action plan.
Hon. Members will also be aware that last month the Secretary of State asked the Deputy Children’s Commissioner to provide him with an accelerated report from her office’s inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. Although it is clear that most children who are sexually exploited are not in care, we know that children who are in care are disproportionately represented in the numbers of victims of this crime. The Secretary of State asked particularly for recommendations on how to keep children in care homes safe from this abuse. We have just received that accelerated report, and we will publish it within a matter of weeks alongside the updated progress report, into which some of the findings from Sue Berelowitz’s report will be factored and, as a result, some urgent streams of work will emerge.
We are already taking action on children missing from care, and it is clear that the figures the police and my Department publish are not consistent. That is simply not acceptable. We are now working with the police and local authorities to bring a more consistent approach to figures collected nationally and locally. We need to know the extent of the problem so we can challenge poorly performing local authorities and come up with the right solutions.
I am particularly grateful for the work the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) is carrying out through the all-party parliamentary group inquiry into children missing from care. I look forward to receiving its report next week and will consider its recommendations very closely. I have promised that it will inform the new guidance we are looking to publish in that area.
Of course, safeguarding children in care is only one aspect of our wider reform programme to transform the care system and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children. Key is ensuring placement stability and good parenting—as we have heard from hon. Members today—whether through adoption, foster care or children’s homes. We also want to improve the support given to care leavers, another group vulnerable to sexual exploitation. We must ensure that children who leave care live in good accommodation and are well supported.
The reference in the motion to multi-agency working has a particular relevance in relation to tackling child sexual exploitation. Local safeguarding children boards have an absolutely central role in overseeing much of the work set out in our action plan. There is growing evidence that LSCBs and local authorities are getting a better picture of child sexual exploitation in their areas and taking steps to address it. But it is clear that some are still not giving this issue the priority it requires. They need to do so without further delay.
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There is one final area that I want to mention in particular. Improving the safety of children who use the internet is an urgent priority, including reducing the risk of harm through contact with strangers and the viewing of harmful content. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned a particularly horrific site that was raised yesterday. The Government are working, through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety or UKCCIS, which I chair jointly with a Home Office Minister, to help to keep children and young people safer online. The council is focused on practical action, both by individual members, and collectively.
We have made real progress across a number of areas. The four major internet service providers have signed a code of practice that will see by October 2012 all new broadband customers presented with an unavoidable choice of whether to activate parental controls. Major retailers and manufacturers of internet-enabled devices such as mobile phones, laptops and internet-enabled TVs are developing solutions to increase the availability and awareness of parental controls at point of sale. UKCCIS has also published advice and guidance for internet companies to use so that parents get consistent information about keeping their children safe on the internet.
Mrs Chapman: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hesitated to intervene, given the speed at which he was going, but I did not want to miss the chance to raise with him a very real concern for people in Darlington about registered sex offenders. At the moment, offenders are not required to register their online identities as a matter of course. Sexual offences prevention orders are used to do this job, but it is not a requirement as a matter of course. When people have a known history of child abuse and deliberate grooming, it is very important that they are required to register their online identities as a matter of course.
Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Rather than go into detail now and take more time from Back Benchers, I would be happy to look into it if she would like to have a conversation with me and send me some details.
This is a huge, complex but deeply important subject and one that must remain a key priority for the Government and the Department in particular. The documents we published yesterday are intended to help create the new culture that we are determined to see. It is a culture that is not overly focused on compliance and dependency on central prescription and guidance; in which front-line professionals who work to keep children safe from harm no longer have their judgment stifled by what has all too often been pointless—albeit well intentioned—bureaucracy, made up of unnecessary rules and targets; and which has the needs and well-being of the child at its centre. It is apparent from the motion that the Government and the Opposition share the same goals in relation to the safeguarding of children, and I believe that the important reforms I have outlined will be
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welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I congratulate again the shadow Secretary of State on bringing this important subject before a slightly reduced audience in the Chamber today, because it is really important to a much bigger audience outside the House.
Mr Speaker: Order. In view of the level of interest, I have had to impose an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, with immediate effect, and although it is not obligatory not to take interventions, some self-denial over the number and length of interventions would help us to achieve our objective of getting everybody in.
Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, to speak in this extremely important and timely debate on safeguarding children. I, too, welcome the motion, which is wide-ranging and will enable Members from across the House with different expertise and experience to contribute to what we all wish to do—protect children. I also welcome the timely statutory guidance that the Minister set out yesterday for bringing together the threads of the Government’s work on child protection. I must also declare an interest, having had 12 years’ experience as a family law barrister specialising in child protection, which although not making me an expert, has given me an insight into the work of child protection professionals.
Let us consider why the Government are prioritising child protection. A couple of startling statistics speak for themselves. Last year, 382,400 children-in-need requests were recorded and more than 600,000 referrals were made to social workers. Those are huge numbers that we all must reflect on. I know that all Members will be working with families and social work professionals, through their constituency casework, in trying to combat the problem of damaged children.
I want to cover early intervention, on which Members have already commented, the sexual exploitation of children, and the need to inform young people of the risks and to empower child protection professionals to provide the necessary support to vulnerable families. It is difficult to go much further, however, without mentioning the report by Professor Eileen Munro. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Minister for covering the report in detail—there is little to add to what they said. We all welcome the detail of this wide-ranging report, which I understand was the first to be commissioned under the coalition Government by the Department for Education. That sent out a clear signal that the Government intended to prioritise child protection and, in particular, to support the professionals.
I do not want to go through many more statistics, and certainly I do not want to emphasise the differences between the main political parties. So far, the debate has brought us together on this important issue, and I wish to continue with that. It is right, however, to give examples of why these changes are needed. In family courts over the years, I have represented hard-working social work teams, children themselves, through their guardians, and the parents, and too often I have seen social workers desperately trying to complete the paperwork necessary to facilitate a child’s move into care. At these
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crucial times, however, those social workers need the ability to exercise their professional judgment in weighing up the options for the children—possibly the division of a sibling group—and assessing the emergency situation.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of where a court has to consider a child’s future is the grave situation where there is a risk of harm right from birth. Such cases are extremely troubling and distressing for everyone concerned. They involve not just questions of logistics, but the exercise of professional judgment on the part of the social work team about how to plan and facilitate the removal of the child from birth, if that is required. Such cases require the ultimate exercise of judgment by professionals, at a time when they do not need to be worrying about the paperwork that goes alongside such decisions. I hope that the reforms will go a long way to change that.
Both Front Benchers raised concerns about child neglect. In my experience, the cases involving neglect are often the hardest to read—that is, to determine the chronology and the facts. That is probably because complex cases of sexual abuse are so far removed from the experience of most people in this country that they are difficult to relate to. However, unclean clothes, not being washed, a lack of love and care in the home, feelings of hunger—something I always try to avoid—and physical neglect are concepts that, on some level, we can perhaps all relate to, and we all know what they must be like for a young child with no ability whatever to protect themselves. The emphasis on child neglect and the need to empower professionals to sustain change within homes—not just to make referrals, but to keep supporting families—is extremely important. Tackling neglect is also about encouraging all adults across society and about not being frightened to make referrals. All of us can do more on this issue. I know that social work teams would rather have 10 calls about a family when there are concerns about neglect than have no calls at all.
That brings me to another aspect of this debate: the need for a multi-agency approach, which is also highlighted in the motion. In my experience, improvements have already been made, following the baby Peter Connelly case, to address the need to bring multi-agency work together at the earliest stage. However, we now need to look at sharing paperwork and information. Is there anything more we can do to make the system effective for the longer term? Neglect is also related to the need for early intervention, which has also been raised this afternoon. It is an issue that I have mentioned in the House on a number of occasions. We are grateful for our experience of addressing the issue and for the reports that hon. Members have prepared on it.
I see that time is against me. There is more that I wanted to say, but to conclude, I see genuine momentum in the safeguarding of children. We now have an evidence-based approach supporting the social work profession and the toolkit to move things forward, so that we can assist the professionals and parents in the community through early intervention. Ultimately, that will protect the children who need the help which all of us in this place are concerned about.
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Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the shadow Secretary of State for Education, on initiating this debate. It is truly timely, not least because of the Rochdale grooming case. Indeed, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, following that case, the public would expect this issue to be discussed on the Floor of the House, so it is right and proper that we should be having this debate.
I have to confess that this is not an issue on which I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fair to say that in the last few months I have learned much about it. I want to concentrate on the Rochdale grooming case, how these horrific crimes came about, what lessons can be learned and how we need to go about learning them. It is right and proper that the starting point for any discussion on this type of issue should be the victims. Let us be clear: the victims in this case—these vulnerable girls—went to hell and back, in terms of what they experienced at the hands of their abusers and the court case that they had to go through. They were passed around the perpetrators and repeatedly raped. They were continually abused and treated absolutely appallingly.
It is interesting that, after the trial, professionals involved in the care of children were saying that the girls were from chaotic families, as though that explained why they had not been cared for. I accept that the parents of those children must take some responsibility, but the local authorities involved were those children’s guardians, and they failed to guard them. The perpetrators sometimes referred to the girls as prostitutes, and it was interesting that some of the social services staff referred to them in the same way. Those girls did not stand a chance.
Three weeks ago, two health workers who had been heavily involved in the case came to see me at my constituency office to describe their experience. They said that social services managers believed that the girls had been making life choices, which is why they were seen as prostitutes. Some of the social services staff who were dealing with the girls clearly had low expectations of them. The health workers told me that although one of the girls—their client—had presented with multiple sexually transmitted infections, the council would not intervene or escalate her care. They also told me that one 13-year-old girl had asked to go into secure care to escape from the abuse. Social services responded that she was too disruptive, and that it would cost too much. Let us be clear: those health professionals were working with children who were pressing for greater intervention, more action and more intensive care, yet none of that was forthcoming. The abuse continued for years. Vulnerable girls got pregnant by their abusers, and lives continued to be ruined. That is the reality.
Yesterday, we started to hear the defence—not the defence of the perpetrators, but that of some of the agencies involved in the case. Rochdale council and Greater Manchester police gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. I pay tribute to the scrutiny role fulfilled by the Chairman and the members of the Committee. We heard council representatives saying that there needed to be a change in the law, because data-sharing had been a problem in the case. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth
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(Alun Michael), a Committee member, pointed out that legislation in the late 1990s had enabled agencies to share all the data that needed to be shared in order to prevent a crime. In fact, such agencies are obliged to share information to prevent such crimes. Sharing data should not have been an issue. The health workers I met had made it clear that this was not about sharing data; it was about their concerns being ignored by social services. We do not need to change the law; rather, the council needs to change its culture.
During a conversation that I had with a senior officer two months ago, before the sentencing in the case, she described on-street grooming as a new phenomenon. It is no such thing. Senior officers also said that they had only just received guidance on this matter from central Government, as though they needed such guidance to intervene to stop those perpetrators abusing those girls, or to take more responsibility for them. The Select Committee also heard from the chief constable of Greater Manchester police. I want to put on the record that Greater Manchester police did an excellent job of prosecuting this grooming case. It should be noted that they have apologised for the errors they made in the attempted prosecution of 2008.
One of the chief constable’s defences for what happened—or did not happen—in 2008 was that he was concerned about these vulnerable girls going through the court system, as he thought it would be a harrowing experience. The problem with that argument is, first, that the girls were probably not consulted on whether they wanted to go through a court case; and, secondly, and more importantly, that they continued to be abused because they did not go to court. Which is worse: going through a court case or continuing to be abused?
The Crown Prosecution Service, too, clearly failed in 2008 and has apologised for it. It needs to be said that no thorough investigation took place, so we do not know who it was who took the decision not to prosecute and we do not know whether disciplinary action has been taken. This is a public body, and I believe that greater transparency needs to be applied to it.
A whole range of issues is at stake. Investigations by the local authority and by the local safeguarding children board are going on, but let me reassure the House and the public that any cover-up in this instance will not be accepted. I have been assured by the Minister and the Prime Minister that action will be taken to get to the bottom of this. I hope that that happens.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I must congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on his very good speech, much of which needs to be listened to and understood. It is not that we do not have the right laws in place; it is that the professional judgments made by practitioners are often basically not common sense.
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the children were prostitutes but did mind if they made toast for each other—because there was a health and safety risk to making toast.
I have made the effort to get the statutory guidance. If the motion supported the statutory guidance, I would probably have to vote against it, because it goes no further in looking at the definition of what is a risk of significant harm. It is quite clear that certain practitioners do not believe that being a prostitute is a risk of significant harm. [Interruption.] That seems to be the case, and it is not necessarily a UK-only situation. A family currently living in Wimbledon had similar problems in New Zealand where an under-age relationship was encouraged by the practitioners in that country because they thought it was right. That was on the New Zealand media last week.
Ian Mearns: In the Rochdale case and others I have read about, the abuse perpetrated against young girls has been so systematic and has lasted over such a prolonged period that the girls themselves did not see themselves as victims. In that scenario, who is going to look after them? We must think deeply about the implications of that problem.
Let me explain one of my concerns about the Government’s complacency on this issue. We have the SSDA903 return, which tracks what happens to children as they leave care. A number of possible destinations are listed: for example, adopted; died; care taken by another local authority, and so forth. There are also those who leave care for an unknown reason. In America, this is tracked to find out who has run away. These are children who have been abducted and trafficked. Across the country, we find that 5,950 children left care for unknown and other reasons. Of those, 430 were aged one to four; 350 were aged five to nine; 630 were aged 10 to 15, and there were many more at the ages of 16, 17 and 18. I have the detailed figures for my local authority, if anyone wants to see them.
What is sad is the fact that the Minister has refused to consider trying to gain more detailed information so that we know what happens to these children. If I were losing 5,000 children here, not knowing what was happening to them—rather similar to the situation in Rochdale—I would not be feeling very happy as a corporate parent or as a parent in any form whatever. The failure is in not having proper systems of checks and balances on the judgment of practitioners who operate on a daily basis.
There are some excellent practitioners. I know of one social worker who was recently suspended because she would not change her view that a child should go back to its parents. The management tried to bully her into agreeing that the child should be adopted, but she would not do that, so she was suspended. We should be looking at what those managements are doing, and establishing whether it is valid. We know that much of the evidence is unreliable as a result of the excellent work of Professor Jane Ireland, which is the only proper independent work that has been done to assess the quality of evidence in the family courts.
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about bad psychologists. Giving the reference FTP04616, the HPC says that it cannot “progress the concern” because of the current law. I think that it misunderstands the law: I think that the 2009 changes enable it to investigate allegations about rubbishy psychologists without the permission of a judge.
We have a problem with checks and balances, and with the failure of quality control in respect of evidence and the family courts. However, we also need to look at the wider issues of why children are taken into care. The failure of the statutory guidance to go beyond “risk of significant harm” implies that there is a real problem. The care system is very complex and involves very subtle judgments, but the Government come along wearing big boots and try to kick it in a particular direction.
Puerperal psychosis involves extreme baby blues or post-natal depression. When a mother has given birth and is depressed it can be dangerous for the child, who may need to be taken into care; but is that the sort of case that should be driven towards adoption, just because mum was depressed after giving birth? Such action is likely to make mum even more depressed. The Government’s policy is, “We need to speed it all up: we need rapid decisions.” The flaw in their approach is that there is none of the individual judgment on cases that is really needed. It is a very simplistic approach to what is a very complex system.
Domestic violence is another example. Angela Wileman is writing a book about what happened to her. She has been to Spain, Ireland and all over the place to avoid the UK care system, which was persecuting her in various ways. She has been in the newspapers plenty of times. She was a victim of domestic violence, on the basis of which the system wished to take one of her children from her, put that child in care and have it adopted—but only that child, because she had had the other child abroad.
Ms Toni McLeod, who lives with her family in Durham, is thinking of going to Ireland because she is pregnant. It is a difficult situation. She was a supporter of the English Defence League. I hate the EDL. Three of my children are mixed-race, and I protest against the EDL. Toni McLeod says that she is not racially prejudiced, but that children were taken from her partly because of her membership of the EDL. It was
“felt that conversations and opinions may be expressed in the children’s presence.”
That is a “thought police” approach to care. The system intervened because of what Toni McLeod might say in front of her children. She says that she has many friends who are Muslims and Sikhs, and that she disowns the EDL nowadays, but whether that is true or not, we should ask whether it is appropriate for the state to remove a child because children may be radicalised by a parent. Is that an appropriate use of the phrase “risk of significant harm”? That brings us back to the statutory guidance, which makes no effort whatsoever to give any indication of what is meant by the phrase.
One of the biggest problems in relation to the accountability of the family court and the care system is insufficient proper, academic access to the details of the proceedings. We do not know whether we are achieving something for the children or not. An excellent report
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by Ruth Gilbert, published in
late last year, raised major questions about whether we are getting anywhere at all with the overall system. We have some extremely serious problems, and in my view the interventions are often damaging.
I work with a number of care leavers. It is important to remember that care leavers remain care leavers even when they are in their forties and fifties. As people get older, they gain the confidence that enables them to speak out about what happened to them when they were younger, whereas many people in their late teens and early twenties do not have enough confidence to explain where the real problems lay. We need to be very careful. Lucy Allan may be going to speak to the Minister about her experience. She was a Conservative councillor. The same psychologist wrote two different reports about her, which was complete nonsense, of course. If a specialist of some kind writes two completely contradictory reports about the same person, what intellectual value does any of that information have?
Although I have a lot more to say on this subject, I only have 54 seconds left, so let me just put on the record that the Education Committee has done an excellent job in listening to people on different sides of the argument. The family justice review panel included only people who operated the system. It therefore did not properly consider the views of those who are affected by the system. The Home Affairs Committee will kick off an inquiry that I hope will be run on a far better basis. The Munro report is quite good, but we need to look more rationally at the detailed ways in which things are operated and make sure steps are taken that actually benefit the children in the long term, not just hit Government targets.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): First, I thank the Labour Front-Bench team and the Leader of the Opposition for choosing this subject for an Opposition day debate. I agree with everything the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), has said and with his recommendations. I also welcome the Minister’s comments.
I shall focus on one particular type of abuse: the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young persons. We all know that happens, but many people do not appreciate how often it happens, the numerous ways in which it happens and how many victims there are throughout the country. There are thousands of victims. That is not difficult for people like me to realise, because before entering Parliament I was a barrister practising the criminal law. I prosecuted and defended people, and I represented parents whose children were being taken into local authority care. Therefore, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said about what happens in care cases and, sometimes, the attitude of Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers, those appointed by the courts and all the establishment involved. There are always conflicts and sometimes local authorities do not put the best interests of the children first. They get too bogged down in rules and procedures.
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two-year inquiry into the grooming and abuse of children. One of the first questions she was asked was about the Rochdale case. She was asked whether such cases were a particular issue for a particular community. Her answer was no, it was a question of a pattern of abuse. She then went on to explain that there are different patterns of abuse by different groups of people across the country. She mainly talked about men abusing young women, but there is also the issue of abuse of young boys, which we in society hardly ever talk about. That type of abuse is hardly ever weighed in the scales when we compare different types of abuse.
Such points are important to make in the context of the Rochdale case. We do not want people thinking, “It’s just one little issue involving one community, so we can forget about it.” Such cases have nothing to do with race or particular communities. The key point is the types of people who are vulnerable in any given circumstance. It is a question of who is available. If Asian or Afro-Caribbean girls had been available in Rochdale, they would have been just as likely to be abused. Sue Berelowitz also said:
“There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
“We should start from the assumption that children are being sexually exploited right the way across the country”,
“urban, rural and metropolitan areas”.
Sue Berelowitz gave an example of something that is happening in London. She said that there are parts of London where girls as young as 11 are expected to perform oral sex on a line-up of boys for up to two hours. She said that is was
“common for girls to be lured via internet chatrooms to meet a friend, only to be met by a group of boys and gang-raped in the park.”
“I wish I could say to you that such things are uncommon but I’m afraid that they are quite common.”
“what is being done is so terrible that people need to lay aside their denial”,
“Victims number in the thousands not the hundreds.”
Yesterday, Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre said in the Select Committee on Home Affairs that children are accessing the web at a far younger age. He said that he would score the public sector only five out of 10 on its ability to protect children from abuse. He claimed that, on average, one child in 20 was a victim of sexual abuse. From my personal knowledge of the cases with which I dealt for many years, that is a far more realistic statistic than people may think, as the problem of sexual abuse is rife.