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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, in the course of the Statement the Minister mentioned that one of the points that Sir William Utting made was that a principal problem in this whole saga is the difficulty that members of staff have in reporting on one another and the difficulty that children have in complaining. That is an intractable problem on which I believe there has been some research fairly recently. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have looked at that, or, indeed, whether there is mention of it in the report, which I have not had time to examine.
I wonder whether it would be helpful to the Government if we had a debate, perhaps not a very long debate, in this House. We could then make sure that we do not just wring our hands, which we are inclined to do over this subject because it makes us feel absolutely sick. There is a good deal that can be said of a positive nature. We know that in this House there is a good deal of understanding and expertise in relation to the problem, and it may be that the Government would find it helpful to have a short debate.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for rightly suggesting that there is a good deal of authoritative evidence and opinion in this House from people with long experience in the field. The question of a debate would be for the usual channels. But I agree with the noble Baroness that an ability to tap in to the great expertise and authority of Members of your Lordships' House would be very helpful.
As regards research, the noble Baroness may be referring to research being conducted by Bristol University as to why there are so few convictions in this area and so few child witnesses involved in prosecutions. That research is expected to be completed early next year. The Government are aware of it and hope that it will be useful in leading to a path which helps us to understand ways in which we can better protect whistle-blowers on the staff side and protect children who may, in the jargon, wish to disclose experiences but not have the ability to do so or feel sufficiently safe with those adults around them to make any statement.
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As she says, it is a shocking report which describes a woeful situation. I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who asked how we can do better. I feel extremely reassured by the fact that the Minister, in describing the work which is about to take place, committed herself--I am aware of her reputation--to setting up the formal mechanisms which can tackle the problem.
Does the Minister agree with me that there is a need also to be free of both dogma and complacency? I speak as a member of the local authority of the London Borough of Islington, which was the subject of allegations leading to an independent investigation into allegations of child abuse in our children's homes. That has taught me that we must be free of dogma and all join in the search for high standards of child protection without falling prey to rigid views.
Moreover, there is no room for complacency. Indeed, none of us can afford to think that it will not happen on our patch. It is dreadful to imagine the struggle that children have had to be listened to and awful to think that officials, and some politicians, have not wanted to know or hear. It would be inconceivable today to have a repetition of what happened in Islington five years ago when the then leader of the council accused the newspaper which first published the allegations of gutter journalism. I say that not for party political reasons but because it is a lesson to all of us: we cannot be complacent. I hope that the Minister agrees with me.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that this is not an area of complacency. The Government's initial response to the report makes it clear that certain actions are being taken immediately. As regards the point the noble Baroness made about the concerns of people who have a particular interest in the matter, whether they be from local authorities, local health authorities, from local education departments or others working at the national level, it is clearly important that the widest possible consultation is undertaken and that those views are taken into consideration. It is important that we listen to what people who have practical experience say. Moreover, as the noble Baroness rightly said, it is important that we do not proceed on the basis of any kind of dogmatic assumptions of what people's positions may be.
Lord Murray of Epping Forest: My Lords, we are all indebted to Sir William Utting and his committee for the report. I am also grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the positive attitude which she and her colleagues in government are taking not only in redressing the wrongs of the past but also, more importantly, in ensuring that they do not happen again. I have three quick points to make in that context.
First, as has been said, this is sadly not news in many ways. Sir William Utting has drawn together information about a range of activities which, regrettably, have been known to childcare charities for many years. Much of that has been addressed by many of the major charities such as Barnardos and NCH Action for Children. Will my noble friend ensure that, in drawing up the programme, full account will be taken of the work that has been done to introduce new systems of training, supervision, management, complaints procedures, and so on, which, incidentally, are very expensive? If the Government will the end of improvement in that respect, we hope that they will will the means.
Secondly, when drawing up the programme, will my noble friend and her colleagues consider the possibility of the provision of more residential facilities? The rate of reduction in the provision of residential care facilities has been too fast in recent years. I accept that many of the old homes should have been closed and indeed needed to be closed, but we have seen the alternative of keeping children in the community--often finding them in young offenders' institutions rather than in properly secluded care, whether it be of the residential or educational sort. In that context, will my noble friend address her mind to the fact that one of the main reasons for the reduction has been the inability of local authorities to fund placements? As they have withdrawn young people from those homes, so the unit costs of keeping other young people there have escalated out of this world. That is just one consequence of the appalling financial situation in which local authorities find themselves. Will my noble friend look at the possibility of providing more facilities of the smaller and more specialist sort?
Finally, will my noble friend examine the implications of the sharp increase in private children's care homes, the number of which increased by about 30 per cent. in 1996 alone? That conceivably might be the Achilles' heel in the future of further instances of abuse. Will my noble friend ensure in her legislation for such homes that, irrespective of their size, there is adequate provision for inspection and monitoring and that regulations are made in that respect?
My noble friend is right to say that many of the recommendations have been made before, especially in the Warner Report (published some years ago), to which reference has already been made, as regards the vetting and supervision of recruiting staff to residential homes. As I understand it, many local authorities now have other systems in place, but, as was said earlier, there is a discrepancy between the practices of local authorities. One of the things that we hope will emerge from some of the actions that we are taking as a result of the report is greater national consistency. We also hope that the recommendations of several previous authoritative reports will now be translated into national positions.
I find what my noble friend said about the question of extending residential care most interesting. As he noted, that has been in decline in the conventional sense in recent years. One of the areas at which we need to look--and this is certainly something which is addressed by Sir William Utting in his report--is the extension and the regulation of more foster care and more foster places, rather than the re-establishment of the traditional type of home.
I agree with my noble friend that we need to look carefully at the extension of private care in the area, both in terms of foster care where children are living with, so to speak, surrogate parents and also in the more conventional homes. My noble friend will know that one of the recommendations of Sir William is that there should be inspection of the recruitment and support of foster carers and that the Government should establish a code of practice on foster care. We agree that there is a need for a code of practice. As part of the chief inspector's review of children's services, to which I referred earlier, he will be considering current practice on the recruitment of foster carers, and will identify any needs for further development with the statutory and voluntary sectors. We expect a code of practice on foster care to follow this report.
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