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1.29 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for the opportunity he has given the House to discuss the general issue of the welfare and well-being of children. I know that he feels strongly about such issues and I assure him that I share his feelings.

Today, we all have on our minds the particular needs of children in the care of local authorities. Earlier today, the House heard the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales about the report of the inquiry into the abuse of children in care in north Wales. My hon. Friend knows that the Government will give careful and urgent attention to the recommendations of Sir Ronald Waterhouse.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that Sir Ronald today recommended the appointment of an independent children's commissioner for looked-after children in Wales. Our proposal, to which my hon. Friend referred, to appoint a children's rights director to the proposed National Care Standards Commission captures the spirit of that recommendation.

Children's social services are one of the most difficult and demanding categories of social care. All the professionals involved have to make tough decisions and deal with some difficult situations. However, if we as adults find this area difficult and intimidating, we should never lose sight of what it must mean for the children. It is our responsibility to get the services right and we fully intend to discharge it.

The Government agenda for children is ambitious and wide ranging. In November 1997, the Government published the report known as the "Review of Safeguards for Children Living Away from Home"--the Utting report. It made 20 key recommendations and more than 130 other recommendations, with the principal aim of improving protection for children who live away

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from home. The Government published their response to the Utting report in November 1998. The document sets out a detailed and comprehensive programme of policy and management changes across government to deliver a safer environment for all children who live away from home. Many of the Utting report recommendations are being addressed through the introduction of the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill.

A ministerial task force was established in November 1997 to take forward the Government's response to the children's safeguards review. It involves Ministers from 10 Departments and outside representatives from social services, education, the police and the voluntary sector. It is an excellent example of working across government to deliver a safer environment for all children who live away from home. As my hon. Friend knows, the task force's job is to co-ordinate and take forward urgently the Government's response to the Waterhouse inquiry.

My hon. Friend did not refer to the Government's "quality protects" programme, which is a flagship policy of which we are proud. We are seeing it through the three years of the current spending review. My hon. Friend knows that it is a £380 million programme. We want a transformation in the quality of care that local authorities provide for looked-after children.

The care system must help children and young people to make the most of their talents, to achieve at school and in further education, and to become confident and successful adults. Local councils must act as proud and concerned corporate parents who know about their children's achievements and do all they can to meet their needs.

We must also provide earlier support for children and families, which will mean that fewer children suffer abuse and neglect. My hon. Friend referred to a child protection system. Such a system must provide effective safeguards for all children, wherever they live. Positive action on all those important matters is now under way.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of listening to children. Listening to their views and wishes is a key principle underpinning the "quality protects" programme. We issued guidance to local authorities in October 1999 which stressed that

That is a priority area for grant funding under the "quality protects" programme. In the first year, £5 million was allocated to developing children's participation. That will again be a funding priority in the second year.

Careful assessment of local authority management action plans, which must be submitted to the Department under the "quality protects" programme, will enable us to identify accurately and precisely the progress that has been made to date and where money should be targeted to develop that work in future. That is an unprecedented investment in listening to children.

Listening to children makes sense not only in terms of improving services; it can also contribute enormously to promoting their safety and welfare. However, it should not be the job of one person--a commissioner, an ombudsman or anyone else--to listen to children.

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We need a culture change for children's social services which is powerful enough to ensure that listening to children is the job of everyone who is involved with their care. We believe that, and we are taking steps to ensure that it happens. "Quality protects" is beginning that process of change.

We are also trying to practice what we preach. That is why young people are being involved with the development of all the major policy initiatives in this area and will continue to be so in future. They are, for example, full members of the ministerial task force that is developing policy in this area.

The challenge for local authorities in the second year of "quality protects" is to implement their local action plans fully, improve services and achieve much better outcomes for children and young people. Next year, we are increasing the grant available from £75 million to £120 million and we expect real improvements to be delivered in return for those extra resources. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that in the following year the grant will be increased to £180 million. We are making good progress. By the end of next month all authorities expect--for the first time--to meet their statutory duties to inspect children's homes, and there has been an increase in the number of adoptions and the support being given to those leaving care and in councils listening to children.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hutton: I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. I have more to say.

The Care Standards Bill, which my hon. Friend referred to, makes an important contribution here. The debates in Committee in the other place were completed on 18 January, and it sets out a wide reform of the systems to protect vulnerable people and to improve standards in children's homes, care homes, private and voluntary health care and other care services. It will establish a National Care Standards Commission--a new independent body to regulate children's homes and services and care homes for the elderly and disabled people.

As my hon. Friend said, the Bill will establish a national children's rights director, which will be a senior post in the commission. Further consultation is required on the specifics, but the Government believe that the appointment will ensure that children's rights and safeguards are given the highest priority by the new commission. It is an important and innovative development for children's welfare.

The children's rights director will be a unique appointment and a real breakthrough for looked-after children. The postholder will, for the first time, be able to take a national overview of the rights of looked-after children and the way in which they are being cared for by local authorities. The scope of the post was originally set out in the White Paper "Modernising Social Services", which envisaged a number of roles. He would, for example, be able to help the commission to give full and effective coverage of children's services and rights within its statutory regulatory responsibilities and its reports on the discharge of those responsibilities.

The director would also be able to ensure that the views of children placed in the facilities and services regulated by the commission were given proper weight in that

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regulatory task, and he would report directly to the chief inspector of the social services inspectorate any significant evidence relevant to the rights and safety of children gained from the commission's regulation and assessment of services for children. That might help local authorities or other providers to improve the services and support that they give to children.

I emphasise to my hon. Friend that we shall be very happy to discuss the role and exact function of the children's rights director. Hon. Members will accept that his role and function need to be consistent with the role and function of the National Care Standards Commission as a whole. I make it clear that the director will be senior in the commission. We are well aware that further consideration of and consultation on the specific role is required, and we shall of course ensure that he or she is appropriately supported and that other members of the commission also have significant experience of children's social services and related issues.

The measures that the Government have already taken show clearly that we are committed to ensuring, through a range of initiatives, that children's rights remain clearly and firmly on our collective agenda. Ministers have previously considered whether there is a case for a children's rights commissioner with responsibilities extending further than looked-after children, and discussed it with children's rights groups early in 1998.

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In our response to the second report of the health committee on children looked after by local authorities, which was published in December 1998, we announced our decision not to proceed with the appointment of such a commissioner.

The Government are not convinced that it would be desirable to create a new national mechanism additional to the courts, the police and the prosecuting authorities, the various existing commissioners, including the Parliamentary Commissioner and the health and local government ombudsmen, the responsibilities of local and health authorities to deal with complaints, and the various inspection and regulatory arrangements for ensuring that safeguards for children are properly implemented and that their voices are heard.

This has been a short, but none the less useful, debate. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to safeguarding the welfare of children. The Government are determined not to let children down and to ensure that their voices are fully heard. The prompt and decisive action that we have taken today in response to the Waterhouse report amply demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that this happens in the future too.

Question put and agreed to.

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