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House of Commons

Friday 17 March 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Safeguards for Children

[Relevant documents: Report and Summary of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the abuse of children in care in the former County Council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974--Lost in Care (HC 201); Local Authority Circular 99/33--The Quality Protects Programme: Transforming Children's Services 2000/01; The Government's Objectives for Children's Social Services, Department of Health, September 1999; Explanatory Notes to the Care Standards Bill [Lords] and Children (Leaving Care) Bill [Lords].]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

9.33 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): Promoting the well-being of children in our country, and protecting them from harm, are fundamental responsibilities of all hon. Members. We can--we frequently do--disagree on many things, but not, I hope, when it comes to safeguarding children. Children may make up only 20 per cent. of our population, but they represent 100 per cent. of our future.

Safeguarding children has been one of the Government's top priorities since taking office. The approach that we have taken has recognised that the physical health and mental well-being of all children is closely linked to wider issues of poverty and disadvantage. It has recognised the need to ensure that all children, wherever they are, get the best possible start in life. It has also involved major reforms of the public care system, and, in the framework of criminal law, provided better protection for children from those who would harm them, either physically or sexually.

All those reforms have been developed and implemented in partnership with a wide variety of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Safeguarding children can never be the sole preserve of any one organisation. It is the responsibility of us all to discharge the obligation that we owe to our young people. The Government intend to discharge our responsibilities to the fullest possible extent, and to work with everyone who shares our ambition to create a safer and more secure environment in which children can thrive and prosper.

Our objectives must always be clear and well focused. First, we must never allow the appalling situation that occurred in north Wales to happen again.

Secondly, we must ensure that the statutory agencies effectively protect children from harm at all times and in all places. To do that, children's social services must be of the highest quality, well managed and staffed by

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well-qualified people working to the best models of both practice and policy. The standards currently set by the best must become the norm, not the exception.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The hon. Gentleman has, so far, identified exclusively north Wales as an area where very great damage has been done to children. Does he accept that there are other areas--sadly, even in my own county of Cheshire, and in the adjacent county of Staffordshire--where similar events have occurred?

Mr. Hutton: I accept that. In a few minutes, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall comment on the wider situation. He may know that, in England, there are 32 on-going police inquiries into aspects of child abuse, including physical abuse. The situation in England is very serious, and I shall be dealing with it later in my speech.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have to ensure that the standards of the best become the norm, rather than the exception. That is certainly the objective both of the Department of Health and of the entire Government.

Our third objective is to ensure that those who harm children are punished severely and prevented from working with children again.

If we are to succeed in implementing those changes, we will need a powerful change in the culture of children's social services, so that the pursuit of excellence becomes routine and second best will never be good enough. Although I think that that process of change is well under way, more progress obviously still has to be made. I shall return to that theme in a few moments.

There is nothing revolutionary in this approach, or in the principles by which we are working. Those principles are the building blocks for a successful life--which is what we as parents try to give our own children. I am sure that all hon. Members subscribe to those basic principles.

We must nevertheless compare those basic principles with the tragic childhoods recorded in Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report, "Lost in Care". His report bears witness to childhoods filled with fear, abuse, violence and misery--to childhoods destroyed by betrayal of trust and by administrative incompetence. We should, therefore, begin this debate by reminding ourselves of the key findings of the Waterhouse report on the abuse of children in care.

In Clwyd, there was widespread sexual abuse of boys, and to a lesser extent of girls, in local authority and privately run children's residential establishments and schools and in a national health service psychiatric unit. There was no evidence of persistent sexual abuse in Gwynedd. However, many children in children's residential establishments in both Clwyd and Gwynedd were subjected to physical abuse. Sexual and physical abuse occurred also in a small number of foster homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd. That disastrous catalogue of neglect and abuse is the reason for today's debate. Together, we must ensure that abuse on that scale can never happen again.

We owe our thanks to Sir Ronald Waterhouse and his team for their determination to document so meticulously the mistreatment of children in north Wales over so many years. We must also acknowledge that all of us have failed those children and the many others who have suffered in

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care elsewhere. Too sadly, we know that that case was not unique, and that, across the country, police forces and social services departments are investigating allegations of past abuse. The Government are determined to learn the lessons of the inquiry. We shall do all that we can to stamp out child abuse and create better safeguards for children.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse has made 72 recommendations. Many of them echo those made by Sir William Utting in "People Like Us"--his report on the review of safeguards for children living away from home. The Utting review was commissioned at the same time as the Waterhouse inquiry.

"People Like Us" made 20 key recommendations and more than 130 other recommendations, with the principal aim of improving protection for children living away from home. The Government published their response to "People Like Us" in November 1998, setting out a detailed and comprehensive programme of policy and management changes across Government to deliver a safer environment for all children living away from home. We are pursuing that programme with vigour. We are already taking forward many of the recommendations in the Waterhouse report through existing legislation, such as the Protection of Children Act 1999, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) played such a crucial role in taking through the House, and through new legislative initiatives such as the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, as well as through the quality protects programme and the children first programme in Wales. I shall describe all those initiatives briefly in a few moments.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Minister will be aware that many arguments have been made about advocacy. The Waterhouse report recommends that an independent advocacy service should be available to any complainant or affected child who wishes to have it. When will that be in place?

Mr. Hutton: The right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an important aspect of the Waterhouse recommendations. I am not announcing the Government's response to the recommendations today. We hope to do that early in the summer. I hope that he can wait until then for the details. The Waterhouse report did not call for the creation of a statutory right to advocacy, but we are reviewing the complaints procedures under section 26 of the Children Act 1989 and the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 for adult social services.

That is part of a continuing programme in the Department. We shall need to consider it carefully in the context of what Sir Ronald Waterhouse has said. We are looking carefully, in the context of quality protects and children first, at how we can encourage local authorities to develop more effective advocacy services for looked-after children. That work is under way, but we shall respond more fully to Sir Ronald Waterhouse's recommendations when we publish our response early in the summer.

We are also fully involving the ministerial task force on safeguarding children in considering all 72 of the report's recommendations to see what further steps we can take to safeguard children. The task force is helping us to identify

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where further action is needed and to establish key priorities. It has already met twice since the report was published and has identified the following priority areas where further action is needed: first, on a commissioner for looked-after children; secondly, on complaints procedures; thirdly, on independent advocacy services, which the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) referred to; fourthly, on human resources issues; and fifthly, on the future role of residential care as a placement choice.

Further work is being done on all those areas and I am liaising closely with my ministerial colleagues across Government to ensure that our response to the report is comprehensive and cohesive.

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