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Children's Society

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I am pleased to have secured this short debate today, but I am sorry about the circumstances that have brought it about. My purpose in asking for the debate is to raise concerns about the Children's Society's decision to withdraw from Wales, and the deep feelings of anger and disappointment that that has produced, not only in Wales but in Westminster.

Early-day motion 443 has been signed by 74 Members of Parliament: only 26 of them are from Wales, and the rest are mainly from England. That shows the depth of concern about the work of the Children's Society in Wales and England. I am pleased that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) is replying to the debate today. The Children's Society's reputation is on the line, and it is therefore important that a Minister who has responsibilities in England should reply to the debate, as the issue affects England as well as Wales.

Before I became a Member of Parliament I worked in the voluntary sector. I was an assistant director of Barnado's. I worked with the Children's Society, with which we collaborated on different projects. I was a member of many multi-agency groups in which the Children's Society was involved.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): My hon. Friend mentioned that the Children's Society is involved in multi-agency work. There is one such project in my constituency, which is working with children who desperately need help. Will she make an appeal for the Children's Society to reverse its decision on Friday, and get down to the difficult job of serving children in Wales?

Julie Morgan : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is essential that the Children's Society reconsider its decision at its emergency trustees meeting on Friday. We know the importance of its work in Wales, and I am appealing to the society to change its decision.

The Children's Society has a long history in Wales. It began its work in 1887, initially to save children who could fall into moral danger from prostitution or crime. It has always worked closely with the Church in Wales. For many years, the Children's Society in Wales worked with disabled children, and found foster parents for vulnerable children. Subsequently, it moved into community work, and in the 1990s it stepped into a child-centred role running advocacy projects, which has been its main work.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware that, in the 2002-03 portfolio, more than £100,000 was allocated for work in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) would wish to associate himself with my remarks. Such advocacy work is desperately needed in Bangor and parts of Ynys Môn. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make that point on

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behalf of north-west Wales, as well as the rest of Wales, when she makes her case to try to persuade the board to reverse its decision when it meets on Friday.

Julie Morgan : I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I will put the case for all the projects throughout Wales. I am very pleased that so many Members of Parliament are here to support me today.

There are 13 projects all over Wales. The eight advocacy projects were set up as a result of the Waterhouse report, and act as independent voices for some of the most vulnerable children in Wales. I am sure that we all remember the horrors described in the report. It is essential that the advocacy projects continue to be run by an independent body, such as a charity. Such a body should not be linked to the social services or the Assembly, and should give an independent view. The Children's Society runs the projects and provides an independent voice, but it is helped financially by local authorities and the National Assembly.

The charity is pulling the plug on the children it was set up to serve. Many of the advocacy partnerships still had years to run. No one is criticising the society's good work.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): My hon. Friend will know of the project in the Caerphilly county borough area. I used to work in the youth service and know full well the excellent work that it does. Does she agree that it is highly regarded and is seen as an example of very good practice?

Julie Morgan : My hon. Friend is right. I know that the project is of a high standard. Indeed, at an event held by Community Care at the Hilton hotel last Thursday, the society's work in Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent won an award for innovation. There is no question about the quality of its work.

The community development projects are located in the valleys and west Wales, both of which are objective 1 areas, and in Powys, which was savaged by foot and mouth disease. Compared with England, Wales is a poor country. Does the charity intend to work only in areas where people are wealthy enough to give donations? It is inexplicable that it should withdraw from a poor area such as Wales.

We all understand that the society has financial problems.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): To what extent does my hon. Friend think that responsibility for this dire situation and for the society's potential withdrawal from Wales rests with decisions taken by the board of trustees and the management? They went on a £12 million spending spree, but failed to appoint a fundraiser for two and a half years. How much responsibility should they shoulder?

Julie Morgan : There are problems with the financial management of the Children's Society, and I hope that the Welsh Affairs Committee will have an opportunity to go into that when it summons the managers to its meeting.

One of our greatest concerns is that the society reached its decision without consulting children, staff, partner agencies, local authorities, the Church or the

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National Assembly. The society has pulled the plug with no warning and without attempting to ensure that provision continues. Jane Hutt, who is the Minister for Health and Social Services in the National Assembly, has made a statement that is worth repeating. She said:

The society made no attempt to sort out the issue.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing time for this important debate. Does the behaviour that she has aptly described befit a charitable organisation?

Julie Morgan : Certainly not. Many of us respect the society's work, but we are concerned about its actions on this issue. It did not try to sort matters out before the crisis arose. It announced that it would withdraw, but made no attempt to secure services, yet it is supposed to be listening to children. Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the society is supposed to be concerned about children, yet it was prepared to end services in Wales without trying to obtain more money. It did not even approach the Assembly, which was the obvious place to go. The chief executive, Ian Sparks, was given a column in Community Care magazine to explain the society's reasons. He said:

It is a matter of great concern that he could say that when he did not ask for help to remain in Wales.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to amputate Wales from its work will damage the society's reputation beyond Wales, especially in its work in England? That will seriously affect its credibility when making representations in places such as this.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call Julie Morgan to continue her speech, I apologise to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) for not identifying him when he made his intervention. I say that for Hansard's sake.

Mr. David : Apology accepted, Mr. Winterton.

Julie Morgan : I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). One of the reasons for having this debate in Westminster Hall is to highlight the fact that the Children's Society sets great store by its ability to influence Governments, and to point out that its actions in Wales will damage that influence in its work in England and Wales.

I applaud the efforts of the staff in trying to create a package that could enable services to continue. I am pleased that the Children's Society will hear from a small group of children and staff from Wales at an emergency meeting that the trustees are holding on Friday, which shows that they are finally being forced to listen. The voices from Wales were not heard when the society made its decision. Only one Welsh representative

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was present when the decision was made. Three young people were there also, but none of them were from Wales.

I am concerned about a report in The Guardian this morning, which has been confirmed by the Children's Society. It says that the society will listen to two children and two members of staff on Friday on condition that there are no demonstrations or banners outside the society's London office.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): Does my hon. Friend agree that the volunteers should be able to make representations, as they work hard to assist the society in Wales, especially in my constituency? I know that both Church and community organisations assist the society in its work.

Julie Morgan : Yes, and they do not have a voice. Two young people and two members of staff is the smallest number that could be asked to make representations. The society does not want people to demonstrate and is not prepared to let young people show their feelings. That reflects badly on the society, which seems to be stifling democratic debate.

The most objectionable aspect of the society's decision is that Wales seems to be dispensable. How is it possible, when a funding crisis hits a charity that covers England and Wales, for one arm of the organisation to be chopped off? I know that savings have been planned in England, but to penalise a whole country is objectionable. Why should Welsh children be discriminated against?

There are many issues related to the current situation in Wales. For instance, how can the Society's fundraising continue? I know that Ann Jones, Assembly Member for the Vale of Clwyd and Chair of the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee, has written to the Charity Commission querying the legality of the society's fundraising in Wales. The situation is distressing and a mess, and I am interested to hear the Minister's views on it.

The Children's Society has the opportunity to change its mind on Friday. I hope that it will consider its reputation in respect of its operations in England as well as in Wales, and its influence on Government. I hope that it will reconsider its decision. I know that it has received many representations from all sectors of Welsh society and from people in England asking it to change its mind. I am appealing to the Children's Society to change its mind on Friday. I hope that it will do that and restore its credibility. It can then continue to influence Government policy and the Welsh Assembly's policy, as it has done in the past, and its valuable work can continue without this stain.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for raising the issue. I am also very impressed by the number of hon. Members in attendance. That signifies to me the depth of their concern and the importance of these issues not just to hon. Members but to their constituents throughout Wales. The House is sending a powerful message.

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There can be no bigger priority for any of us than to try to improve services for children in need in general, and for looked-after children in particular, who comprise one of the most vulnerable groups of children in our society. In the past there has been poor management, inconsistent quality and a wide variation in the services available. My hon. Friend mentioned the Utting report of the review of the safeguards for children living away from home, the Waterhouse report and the risks that children were exposed to when living away from home in the 1970s and 1980s. Those risks were seriously underestimated, and it is only in recent years that the experiences of thousands of children have come to light.

The Government seek to ensure that all children have the love, care and support that they need for the whole of their childhood, and that they are protected from abuse and neglect. We seek to ensure that the children for whom social services are responsible gain maximum life chances from education and other opportunities so that they manage to reach their potential. All my hon. Friends share those goals for children.

The voluntary sector, including the Children's Society, has for many years been a key partner in what the Government are trying to achieve. The quality protects programme in England and the children first programme in Wales, which have been very important, are examples of that. The Government have not sought to abrogate their responsibilities and push them on to the voluntary sector.

Working in partnership involves recognising that in many communities the voluntary sector is a more appropriate agency to deliver the priorities of Government. Working with local authorities, the voluntary sector can deliver innovation on the ground, which the Government are not in a position to do. We seek to gain the maximum added value from involving the voluntary sector, and that has been vital. That is why a large part of the programme under the £450 million children's fund is to be delivered deliberately through voluntary sector agencies, and why the role of organisations such as the Children's Society is so important in the delivery of Government priorities as a whole—not simply in Wales, but throughout all areas for which we are responsible.

In the review of the position of vulnerable children we highlighted the need to listen to children themselves. That has been at the heart of all the policies that we have developed. The Waterhouse report recommended that

That was a fundamental decision. The Utting report made similar recommendations. As well as listening to children about what they want to happen, we should allow them to influence the development of policy itself. Sometimes the best and most creative solutions come from children's ideas, because they are at the sharp end and they know what works and what does not, and how services could be better organised. We all learn from children's input.

Kevin Brennan : Does my hon. Friend agree with the view I have formed from listening to evidence, in sittings

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of the Special Standing Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill, that the credibility of the Children's Society in purporting to speak for children in Wales will be seriously undermined if it goes ahead and withdraws from its work in Wales?

Ms Blears : I understand my hon. Friend's view on that matter, and I am sure that it will be reflected by other hon. Members, showing the depth of their concern for their communities, and particularly children. It is crucial that organisations not only speak for children but find out their views before doing so. Organisations should not be a proxy for children's views, but should be in touch with children so that the views they communicate are a true reflection of the situation in communities. That is a priority for us.

Advocacy is important; local authorities plan to spend £9 million this year on advocacy schemes. I think that £750,000 is being spent in Wales this year on schemes such as those outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams). The voluntary sector has shown that it has the capacity and experience to provide the services in question. The my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North was keen to stress that the quality of the Children's Society's services is not at issue, but that there is a need to ensure that those services continue to support young people.

In the past few years, the Children's Society has been a key partner, with the Government and local authorities in England and Wales, in making progress with some of our programmes. For example, last year it worked with more than 40,000 children and young people through 100 projects in England and Wales. The Government are currently funding, through section 64 project grants, three Children's Society projects in England, helping to improve children's participation. Those totalled £120,000 this year. I understand that there is also Youth Justice Board project funding of approximately £100,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North was right to say that the Children's Society is very much involved in influencing Government policy and the development of projects. We would clearly want that to continue, but I certainly recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members from Wales about the continuation of the society's role in the present circumstances.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): The Minister has expressed the concern of people in Wales and their representatives about the society's decision. Does she believe that the Children's Society is wrong to decide to cut Wales off from its work?

Ms Blears : Decisions made by charities are matters for their trustees. We have a concordat on work with the voluntary sector and charitable organisations, which makes it clear that charities and voluntary organisations are independent bodies. Sometimes the added value that they bring to Government programmes is due to that independence and to responsiveness to certain factors, which national statutory organisations may not have. Their independent status and diversity are valuable.

Although the matter is for the trustees, I can record my concern at the decision. The Prime Minister has also said that it was disappointing. He is aware that discussions are going on and hopes that they will be

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satisfactorily concluded. It is important that hon. Members have raised the matter before the meeting due to take place shortly, at which the matters will be considered. Trustees are legally an independent body and must arrive at decisions in the appropriate legal framework, but they are also partners in Government policy and projects and must be aware of the atmosphere in which they carry out their partnership work on projects that are important to the Government.

Mrs. Betty Williams : Given my hon. Friend's long experience and the way in which she has responded to the debate, does she agree that, as the Children's Society did not approach the National Assembly for Wales for additional funding, maybe—I emphasise the word "maybe"—it had been planning the amputation for a long time?

Ms Blears : I am not in a position to comment on what was in the mind of the Children's Society. I know that it has had a financial deficit for some time, and that it needs to take steps to address that, which it is doing.

The policy responsibility for children's services in Wales rests with the National Assembly, and Jane Hutt, the Minister responsible, expressed her disappointment with the Children's Society's decision. She wrote jointly with the Archbishop of Wales to the society seeking an assurance that it would support the efforts of staff in establishing a new charity in Wales to ensure that the services continue.

The National Assembly has also asked Children in Wales, the umbrella organisation responsible for voluntary and statutory sector interests in Wales, to establish a taskforce to secure practical arrangements to ensure that the services provided by the Children's Society continue to be provided. That taskforce will report early in the new year. The Children's Society has decided to consider its services from July next year, so some interim arrangement is needed to ensure that all services are not withdrawn immediately, as that would mean that the taskforce had nothing to continue with until July. That is an important consideration.

The taskforce is chaired by Christine Walby, who is a trustee of Children in Wales and an honorary research fellow at the university. The taskforce includes representatives of service user interests, the Children's Society staff group, local authorities that sponsor projects, the Assembly and the Church in Wales. It is also vital that children are heard in the process of drawing up the taskforce and making sure that it gets its priorties right.

I hope that the Children's Society's trustees give careful consideration to all the representations made by hon. Members. I am sure that communities are also

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making representations, along with those who have been involved in the society's services over the past few years. The Children's Society must hear from a wide range of people who are concerned and have been involved in projects on the ground, and I urge the society to ensure that its decision making is as open and transparent as possible. I understand that the society faces difficult financial circumstances in ensuring that projects continue.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a sad irony that the Children's Society recognises that it has two roles? First, it provides projects in Wales and England and, secondly, it has an advocacy or influence role. Everyone accepts the value of the projects, but the society's ability to communicate and influence is in question.

Ms Blears : It is my experience that the most effective lobbyists of Government, who influence the development of policy, are often also involved in projects. The best and strongest cases are made from the evidence that people find on the ground in communities. That combination of issues is, in my experience, the most powerful base from which change can come. Simply lobbying in isolation, without the links and routes to project work in communities, can be far less powerful than the combination of lobbying and project work.

The Children's Society has combined those things in the past. Doing so puts organisations in a strong position because, although both roles are valuable in themselves, they give added value when they are linked. Organisations can suggest to policy makers that they consider an idea, because they know from their real-life experience that it works, and that it enables people to have a voice and services to be developed in a direct and focused way. That link is important.

I hope that when the Children's Society trustees consider those matters they will listen to all the representations that have been made. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we hope for a satisfactory outcome from those discussions, one that ensures that children in England and throughout the United Kingdom are properly protected. Those children should be heard, and they should be able to influence and shape the services that we provide for their future.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I congratulate the Minister on her reply and congratulate so many Members from Wales on attending such an important debate. It has been a learning curve for the Chair as well.

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