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16 Jun 2008 : Column 732

We support the inclusion of new clause 7 in the Bill to extend the duties in respect of the welfare of children to the Border and Immigration Agency. That provision was proposed by my noble Friend Baroness Morris and passed in the House of Lords with a large majority against the Government, and we very much hope that the Government will not seek to remove it in Committee.

We want more direction in the Bill. Wherever possible, and in accordance with the interests of the child, the default position should be that an extended family member is the priority for a placement. We want greater safeguards for children in care over the age of 16. As the Minister mentioned several times, it is absurd that the majority of children leave care at the age of 16 or 17, when they are facing most turbulence in their lives with exams at school, the possibility of getting a job and trying to sort out accommodation. Yet for our sons and daughters, with their birth family, that happens when they are at least 24. We look forward to a discussion with the Minister on that front. There has been some progress since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, but 41 per cent. of children leave care by the age of 17.

We need to give more focused, ongoing support. We need far tighter controls over multiple placements. We need greater specifications for the qualifications of responsible social workers who visit children placed out of the area, usually in children’s homes—out of sight and out of mind in too many cases. That was supposed to happen already. Some of us took a delegation to see Lord Warner, the then Minister responsible, but it is still not happening in too many places. In my authority in West Sussex, it is estimated—it can only be an estimate—that more than 700 children have been placed in the care system by other authorities. That compares with 42 children placed by West Sussex out of county—in Kent, the figure is estimated to be 1,250. Yet the local children’s service department, the local police, the local council or the local justice system must pick up the pieces when things go wrong. That notification should be happening; it is not happening, and it must happen in the interests of all those involved.

Clear concerns have been expressed by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which produced a survey showing that 81 per cent. of looked-after children appearing in court in those areas where they were placed out of their home authority did so without the prior knowledge of the local youth offending teams. Again, that is an absolute travesty.

We welcome the inclusion in the Bill of a designated teacher responsible for promoting the welfare of looked-after children. Again, that should be happening already—if it is not happening, it must happen, and the guidance must be followed. We also want a designated governor to oversee that teacher and ensure that the governing body is fully behind the new role, and we shall table amendments to that effect.

We will table amendments stipulating that incentive payments cannot be paid to local authorities to increase adoption numbers, which is a perverse incentive that we cautioned against during the consideration of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. One has only to look at the extraordinary discrepancies between the number of adoption placements in certain authorities and the Minister’s admission that those payments had been made to question why that perverse incentive still exists. In Committee, I will quote the Minister’s written answers to my
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parliamentary questions, which show that those payments, which are not in the interests of children, have been made.

We also want to give greater powers to foster carers, so that they can take on the role of as normal a parent as possible. We want them to have the authority, without having to refer back to the social worker, to say whether a child can have a sleepover with a mate from school or go on a school trip. At the moment, much of that must be delegated back to the social worker. We need foster carers, many of whom are long-term foster carers, to be able to play the role of the pushy parent—a figure whom those children lack and so desperately need in the place of a birth parent.

We need to give foster carers greater powers by sending out a clear message from the Government to local authorities to back them. Similarly, we need safeguards to ensure that foster carers do not become the victims of vexatious allegations by difficult children. There needs to be a balance so that children are protected. As we heard from foster carers again today, too many vexatious complaints against them result in their being instantly suspended and their allowances’ being suspended too. We need to get the balance right.

In our amendments, we will return to the thorny subject of private fostering. It was mentioned and recommended by Sir William Utting in 1997 and by some of us in amendments to the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It was mentioned in my private Member’s Bill in 2003 and again in 2004, when the Minister came up with a sunset clause that the Bill will extend and that we will try to abolish. Surely, now is the time at long last to implement a proper legal requirement for the registration of private foster placements, given that the voluntary scheme has yielded only a relatively small number of cases. Too many private fostering schemes go on at the moment without the knowledge of local authorities and without proper safeguards for vulnerable children, as we have seen in certain tragic cases over the past few years.

We also want to see better safeguards on birth parents’ passing on medical records for adopted children. Again, there are too many cases of children who have been through the care system falling foul of what turns out to be a congenital illness. If the medical records had been available from their birth parents, preventive action might have been taken.

We also want to explore how we can get greater transparency in the family courts, which remains a serious bone of contention. We also want to see greater rights of sibling contact, if children cannot be placed together. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children survey showed that 40 per cent. of children and young people said that they did not have enough contact with siblings. That evidence was backed up by A National Voice and the Who Cares? Trust. Such contact should not merely be allowed by local authority, but facilitated and promoted. I am sure that many other considerations will come up in Committee and I greatly look forward to debating children’s issues with the Minister again.

Most of this is not rocket science. There are already many examples of good practice around the country. For example, a few months ago I opened the new Horizons education and achievement centre in Ealing.
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It is a fantastic institute manned by former care leavers who have been to university and come back and who now teach educational, computer and other skills to young people in the care system. It is no coincidence that 14 per cent. of children in care in Ealing now go on to university, which is substantially more than the national average.

In Barnet, the authority has invested in a buddy system. Every child in the care system has a buddy who is an officer in the local authority, from the chief executive down. That officer looks out for them and asks the questions that a pushy parent would ask at a school parents evening or about health records. Barnet invested in its social work force some years ago. It invested to save, and it is now no coincidence that the vacancy rate for child social workers in Barnet is less than 4 per cent., which is one of the best in London.

Other great examples of best practice include the Community Service Volunteers scheme—I think that the Minister has mentioned it. I declare an interest as a trustee of CSV. It has piloted the use of volunteer social workers in child protection in Bromley and Sunderland. The volunteers primarily support the parent with the stress of having their children on the register and the threat of their children being taken into care. They can establish more stability by helping parents to manage the heavy schedule of meetings with schools, social workers and health professionals, attending parenting classes and ensuring that children go to school or nursery, and they can help to organise a routine at home. When the approach was piloted in California, instances of child abuse fell by 80 per cent. The volunteers are viewed differently from social workers, who are metaphorically in uniform. They have a great role to play, and I hope that the legislation will allow the flexibility to promote similar schemes and the use of volunteers, whether through CSV or other organisations.

Family support is key. As the Minister has said, we are talking about children and the care system, but we need to do an awful lot more to prevent children from entering the care system in the first place. The charity NCH, for example, has been running the Phoenix project, which I recently visited in Merton. The project works with families in crisis using a solution-focused therapy model of work. Support is offered for a period of three months, with all interventions regularly reviewed. When the work is completed, families are tracked after six months to see whether their progress has been maintained. The project consists of a rapid response team, an adolescent resource team, family group meetings and so on. It has found an enormous fall in the number of children who then go off the rails, thanks to the fact that those families have been kept together.

Let me give a third example, which is another project by NCH in Fareham on intensive fostering. Intensive fostering has learned from the positive practice used in remand fostering of co-ordinating services around the young person. This tried and tested method has many proven benefits. Research by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to evaluate the NCH’s remand fostering scheme found that more than 70 per cent. of young people committed no offences during their placement despite persistently offending before and that all the young people were engaged in school, training or employment by the time that they left the placement. Intensive fostering has a great role to play, because it has been piloted and has been shown to work.

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Those are good schemes that are working, and we need the flexibility to promote more of them. Perhaps there is too great a focus on the child rather than on the problems undermining a family that might result in the loss of a child to the care system. We need to talk more about fostering families, rather than just fostering the child, and keeping families together wherever possible. We need greater flexibility and greater innovation.

We must ensure that the work force is appropriately trained, motivated and free to get on with the job of looking after children at the sharp end. We need to end bureaucracy and the excessive aversion to risk that can culminate in perverse incentives to take more children into care rather than working preventively with families to keep them together. At the other end, the system hurries children aged over 16 out of the care system to free up social worker time and resources. That is likely to turn out to be a false economy as vulnerable young people slide back into the mire of the familiar problems that I described earlier.

We also need to listen more and take note of children and young people. A report by the “What Makes the Difference?” project revealed that 40 per cent. of young people in care said that they rarely or never have a say in a placement, which is another great sign of weakness that we need to address and reverse.

The Bill is a last chance for many in the care system whom we have failed for too long. Every two months’ delay represents 1 per cent. of childhood with the child in the care system condemned to mediocrity and the likelihood of underachievement. That situation is simply not acceptable any more. It is an enormous waste to society as a whole, to us and, most of all, to the 61,000 children and young people in the care system for whom the failure to invest seriously in the problem has been a false economy for far too long.

We should approach the Bill by asking ourselves whether the current system, or the proposals, would be good enough for our own children. If we cannot answer yes, we are not doing our job properly. For those reasons, we wish the Bill well and will engage positively with the Minister in Committee.

7.8 pm

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Before I start, I want to make it clear that I have a relationship with NCH that I have taken up again since I left government. I have been involved with the organisation for most of my life, although I took a more objective view, of course, while I was in government. I have been involved in the issue of children in care for many years and I trained as a family case worker many years ago, before several people who are taking part in the debate were born.

I know that the Government have taken the issue of children in care very seriously, and have made a series of efforts to change the opportunities for such children. Indeed, they have significantly increased investment; I am surprised that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) did not acknowledge that. The reality is that significantly more investment has been made, both directly in the care system and in a series of other ways—through the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) initiated early on in our time in office
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on the Quality Protects programme, through investment in communities, through programmes such as Sure Start, through increasing support for parents and through the family intervention projects that the Government have supported.

However, it must be said that we are still not content with the results. That is why the Bill is particularly well timed. It allows us to take account of what has already been done, but it also says to all involved in the care system, “Have another look, because despite increased investment and increased opportunities, things are not working sufficiently well for the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Two years ago, I was asked by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to have another look at social exclusion. One of the issues that he asked me to consider was the care system. He was particularly arrested by the poor educational outcomes. For me, it was a good opportunity to look again at what we could do really to move things on again. There are lots of points that I could make, but many other Members want to speak in this relatively short debate, so I will confine my comments to some of the critical issues, although other issues raised by Members, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, are very important, too.

In particular, I looked at why we were not getting the results that other systems were getting, although we spent more per head on children in care than others did. There are two or three points to raise. The first is early intervention and preventive work. The Government are now much more clearly focused and targeted on that. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has heard me say many times, early intervention work has to be clearly focused and to systematically pick up the most disadvantaged children and families, and it must be rigorous. There are a number of programmes doing such work now. I am delighted that last week, the Government increased the number of areas that can benefit from nurse-family partnerships to 90, from the 10 that were initiated last year. That is proving to be the most effective programme worldwide, not only according to the cost-benefit analysis, but in terms of its impact on the most vulnerable children and their chance to have opportunities when they grow up and to not face the level of disadvantage that too many children do.

Generally, we have to be much more rigorous in picking up on the most vulnerable. That is a challenge to several people in the House who object to data sharing. I believe that it should be a criminal offence not to share data concerning the most vulnerable, because not to share those data is to say, “We think your individual liberties are more important than your opportunity to prosper and succeed.” The two things get confused for the very young child. My right hon. Friend the Minister has problems ensuring decent data sharing. When we go to schools, teachers say, “We know which children will have difficulties as soon as they first come in,” yet the data are not systematically and rigorously shared in a way that would ensure good intervention right from the beginning. Hon. Members can tell that I feel passionate about the issue; I will move on.

There are also preventive services to consider. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned NCH’s work on family intervention. The Government have taken hold of, and extended, NCH and other projects. There will now be about 50 family intervention
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projects across the country. There are other ways in which we should intervene at the very earliest stage to give a family support, so that children do not end up having to be placed in care, for whatever reason. There are good programmes that we know work, and we have to get on with them in every area of the country. NCH makes a powerful point about children on the edge of care in its briefing for Members: good, preventive services involving the whole family can make a huge difference and can help to ensure that children do not end up in the care system.

In my second look at children in care, I became convinced that work-force issues are another area in which we have not got things right, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is chairing a working party on the subject. I encourage him to be ambitious. Members present on both sides of the Chamber have considered the example of the social pedagogy model in Europe. Using that model would mean ensuring much better, longer training for people who work with our children, but I find it perverse that we continue to accept that sometimes the least qualified and trained people are those who work with the most vulnerable. As a result, they frequently do not take hold of a situation because they are fearful of it, and because they know that they do not have the quality, reserves, training or strategies to deal with whatever problem comes up.

When there is a problem that, in this country, would frequently mean someone calling the police, in Denmark, Germany and Finland, the key worker deals with the problem. Obviously, if it is a really serious problem, the police have to be called in, but frequently it is not, and the worker deals with it. I went to two or three children’s homes in Germany where the worker would automatically do an hour’s work with the young person when they came in from school, to make sure that the day was understood and that the young person knew what would happen the next day, and to support the young person in doing their homework. That was not considered anything special. An educational worker was not brought in to do that work; the child’s key worker—the person who worked with them most consistently—did it automatically. I know that the Government are looking at the social pedagogy model, and I encourage them to be brave, to start pilots that involve social pedagogues, and to monitor the effects.

A point that struck me powerfully and that has made me stop and think a great deal is the relationship with the family once a young person is in care. In this country, there is the odd example of good work in that regard, but that good work is not nearly sufficiently systematic, and does not nearly take place often enough. Too many of the young people who have been or who are in care whom I meet are frustrated that they have so little contact with their natural family. I found that out way back when I was a social worker. Even if the relationship with the family has been destructive—even if it has been really poor—young people none the less want to know about their family. They want to know how to deal with them. They want to know who their mother and father are. They want contact. Too often, we say that that is too difficult and that they would be
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better off without it, or we just do not do the hard work to make sure that they are placed somewhere where that will be easy.

When I was in Germany and Denmark, it was not thought out of the ordinary if the parents came for breakfast or lunch, or visited in the evening. That was the norm, and the work force saw their role as negotiating the space between the child and the family. When the child leaves care, even if there has not been any contact, they go into environments that are not controlled for them. They go into a different environment, and many children seek to re-establish contact with their family, and they experience a series of different emotions, including anger, frustration and concern.

Tim Loughton: I am following very closely what the right hon. Lady is saying. I visited that children’s home in Copenhagen shortly after she did. Is not the point, which she rightly makes, that in this country, things are black and white: someone is in the care system, or they are with their birth family? In homes in Denmark where children may go back to their birth parents or to a member of their extended family, or have them over for dinner during the week, there is far greater flexibility: there is a middle way. It is that flexibility that we lack in this country, and I hope that the Bill will go some way towards bringing it about.

Hilary Armstrong: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it is about a bit more than flexibility. It is about the quality of the work force and whether they can handle that relationship. It is about whether they are confident about negotiating that space. Our legislation says that they are in loco parentis, which means that they try to be the parent, but frequently that is not what is required. It may be required for some youngsters, so it should be available, but the next stage is personalisation, to recognise much more effectively what the individual child needs and what is the right response to them.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I have a great deal of sympathy with what my right hon. Friend is saying, and she makes an important point. Like me, she may have seen examples of foster parents in this country who have managed work with the child and their natural parents. They are a bridge, and use the negotiating skills that she described. Does she agree that we should move forward with that model, and provide help to develop the skills of families in their own homes? I am sure that she will agree that foster parents can do that.

Hilary Armstrong: I absolutely agree, and I believe that it is possible. When it works, it is empowering for foster parents, the children and the natural parents. It is counter-intuitive for most people, but we have to be brave on behalf of those children and young people, who do not get a good deal from us.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): As well as foster carers having the role on which my right hon. Friend has just agreed, does she accept that there is no reason why residential care staff should not have the same role, too, and that residential care homes ought to become resource centres for such work?

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