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The figures so far show that there were 730 notifications in 2005, 980 in 2006 and 1,250 in 2007, against a background of an estimated 10,000 children being privately fostered. How can children be adequately protected and safeguarded if we do not know the conditions in which they are looked after? It cannot be right for the Government to say, “We’ll have another three years, and we’re going to do better this time.” We need to know how the Government are going to do better in the next three years.

In reading the report of the debate in the other place, I felt that the noble Lord Adonis was always ready to say, “That’s already in regulations. That’s covered under this legislation. That’s already in guidance.” I am sure that that is absolutely true; so much should be happening to help looked-after children, but the fact is that it is not. The designated teacher is a good example: a provision was in the guidance, but surveys show that it was not put into practice. Time is short, and we must make the legislation work. I hope that we can all work together sensibly and seriously on this serious and important Bill.

7.53 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make what is my maiden speech.

I wish to speak briefly on the Bill before the House, but before doing so, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor. For 34 years, Gwyneth Dunwoody served Crewe, from 1974 until 1983, and thereafter Crewe and Nantwich, with unwavering dedication and distinction. The longest-serving female Member of Parliament, Gwyneth Dunwoody was not only a truly great parliamentarian, but a uniquely formidable fighter. She stood up and fought for all her constituents and was steadfast in her belief in, and defence of, the independence of this House.

Gwyneth Dunwoody had a clear sense of what an MP is for and never wavered from her core beliefs. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties will agree that her enduring spirit, acerbic wit and unstinting passion for the Parliament and the people she served will for
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ever remain within the fabric of this House. We all owe her a great debt. As it is a privilege and honour to follow in her footsteps, so it is a privilege and honour to represent the good people of Crewe and Nantwich. I make known my gratitude to them for sending me here and I hope that I can repay their trust.

In the normal course of events, I would now seize the opportunity to take the House on a journey across my constituency. However, the events of my election were anything but normal. Many, if not all, hon. Members have already had the great pleasure of having visited Crewe and Nantwich in the last six weeks—most, I trust, of their own volition. Some Members had the undoubted advantage of moving into my constituency for the duration of the by-election, a worthy experience that I am sure will remain with them. Nevertheless, I ask the House to allow me a few moments to remind them of its many and varied qualities. What I hope they found was a place blessed with a strong and proud community and a deep and diverse heritage, together with people of frank honesty and open decency, for certainly that is true.

Known as the gateway to the north-west, Crewe and Nantwich straddles urban and rural communities that, together, contain a rich range of human activity and life. Lying in the heart of south Cheshire, Crewe remains synonymous with the birth and rise of the railways through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and indeed it was down to that industry that the town was born. Its influence in the town and the prosperity that came with it can be seen in the impressive array of Victorian buildings and open spaces. I recall my grandmother reminiscing to me about the tea dances she attended in the 1930s at the Crewe Arms hotel, the world’s first railway hotel built in 1838. Crewe continues to play an active and central part in the railway industry today.

In recent years, Crewe has built upon its manufacturing base with a strong service industry that has attracted national and international investment from public and private sectors alike. In 1986, Crewe business park became the UK’s first “green” business park, and developments such as the Crewe Gates industrial estate have encouraged new business and industries to move into the town. Crewe has a growing sense of enterprise that has enormous untapped potential. Further regeneration in and around the town centre can only help to set that potential free. My predecessor worked tirelessly towards her vision of Crewe becoming a university town. With substantial investment in place for many of the further and higher education institutions located in the town, that vision is closer to becoming a reality.

Nantwich is a picturesque market town that predates the Norman conquest. Those born within the town’s boundaries are affectionately known as “dabbers”, and there are many old wives’ tales that purport to explain the origin of the term. Sitting on the banks of the River Weaver, Nantwich began as a salt town that gave way to a leather then clothing industry. Today, Nantwich boasts a thriving tourist trade. Visitors to Nantwich are attracted by the magnificent market square, dominated by the 14th century parish church of St. Mary’s, christened the cathedral of south Cheshire, and surrounded by leaning half-timbered black and white Tudor architecture.

The English civil war reached one of its turning points at the battle of Nantwich in 1644, when the parliamentarians held back the royalists. While I have
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every respect for the primacy of this Chamber, I am glad that that siege is only re-enacted every year on what is known as Holly Holy day.

The success of Cheshire cheese-making is celebrated annually at the Nantwich international cheese show. That is, in part, a product of the rolling open Cheshire countryside in my constituency, which is home to a dairy industry that is now, sadly, struggling. In the past seven years, more than 50 dairy farms in my constituency have closed and our farming community is in a desperate plight. The peppering of rural villages does what it can to support the rural economy, but these are parlous times.

Across Crewe and Nantwich, the role played by charities and volunteer groups has never been more important. My contact with young and old alike in organisations such as Crewe YMCA and Cheshire Age Concern has demonstrated to me the difference that they can make.

The people of Crewe and Nantwich have much to be proud of and I, as their Member of Parliament, shall work hard to stand up for each and every one of them. That includes those whose needs and vulnerability are among the most acute—children in care.

Having spent the past 25 years living with, and helping care for, many foster children, and the past decade working in the care system, I know only too well the fundamental importance of putting children first and giving them the childhood that they deserve. I, too, welcome the Bill and support its efforts to improve outcomes for children in care. It contains many praiseworthy objectives: improving stability of placement; education and support for longer; promoting early intervention, and increasing family support. However, we must ask ourselves: does it hit the spot and does it go far enough?

For too long, most social workers have started out on their career hoping to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children, but have finished up frustrated by risk assessments, box-ticking and targets, so that, eventually, their objective is to protect their department, not the children whom they are there to help. The time spent by social workers dealing face to face with the children whom they are there to protect, nurture and support is less than 5 per cent. of their working day. I believe vehemently in empowering professionals to do what they do best—their job. I hope that the Bill will go some way towards giving social workers the trust and freedom that they need to treat each child as a special case.

I welcome clause 20 and the statutory requirement that it introduces, but I would add this. Every designated teacher with responsibility for promoting the educational achievement of children in care registered at their school requires, in my view, additional training to ensure that each child’s specific and specialised needs are properly met and that they are afforded the opportunity to flourish rather than fail. A case in point is the growing number of children in care who are affected by attachment disorder as opposed to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Teachers will need additional training to understand that difference and how to respond effectively.

I also believe that the Government need to increase the number of registered foster carers as a priority. A more embracing and welcoming recruitment programme, which provides better guidance and less bureaucracy, will, I am sure, stimulate more interest and commitment to a noble, rewarding, and, at times, undervalued role.

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During the by-election campaign, I had the unexpected but great fortune to cross paths with the mother of three children fostered by my family some years ago. They are, of course, now my constituents, and, I am pleased to say, thriving as a family and as individuals. They are testament to how our care system can work. Sadly, we have been failing so many other children in care for too long. I trust that the Bill will be a worthy, albeit overdue, step towards making our children really matter.

I am grateful to the House for its indulgence. I will continue to champion this and all other causes that affect the people of Crewe and Nantwich—after all, that is my duty.

8.4 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) on his speech. I especially applaud him for his kind words about his predecessor, who was a perfectly splendid Member of Parliament and a role model for us all. I recognise his description of his constituency, having spent many an hour there recently and meeting many interesting people.

Perhaps most important, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Bill. He has recognised its importance for vulnerable people, whom we all represent, and the need for us to move forward. Like him, I welcome the Bill. It makes a clear commitment to encouraging aspirations among young people in care and reducing the gap in outcomes that all speakers this evening have highlighted. That can be done only if children and young people feel cared for.

The results of a peer project, which a recent edition of Community Care magazine outlined, showed that the most important thing for young people was feeling cared for. It was heartening that three quarters of those who took part in the project felt cared for by their local authorities. However, it was often because

That could be a foster carer—many references have been made to their important role—a residential care worker, personal assistant, leaving care worker, social worker or a teacher. Words that are key to our debate summed up the research:

Over the years, I have met many remarkably resilient young people. We should think about them and consider the way in which we can give them the additional practical and emotional support that they need, want and applaud when they get it. That is why the Bill is so important.

The pledge that local authorities set out to children in care must be more than words. I will mention some aspects of the Bill that I welcome before moving on to two key issues that I want to explore in more detail. Some issues have already been mentioned.

I welcome the new duty on local authorities to provide short breaks. I worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on a series of parliamentary hearings that
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highlighted the pressures on families with children with disabilities. A key matter that they called for was short breaks—respite care. I also supported a private Member’s Bill, which the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) promoted. Everybody who was involved with the private Member’s Bill and the parliamentary hearings will applaud this Bill’s provisions for short breaks.

I also welcome the creation of the role of the designated teacher; the introduction of the bursary of £2,000 for care leavers going into higher education; the “staying put” pilot; extending entitlement to the support of a personal adviser up to the age of 25 for care leavers in education or wishing to return to education; piloting the role of the virtual head; and the additional funding for personalised learning for children in care, who are at risk of not reaching the standards that they should attain.

Other hon. Members have mentioned poor educational outcomes for children in care, but no one has pointed out that children are often in care because they were already outside the education system. Dysfunctional families or personal problems meant that they were all too often truants. By the time they enter the care system, they have already lost much schooling and, just as important, the habit of going to school. They are reluctant to go back because they know that they will be behind their fellow pupils and they are embarrassed about that. Given that we are considering educational outcomes for children in care, we must recognise the background and examine the special measures that we can introduce to keep them in school and bolster their confidence as well as improving the education available to them.

I want to talk about two areas in more detail: first, the voice of the child; and secondly, social work practices, which have not been mentioned in any great detail thus far. On the voice of the child, I welcome the strengthening of the role of the independent reviewing officer and the opportunity for more looked-after children to have independent visitors. However, I again urge the Minister to consider the role of independent advocacy—I know that I seem to say that every time I meet him, but it is an important issue. As has been mentioned, early-day motion 1126, on advocacy for looked-after children, which I tabled, has the support of 144 hon. Members.

The purpose of independent advocacy is fundamentally different from that of the IRO or independent visitors. I do not want the Minister to misunderstand my championing of independent advocacy. I recognise what he and colleagues say about all professionals involved with the child having a role in advocating on their behalf. Social workers are trained as advocates on behalf of the people with whom they work, and teachers, foster carers and all the other people involved will speak up for that child. However, speaking up for the child is not the same as sitting down with them, asking them what they want and then putting their wishes into words. Sometimes those words will not be ones that professionals want to hear. That is why the young person needs an advocate.

Let us try to put ourselves in the place of a 12, 13, 14 or 15-year-old going into a meeting with all those professionals, who are experts in their field. Would we really open our mouths and say things that we knew
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would annoy them or with which they would disagree? Some young people might do that, but a lot will not. That is why they need a voice to speak up for them—not someone to say what is best for them, but to say what they want. The young person might not get it, or it might be impractical; nevertheless, their voice should be heard.

As president of Blackpool Advocacy, I have seen for myself the vital work that independent advocates do. The question of who pays for independent advocacy was raised in an earlier intervention. That is an important issue. An advocacy service tries to get money from wherever it can to deliver the work that it does. The important point is that the service’s contract—whether it be with the health authority, a local authority or whomsoever is paying for the services—makes it clear that it is independent. The young person who goes to an independent advocacy service will therefore be guaranteed independence and someone speaking up for them and nobody else—indeed, the advocate might argue with the person providing the funding.

As was mentioned earlier, in his report, “People Like Us”, Sir William Utting emphasised the importance of advocacy services, which help to protect children in the care system. More than any other group, disabled children need independent advocacy, especially if they are placed away from home. Many children with a disability have communication problems. It is often frustrating for them to try to explain what their feelings are. The social care staff or other professionals who deal with them are all under pressure, and will often make assumptions about what that young person wants, instead of trying to develop the communication skills to understand what that young person is trying to say. Having an independent advocate working on behalf of young people with disabilities, and especially those with communication problems, is vital.

The Bill is very good, but it could be made even better, if the 13,000-plus disabled children and young people placed away from home in England could have a statutory right at least to be offered the opportunity of advocacy services. Not everybody will want or need them, but they should be entitled to the opportunity to ask for them. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider strengthening the guidance on that matter.

I know that there is already a lot of guidance on making advocacy services available, but I also know, from research that the Children’s Society has conducted, that not many advocacy services have the skills to deliver to children with disability. Therefore, although I am arguing the case for independent advocacy and saying that the Government should do more to strengthen guidance on the matter, I am also arguing that advocacy service providers need to build up their services, so that they, too, can properly respond if, as I hope, we expand young people’s entitlement to advocacy services. My final point on the matter is that the Children’s Commissioner for England said in response to the “Care Matters” Green Paper:

Again, I urge the Government to consider the issue carefully.

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