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9.28 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): We have heard throughout the debate agreement on both sides of the House that every child needs a stable, secure and caring environment in which to grow and thrive, never more so than when they are unable to live with their own parents and the duty to care for them falls on to the state.

The reasons why children come into care differ, but for two out of three looked-after children the main reason why social services first get involved in a child’s life is abuse or neglect. Such children are already vulnerable, and the support that they are given should provide the stability and security that they need. It is important to note that the majority of children in care are aged between 10 and 15, which is not an easy period of life for many children and certainly not for those subject to the turmoil of going into care.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said, we welcome the opportunity that the Bill presents to shape important improvements in the way in which looked-after children are cared for and to help them get the best possible start in life. It is our duty to ensure that the Bill goes as far as possible to address the many failings that hon. Members have referred to in their contributions.

I join the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in congratulating the other place on many of the changes already made to the Bill. Government amendments in the other place have helped to clarify the need for an in-built presumption of the promotion of stability in every child’s life, with the child’s family continuing to play a pivotal role wherever possible. Family remains important, not only because family relationships are some of the most important in our lives, but because last year more than 40 per cent. of looked-after children returned to live with their parents. That enduring relationship remains important, and the Government amendments in the other place recognised that more needs to be done in the Bill to spell out the important role of the family in the hierarchy of options that a child has for placement, as set out in clause 8.

The clause also highlights the need for local authorities to ensure that placements allow children to live near home, that education is not disrupted and that a child lives with sisters or brothers, if they are also in care. Just as the Bill urges all involved in the care of looked-after children to raise their aspirations, the Government need
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to continue to raise their aspirations. As the Bill proceeds through Committee, we will seek the Government’s support for further amendments.

The debate in the other place led to some important amendments, and I pay tribute to the work done by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton, whose successful amendment of the Bill in the other place has resulted in a clear and robust statutory duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who pass through its care by amending the Children Act 2004. A number of other Government amendments were added in response to important concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Grand Committee. Today’s debate suggests a great deal of scope for the Government to go further.

We have heard several important contributions from all parties, but none were more important than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who took the opportunity afforded by today’s debate to make his maiden speech. I congratulate him on an outstanding maiden speech; he spoke movingly about his predecessor and her unstinting commitment to this place and to her constituents in Crewe and Nantwich. In the best spirit of maiden speeches, he brought to life the vibrant nature of his constituency, of which, as many hon. Members noted, we have first-hand experience. He brought to life its history and its potential, which I am sure will be realised through his hard work and commitment. It was most appropriate that he made his maiden speech on children in care, something of which he and his family have extensive experience. He spoke of some of the 86 children that his family fostered while he was growing up, and I am sure that his contribution has already demonstrated the value that he will bring to this place both from his family life and from his experience as a family lawyer.

We heard an important contribution from the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who pointed out that the Government have made a significant investment in children in care in recent years. In the other place, the noble Lord Adonis confirmed that between 2001 and 2005 £230 million was spent to support children in residential care and £330 million was spent to support children in foster care. As the right hon. Lady pointed out, despite that investment only modest improvements, which do not match the investment, have been made. For example, the proportion of children who get five or more GCSEs has improved by only 3 per cent.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the Government’s need to focus on those most in need and her work on social exclusion. I hope that her words resonate with the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who will reply to the debate, because she is right that the Government have not taken the action that is needed to focus on children most in need. I have highlighted that, especially in the context of Sure Start, for which the Government have recognised the need to improve and increase the number of outreach workers. However, there is evidence of worrying cuts.

Hilary Armstrong: In trying to paraphrase my words, the hon. Lady needs to recognise the huge improvement that 1997 brought. She was not here, but I spent 10 years
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before 1997 in the House, when it was difficult to get any investment, or, indeed, much attention, for the subject of our discussion. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friends, but I also urge them to go further.

Mrs. Miller: I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention but, as she pointed out, investment is not enough, because we need reform to ensure that the money is made to work hard.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a characteristically excellent contribution, which showed his commitment to and long-standing work on the subject. I want to highlight his comments about the widening gap between looked-after children and their peers. Many hon. Members referred to those worrying statistics throughout the debate and the cost that that presents to the state if those children, left without the support they require, enter the offenders’ system. Indeed, my hon. Friend pointed out that persistent offenders individually cost the state some £164,000 a year, and perhaps we need to take more account of that cost when we evaluate the importance of the measure.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made a valuable contribution and raised an issue that other hon. Members did not mention—the problems that face those who wish to adopt a child in this country and the apparently overwhelming influence of a child’s ethnic background when local authorities judge parents’ potential suitability. The House will listen carefully to the Under-Secretary’s response to my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution, because my right hon. and learned Friend has highlighted an issue about which hon. Members of all parties are deeply concerned.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) drew attention to several problems for disabled children in long-term residential places. I am sure that that will be covered more fully in Committee.

Two hon. Members emphasised the importance of independent advocacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke with his usual thoughtfulness and eloquence about the additions that he would like to make to the Bill, and he highlighted independent advocacy as one issue that requires further examination. He stressed the unique role that independent advocates play in supporting looked-after children and their value for the more than one in four children in care who also have special educational needs. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) also raised that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raised, at the tail end of the debate, the important issues of accommodation for those leaving care and of respite care. She also mentioned something that clearly requires careful discussion in Committee, namely the challenges that the Bill sets local authorities. Many hon. Members have local authorities that do well in looking after the needs of children in care. My local authority in Hampshire has great experience of kinship care. I learned that that is not available in many parts of the country, but we take it for granted in my part of Hampshire. We need to ensure that local authorities can meet the challenges that the Bill creates for them.

I want briefly to pick up on something that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who opened the debate, said about health inequalities. She reminded the House that half of all children in care
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suffer from a mental health problem. I hope that that issue will be taken up either by the Under-Secretary when he closes the debate or in further debate, because only a fraction of those 27,000 children in care aged between five and 17 who have a mental health problem have any hope of receiving the support that they need. Indeed, briefings for this debate indicate that only 10,000 of those children will receive the support that they need from mental health services.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families also discussed the importance of closing the inequality gap. I want to pick up on the words that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe used about the gap that concerns us all on the Conservative Benches—the gap between the words used in debates such as this and the reality that is delivered on the ground. We all want to work together to ensure that that gap closes.

There were also contributions from the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming). Unfortunately, time is short, and I cannot go into great detail about the issues that they covered, but I am sure that they will want to play a full part in Committee and the remaining stages of the Bill.

The Opposition welcome the opportunity that the Bill presents. We will do all that we can to ensure that it is ambitious, to use the words of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, and that it does all that it can to raise our aspirations for what can be achieved for looked-after children. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said in his opening statement, we will seek to press the Government further in Committee on a number of critical areas to improve the Bill’s impact on the lives of looked-after children in all our constituencies throughout the country and to emphasise the importance of strengthening family contact, because the family is the source of our closest and most meaningful relationships, which is why we want to introduce a presumption of contact between all children in care and their siblings.

Because we know how important stability is for children, we want to reduce the bureaucratic burden for social workers, so that there is less turnover in that profession and that, as a result, children receive the continuity of care that they need. Staff turnover among social workers in London is currently 15 per cent. every year, and it is even higher in other parts of the country. That is not only a great cause of concern for the children involved, but a great waste for local authorities.

Additionally, we want to help children who wish to stay in care until they are 18, and we want to give care leavers a nominated social worker whom they can contact for advice. Most social workers do a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances. Their profession has undergone a great deal of scrutiny, and some would say that their reputation had been bruised in recent years. That needs to be addressed head-on. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, we want to consider the appointment of a chief social worker, who would be the public face of the profession.

We want to ensure not only that foster carers are encouraged to enter the profession, but that they are protected from any unfounded allegations that may shake their desire to remain in it. We also want all
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private foster carers to be registered with their local authorities to increase confidence in foster carers throughout the country.

This has been an important debate on how we can improve the situation for children who are looked after. We should pay tribute not only to those involved in providing the care on the ground for their tireless work, but to those national organisations whose knowledge and expertise provide us all with an invaluable insight into the work that needs to be done. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members would like to thank those organisations that spent a considerable time providing us with the briefings that we needed in order to have such a high quality debate.

In conclusion, this debate shows that there is no difficulty in identifying the problems and no shortage of desire to raise the aspirations of those who work with looked-after children. However, over the past decade—and perhaps even before that—there has been a failure to deliver a real change for children who are looked after. We on this side of the House will work with the Government to help ensure that we make the most of this opportunity, because there is a will among all right hon. and hon. Members to ensure that the Bill really makes the difference that children in care need.

9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): We have had a lively, high quality and mainly consensual debate this evening, which is as it should be on this subject—one that was neglected for many years, but that has had a great deal more attention recently. As we have all said this evening, it should have even more attention. The contributions to the debate have often been enriched by pertinent personal experience and expertise, which has greatly contributed to the quality of discussion.

I think that we share a common goal across the House. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families set it out in the opening speech, and hon. Members have continued to express it throughout the debate. Since tributes have already been made to the other place, I would like to pay my own tribute, particularly to Lord Adonis, who did much of the heavy lifting on the Bill at the other end of this building with considerable effect, panache and a great deal of support on all sides. The common purpose that we are trying to nurture is really about the well-being of every child. We want to secure for every child in the country every possible opportunity to make the most of their talents. That is the reason why the Department for Children, Schools and Families was created—to ensure that every child has every chance of success.

A successful future depends not just on exam results, as it begins at birth and it is nurtured in the home. It is fostered from support, stability and significant adults who care about children, keep them safe and encourage their progress. That is what the Bill and the broader reforms of our “Care Matters” agenda are intended to secure for every child, not just the fortunate few. We want to try to make our care system truly world class, so that those children and young people who, for whatever reason, are unable to live with their birth parents receive a level of care akin to that which any good parent
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would provide. It is the job of every professional within that system to support the well-being and development of children and young people as far as they can, not just as far as it applies to their job title. That applies not just to our care system, but right across children’s services.

In fact, everybody is part of team Every Child Matters. This legislation is a core element of our “Care Matters” agenda, which will support high-quality professionals providing a high standard of service in a world-class system. The aim is to provide children and young people in the care system with those fundamentals that my right hon. Friend the Minister talked about earlier: good-quality parenting, raising aspirations for young people in care, and giving those young people a real voice and, most crucially, stability in their young lives. I am pleased that hon. Members across the House have welcomed many aspects of the Bill in support of those aims: securing local, stable placements as a priority; the centrality of the voice of the child in everything we do; improving care planning; and better support to help young people make the transition into adult life.

Members have raised other specific issues during the course of debate, and I will try in the time available to do some justice to them, even if I cannot do full justice to all. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) told us about some of the amendments he intends to introduce as the Bill progresses, so we look forward to seeing them. He mentioned a welfare checklist. Of course, section 22 of the Children Act 1989 already sets a framework for local authority decision making. It makes it clear that local authorities have a duty to “safeguard and promote” the child’s welfare; that the local authority must discharge this duty having particular regard to the need to promote the child’s educational achievement; and that the local authority must consult the child and give due consideration to their “wishes and feelings” before taking decisions that affect them, and give due consideration to

That is almost entirely analogous in content to the welfare checklist.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham also mentioned the proposal to establish a chief social worker. Our approach, set out in the children’s plan, which was published last December and was reinforced in “Building Brighter Futures”, is wide-ranging and systematic in seeking to accelerate change across the whole of the children’s work force. Our ambition for that work force cannot be achieved by central Government or any single partner alone. Furthermore, there is already a work-force infrastructure in place that carries out many of the functions suggested by the report, including the General Social Care Council, the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Social Care Institute for Excellence. Nevertheless, we look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman’s proposals.

I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman got into the business about adoption targets. I did not realise that he was rowing in that particular river. The only adoption targets, which ended in 2006 and which he will remember had their genesis in the Adoption and Children Act 2002—we both served on the Bill Committee—were on the number already in care and waiting to be placed for adoption, and on speeding up the process. Those targets reflected the Government’s desire to reverse a long-term decline in the number of children already in care who
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found a permanent home through adoption. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose remarks I shall come to in a moment, referred to that aim tonight and supported it strongly when we considered that Bill.

John Hemming rose—

Kevin Brennan: I will not give way, although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman had only three minutes in which to speak. Oh, go on then.

John Hemming: The Minister is saying that best value 163 was scrapped at the end of 2005-06. Does he not agree that, in fact, it was still extant for 2007-08 and has been scrapped only since then?

Kevin Brennan: As I have pointed out to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions, there were no financial targets attached to the national adoption targets that we are talking about. Neither is there any evidence whatever that supports the contention that he has made on a number of occasions, which is that younger children becoming adopted is somehow linked to reward payments of some sort; there is absolutely no evidence whatever.

I can remind the House of what Mr. Justice Wall said recently about the hon. Gentleman’s campaign on some of those matters:

about that particular case

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