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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Last week saw the publication of another very critical report on child protection services, focusing on the work being done at Aberdeen city council. That suggests that the problems we face reach across the whole country, even
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outwith my right hon. Friend’s jurisdiction. The death of children obviously hits the headlines, but we know that hundreds, if not thousands, of children are living in very dysfunctional families that most of us would not survive in. The difficulty for social workers lies in making the judgment when they stop working with the family and leaving the child with them and when they take the child out of that family.

My question concerns the interpretation of the data protection legislation and whether that is acting as a hindrance to many people who raise concerns about a child but do not get any feedback from the authorities or statutory agencies because of data protection. That can also happen to MPs, who may find that they do not know whether their concern has been taken seriously or has disappeared into some kind of data protection black hole.

Ed Balls: How we properly follow up serious case reviews is important and urgent, and I have asked Lord Laming to investigate it. More generally, where concerns are expressed it is important that we as Members of Parliament know that they are being taken seriously case by case. I will ensure that as part of his work Lord Laming considers issues of data protection across the whole of the UK. If it is a barrier to proper progress on safety, we should look into it.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Children with severe learning difficulties are among the most vulnerable in our society. In the context of the wider inquiry into this matter, will the Secretary of State assure me that he will look to ensure that for teachers, who have child protection responsibilities, there are no barriers to immediate and rapid access to social workers and the police where they have suspicions of abuse?

Ed Balls: In my view, there should never be such barriers in any area, and if they are arising then action is urgently needed in order to ensure children’s safety. There should never be barriers when a teacher has a concern for any child, and that is particularly true for a child with a severe physical or learning disability.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): The Children, Schools and Families Committee is undertaking an investigation into looked-after children. As part of that, we visited Denmark, partly because double the number of children per capita are taken into care there than in this country. In addition, there is another layer of the profession—they are known as pedagogues—that we do not have. As part of the work force review, will the Secretary of State undertake to examine the Denmark model in detail and hope to invest in that new profession and in the work force in general?

Ed Balls: We are not only looking into that possibility but intending to act on it and trial it in some areas of the country to see if it can work. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s call for urgent action. I am pleased that the Select Committee is looking into the wider issue in Denmark, and we look forward to its report.

As I said, my starting point is not that there should be a presumption that we should tilt the balance of child protection away from keeping children in the home and towards taking them into care. That is not the appropriate judgment to make at this time, and it is not
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a signal that I want to send. I want to know that in every case where the child’s safety needs to be protected we are acting and there are no barriers in the way. I do not think that a starting point of wanting to take more children into care and away from their families is the right place to be at this time. However, we will wait to see the Committee’s report and the work of Lord Laming before reaching final judgments.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that I have been concerned for some time that judgment in such cases has been wrong, and that the wrong children have been taken into care. In Haringey, at the important time for baby P, the authority was trying to reduce the number of children in care to a target figure of 365 by March 2007. That was a consequence of a revenue budget problem, which was why fewer care proceedings were initiated. I have identified a case in Haringey where two children were wrongly in care at the same time. The effect of having the wrong two children in care was that there was no space in care for baby P.

The Government, with all-party support, have improved accountability for process but done little about accountability for judgment, and it is that issue that has caused major problems. Will the Secretary of State, particularly in the light of Ofsted’s report yesterday, which indicated that in the 17 months until August there were 282 serious case reviews—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman should now bring his question to a conclusion.

Ed Balls: We have discussed that issue with the hon. Gentleman many times, and we see no evidence for what he says. It would be quite wrong to distort judgments made about child safety for revenue or financial reasons.

More generally, I find it quite hard to understand this concept of the “wrong” children being taken into care when other children should have been instead. As far as I am concerned, if a child’s safety is at risk and the thresholds are passed, the child should go into care—but only in such cases. In this case, it is clear that the home environment was chaotic and the family concerned did not take its responsibilities seriously in any way, but the idea that that is the only kind of family in which children are at risk or subject to abuse is completely wrong. I am afraid that in every area, at every level of income and in every walk of life, children are, at times, abused and maltreated, sometimes without that abuse having come to the attention of the authorities. Where there is evidence of abuse, action should be taken, whether they are the right or wrong kind of child in the hon. Gentleman’s view.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for the speed with which he instigated this investigation. It is the hope of everyone in this House that rapid action will follow just as quickly. Will he undertake to ensure that the lessons of the case are learned not only by chief executives of local authorities and directors of social services, but by councillors in charge of children’s services, as well as chief constables and the chief executives of local health authorities throughout the country?

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Ed Balls: It is my determination that we and they do so. I wrote to every director of children’s services two days ago, saying that while Lord Laming is doing his work, they must satisfy themselves that they have the correct systems in place and that they are protecting children properly. The Ofsted report is coming up soon, and we will act on that. Through the children’s trusts, we must ensure that every service—GPs, the police, schools and social workers—are doing what is necessary with parents to keep children safe. We must do so comprehensively in every part of the country, with every service properly involved, committed and accountable when things go wrong.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I want to take the Secretary of State back to the issue of increasing fees for public care proceedings. I heard his earlier answer, and I appreciate that at present it is not possible to gauge the impact, but will he ensure that there is the widest possible monitoring of the situation, including by people such as local law societies and others outside the local authority network? My local law society raised the issue with me, and I suspect the same is true for a number of other hon. Members. The £40 million that has been allocated to local authorities is not ring-fenced, and it may not go very far when there is increased and heightened interest in the matter. Will he assure me that monitoring will ensure that the increase in fees has not had the impact that lawyers and others connected with children might have feared? The House will be very grateful if he can do so.

Ed Balls: I will do that. It is something that I, the Secretary of State for Justice and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government looked at in detail a year ago because we wanted to ensure that the wrong behavioural response did not occur. I am reassured by the words of the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, who says that she knows of no evidence of children being placed at risk as a result of these changes.

At the same time, I am concerned by the comments from the legal profession, and by the numbers that have been published. I take the matter very seriously, and I am asking Lord Laming to look at it—it is in the terms of reference set out in the letter on Monday. If we have to change the system to ensure that children are safe, we will. However, if councils are not doing the right thing because of legal fees, especially when the money was there, that would be a gross dereliction of duty.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am keen to allow everyone to make a contribution. Once again, I make a plea for short questions and answers because the main business is still to follow.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): The whole House shares in the sorrow, anger and revulsion of the country at the murder of this innocent child. I ask my right hon. Friend to ask Lord Laming to give us the numbers of children at risk who have not been allocated a social worker. May I also ask him to liaise with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that no child ever leaves their 18-month development review with an undiagnosed broken spine?

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Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is quite right, and I know that she has expertise in these matters. When such problems exist, they should be identified by the experts involved. She is right to make that point; it should be best practice, and common practice, everywhere. I will ask Lord Laming to ensure that as part of his wider work the facts are set out clearly in his report, and we will draw the right conclusions from those facts.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for the manner in which he made his statement, the way he has answered questions and for the action that he has taken. I am not clear on one point, however. The director of children’s services from Hampshire has been put into Haringey. Is he in charge, or is he there to supplement what is going on?

Ed Balls: He is not in charge. He was seconded immediately at our instigation, with the agreement of Haringey, to work with the existing management of children’s services to ensure that the proper procedures were in place and being applied case by case for children there. The accountability and responsibility of the management are as they have been, and the right thing for me to do is to wait for the inspector’s report, which I will do. The reason for sending in Mr. Coughlan was to ensure that, in the mean time, we were assured that things were done properly.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend feel that enough is being done to encourage good people to offer themselves as adoptive or long-term foster parents? If more children went into that sort of care, it would reduce the possibility of social workers being pushed into the dreadful dilemma of having to choose between inappropriate natural parents or long-term care with a local authority.

Ed Balls: Last week was national adoption week, when we focused on encouraging foster and adoptive parents to come forward, with a particular focus on black and minority ethnic foster or adoptive parents. We try to pursue the matter continually, but is enough being done? Almost certainly not—we should do more.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The House is rightly concerned about trying to ensure that similar tragedies do not occur in future, or that the risk is at least minimised. However, is the Secretary of State aware of whether the other cases dealt with by those involved in making the assessment in the tragic case of baby P are being reviewed? Given that their judgment was flawed in the case of baby P, is it possible that a similar judgment may have operated in other cases? That applies to the lawyers involved as well as the social workers.

Ed Balls: I should have explained earlier that a serious case review in a case such as this is finalised and published only at the end of the criminal legal case. It therefore took longer in the case that we are considering because it was necessary for it not to be published until the criminal case was completed. Throughout that process, there is an obligation on local management to act to implement reforms as they arise as part of the work of the serious case review. A plan of action was already in place before the publication of the report, and action
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has been taken. Two social workers and a paediatrician were suspended. I hope that any past cases were re-examined. John Coughlan is there to ensure that the inspectors are making sure that such things have happened. I do not have an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question today because the right thing for me to do is ensure that the national inspectors do their job properly. However, I would have thought that “properly” means ensuring that past checks were made.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is it not the case that there are significant variations in the proportion of children at risk who are taken into care not only between the UK and other European countries, where outcomes have generally been better for many years, but between English local authorities? If there has been a move in the UK towards being more reluctant to put children in care, could that be because, for many years, our care settings and support for foster carers have been less than adequate? Will my right hon. Friend look exceptionally carefully at the recommendations of the Select Committee’s report on the matter?

Ed Balls: I always look exceptionally carefully at any recommendations from the Select Committee. I have done so on other matters; a recent example is national testing.

Lord Laming’s work will examine patterns throughout the country. We look forward to the Select Committee’s work on the international comparisons and the lessons from Denmark, although we must be careful to compare like with like, given our different legal systems.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, as yesterday’s Ofsted report on children’s homes makes clear, the outcomes for looked-after children have not been good enough. That is why we have legislated, with cross-party support, through the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 to strengthen those arrangements substantially. However, as in the case of safeguarding, putting legislation in place is one thing, but the key thing to do next is ensure that it is comprehensively implemented in the best way in every part of the country. That is our challenge in the case of looked-after children, which we must tackle together.

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1.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I beg to move,

I am pleased to open my first annual fisheries debate and to be opposite the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) again. We have faced each other in previous roles in the Wales Office, and it is good to do so again.

It is helpful that the debate takes place before the European Union’s December Fisheries Council. It gives Members an opportunity to express views on behalf of their constituents and on the UK approach. It also allows me to highlight key issues from the past year, to look forward to future challenges, of which there are many, and to hear views on other issues of interest to fisheries and the marine environment.

The year 2009 will be important for the marine environment, not least because of the introduction of the marine Bill, as well as the consultation on the improvements that we would like to make to the common fisheries policy. Both are key to the challenge of maintaining sustainable fishing while enhancing the protection of the marine environment. A sustainable fisheries sector is essential for delivering the Government’s vision of

It is right, at the beginning of the debate, to acknowledge that the sector faces genuine dangers every day. Some of those dangers are brought into people’s living rooms when they watch television programmes such as “Trawlermen” and “Deadliest Catch”, but they only scratch the surface of the challenges that our fishermen face every day. I am sad to report that seven fishermen lost their lives this year. Our hearts go out to the families who suffered those tragic losses.

Although it has been a difficult year for the fishing industry, with high fuel prices, especially during the summer, the fishing sector has continued to make a valuable contribution to our economy. Since 2006, UK landings of cod have declined by 7 per cent., those of haddock by 16 per cent. and those of herring by 17 per cent. However, landings of mackerel have increased by 30 per cent., those of nephrops by 8 per cent. and those of crabs by 11 per cent. The total value of landings of fish from UK vessels in 2007 was £645 million—an increase of 6 per cent. on 2006. That is largely a result of a rise in the value of shellfish landed, which is up by 15 per cent. on 2006. Exports of fish and fish products had a value of £922.7 million in 2007. The industry provides employment for 12,700 fishermen, and sea angling—an important sector—makes a significant contribution to the UK economy.

As well as providing jobs in local communities, fishing supplies us with food and is part of our heritage. It is socially and culturally important, for local communities and our island nation, and it provides recreation for many anglers. Managed effectively, fishing can be sustainable. However, if we get the balance wrong, we could threaten vulnerable species and cause irreversible damage to marine ecosystems and the resources on which everyone—from fishermen and sea anglers to consumers—depends.

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