Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)


20 FEBRUARY 2008

  Chairman: Good morning, Minister.

  Kevin Brennan: Good morning, Chairman.

  Q1  Chairman: I apologise for the delay caused by the late sitting last night, but we are quorate, we are here, and we are very keen to have this session. I welcome you, Minister, to what is, I think, your first appearance before a Select Committee. We are on a learning curve, as you are in your new Department, becoming familiar with the children and families part of our remit. You have come in with several advisers, so would you tell us who you have brought with you, just to give us a flavour of the range of responsibilities?

  Kevin Brennan: Yes. Thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to come along and give evidence to the new Select Committee. You are right: it is my first appearance before a Select Committee, having been on the other side of the table. With me today, although they are not appearing before you to give evidence but are here in support, are the Bill team behind the Children and Young Persons Bill, which, as you know, is currently on its travels through the House of Lords.

  Q2  Chairman: Slightly delayed, we hear.

  Kevin Brennan: Slightly delayed. Yesterday, the Bill went back into Committee, but the Lords have now completed their Committee Stage and it will now go on to Report Stage. As you know, Chairman, there is a separate Third Reading stage in the Lords. So it will be a little bit of time before it gets to us down this end of the building—probably after Easter now.

  Q3  Chairman: In terms of who is sitting behind you in the Bill team, are they all from your Department?

  Kevin Brennan: Yes. Everyone here is from my Department. We have representatives from communications, from the legal side, from the children-in-care side and from my private office.

  Q4  Chairman: Right. Thank you.

  Normally, we give a Minister the opportunity to say a few words to open the discussion. Can I preface that by saying that we particularly wanted to look at this Bill because this is a new Committee scrutinising the new Department, and we wanted to put down a marker that a Children Bill is coming through and we want to look at it seriously?

  On the face of it, it looks like the perfect example of the way to handle a piece of legislation: a major consultation, a Green Paper, more consultation, a White Paper and then a Bill. Some of us believe that starting in the House of Lords gives an advantage, because there is some very broad experience on these issues. That is the point that we are at.

  Now, it is over to you, if you do wish to say a few words. Some Ministers prefer to go straight into questions.

  Kevin Brennan: I shall respond to what you said as though to a question. You are right that this kind of legislation in particular benefits from proper scrutiny, from having gone through that sort of process. The first Bill that I was a part of after the 2001 election became the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which partly feeds into the agenda around this Bill. That went through the process of a Special Standing Committee and very rigorous, cross-party scrutiny.

  You are right that this Bill has been through the Care Matters Green Paper, which then informed the Care Matters White Paper and is now informing the Bill itself and the broader Care Matters implementation plan.

  I would emphasise to the Committee that the Bill is the tip of the iceberg of the agenda around children and young people who are looked-after. It is only part of the implementation plan. There will come with it—as you know, Chairman, and I think you are planning to look at it in more detail later—a much broader Care Matters implementation plan, taking the issues from the White Paper that do not require legislation but will be part of the programme over the next few years.

  To set the context for the Committee, there are some key statistics. There are 60,000 children and young people in care at any given time in England—the Bill extends to England and Wales, so you could add on roughly 5% if you wanted the figures for both. During any year, 85,000 children and young people pass through the care system, because the majority of youngsters are not in care for more than 12 months. In fact, 40% are only in care for less than six months. It is not a static population. Some 62% of those in care are there due to abuse or neglect; 45%—that is four times the average for the children's population as a whole—have some mental health issue; 71% are in foster care; and 13% in residential care. Some 12%—I know, Chairman, with your background you will be interested in this—get grades A to C at GCSE, compared to five times that number for the school population as a whole, and 6% end up in higher education at the age of 19. A quarter of adult prisoners have been in care, and girls are three times more likely than the general population to get pregnant if they have been in care between the ages of 15 and 17.

  The Care Matters agenda is about trying to do something about those outcomes for these children and young people who become the responsibility of the state, when we take on the role of corporate parenting.

  Q5  Chairman: Thank you, Minister. Given that background, a strong strand in the Bill is that it fits into other big changes in thinking across the piece in the Government approach. I am thinking here of the David Freud recommendations and their influence in terms of the unemployed and people with long-term unemployment and on sickness benefit and giving the private sector a role over a long time, perhaps up to three years, and paying it on the basis of how successful it is at keeping people off the unemployment register. Of course, that leads to a look at the full circumstances of why a person is long-term unemployed or on sickness benefit. People talk about the full package of housing, support, skills and attention to addiction and so on. Do you see this as part of that change, giving the private sector much more potential to be active in this area?

  Kevin Brennan: I think that it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on that. You were probably referring to the beginning of the Bill, where in the first few clauses there is legislation to set up a pilot in something more broadly known as social work practice, which may and can involve the private sector, particularly in the provision of children's social work—services to children and young people in care. That is an element of the Bill, but I would not want to allow the tail to wag the dog too much in respect of the broader agenda.

  You might want to explore in more detail what we are proposing around social work practice; but generally, the intention of the Bill and the broader Care Matters implementation plan is very much about trying to get the system to work better across the piece. Largely that means trying to improve, if you like, the corporate parenting ability of the state, which is mainly administered through local authorities, and to improve the way that the state acts in the corporate parenting of these children and young people.

  We are trying to make sure that, when the state acts as a parent to these young people, it has the same sort of ambition for them as any good parents would have for their children and that, when it does that, it improves opportunities for the young person's voice to be heard in the planning of what happens to them. If they come into the care of the state, we must try to give much greater stability to these young people, who have had a great deal of instability in their lives—that is why they have come into care. They often find themselves being moved around the system, without a lot of consultation or anyone listening to what they have to say about it. They come into contact with a bewildering array of different services and people, are moved from place to place and have their education disrupted and so on.

  I would emphasise that the broad thrust is about trying to get a much better performance out of the system as it exists. However, in doing that, we are trying out some new ideas, which involve the private sector.

  Q6  Chairman: But Minister, most members of the Committee would agree with you in thinking that the Bill was not only timely but necessary, because of the way in which we have, in a sense, failed these people in care. That is not a party political point, but one that applies under all Governments and all political parties. We have the responsibility for their development and happy childhood through to adulthood. Historically, we have let these young people down. The facts that you have given the Committee show that we have. They achieve poorly; they are more likely to end up in prison. It is a sad tale, is it not? It is true—is it not?—that the Bill is about trying to do much better than we have done in the past. In a sense, that is linked with the fact that the main delivery of this role in the past—the people who have had this role—has been the responsibility of local authorities. Some of them have not done it very well, have they?

  Kevin Brennan: I think that you are right, Chairman. As you said, it is not a party political issue but one that goes across the piece. It is absolutely the case that we are following the moral imperative to do better by these children and young people, because they become our responsibility when the state effectively becomes their parents. Although I would preface this by saying that the population of children and young people who come into care as a whole often come with problems that are very difficult to overcome. It may be unrealistic to expect to be able to have an exact match between the profile of education, for example, or other performance of children who have been through some very traumatic experiences and difficult times when they come into care.

  Yes, this is about improving on a performance that, over the years, has failed these children and young people. We have as a state over many, many years not done well enough by these children and young people. There has been a whole raft of initiatives over the years going right back to the Children Act 1989 and through to more recent legislation since 1997, which has brought about improvements. The rate of five GSCE passes at A to C has gone up from 7 to 12% in recent years. However, that is not good enough. There has been a general improvement, as we know, in the rate of GCSE passes among the school population as a whole.

  Yes, we have failed. Yes, very often, local authorities have been responsible for delivering a lot of the services. But there is some extremely good practice out there as well, which is having a great deal of success. As you go round the country, you can see some of the terrific initiatives that are going on. The key, as ever, in trying to reform the system is trying to reproduce the best practice right across the piece and making sure that we have a buy-in from those agencies that are responsible for delivering services to these young people to do the best by them. A key to that involves the changes that have been made to create children's services departments, rather than the old social services departments, and getting lead members in local authorities with responsibility for children's services to take a direct interest in these young people, to have those sorts of ambitions and to listen to their voices.

  I could talk a little bit about the social work practice side if you want.

  Q7  Chairman: Can we come to that a little bit later? But Minister, you seem to be slightly edging away from the question that I asked you quite directly. Will the Bill allow the private sector and the third sector to play a larger role? Is that true or not?

  Kevin Brennan: It will allow the private sector to play a larger role, particularly in the clauses relating to the pilots and social work practice. There is already, quite rightly, a large engagement of the third sector in the delivery of services to children and young people who are in care. We very much welcome that and would like to continue to extend that wherever possible, where that is in the best interests of those children and young people.

  Q8  Chairman: Will the Bill do anything about protecting children who are in private sector care. The private sector already plays a role here. Those of us who looked at the experience of the Sedgemoor private equity group, which was providing residential care, know that it suddenly pulled the plug on the finances and went out of that business. A lot of vulnerable young people were exposed to dramatic changes that we would not want. Would anything in the Bill protect against that kind of effect if the private sector is more heavily engaged in care?

  Kevin Brennan: Well, we will increase the role of inspection and make sure that residential care homes for children and young people are much better and more closely inspected. As you know, in recent years the switchover towards Ofsted—

  Q9  Chairman: The quality may be marvellous, but if a private equity group says, "Oh, we're not making any money out of this and we're pulling out tomorrow", surely a different kind of inspection is needed.

  Kevin Brennan: Yes, and it would be completely unacceptable if they just pulled the plug on those sorts of homes.

  Chairman: But they did.

  Kevin Brennan: And that is why we are strengthening the inspection regime to make sure that there is a transition in relation to pulling the plug on a home in that way. Within the Bill itself, there is no particular clause in relation to that, but what we are broadly doing is strengthening the level of inspection for care homes that are either in the private sector or council care homes.

  Chairman: Minister, I am merely the warm-up act. Thank you very much for answering those introductory questions. As you will know, the Committee is now minded to go back and look at your early experience with the Children and Adoption Act 2006, to see how that is working. We will probably see you wearing that hat in the near future. Can I just reprimand you on an insufficient CV? When Ministers come here we do like to see a full CV, but there is no reference to your expertise as a rock and roll performer. Could you put that right next time you come in front of the Committee?

  Q10  Mr. Chaytor: Minister, can I pursue the case of Sedgemoor? You said that the problem would be avoided in the future by strengthening the inspection regime, but how can strengthening the inspection regime reduce the risk of a major private sector provider deciding to pull out? Surely, it is the nature of the contract and the regulatory regime that is at issue.

  Kevin Brennan: Inspection is important, because my understanding is that, with the Sedgemoor case, we are working closely now with Ofsted to try to learn lessons, so that we can ensure that that sort of incident cannot be repeated. Nevertheless, we also know that it is important to have a diversity of provision for children's homes, for some of the reasons that the Chairman talked about earlier, to ensure that we are providing enough quality places. In past years, there were not enough.

  There are now enough places in the system, which is probably one of the reasons why the provider pulled out in that case. Children's homes are regulated by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. They are supposed to provide a written application for cancellation of their registration to the inspectorate, and they should give at least three months' notice of the proposed date of closure. Obviously, that is a matter that we have to look at very closely now with Ofsted to see whether we can learn lessons to ensure that people are not left high and dry in the way they were in that case. That work is in progress.

  Q11  Mr. Chaytor: Looking, say, 10 years into the future, what percentage of the total volume of work with looked-after children would you expect to be taken on by independent social care providers? In your opening remarks to the Chairman's question you downplayed the extent of that and said that it was just a pilot scheme. But realistically, 10 years on, what percentage of the total work would be with independent providers?

  Kevin Brennan: The straightforward answer to that question is that it could be anywhere between 0% and 100%. I know that sounds like an evasive answer but it is not. This is a genuine pilot, which will extend to perhaps up to six local authorities and will run for five years from the commencement of the Act, when the Bill receives Royal Assent.

  It is a genuine pilot, in the sense that we know that one of the big complaints made by children and young people is that they see lots of social workers; in some places they report having seen up to 30 social workers while they have been in care. They say that they never get to know their social worker or, as soon as they get to know and like one, they are gone. The idea behind the social work practice pilot is that if you were able to get smaller teams of social workers responsible for working with a case load of children, you might get more stability, more flexibility without working in a big bureaucracy, and more effective synergy and teamwork. The idea is very much modelled on the GP practice idea.

  The provision therefore could come from a social enterprise social work practice or through a third sector provider, but we thought that it was right to allow in the pilot provision by private sector providers to see if that gave any new energy to the pilot scheme. There is £6 million over the next five years. The pilots will run for two years and then will continue to run while they are evaluated. The evaluation will look very much into the question of whether they have provided a better service and whether they are a sustainable model that could be more generally extended to other local authorities.

  What is the impact on the rest of the system? We do not want to have a scheme that is all very wonderful because it is gilt edged and gold plated and in which the rest of the system is run down as a consequence. The reason we are doing this is to make sure that we fulfil the moral obligation to try anything that might improve a service that, quite obviously—as both young people themselves and statistics have shown us—is not working.

  But the reason I am slightly playing it down—and I am not playing it down because I do not think it is a good idea; I very much think it is a very good idea and we have a moral obligation to try it—is because there is not much attention focused on lots of the other pilots that we are funding and that do not require legislation. These involve local authorities looking at new ways of working and remodelling social work teams within the structure that is there at present. We are hoping to have a clearer picture in a few years' time that may well mean that in 10 years we will have a much more diverse set of models of how social workers work with children and young people.

  Q12  Mr. Chaytor: That brings me to my next question, because earlier you listed a series of depressing statistics, but then acknowledged that there were significant variations between different local authorities. So I would be interested to know where you feel there are structural problems with local authorities delivering this service and where you feel it is simply an issue of poor management within individual local authorities. Or, to put it another way: could you tell us the characteristics of the way the service is provided in those local authorities that manage to deliver a better output for young people?

  Kevin Brennan: I think that, in going around the country and looking at children's services, one thing that comes through is that where there is a significant—almost a political—commitment, or certainly a powerful leadership commitment in an authority towards these children and young people, it makes a huge difference to the quality of the service that is provided. This is a very difficult area to work in, as we all know; these young people can be challenging and often come from difficult backgrounds, although in many cases the assumptions people make about children and young people in care can be completely wrong.

  What often can happen in poorly performing authorities is that, over the years, if there is not a good quality of leadership in a local authority, if there is not a political commitment in a local authority, and if attention is not paid to the people who work in the service, there can easily become an overwhelming sense of demoralisation among the staff and a feeling of being overwhelmed by their case loads. It is not all about resources, though resources are always important. When the leadership of the council—including the political leadership—take a real interest in the service, take a real interest in the people who work in the service, raise their status and give them opportunities for professional development and networking together to talk about their cases, improve the management and provide opportunities for the young people themselves, that is what makes all the difference.

  Traditionally sometimes—in years gone past, though it is less true now—children in care were viewed as a bit of a problem and were shut away somewhere within a local authority. They were not necessarily the things voters talked to their councillors about, unless there were problems with kids from the local children's home or something like that. So where there is an acceptance of the importance of focusing on this as an issue, it makes a big difference in terms of the outcomes for these children and young people.

  Just to give an example, I visited Birmingham last week and I went to a half-term project being run by the local authority for children in care. It was a music project in which they got the opportunity to go into the symphony hall and participate on computers with some of the newest software and had the sort of opportunities that children in other families might get at home to learn how to use music software and to make their own music. Later, I went to another project at City Hall where young people had been brought together to help to write the kids' version of the local authority's children's policy. Leaflets were produced for the children, so that they could understand what is on offer for them and what the council's pledge will do for them. Later, I visited a local authority children's home where the children do lots of activities outside the home. There is a real commitment by the local authority and the people working there to do their best by those young people, and to listen to their voice.

  Chairman: Minister, this is very interesting, but at some stage I must lean on you to make not quite such long answers; otherwise we shall run out of time.

  Kevin Brennan: I apologise.

  Q13  Mr. Chaytor: Can I move on to the size of local authorities, which was touched on earlier when referring to the problems of large and impersonal bureaucracies? In the context of Every Child Matters and the move to more integrated children' services, is not the contracting-out process likely to work in the opposite direction? Although I understand how the size of the bureaucracy might reduce the degree of personal attention given, at least the nature of the local authority is that it is a vehicle for delivering integrated services between both social care and education, and with the interface with health and the criminal justice system.

  Surely one problem for local authorities in increasng contracting out to independent social care providers is that it will be increasingly difficult for small independent social care providers to develop those integrated working practices with criminal justice, health, social care and education. How do you think that will play out?

  Kevin Brennan: I recognise the point, which has been made during the development of these proposals. That is the very reason for running a pilot in six local authorities. It would be wrong not to test the proposition that was put to me, but it will result in more complexity and could make things more bureaucratic. Another thing that I am aware of is the size of the team of people around the child in care. When we meet a group of professionals from the local authority and other providers and from the health service, we realise just how many people are involved in the lives of the young person.

  The point is understandable, but our hope is that if the pilots work, it will be overcome by a reduction in the complexity of the social care work force, by working within a small team with a bit more flexibility and independence, by the ability to do different, out-of-hours work, and by sharing practice among a small team. That may well overcome the problem, and that is why we are piloting the scheme.

  Q14  Mr. Chaytor: I have one more quick question. To what extent do you think there is spare capacity in the system, or will the contracting-out process simply shift the available staff around and transfer those who are already working in local authorities to independent providers? Do you think that there is spare capacity, and that large numbers of social workers are sitting around not working, and waiting to be recruited by private providers?

  Kevin Brennan: Obviously, the answer to that is no. There is no spare capacity in the system and, in fact, we must do a great deal more to attract more people into the social work profession. As part of the broader measures that have been taken on remodelling the social care work force, we will announce later in the year a new children's work force action plan that will contain quite a few proposals for trying to improve the status, career and professional advantages of social workers, and particularly children's social workers—for example, by creating a newly qualified social work status, having more opportunities for mentoring of social workers to retain more of them in the profession, to improve their standard of qualifications, and also to offer greater opportunities to social workers who have been in the job for a long time to enable them to stay on the front line and still have professional development and a career path, in an analogous way to what is happening in education. A lot of work and substantial investment is going in over the next few years to try to attack the problem that we need to attract more people into the profession.

  Q15  Mr. Chaytor: The Children's Workforce Action Plan should have been published in February. What is the latest estimated date of publication?

  Kevin Brennan: I cannot give the Committee a date. I wish I could, Mr. Chairman, because it would be nice to share it with you first. There will shortly be announcements in relation to that, but I can tell the Committee that we want to explore further how we can attempt to integrate an idea—I call it "Team Every Child Matters"—regarding the fact that we are all becoming more and more aware that we need to have better integrated working across the children's workforce, on the education side as well as on the more traditional children's services side. Obviously, that is a very long-term ambition, but we want to make sure that when we issue an action plan, we are able to set out that vision in a coherent way, that we have consulted everybody about it and that people have had an opportunity to feed into it.

  Q16  Chairman: That sounds very good, Minister, and we applaud it. The Committee believes that an education service and a children's service should be judged on how it deals with the most vulnerable members of our society. The priority is to get special educational needs right, to get looked-after children right, and then to get it right for everyone else.

  One thing I thought you slightly stepped back on, in your answer to David Chaytor, was the part of the health professional. Many of us who visit children's centres, for example, are told that doctors will not even come to case conferences unless they are paid, and they do not have to come. I do not know why, because health professionals have the strongest trade unions known to this country. Is it the royal colleges, or whatever? How are we going to tackle the issue of looked-after children if health is a reluctant partner?

  Kevin Brennan: Well, health cannot be a reluctant partner. You are absolutely right. It is a key part of the Care Matters agenda to try to make sure that we make a reality of integrating health care for children and young people. As we might expect from what we discussed earlier, health outcomes are poorer for children in care than for the general population of children, particularly in the area of mental health issues.

  Q17  Chairman: But we are soft on health, are we not? It does not have to co-operate.

  Kevin Brennan: It is interesting that you should put that point, because one of the things we are going to do for the first time in statutory guidance is require not just local authorities, but NHS bodies, PCTs and strategic health authorities to co-operate. That will be part of the statutory guidance for the first time.

  Q18  Chairman: A duty to co-operate?

  Kevin Brennan: They will have a duty to co-operate under the statutory guidance in this field. That is very much part of the Care Matters agenda. We have also introduced a new indicator on the emotional health of looked-after children in the new national indicators set, and local authorities and PCTs will have to co-operate in order to try to improve the health of looked-after children. As I said, the guidance under the Children Act 2004 will become statutory in relation to health bodies when we publish the new guidance, which will be towards the end of the year.

  Chairman: That is good news. I hope you have not had to double doctors' pay to achieve it. We are going to move on to education.

  Q19  Fiona Mactaggart: I am interested in the statutory framework, because one of the most potentially powerful changes that the Bill introduces, in clause 17, is a designated member of staff for looked-after pupils at a school. The problem with that is that the duty to designate a member of staff is only in maintained schools. I am perturbed that we have not found a way of putting that duty on every school, particularly if one of the things we are trying to do with looked-after children in order to improve their educational outcomes is to ensure that they get access to Academies—to the schools that we think are transformative. How come they do not get that duty?

  Kevin Brennan: The current way in which Academies are organised means that their duties in these areas tend to be set out in their agreements.

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