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
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 buildingprobably after
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
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 itas you know, Chairman, and
I think you are planning to look at it in more detail latera
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 Englandthe 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 wholehave
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 thisget 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 workservices 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 livesthat 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
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 trueis 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 pastthe people who have had this rolehas 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
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
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
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 obviouslyas both
young people themselves and statistics have shown usis
But the reason I am slightly playing it downand
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 itis 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 significantalmost
a politicalcommitment, 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
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 councilincluding the political leadershiptake
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 sometimesin years gone
past, though it is less true nowchildren 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 workersfor
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 ideaI
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 Academiesto 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.