Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-74)


20 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q60  Fiona Mactaggart: I think there would be much merit in that. We have a problem with ministerial stocktakes in various fields. I am not saying that is the case in your Department, but departments stocktake internally and do not necessarily tell the world the consequences of stocktakes sometimes. I am thinking of immigration policy, for example.

  Kevin Brennan: It is absolutely vital that that stocktake is properly scrutinised and people have an opportunity to comment on it and hold us to account.

  Q61  Fiona Mactaggart: Let us look at health. In your opening remarks, you were talking about the kind of fields in which looked-after children do not thrive as well as other children, and one of them was health. Do local authorities and primary care trusts work well enough together in dealing with the health of looked-after children?

  Kevin Brennan: Probably not, historically. That is why we are introducing the statutory duty that I mentioned to require, for the first time, health authorities to work in partnership with local authorities to promote the health of looked-after children. The revised guidance, which is statutory guidance, will be published towards the end of this year. There has been improvement in recent years and there are lots of good signs that there is more signing-up to making sure that co-operation happens. It is very welcome that in the newly published operating framework for the health service, children's health is more clearly indicated as important. As I said, there is already a duty whereby PCTs and strategic health authorities should co-operate in relation to promoting the well-being of children, but what we hope this duty will do is to make it clear that looked-after children should be a priority within the duty to co-operate, particularly in relation to the duty to co-operate with local authorities. What has tended to happen is that where there is good practice across the country it works very well, but the reason we think we need the statutory duty is to make sure that it happens more universally.

  Q62  Fiona Mactaggart: As Annette pointed out, one of the health issues for looked-after children is mental health. The Chair and I were both members of a panel on young runaways. We know that looked-after children are more likely to run away than other young people, and quite often some of these duties just mean that institutions report that they have run away, for example. That is one of the reasons why they are recorded as running away more often. Parents might intervene, rather than report to the police that a young person has run away, and recover the young person faster. I am wondering whether all the duties to co-operate and so on carry the risk that we might end up back in the situation where there is a slightly box-ticking—not particularly deliberately; not because people are bad—mentality of "Oh, we've co-operated," and people have not actually used their nous to put young people in a better situation. What are you doing to avoid that?

  Kevin Brennan: On the issue of runaways, as you know, we commissioned a report from the Children's Society, and our response to it came out quite recently. We have set up a cross-departmental working group that is reporting by the summer on how we can improve performance across the country in relation to the response to young runaways, and in particular look at the sort of provision for emergency accommodation when young people run away from home. We recognise on that particular issue that there is more to be done to achieve it. You are right: it is no good just ticking boxes about co-operation between different institutions; it has to have a practical reality on the ground. This involves part of the new framework for local authorities and health in relation to local area agreement and joint commissioning. Everybody tells us when we go out and talk to people in the system that good relationships and proper joint commissioning between, for example, health and local authorities in relation to matters such as CAMHS—Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services—are vital.

  Since 2000, the spending by local authorities on CAMHS has gone up from £10 million to £91 million. In the health service, it has gone up from £10 million to £50 million. There has been a huge investment in this area. One of the reasons why under the children's plan we announced a review of CAMHS is that we have had that huge investment but are we really achieving the right sort of co-ordination that is needed? Are we looking properly at CAMHS as it relates to things that are happening in our schools, such as the social and emotional aspects of learning programme and the other investment we are making in mental health within schools?

  There has been an increase in the number of child and adolescent mental health services specifically dedicated to looked-after children. This is clearly an area where there has been a lot of investment but where we have to look very carefully to make sure we are getting the impact that is required. Where you get it right it can have an immensely beneficial impact on young people. You can see that through the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme in primary schools.

  Q63  Fiona Mactaggart: I agree. I would ask you in this process to think very carefully not about what you can do after young people have run away but how you can prevent it.

  The evidence we heard was compelling. Collaboration between police, health authorities, local authorities and voluntary organisations in particular, to find out why young people were unhappy and what they were running away from or to, and putting in place the kind of intervention that a parent would in these circumstances—it is not always easy for a parent to do so—seemed to make a massive difference.

  One of the things we have to get out of this Bill is that the state when it is the parent should be like a parent. I can see that that is the ambition of this but there is always a risk that bureaucracy is stupid. It does not mean to be stupid but it is. It says, "Right, we have collaborated. That is what we are required to do by the Act." It does not intervene and act and so on.

  I am sorry, Chairman, that this is not really a question. My real urge is to try to find ways of structuring guidance around the Bill and what happens as a result of the Bill to reduce that capacity for stupidity in the state when it is a parent. Otherwise we will carry on letting down young people even though our intentions are of the best.

  Kevin Brennan: I agree entirely.

  Q64  Chairman: It is interesting, though, Minister, listening to you today—and this is not a criticism—that when we are wearing our other hat on schools we are constantly talking about the quality, motivation and training of the work force, and the way in which we pay and provision it, because without a highly motivated, well-trained, good-quality teaching force you are on a loser in terms of providing good education. The work force issues here are very complex—having highly motivated, well-paid and well-trained people right across the piece. It is difficult and tough working with these children because the problems are complex and sometimes very hard work. Is the work force issue one that worries you?

  Kevin Brennan: It is a key part of the reforms, Chairman. That is why there is a lot of work going on to develop an action plan to engage on that journey of improving the status, quality, recruitment and retention of the work force, opening it up to a broader range of people—perhaps with more mature people coming in—and opening up all those pathways. Eventually, that leads on to issues of reward and pay and so on. At this stage in the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement we have an allocation to take forward that remodelling of the children's work force and there will be significant announcements during the course of this year in relation to that.

  Q65  Chairman: Given your responsibilities, in your view how long is a child a child?

  Kevin Brennan: We as a Department have direct responsibility for children up to the age of 19. Legally, a child is no longer a child when they reach the age of 18, but the truth is that people develop at different rates. We have to have a legal age of majority, but when a child is no longer a child varies according to the individual. We now recognise more than ever, in relation to children and young people—as we refer to them—in care, that that responsibility does not stop at the age of 16 or 18, but continues into adulthood. We, as a state, have a continuing responsibility to those young people after they have left care, and we are extending that through the Bill.

  Q66  Chairman: That is reassuring, because some worrying comments were made during the debate on the Education and Skills Bill about the age at which children cease to be children. I found that worrying because I value the protection that young people have, especially through to the age of 18. A recent campaign in my constituency has focused on some of the real problem cases: the vulnerable children—usually girls, but sometimes boys—who are sexually exploited, usually by ruthless men who get them into prostitution and drug addiction and so on. You often find that the social services and children's services are very active until such a child is 16, but they totally back off after that. The problem does not go away for a young girl who has been coaxed by a pimp into that kind of life, and that worries me both as a constituency MP and as Chairman of the Committee.

  Kevin Brennan: That is exactly why we have taken powers in the Bill to promote the well-being of care leavers beyond the age of 16. I am keen to emphasise that the old idea, which, to be fair, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 did some work on, that children drop off a cliff edge at the age of 16 is completely wrong, because the responsibility extends well beyond that.

  Q67  Chairman: Will you take that message back to your colleagues and stand robustly against those people who say that it is otherwise? I spoke in a debate on that in the House, and it is an irony that the children of most of the people taking part will not go into paid employment until well into their 20s, although we expect children at 16 to go into work without any training or education. There are still two worlds for children, and I passionately believe that that is wrong.

  Kevin Brennan: The Bill also contains a clause that will give the Secretary of State the duty to promote the welfare of children, which I think will be fairly broadly welcomed, and gives him the power to promote the welfare of young people beyond the age of 18, which dovetails with the point that you are making.

  Chairman: I brought that point up because the best evidence about those things can be found in one's own constituency. I have talked to the police and children's services across Yorkshire and discovered that there are systematic and organised gangs preying on looked-after children, especially young females. They are absolutely organised, and I hope that the Bill will do something to redress that. Actually, it is the campaigns by Helen Southworth on runaway children and by Sharon Hodgson on dyslexia that highlight those issues, so we still have a role in our constituencies as well.

  Q68  Mr. Chaytor: I have just a couple of quick points for clarification. Is there an existing duty of co-operation between primary care trusts and local authorities, or will there be such a duty in the Bill?

  Kevin Brennan: There is an existing duty on local authorities, but it is not a statutory duty on PCTs and strategic health authorities. However, it will become a statutory duty as a result not of the Bill, but of the Government issuing new statutory guidance in relation to the Children Act 2004 by the end of the year.

  Chairman: You have been handed an urgent piece of paper.

  Kevin Brennan: I hope that it is telling me what I just said, Chairman.

  Mr. Chaytor: Let us wait and see if it does say what you have just said.

  Kevin Brennan: It concerns statutory guidance on how child and adolescent mental health services should provide dedicated provision. Suddenly, I have received further divine inspiration during the course of saying that. We intend to put guidance on promoting the health of looked-after children on a statutory footing for health services as well as for local authorities, which is the point I have just made. The detail that I did not give you was that we will do that under sections 10(8) and 11(8) of the Children Act 2004. That will cover strategic health authorities, primary care trusts, NHS trusts, NHS foundation trusts, and, as is already the case, local authorities.

  Q69  Mr. Chaytor: That is even more useful, because my second question is whether this simply leads one to reiterate the concerns that Fiona Mactaggart expressed earlier about people in different organisations passing memos to each other? Surely, the service is going in a direction where front-line responsibility will not necessarily lie with the local authority if independent social care providers take on a larger share of the work. What duties will be placed on independent social care providers to co-operate?

  Secondly, what are the implications of practice-based commissioning for PCTs? My concern is that it is all well and good to put the duty to co-operate between PCTs and local authorities in a particular subsection, but if, in reality, the front-line day to day responsibility lies with the GPs, and they are now commissioning the service at practice level, or with independent social care providers, they are the people who ought to be co-operating, and yet no statutory duty covers that.

  Kevin Brennan: We believe that it would be wrong to tinker too directly at that level within the health service. There needs to be sufficient flexibility for local commissioning. With regard to the relationships of social work practices, as I said earlier, the local authority remains the corporate parent in that sense, so that obligation is applicable to the social work practice. In designing the model contracts for these new relationships, with which our Department will be closely involved, those factors will be taken into account. If a social work practice was not following that sort of conduct, the council would want to terminate its contract with them.

  Q70  Mr. Chaytor: Following on from your comments about GPs, is there not a risk that the Government could find themselves in the same position as they are with Academies? Because Academies are not defined as maintained schools and are therefore outside the legislation, you subsequently have to legislate to bring them in if the Academy or individual GP is not following good and reasonable practice. Is it not better to bring them in from the start so that the ground rules are clear from day one?

  Kevin Brennan: We follow the general principle of not legislating unless we have to. There are probably good, long-established reasons for doing that. If your fears were realised, we would have to look at the matter in detail. Members of the Committee might be interested to know that, although I did not have the opportunity to use them, I have the statistics on looked-after children for each of their local authority areas. You may already have those, but if not, you may find them helpful.

  Chairman: That would be most useful. Annette Brooke has a tail-end question.

  Q71  Annette Brooke: I wanted to ask a little more about private providers, particularly when children's homes are located some way away from the area from which the young person comes. I appreciate that the Bill will try to overcome such placements, but it will not happen overnight. One problem that has been reported to me is that a local authority will not necessarily notify another local authority of a child who is moving into its area. Another is that Ofsted might do an inspection of a home but not communicate with the host local authority, and, of course, the local youth offending team might want to know more about the child. I am sure that I can throw health into the pot here as well. We have spoken a lot about making everything more joined up, but what about those children who are not in their original area—are we convinced that we have enough measures in place now, while hopefully we move to a different situation over time? I can see that we must have at least 10 more years of this.

  Kevin Brennan: We are doing more to try to join that up, in particular in relation to inspection. For example, if the inspection shows that there is a problem in a particular children's home it will become the duty of the inspector to inform every local authority in the country of that problem.

  Q72  Annette Brooke: Did you say "become"? Is that not the case now?

  Kevin Brennan: That is correct. I think that I am right in saying that we are creating a new duty in the inspection system to ensure that every local authority in the country is informed if there is a problem in a particular children's home. In addition, we are introducing new powers—inspectors will be able to put a freeze on new entries into a children's home, for example. If they think it would be wrong to close a home down, and create the kind of instability that we have talked about for those young people, they may issue a notice for improvement and give the home time in which to improve. In the meantime, if they have concerns they can impose a freeze on new entries, as an extra lever in relation to improving the quality of care in that home. That again would be notified to every local authority.

  Q73  Annette Brooke: Is there a duty on the home, local authority, PCT, etc. to notify the host authorities?

  Kevin Brennan: Of the presence of that child in their area?

  Annette Brooke: Yes. Is there that duty now? It appears not to be happening—I have quite a few examples.

  Kevin Brennan: I think that there is a duty and it would be a breach of the regulations if that did not happen. I am fairly sure that that is the case, Chairman; I will confirm to you if it is not. I think that a local authority already has a duty to inform the local authority in which the home is located. That is the point that I think is being made.

  Q74  Chairman: How many homes are there roughly, around the country?

  Kevin Brennan: I do not know the number. All I do know is that 13% of the 60,000 young people in care are in residential accommodation of that kind. I can certainly write to you with the exact figures.[1]

  Chairman: Minister, it has been an informative session and an excellent start for our look at the Bill. Thank you for your attendance and for being on the ball after the very late night we all had.

  Kevin Brennan: Thank you.

1   Ev 76. Back

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