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18 Dec 2008 : Column 1259

Ms Harman: We have had a statement on tackling unemployment in the past week or so, and I have no doubt that we will return to the issue in January, when we will discuss the action that the Government are taking to prevent unemployment and to help support people who lose their jobs back into work.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend pass on my sincere and profound thanks to the Home Secretary for her decision to look again at ways of making local policing more accountable to those being policed? Will she ensure that hon. Members have the maximum opportunity to propose and explore different models of good practice in effective and accountable community policing at street, estate and ward levels? I do not expect that process to be finished by the 19 January Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill, but perhaps it is not necessary to have a rigid model that is applicable all over the country.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the provisions in that Bill, and it is very important that we have proper accountability to the local community at all levels of the police. I am sure that he will see something to that effect in the Bill.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): If the Leader of the House had been at Treasury questions, she would have heard the Economic Secretary, in front of the Prime Minister, apologise fulsomely but rather tactfully to him and to hon. Members for the Government’s failure to produce a statement on Equitable Life before the House rose for the Christmas recess. The right hon. and learned Lady assured the House that we would have a statement in the autumn, but January 2009 is not the autumn. Will she therefore be kind enough to follow suit and apologise to the House for her statement?

Ms Harman: I am sorry that the statement was not available when I said that it would be, but it was not complete. My announcement to the House was contingent on the statement being finished. The point that I want to make is that it is not as though it is complete and the Government are sitting on it. As I said at the last business questions, the Treasury is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and the statement will be brought to the House as soon as it is ready. We are very well aware of the importance of this issue.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Can we have a debate early in the year entitled “The Counter-productive Nature of Government Policy”? That would enable us to point out that it is bizarre of the Government to charge banks 12 per cent. interest on the recapitalisation fund, and at the same time expect them to charge their customers only 1 or 2 per cent. Also, it is very bizarre that representatives from Jaguar Land Rover should be seeing the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at a time when one of that industry’s real burdens are the differential costs imposed by Government on 4x4 vehicles—one of which, incidentally, I have.

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman should direct his suggestion for a debate on the counter-productive nature of Government policy to his colleagues. I think that he is suggesting an Opposition day debate
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rather than a Government debate. He raises the point that the Leader of the Opposition raised about the 12 per cent. and the 6 per cent. The rate at which banks lend out is not just the rate at which they borrow; there is also the question of deposits. Therefore, the rate at which banks borrow and those at which they lend are never the same. So the Leader of the Opposition made a bogus argument, and it is a shame that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has repeated it.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 215?

[ That this House notes the findings by the Parliamentary Ombudsman of 10 counts of maladministration by Government Departments in relation to Equitable Life; exp resses concern at the Government’ s fai lure to respond to the Ombudsman’ s report within its own specified timescale; notes with concern that over 30,000 Equitable Life policyholders have died without seeing their situa tion resolved since the society’ s near-collapse in 2000; and calls on the Government to give a public response without delay to the Parliamentary Ombudsman’ s recommendations and set out a timetable for action. ]

Other hon. Members have referred to that subject today.

On behalf of my constituents David Peters, Thomas Higgs, Kathleen Davies, Janice King, Vivien Knell and 30 others who have been in touch with me in the past few years, may I ask the Leader of the House when we can expect the statement and, more importantly for my constituents and thousands of others around the country, when they can expect the compensation that is long overdue?

Ms Harman: An oral statement will be made as soon as the Equitable Life statement is ready.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Leader of the House will be keen to ensure that our debates in this place are as well informed as possible. She will therefore be alarmed to find that the Ministry of Defence is increasingly reluctant to sponsor visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, my planned visit this Christmas has been turned down. Will she impress on her defence colleagues the importance of such visits in informing right hon. and hon. Members of what is going on in theatre and ensure that, unless there is good reason for visits not to take place, they do occur so that we can better conduct the business of the House?

Ms Harman: These visits are important, as is the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Leader of the House kindly last week promised to chase up her colleagues on the mounting confusion over the rerating of businesses in ports. Since then, we had a large meeting of Members of Parliament, many of them her colleagues, downstairs on Monday. We have also had the comments made by the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) that when she was the Treasury Minister responsible for the Valuation Office Agency, it did not tell her about this developing muddle. Businesses are on the verge of going to the wall. Please will the Leader of the House chase this one up?

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Ms Harman: I will. I do not think it is a muddle; it is a complex situation that needs to be sorted out.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give the House a categorical assurance that neither she nor any Minister, civil servant or adviser sought to influence the contents of Mr. Speaker’s statement that was delivered on the day of the state opening?

Ms Harman: I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute categorical assurance that I made no attempt to influence the Speaker’s statement. I think that, had I done so, I would have got a quick, dusty answer.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Following on from the Prime Minister’s statement on Iraq, hon. Members will be aware from their constituencies that, due to improved medical services at the front line, armed forces personnel are returning from Iraq with serious injuries that might have caused their death in previous conflicts. Some of the people returning are suffering from mental illnesses that might stay with them for the rest of their life.

The public support these people very generously through charities such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and Combat Stress. The Leader of the House said that she would extend the terms of the debate on military personnel to include procurement and middle east relationships.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May we have a question?

Mr. Williams: I hope that the debate will not rule out support for veterans. If it does, may we have a debate later so that we can concentrate on that issue?

Ms Harman: The important issue of supporting those who return with injuries will be four-square within the terms of the debate on Thursday 15 January on armed forces personnel.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on child protection and the future of the social work profession, perhaps on one of the allocated topical debate days? It is now more than five weeks since the baby P court case. Numerous reviews have been ordered and statements made, mostly outside the House, and the issue remains in the headlines
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and is of great concern to many of our constituents. May we please have the opportunity to air the subject fully to gauge the Government’s latest thinking? There is great distress and confusion in local authorities, not least among social workers. They feel put upon and demoralised, and we need to give them some words of encouragement about the way forward as well as about the future of vulnerable children, of whom there are still too many.

Ms Harman: I understand the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about child protection. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families made a statement to the House, in which he said that he had set up the Laming review. No doubt when he has received that review and been able to respond to it, there will be a further statement. I am sure that the issues will continue to be discussed in the House next year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to hon. Members and the Leader of the House for the speed with which we have been able to dispatch that business.

bill presented

Policing and Crime Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Jacqui Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Johnson, Mr Secretary Hoon, Mr. Secretary Balls, Mr. Secretary Burnham, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick and Mr. Vernon Coaker presented a Bill to make provision about the police; to make provision about prostitution, sex offenders, sex establishments and certain other premises; to make provision for reducing and dealing with the abuse of alcohol; to make provision about the proceeds of crime; to make provision about extradition; to amend the Aviation Security Act 1982; to make provision about criminal records and to amend the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; to confer, extend or facilitate search, forfeiture and other powers relating to the United Kingdom’s borders or elsewhere; to make further provision for combating crime and disorder; to repeal redundant provisions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 12 January, and to be printed (Bill 7 ) with explanatory notes (Bill 7- EN).

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Christmas Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Chris Mole.)

1.5 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take this opportunity to speak in the recess Adjournment debate. I intend to deal with the issue that was just raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who speaks for the Opposition on children’s issues, but is no longer in his place. I want to talk about child protection, the tragic death of baby P and other child abuse cases. How could this have possibly happened?

Today I do not want to concentrate on individual cases but to talk more generally about the issues and concerns. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was right to say that the issue goes very wide and is enormously important. There are a great many aspects to the issue and I am sure that in the time available I will not be able to do justice to all of them, but I want to take this opportunity to debate some of the complexities in more detail.

Before I was elected to this place, I was employed in social work for almost 20 years and spent a great deal of that time on child protection, ending up as the assistant director of children’s services in York. We must all be concerned that previous reviews of child protection failures have identified the same or similar mistakes on the part of the professionals involved, whether social workers, health workers, teachers or police officers. We have to ask why the lessons that were identified so many times have not become part of the standard operating procedure in child protection cases.

We also need to understand in much more detail the pressures that make it difficult for even the best and highly competent social workers to operate effectively. What do we ask when we look at child protection? What decisions do we ask front-line workers from across agencies to make?

We know that children thrive best when all their needs are met, whether emotional or physical, so removing a child temporarily or permanently from their birth family is an extremely serious step. It brings into question the fundamental rights of families to enjoy family life as they choose. It also has a drastic effect on the child’s emotional well-being.

Research into adoption tells us that all adopted children and, indeed, adults have to address for themselves why they were adopted. Even those who were given up freely by their birth parents can suffer feelings of rejection and damaged self-esteem. Those children who are removed from their parents, go through the care system and are placed with permanent adoptive families often have significant problems. Social workers thus have to assess the risk to children—the risk of significant harm if the child stays with its own family, but also the risks of removal and placement with another family.

Of course we see children who are removed from home for a short while and placed with foster parents while social workers work to improve the abilities of the family to care for the child. They may look at the fundamental issues of how they care for the child—parenting skills—but they may also address the drug
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and alcohol dependency issues which, if they were not there, would mean that the parents could care for their own child or children. There may be a trialled return home, which we hope succeeds. If it does not, there may be a further period in care and the child may ultimately be placed for adoption. Throughout the process, extremely difficult questions are involved in weighing up whether it is better to get the child back home with its family or to find it an alternative family for life. There are emotional implications for children and their security, but when a child’s birth family has complex problems there are no easy answers.

What is good enough parenting? When is it right to take the drastic step of finding an alternative family for a child? In cases such as that of baby P where there is horrendous abuse, we quickly come to the judgment that the point has long since been passed when that decision should have been made. In many situations, however, the decision is not easy.

For social workers, the burden is not just that they are in a situation where they have to try to make the best decision about a child’s future; our social services are overworked and poorly resourced, which makes things more difficult. A problem may not be identified because the social worker has too many cases and does not have time to assess the situation properly, so mistakes are made. I have been looking at some of the social work blogs, which are a way of finding out what people are thinking that was not possible a few years ago. Social workers say that they go to bed worrying about the children they are responsible for, because they do not have time to do all the tasks they should undertake. I remember that feeling well.

With some families, social workers are taking significant personal risks. I remember social workers visiting a house and finding firearms. It is not unusual for social workers to be threatened, but even in those circumstances they have to continue to try to focus on the child and make the best decision. They may come across new challenges that were not so prevalent when they trained. When I started in social work, drug abuse was uncommon, but now it is a regular feature of the difficulties families face.

Is it possible to prevent child deaths? Yes, but not all of them. There will always be cases that could not have been foreseen. We must recognise the element of risk, which inevitably means that sometimes things will go wrong despite the best efforts of all concerned.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that a key way of ensuring that problems do not happen again, whether they relate to social services or even the probation service, is to make public the internal inquiries that take place after something has gone horribly wrong? People could then see what went wrong and what is being put in place to ensure that it does not happen again.

Meg Munn: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a difficult question because there are confidentiality issues for particular families. It is enormously important that such reviews are carried out properly and in a way that makes the circumstances public, but they must not become witch hunts for particular social workers. Furthermore, people must be able to learn from them and I have some suggestions about how we can do that better.

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