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Over the years there has been much structural change in child protection and a new approach to the needs of children through the Every Child Matters agenda, which focuses on organisations involved in providing services to children, sharing information and working together to protect children and young people from harm and to help them achieve what they want in life. Some of those changes have been profoundly helpful— for instance, by bringing the different professionals involved together more often and emphasising the need to share information. I was pleased that the Government recently announced a co-location fund to bring health, education and children’s services together under one roof to facilitate those processes. From my experience, I know that when people get to know other professionals well and develop a daily working relationship with them, they are much more likely to be effective and to share information and achieve what they are trying to do.

Of course, at the heart of the matter is a fundamental issue about knowledge and skills. There has been insufficient rigour in ensuring that all professionals involved in child protection learn the lessons from case reviews and inquiries. Case reviews are vital for all involved in child protection—everyone can learn more from studying past mistakes—but we also need robust and thorough inspection systems, both internal and external, to ensure that child care staff understand the risks and what is required to address them.

We must demand higher and more rigorous standards of training, better continuous professional development and proper training for those who manage the child protection system. Compared with other professionals, such as doctors, teachers or nurses, social workers are few in number and their profession has not been given the same kind of attention as others. For years, the career structure has been debated to address how those with most experience can remain in front-line work. Some local authorities have done that more successfully than others, but too often the most experienced people are in management positions and not necessarily on the front line, where the skill, knowledge and experience needed to deal with difficult situations are sorely required. I therefore welcome the establishment by the Government of the social work taskforce. It will begin work in the new year and will address those and other issues.

All front-line staff need managers who understand what is required, who check their work regularly and ensure that the right information is collected and that thorough assessments are made. We must not forget that such work puts a strain on the well-being of social work staff so we need to ensure that it does not overwhelm otherwise competent, dedicated and skilled staff. Day in, day out, dealing with difficult families and difficult circumstances is very demanding. Social workers rarely receive recognition when things go right, and the negative press about tragic cases has an impact on their morale and, ultimately, on people’s desire to do that difficult and demanding work. We need to ensure that social workers are properly supported in their tasks and also properly remunerated.

I shall touch briefly on paperwork, because there is a tendency to view the recording of information as bureaucratic and unnecessary. This is where I feel that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, has got it wrong. I do not in any way feel that his intentions are
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bad—I too believe that we need to be vigilant about unnecessary bureaucracy—but accurate recording and robust management information are at the core of child protection. Indicators of likely future harm are best identified from past behaviour, so co-ordinating information and accurately recording visits and contacts, with proper analysis, are crucial. Supervision notes must be kept so that it is clear that social workers are receiving appropriate advice, and decisions must be recorded on files. That is essential for good practice and ensures that children have continuity of protection even in the absence of their allocated social worker or in the event that they move to a different authority. Many such families move around regularly and one of the danger points in child protection is when they move from one authority, which may have been working extremely hard with them, to another, which may not pick up the significance of various issues in the family.

I have concentrated primarily on the role of social workers, but other professionals have a vital role to play and must be involved. Working together across professions to monitor children, using all the information about health, child development and education, is essential.

I turn briefly to the prosecution of those who have harmed children. As we can see from the baby P case, we have moved forward. We saw the benefit of legislation that came in only a few years ago to ensure that everyone in a household could be held responsible for the death of a child even if it was impossible to identify who exactly had killed the child. However, I am concerned about the length of time that such cases take. It is obviously essential that nothing impedes legal processes and the conduct of a fair trial, but what about the children?

The serious case review on baby P was produced 15 months after he was killed, at the end of the court case, so for 15 months issues in Haringey were not fully addressed. I urge the Government to consider how more speedy reviews can be undertaken and how action can be taken to address failings and improve services, without the need to wait until the end of a court case. If we do not do that, we are failing children.

A number of people have called for a public inquiry into the case of baby P. Public inquiries are long, complicated and expensive. I believe it is unlikely that such an inquiry would uncover new lessons to learn, beyond those that previous inquiries have discovered or beyond that which the serious case review will uncover. So what would be the purpose of such a public inquiry at this point? The priority, in my view, needs to be to ensure that all those who work with children are properly trained and put that learning into practice.

The Government have taken a number of steps to address child protection concerns, some of which I have already referred to. The management of children’s services has rightly been raised. The Government propose that children’s services directors should have both education and social work experience. I am concerned about how that will be achieved. Although experience of child protection matters can be gained by staff whose previous career was in education, I am not sure whether the depth of knowledge required can be achieved easily. The Government should consider making each local authority have a senior manager with the required experience designated as having overall responsibility for child protection issues. That may be the director, if
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suitably qualified, but if the director has not got that depth of experience, it should be a second-tier manager.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families must ensure that it properly collates the lessons from all serious case reviews. My response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is that bringing together information from reviews across the country is enormously important; in that way, we identify trends and understand the issues faced by social workers.

Today, I received an answer to a parliamentary question about the number of children who have been the subject of serious case reviews who have died from ingesting methadone. I have had that concern for a number of years, having quite by chance discovered other local authorities, as well as the one in which I was working at the time, where that had happened. The Department does not know the answer. That is not good enough; it needs to collate the information to look at issues that are perhaps not being identified, so that social workers can do their jobs and policy and practice can respond. In addition, I believe it is fundamental that the Government ensure that research on good practice is disseminated, as well as that on failings, so that staff can learn from what works, as well as from what goes wrong.

When child protection goes wrong, it can all too readily result in tragedy. The resulting press storm can leave onlookers with the impression that the whole child protection system is failing, which is not so. For the most part, children are protected and helped to have better lives.

1.23 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): First, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members the compliments of the season, but I fear that some of my remarks will not necessarily be fully within the compliments of good will to all men. [Hon. Members: “And women.”] Indeed. I have started badly already.

There are many reasons why I do not believe that the House should adjourn now. There are issues that we need to debate, and we need to be debating them now. There are also issues that mean that the House should not adjourn for as long as it plans to adjourn. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I find it very hard to understand why the Government thought it necessary and sensible to extend the Christmas recess by a week. With many of our constituents facing the prospect of being without a job in 2009, it seems rather disrespectful of them for us not to be in the House doing our jobs.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to another, rather more immediate possibility? During the next three or four weeks, another bank might go down and the Government might want to intervene by making proposals to spend yet another £20 billion. Is it really compatible with our constitutional traditions that the Government could do that without the House’s permission to spend that money?

Mr. Burstow: Over the years, the House has undoubtedly ceded to the Government more and more of its former control over supply. As a consequence, there probably would be no need to recall Parliament, although it
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certainly should be recalled in such circumstances, as my hon. Friend rightly says. In fact, I want to come on to the economic situation.

This Christmas, many of my constituents are facing an uncertain future. They fear for their livelihoods. Their homes and savings are threatened by circumstances beyond their control. I say that there is fear, but there is also frustration, because my constituents do not feel that the Government have the same sense of urgency in helping struggling families and small businesses to weather the economic storm as they did when they bailed out the banks. Action is required at every level to help our country through the downturn.

I am pleased to say that my local council was one of the first in the country to put together a comprehensive package of proposals to tackle the effects of the economic downturn locally, using the levers and networks at its disposal. That plan has already begun to deliver some results. I want to share some of those initiatives with hon. Members, because I hope that local authorities throughout the country will take them up in the coming weeks and months.

One of the initiatives is to improve the cash flow of small businesses. More than 200 small businesses supply my local authority, Sutton council, which is cutting the time that it takes to pay its bills from 30 days to just 10. The feedback from business so far shows that many firms are complimenting Sutton council on being such a prompt payer by comparison with other local authorities. I hope that other local authorities will take a leaf out of the Government’s book in cutting the time taken to pay bills, and out of the London borough of Sutton’s. Business costs are also being cut by the council, by boosting the numbers taking up small business rate relief. I was very impressed by the fact that Sutton’s efforts since late November have resulted in local companies saving £118,000—a crucial lifeline for hard-pressed businesses.

Crucially at this time, we must ensure that those who are most at risk in the financial turmoil are claiming the benefits that they need to carry on. I am thinking in particular of the forgotten victims of the economic downturn: our senior citizens. Nationally, £1.8 billion of council tax benefit goes unclaimed every year, and pensioners in particular are missing out on £5 billion-worth of unpaid benefits. Those people already tend to be the poorest in our communities, and their situation is made far worse because they are unaware of what they are entitled to. Sutton council is working closely with the Pension Service, Sutton citizens advice bureau and Sutton borough Age Concern to promote and maximise benefit take-up, so that they ensure that pensioners and others are receiving the necessary help with their living costs.

Pensioners often face much higher rates of inflation than the retail prices index suggests. Indeed, independent research has shown that seniors face an inflation rate of about 9 per cent., which is almost double the national average, and it is hardly surprising that pensioner poverty and pensioner indebtedness are serious and growing issues, compounded by the fact that pensions are not linked to earnings.

Just one fifth of average earnings is the value of the UK pension, which makes it one of the lowest in the world and in western Europe. I shall cite a few countries as examples. It is lower than that of Hungary, Portugal and the Czech Republic, all of which are some 30 places
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below Britain in gross domestic product rankings. That is why my colleagues and I certainly argue very strongly that the earnings link should be reinstated now and why we believe that the basic state pension should be increased substantially.

The Pensions Act 2008 aims to encourage private savings and to help those not in workplace schemes, but until the link to earnings is reintroduced, the foundation on which older people base their finances will be continuously eroded. A practical sign of the Government’s commitment to encourage private savings would be to put in place the long-overdue compensation scheme in respect of Equitable Life victims.

Although the credit crunch and economic downturn are undoubtedly defining issues of 2008 and will continue to dominate in 2009, other serious issues demand our attention, and one of them has been addressed already by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) in a very good and thoughtful contribution about child protection. Undoubtedly, the tragic case of baby P has shocked the nation, yet there is a terrible familiarity about his dreadful death. It would have had strong echoes of the Victoria Climbié case even had it not occurred in Haringey. The majority of children who die from abuse or neglect in this country know the perpetrator; most abuse takes place within the family, or is done by friends. As a society, we are in denial about that hard truth.

I first said that in 2003, when I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on child protection in this House, and I repeat it now. I have a deep sense of frustration about the fact that, fundamentally, nothing has changed with regard to the problems identified in the Laming report.

Many initiatives have been taken; Every Child Matters is not just a phrase, but a series of actions that the Government have taken. However, there are still too many social work vacancies plugged by agency staff. There are still failures of oversight and accountability. There are still fragile systems of communication and collaboration between agencies. We saw a wave of resignations in the aftermath of the baby P case, and the almost ritualistic condemnation of social workers. That condemnation in turn deters people from applying to become social workers, which creates a vicious circle.

Much of the blame for baby P’s death has been placed at the door of Haringey social services, despite the fact that the police and medical professionals also saw him during his short life. Those other professionals all too often find themselves able to hide behind social workers, who bear the brunt and take the flak; as a result, they avoid their share of responsibility for what happened.

Baby P was admitted to hospital twice. He was seen by a GP and he was taken to a child development clinic. During that time, his mother was arrested twice. The Crown Prosecution Service considered the case but decided not to prosecute. It took that decision just a day before he died. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley that we need to speed up serious case reviews and make sure that the Department that takes overall responsibility for those reviews, on behalf
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of us all, is much smarter in analysing the lessons from reports and translating those lessons into changes in practice on the ground.

I nevertheless support my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) in her call for a public inquiry, if only because it is essential that we look at what lessons were not learned from the Laming inquiry and take the necessary steps to ensure that they are learned.

Meg Munn: Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that a properly conducted serious case review should be able to identify the lessons that were not learned? The inquiry on the Victoria Climbié case and the lessons from it should now be part of practice.

Mr. Burstow: Yes, but that is not what has happened, and that is why we seem to be in a never-ending cycle of child deaths from abuse. That is why there is still a case for an independent review. It is not just the national health service, the police, social workers and Haringey council that are culpable. The Government and inspectorates also have questions to answer. Why was no action taken in February 2007, when the Department of Health was warned by a former Haringey social worker of the failings in child protection there? Just what did Ofsted do when it took over responsibility? After all, we are talking about Haringey, the epicentre of the last tragic death that convulsed the child protection system.

Ofsted’s assessment method has been found wanting. The drive towards light-touch inspection regimes places lives at risk by obscuring the human reality of the chaotic lives with which social workers have to contend. That is hidden behind a spreadsheet of cold statistics. I read the transcript of the Children, Schools and Families Committee’s inquiry and looked into the discussions with Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, and I was struck by how much reliance is still placed on data.

The baby P case has yet again exposed a fundamental question: how do we spot and protect those at risk in our communities? What shocks us all about the abuse that baby P suffered is that when we look at the information that becomes available afterwards, we see that such tragedies are preventable. Even so, they happen time and again—and not just to children; they happen to people of all ages. The reality is that abuse is a concern not just for children, but for older people. Often, they are even more out of sight and out of mind. The numbers are appalling: every year 342,000 older people suffer unspeakable cruelty in this country. Most often it is physical, psychological, sexual or even financial, and it is perpetrated by those closest to the victim.

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