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the Secretary of State

Ed Balls: May I correct a mistake made by the hon. Gentleman? At no time have I ever claimed that I asked the advice of the Information Commissioner in the case
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of baby P. In a letter of 18 November to the shadow spokesmen, I quoted a decision that the Information Commissioner had taken on a different case in 2006, in which he decided that it would be wrong to release that report at that time. I quoted that in support of the decision that I was making not to publish the information in this case. I have never made such a claim. I did not seek the advice of the Information Commissioner in this case. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that statement, because he knows it not to be true.

Tim Loughton: If anything I said is not true, I withdraw it. However, I distinctly remember the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box praying in aid the name of the Information Commissioner, with whom he now says he had not checked beforehand. Will he clarify what he said?

Ed Balls: In the letter of 18 November, which was sent before I made the statement to the House, I said:

I said:

Then, in the House, I referred to the previous decision taken by the Information Commissioner, which is clearly documented in the letter that I sent to the shadow spokesman and the Liberal Democrat spokesman. At no point have I misled the House, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the allegation about my seeking the advice of the Information Commissioner when I did not. It was my decision not to release the serious case review, not the Information Commissioner’s, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that statement.

Tim Loughton: The Secretary of State is very defensive. If this is such a big issue with him, why did he not seek the advice of the Information Commissioner in this case before his name was prayed in aid? We can check what it says in Hansard. If it would please the Secretary of State and enable us to get on with the debate, I will certainly withdraw the comment. However, Opposition Members remember him praying the Information Commissioner’s name in aid as an excuse for why the serious case reviews could not be published.

Perhaps I could move on.

Ed Balls rose—

Tim Loughton: I have given way twice, which I think is generous. The Secretary of State will have ample opportunity to respond shortly.

We agree with David Hencke of The Guardian. The Secretary of State put it succinctly in his letter of 18 November to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State when he said that:

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How can we learn the lessons when the reviews are not published in full and there are serious question marks over the accuracy and veracity of what they investigate and recommend? The need is not only for political and public scrutiny: how can other local authorities share best practice and learn from inadequate practice when they cannot see the reviews in full? It is nonsense.

Meg Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I want to make some progress, because many other hon. Members want to contribute.

Meg Munn rose—

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady would be denying her own colleagues, of whom there are many, the opportunity to speak.

Ed Balls rose—

Tim Loughton: I will let the Secretary of State respond in his speech when I have finished. He has had two opportunities to clarify; he can have a third in his own time.

For the reasons that I have given, the Conservative party believes that serious case reviews should, as a matter of course, be published in full, duly anonymised and appropriately but not excessively redacted, unless it would compromise the welfare of the child or his or her siblings. I can report that the cabinet member for children’s services in Birmingham has undertaken in principle that the serious case review of the Kyra Ishaq case, and subsequent reviews, will be published in full subject to the above criteria. I hope that the Secretary of State will take note and encourage other authorities to do the same.

Ed Balls rose—

Tim Loughton: I will willingly give way if the right hon. Gentleman will give that guarantee and undertaking to the House now.

Ed Balls: I shall guarantee to take very seriously the advice of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the deputy Children’s Commissioner, both of whom say that the publication of full serious case reviews would put children at risk. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman is disagreeing with that advice. It is important to put on the record the fact that he is taking a different view from that of the NSPCC on this matter.

Tim Loughton: It is also on the record that the NSPCC has sent round an e-mail clarifying its position, because it did not take kindly to being cited in the amendment. The Secretary of State can claim in aid only two opinions, one of which has been called into doubt by a subsequent e-mail.

Conservative councils have also introduced an urgent initiative to safeguard the integrity of the important local safeguarding children boards, another important product of Lord Laming’s inquiry. LSCBs are there to bring together all the local agencies, co-ordinating safeguarding action and, where necessary, commissioning reviews. The independence of the boards is essential, and that independence was called into question in the
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case of Haringey— [ Interruption. ] The Government Whip is getting very excited. Does he want to intervene? I would be happy to hear his words of wisdom if he has anything sensible to add to the debate. He does not.

The independence of the boards is essential, and that independence was called into question in the case of Haringey. Boards and the serious case reviews that they commission must pull no punches, and be openly critical of the commissioning authority paying the bills where necessary. After consultation with Conservative cabinet members for children’s services running many authorities throughout the country, I find that those authorities either have already, or are in the process of, installing independent chairmen of LSCBs rather than the directors of children’s services, as was the case in Haringey. We put that into effect urgently soon after the news about baby P. I am sure that Lord Laming will recommend the same thing in his review, so why has the Secretary of State not instructed Labour-run authorities to make the same changes now without delay, to safeguard those reports?

Those issues are important, but the fundamental key to the effective working of children’s services departments must be the professionals who work at the sharp end. In particular, we need properly resourced, appropriately trained and suitably motivated social workers who are able to get on with their jobs and spend quality face-to-face time with vulnerable children and families. They should not be shackled to computers, paperwork, rigid procedures and bureaucracy. Without that, any amount of structural change—new boards, and shiny new positions for shiny new managers—will amount to nothing at the sharp end, where it matters.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be much easier for these devoted social workers to work if they knew that, when some disaster took place, the head of the department involved would resign, automatically and without exception, because it was his or her responsibility? Do we not have to recover that kind of attitude if we are to revive the real responsibility that should obtain in all such departments?

Tim Loughton: My right hon. Friend raises a very good point. It was a clear tenet of the Laming report that the buck should stop somewhere. The shortcoming of the Victoria Climbié case and so many others was that nobody stepped up to the plate and took responsibility. As a result, there were no clear lines of accountability. Clearly, that is what needs to happen but, as I am afraid we saw in Haringey, it still has not happened.

That is why in October 2007 we published “No More Blame Game—The Future for Children’s Social Workers”, which was the result of an impressive commission of professionals from a wide range of areas of child protection. Lord Laming and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss were our patrons, and the findings of the commission have turned out to be prescient in many respects. Some of its proposals have been adopted by Ministers, although many were rejected during the scrutiny of the Children and Young Persons Bill last year. Since then, however, the position has undoubtedly deteriorated.

We recently carried out a comprehensive survey of children’s services departments. Since 2005, the vacancy rates for children’s social workers has risen from 11 per cent. to over 14.6 per cent. In 10 boroughs, the vacancy
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rate is over 30 per cent. In Haringey itself, it is now 34 per cent. and at least 18 authorities have vacancy rates of over 20 per cent.

The phenomenon is not limited to inner-city boroughs, as leafy shires are being affected too. Clearly, we need to do much more to retain experienced social workers, who are increasingly disillusioned, and to recruit more new people into social work. The social worker degree course is a welcome aid to raising standards, but initial reports suggest that a third of graduates do not go on to a job in social work, and that a further third leave employment after only a year.

Above all, effective social work with vulnerable families involves establishing an empathetic relationship and continuity in personnel. It is a false economy to cover such high vacancy rates with transient and costly agency staff. Last week’s survey by Unison found that child protection services are a

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Meg Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), and then to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn).

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have here a copy of Hansard from 20 November 2008. The Secretary of State said:

Later in the debate, he said that he had looked very hard at whether he could release the full case review.

The Secretary of State gave every impression in the House that the Information Commissioner in that case had given his view. He set out that evening—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that interventions must be brief. I think that he has made his point.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I shall give the Secretary of State the opportunity to clarify the matter in his response.

Ed Balls rose—

Tim Loughton: The right hon. Gentleman must stop chafing at the bit, as I am coming to the end of my speech and want to give other hon. Members a chance to participate. Before that, however, I shall give way—and for the last time—to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley.

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Meg Munn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindness, but I am extremely concerned when he throws around words such as “bureaucracy” and “paperwork” as if they are not important. Of course social workers have to spend time with families, but recording the information that they gain from that contact is enormously important, and even more so when there are staffing difficulties. Without that accurate record—of a child’s weight or behaviour, for example—it is not possible to reflect over time. Social workers can go to court and present evidence only on that basis, so the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about how he talks about paperwork.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady was a social worker in a former existence and knows much of these matters, but I bet my bottom dollar that she did not spend up to 80 per cent. of her time when she was in practice shackled to the assessment procedures, filling in forms or working on the computer. Instead, I bet that she was out in the field sharing face-to-face time with her clients. If not, there was certainly something wrong with the system.

Separately, the General Social Care Council has reported that social workers are spending at least 60 to 70 per cent. of their time on administrative work as opposed to client contact. Much of this time is spent filling in forms to ensure accountability rather than working with the family. The London borough of Sutton reported that, 20 years ago, only 30 per cent. of a social worker’s time was spent on paperwork. Again, more time is being spent on protecting the system than protecting the clients.

Not surprisingly, increased work loads caused by rising demand, together with staff vacancies, have increased stress levels in the social work force. Indeed, the magazine Community Care, a key publication for those working in social care, recently commented on the difficulty of finding a social worker who

Chief among the bureaucratic obstacle course is the integrated children’s service.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Tim Loughton: I will take my hon. Friend’s intervention as the last one from this side of the House, just as I took the intervention from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley as the final one from that side.

Mr. Steen: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. First, the whole House must recognise that social workers have a tremendously stressful and difficult job. Many are very young, and do not have the experience that the older social worker has. We should pay tribute to the work that they do, as it is not recognised. The status of social workers also needs to be given greater recognition.

Social workers have tremendous problems dealing with our own children in our own constituencies, but is my hon. Friend aware that there is an increasing problem with Roma children? In London alone, 1,017 children from the Roma community have been found on the streets, and that has caused enormous problems for social services. Westminster and Haringey have rejected police requests for care because they are not able to accommodate—

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Again, the length of interventions is increasing as the time is going on.

Tim Loughton: I am trying to make progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point about a subject in which he has a good deal of expertise. That is yet another challenge for already hard-pressed social workers, who already have excessive case loads looking after people who live in their areas.

I was talking about integrated children’s services. The common assessment framework for the assessment of children in need and their families was introduced in 2000, and the core format allowed information to be presented in a helpful and logical sequence, quickly identifying the key issues of concern. However, the ICS recording system, which has been rolled out in the last two years, resulted from a drive for a nationally compliant template and was much more prescriptive. A number of concerns were raised during the consultancy process, many of which were not resolved before ICS was introduced.

In 2007, a major evaluation of ICS concluded that the system, based on a series of tick-box forms, was not tailored to individual children. That important study by Margaret Bell said that it failed to ask important questions of some children while asking others that were irrelevant, resulting in “bland analyses”. The study said:

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