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Moreover, there were

Once again, however, the full report was never published by the Government. If one is able to find the executive summary, one can see that its conclusions have been confirmed by concerns expressed to our commission on social workers. Social workers have said the template is too detailed and requires so much standard information that workers have to focus on completing the document rather than the assessment.

The chairman of the London child protection co-ordinators has warned:

ICS forms were supposed to help partners of social work, but the direct opposite is the case. The chairman went on to say that some boroughs had estimated that the increased demands of the system had added 12 to 20 per cent. to the amount of time spent on the issue by social workers. David Wastell, professor in information systems at the university of Nottingham, warned that the ICS was unfit for purpose because it was developed by central Government with little input from front-line social practitioners.

One need only look at the blogs, including a blog by Bury social workers, to see the problems that people in the field, at the sharp end, deal with day in, day out. One such social worker said:

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Another said:

The system is not working.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I ask the hon. Lady to bear with me. The commission on social workers strongly recommends that the highly prescriptive ICS template be abolished in favour of a much more streamlined, user-friendly system that allows social workers more empathetic face-time with their clients. Some authorities, such as Kensington and Chelsea, have been developing their own systems at their own expense, which are much more user-friendly. Others should surely be allowed to follow suit without the threat of money from the Department for Children, Schools and Families being held back, as it is if they do not follow the Department’s highly prescriptive route.

The Government’s obsession with bureaucracy and databases is, of course, set to escalate with ContactPoint, which started to go live just last week. It has cost £244 million so far, and the estimated ongoing running cost is at least £41 million per annum. It is a system of unproven value, and there are no guarantees about security of access. It could turn out to be another measure that is counter-productive to genuine child protection, as resources will be spread thinly over 11 million children, rather than being focused on genuinely vulnerable children, which is what we have advocated all along.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will not.

It is also clear that the database is to be used for many more purposes than the child protection criteria originally cited, including police investigations, and that many more people will have access to it. The House of Commons Library has estimated that the money spent on ContactPoint so far could have been used to employ 7,575 additional social workers—equivalent to 50 in every local authority. The money to be spent on the system between now and 2012 could pay for an additional social worker every four hours.

The Secretary of State will know that at a briefing that he gave to directors of children’s services shortly after the baby P case hit the headlines, a suggestion from one director that ContactPoint should be scrapped and the money instead used to reduce the case load of social workers was greeted with widespread cheering,
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yet the Government are ploughing ahead with this latest data disaster waiting to happen. ContactPoint is handled by the same firm that managed to lose the details of the entire prison population, and the Government refused to publish in full the security review carried out by Deloitte a year ago, which warned that

If that was not bad enough, the special security arrangements that apparently involve the children of hon. Members being subject to shielding safeguards last week resulted in headlines that referred to a “Them and us child register”.

Hilary Armstrong: I really am shocked to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He clearly has not investigated the database effectively. He and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) have strongly argued that there needs to be a level of knowledge across the Departments and agencies working with children, so that they can intervene early with the most vulnerable. Without a database such as ContactPoint, it will be impossible to do that. He cannot make both arguments and expect us to think that he is being logical. If he is to be logical, he has to be much more—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Tim Loughton: The answer to child protection problems in this country is not another expensive computer system that has not proved that it can do what the right hon. Lady thinks that it can do.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I have not even finished responding to the previous intervention.

What will protect children in this country is properly resourced and motivated professionals working at the sharp end, and talking to other well-resourced and motivated professionals to deal together with a problem. They need time to spend at the sharp end, not time shackled to a computer system, constantly inputting data; we do not know whether that will work. I trust professionals; the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) trusts spending a lot of money on unproven computer systems. That is what divides us in this case.

That is why, having opposed the original provisions in the Children Bill 2004, the Conservative party last year announced that we would scrap ContactPoint and focus instead on a streamlined signposting central database, which would include genuinely vulnerable children—a view wholeheartedly endorsed by the commission on social workers. [Interruption.] We are talking about a database of genuinely vulnerable children, not all the 11 million children in this country. That is the difference. Ours would concentrate on vulnerable children. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask that the debate be conducted in the proper manner; comments should not be made across the Chamber.

Tim Loughton: That shows that Labour Members yet again think that setting up, and ploughing money into, a computer system is the universal panacea and will solve the problem. That is not what will solve the problem.

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Lynne Featherstone: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will make some progress so that I can finish. I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of the commission on social workers, whose members were so willing to reconvene to update our original report and to make further recommendations in light of the deteriorating climate, as highlighted by the baby P case and other high-profile cases. Today we are making further recommendations, and I would very much like the Secretary of State to respond to them.

First, and foremost among all the points made to us by our witnesses, an end is required to widespread disruptive structural changes. As I have said, we need to scrap the child databases that take away so much of the time that social workers can spend dealing with vulnerable families, face to face. We also need a national recruitment campaign that will bring in new, properly trained and properly motivated social workers. It should be a high-impact advertising campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said, we need to make sure that experienced social workers stay in place and do not move into early retirement because they are so disillusioned by what is going on.

We need a “care first” programme, modelled on the “teach first” programme, in which highly trained social workers would go into particularly challenging circumstances. We need social workers to have a mixed case load, in which they have supportive and therapeutic work, alongside more serious cases. We need practice training for new social workers, and we need on-the-job training for directors of children’s services departments; too often, they are cosseted away in offices and do not go out in the field with social workers.

We need to overhaul the whole process of inspections. We need to make sure that we have a system that is fit for purpose, and that ensures that we are inspecting the right things. It is absurd that there is not a senior social worker on the board of Ofsted. It is absurd that when Ofsted inspections happen in children’s services departments, the inspectors do not go out with social workers on a case; an Ofsted inspector carrying out a school inspection would sit at the back of a class. We need to ensure much better interagency communication, which should include the Ofsted inspection. The Ofsted inspection should inspect how well the different agencies work together, and should note which do not.

I have concentrated on the crucial role of social workers—real, human social workers, practitioners out in the field with experience, of whom we need many more. To my mind, they are better value than the expensive, unproven computer system by which Labour Members seem to set so much store, despite the fact that the Government’s track record on IT systems over the past 12 years has not exactly been covered in glory. There are many other aspects of child protection that other hon. Members will wish to flag up, not least concerning health professionals. A new study by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, will show how many of the original Laming recommendations are still not being carried out in practice. Interagency working with the police still leaves a lot to be desired, too.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) will, when she winds up, make reference to proposals that we have already announced to expand the health visitor system. Health visitors will intensively visit new parents in those crucial first few weeks, in a system based on the Dutch Kraamzorg model. She will also mention the benefits of other early intervention practices. I want to leave it to others to talk about the importance of extended family members, and particularly about the role of grandparents in helping to counter child abuse. I have not had time to return to the Government’s continued refusal to take decisive action on private fostering, which has direct links with the added risk of child abuse.

The Conservative party has called the debate in the interests of continuing to highlight the serious problems and inadequacies in the way that we protect our most vulnerable children and families, and of making further substantial and constructive proposals to find the solutions that I am sure all of us in all parts of the House urgently want to see. I hope that when he has cleared up the muddle about his earlier references to the Information Commissioner, the Secretary of State will engage positively with some of the constructive proposals that we have made.

8 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I shall turn to the Opposition motion shortly and reply to the points made by the shadow spokesperson in the opening speech.

It is the first duty of Government—indeed, it is our shared duty—to do everything we can to keep our children and young people safe and protected from harm. There is no greater responsibility on us as Ministers and Members of the House, so it is right that we ask ourselves tonight whether there is more that we can all
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do to keep children safe from harm. That is why I welcome the debate on this most important issue.

Although I was disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State chose not to open the debate, I start, notwithstanding the speech that we have just heard and the fact that we disagree on some points, by noting that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has made some important contributions on these issues in recent years.

The number of child deaths has fallen in recent years, and sharply so for the youngest children, but any abuse or non-accidental death is wrong. I know that many hon. Members will have reacted to the tragic case of baby P, as I did, with incomprehension. How could adults perpetrate such terrible acts of evil against a little boy? When professionals became aware of the risks to the child, why did they not act sooner to protect him from harm? Such a tragic and appalling case must rightly raise wider questions of public concern about the safety of vulnerable children around the country. Also, as the hon. Gentleman said, when some local authorities are judged inadequate in their safeguarding of children, it is rightly a matter of grave public concern.

It is my judgment that following the death of Victoria Climbié and the Laming inquiry, we have put in place a strong framework for tackling child abuse. It is our expectation that social workers, GPs, nurses and police officers see the world from the child’s perspective and put the child’s safety first. But we also know, as we have seen in recent weeks and months, that there is still a long way to go until we have the best possible child protection arrangements in every part of the country.

That is why, as we have heard in the debate, we have taken a number of actions in recent months to improve further child protection, which include asking Lord Laming to provide a further report on progress in implementing the reforms that were introduced after the Climbié inquiry, with proposals for further improvement to accelerate improvement across the country. We have demanded that local authorities take action in response to any serious case review that has been judged to be inadequate. We have set up a new social work taskforce, to be chaired by the chief executive of Camden council, Moira Gibb, to reform social work training and practice, and we have begun, as we heard, the roll-out of ContactPoint with the widespread support of professionals and practitioners alike. All these reforms are vital to keep children safe and, despite the comments that we have heard, it is still my genuine and fervent hope that we can build a cross-party consensus on the matter in the House and in the country. That is the best way to keep children safe.

John Hemming: The Secretary of State stated that the number of deaths from child abuse and neglect had fallen sharply in recent years. On what basis does he justify that statement, and how would he justify it in the light of the Department’s continued refusal to provide figures in an auditable form as on serious case reviews following the death of a child?

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