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Ed Balls: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has come to the House to participate in this debate. Even though he has been sitting on the Front Bench all this
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time, he has clearly not been listening to what I have said. I said that the reason I made this decision was not to protect professionals—why would I want to protect professionals who are guilty of making mistakes? I made the decision because I want to protect children who would be put at risk of harm if we made these reports public. That is also the view of the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner, and the consensus among experts. On 18 November, in a letter to the shadow spokesman, I said that I had made the decision in the light of the Information Commissioner’s decision in 2006. I made it clear in the House when we discussed these matters that I had not asked for his advice in this case, but I was relying on a past ruling. I then wrote to the hon. Gentleman—this may be another letter that he failed to read and act upon—on 25 November, saying:

I went on to explain why, on that particular issue, I had changed my mind. I said:

serious case review

That is what I wrote in November, before and after the debate. My reason is not to protect professionals, but to keep children safe. That is what I thought was the purpose of this debate, and that is why I urged the Opposition to drop playing politics with this issue and join the consensus to keep children safe. That is the best way to approach it.

Michael Gove: On 20 November, the Secretary of State twice specifically cited the ruling of the Information Commissioner. Later that day, the Information Commissioner made it clear that he had not been consulted. The Secretary of State did not say on 20 November that he had not consulted the Information Commissioner—he did so only after the Information Commissioner went public. I just want to know why he did not bother to ask the Information Commissioner and why the Information Commissioner had to contact the press in order to make it clear that he had been kept in the dark.

Ed Balls: It would have been much better if the hon. Gentleman had decided to speak in this debate instead of just intervening from the Front Bench. We might then have thought that his commitment on these issues was serious rather than just posturing. I made the following clear to him in a letter on 18 November:

I made it clear in that letter, and in the House, that based on that 2006 ruling and our judgment concerning the safety of children, we would not publish the serious
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case reviews. I wrote to him again a week and a half later— [ Interruption. ] The issues being raised in this debate are intended to divert attention from the real issues. My letter of the 28 November to the hon. Gentleman says:

that is, to go to the Information Commissioner for a ruling. It continues:

That judgment is shared by the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner.

We should not be playing politics with this issue. We are doing the right thing for the safety of children, and the Conservatives’ persistent attempt to find a political difference is at the expense of that safety, which is why I reject their arguments outright.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that a detached observer listening to this part of the debate would be astonished that the principle that the needs of children are paramount is not being considered? Instead, we have been diverted by small, petty debating points made for political advantage.

Ed Balls: The detached observer would take seriously the views of the NSPCC and the deputy Children’s Commissioner that the right thing to do, in order to keep children safe, is not to publish these reports. They would reject the idea that that advice should be ignored by those on the Opposition Front Bench in order to play politics—especially the shadow Secretary of State, who did not even bother to make the main speech in this debate. I shall move on.

John Hemming: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: In a second. My third point concerns the Opposition’s call for all local safeguarding children boards to be independently chaired and for the Ofsted inspection system to be overhauled. As they know, the system is now changing with the end of annual performance assessments and the announcement by Ofsted inspectors that there will be unannounced reviews of safeguarding every year in every children’s authority area. I welcome that change.

On local safeguarding children boards, we have made it clear in response to Lord Laming’s recommendation that the serious case review should always be independently chaired. That is the right thing to do. There are different views, however, on the wider question of whether the local safeguarding children board should also be independently chaired. The Conservatives jumped out with a press release in November, and I understand their view, but there are other expert voices in the debate who are concerned that immediately to require independent chairs of the overall board would weaken their effectiveness and could put children at risk. That is why, despite the urging of the shadow spokesperson, I will not jump the gun. I will not jump the gun for the sake of a press release; I will wait for the views of Lord Laming on the issue, and only then will we take a view as to whether the Conservatives are right that an independent chair is the right way to go.

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Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): On an earlier point concerning the review of Ofsted’s inspection, does the Secretary of State agree with the NSPCC that it would be timely to undertake a high-level review of Ofsted’s inspection methodology?

Ed Balls: I know that there have been debates on these matters, and the Select Committee took a close interest in them as well. Change is happening in Ofsted at the moment, with the move towards a joint inspectorate in relation to the comprehensive area assessment arrangements, and new arrangements for safeguarding begin in April. The right thing to do is to get those arrangements in place. I am sure that the Select Committee will take a close look at the way Ofsted proceeds in these matters, which will be welcome.

John Hemming: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: In a second. I have two points to make in the time remaining to me.

I completely agree that we need well-trained, well-led and well-motivated social workers who spend as much time as possible with vulnerable children and their families. That is why we have set up the social work taskforce, and why we are considering the quality of training, leadership and mid-career training. They have an important job, and it is important that we work hard with the taskforce to implement that process. I have also asked the taskforce to make it a priority to review the effectiveness of procurement and IT using the integrated children’s system, which was an important part of the speech made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I know that there have been concerns that the IT systems have not worked as well as they should in some areas, but the integrated children’s system does not ask practitioners to collect more information than they should to do their jobs. As we heard earlier, it is vital that proper detailed records are kept. In fact, the reason Scandinavian children’s protection systems are commended is that Sweden and Denmark use the ICS system, as do Canada and Australia.

Computing magazine reported last year that the head of safeguarding in Kingston, Mr. Duncan Clark, believed that


It reported that Mr. Clark had said:

Myriad quotations from the experts in the field state that ICS, well used, is a good system, but that we have to address the IT issues and ensure that social workers have the training to use it well, as they do in Sweden, Denmark, Canada and Australia. That is what we are asking the taskforce to do.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that as part of the social work taskforce’s activities, foster carers will be consulted for their experience of front-line social work, so that the taskforce is fully informed of what goes on on the front line when social workers visit foster carers’ homes and the children whom they are there to protect?

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Ed Balls: Of course I will, and the British Association for Fostering and Adoption is part of that group, so we will ensure that that happens.

Mr. Sheerman: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ed Balls: Of course I give way to the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee.

Mr. Sheerman: The Secretary of State will know that I do not agree with some of the criticisms of data collection—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who made an intervention on that point. However, will the Secretary of State take on board the representations of Professor Susan White and Professor Wastell, who have written to me in my role as Chairman of the Select Committee to say that some modification of the ICS system is necessary? Will he be open-minded about such modification? I do not ask him to get rid of it, and I am not making a sweeping denunciation of it, but it could be modified to be of better use in practice.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend’s point is well made. I have already referred the letters that he mentions to Lord Laming and the taskforce for their consideration. I have said that we will consider the whole use of ICS and its IT effectiveness, but although this is partly about computers, it is partly about training and partly about management. Good social workers record their work, but they also get out in the field. ICS, well used, can enable that to happen, and we will ensure that it does.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): There is a danger that in discussing these matters, we sometimes become entirely focused on giving social workers more training, more help and even more pay. It is important to respect our social workers, but they also need the tools of the trade and modern-day IT to do their job. I can recall clearly comments that were made, particularly by those on the Opposition Benches, in our debates on the vetting and barring scheme. Coupled with ICS, that can make a huge difference in protecting children. I hope that all Members appreciate both ICS and the vetting and barring scheme, which I believe many Opposition Members now respect because it can make a big difference to the statistics. Those statistics are children, after all, and those things can help to save their lives.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and ICS, well used, and ContactPoint are both valuable ways of keeping children safe.

Strangely, ContactPoint was omitted from the Opposition’s motion. They omitted any mention of their intention to abolish it. It was developed in response to a key recommendation of Lord Laming and the Climbié inquiry. We all know that no information-sharing system can, in and of itself, keep children safe, but we believe that ContactPoint will make a real difference. It will allow those who work with children to intervene earlier to prevent problems from escalating and ensure that no child slips through the net of support, and it will free up social workers to spend more time with vulnerable children. The idea of having a database that has only
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the vulnerable children on it shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of child protection in our country.

The Opposition disagree with what I have just said. They say that ContactPoint will increase the risk of vulnerable children being abused. The Leader of the Opposition regularly says that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money and that they would scrap it, on top of the £300 million of cuts to children’s services that they have promised to make in the coming year.

The Opposition are out of step not only with Lord Laming’s recommendation, but with the NSPCC, Action for Children, the British Association of Social Workers, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Children’s Inter-Agency Group, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Youth Justice Board, the disabled children’s charity KIDS, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Royal College of General Practitioners—yes, the GPs, too. All those experts support ContactPoint and are working with us to ensure its successful roll-out in the summer because they know that it is important for keeping children safe. Again, I urge Opposition Front Benchers to reconsider and tell the Leader of the Opposition that he proposes a spending cut too far.

Mr. Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, stated:

The Opposition are out on a limb and it is time they stopped digging.

Tim Loughton rose—

Ed Balls: I will give way.

Mr. Sheerman: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is now 8.41 pm The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a 47-minute speech. There have been constant interruptions from the Opposition Front Benchers. Should Back Benchers simply give up attending such debates? Are we going to get any time after Front Benchers have finished intervening?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I have been following the debate carefully, even when I was not in the Chair, and it has been characterised by a large number of long interventions, which contribute to it but inevitably take time out of it. Some of those interventions were made by people who are seeking to catch my eye, and that is counter-productive. I must agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that, increasingly, the share of the debate taken by Front Benchers is not fair on Back Benchers.

Tim Loughton: May I just—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In the light of my comments, we ought to move on. I call the Secretary of State.

Ed Balls: I am happy to debate the issues at any time and at any length the Opposition choose, because they are vital matters. I hope, next time, that the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will participate properly in the debate rather than just make interventions.

Lord Laming will report this month, the social work taskforce will present its first report in the spring and the full roll-out of ContactPoint starts this summer. I believe that we are taking steps to ensure that our country has the best child protection arrangements in the world. It is no time for opposition for opposition’s sake. I genuinely hope that we can achieve a cross-party consensus on the reforms because they are vital for keeping children safe. I commend our amendment to the House.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I might venture to say that the matters that we are debating this evening are extremely serious and, too frequently, heart rending. I think that the manner in which we discuss them will be of considerable interest to our constituents, and we should bear that in mind.

The time constraints mean that there will now be a six-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches.

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