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8.47 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): In principle, I welcome the debate. It is important to hold a constructive discussion on child protection. However, I am not sure about the quality of the debate.

Yesterday “The Good Childhood Inquiry” was published. It reinforced the fact that every child should be entitled to live in a loving and safe environment. Today we are discussing child abuse and deaths at the hands of parents and carers, and we cannot deny that, however we play around with numbers, the figure remains too high. We have spoken a lot about deaths—the tragedies are before us—but we should also remember that child abuse can permanently damage children. They grow into adults who in turn may—I stress the word “may”—abuse others. We should not play with the statistics. We just have to do better. Child protection should be at the heart of our societal aims and embedded as a priority in the whole of the children’s work force.

On the whole, we are getting better at listening to children. Indeed, the Government have made great strides, with meaningful consultation with children and young people. Looking back on the tragic Victoria Climbié case, I recall that none of the agencies ever spoke to Victoria. We recognise the importance of that today, but as was said earlier, half the children killed or seriously injured through abuse and neglect are babies less than a year old. A further 20 per cent. are toddlers under the age of five.

When younger children are the victims, professionals must have the opportunity to examine and assess them carefully. Communication can come in all sorts of guises. In the baby P case, the baby did not appear to have been seen in any detail by social workers. At the heart of our
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debate should be listening to and focusing on the children and ensuring that we are thinking about their needs and best interests.

The Government must listen and respond more quickly at times; I speak in frustration rather than confrontation. Let me give just two examples. In the debate on the Children Act 2004, we spoke at great length about the quantity and quality of social workers and about how the priority for any new system—more important than the system itself—was to have high-quality, well-trained front-line workers. We spoke a lot about the need for recruitment and retention. I welcome the setting up of the social work taskforce, but it seems that it took yet another series of tragedies to bring that belatedly about.

The Audit Commission published a report in October that concluded:

I asked a question about that to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who replied:

and said that the report

The response to studies that shed a critical light on services for our children, as the UNICEF report too did, should not be just to rubbish the methodology. A qualified comment is fine, but should we not always consider how we can do things better?

I know that the Government are responding on children’s trusts. It would be interesting to know exactly what is planned and how it would dovetail into the safeguarding children agenda. The Government often respond by referring to their national initiatives—“We’ve done this,” and so on. There is no doubt that the Government’s children plan, its update and some other strategies are important and to be welcomed. In fact, I would like a national strategy for preventing child deaths, abuse and neglect as well—that is another question for the Minister who will respond to the debate—but surely what is really important is constantly reviewing what is happening at the local level.

At the time of the debate on the 2004 Act there was cross-party support on the need for better multi-agency working and a clear line of accountability—lessons that were to be learned, but appear not to have been put into practice in the case of baby P. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on the dignified way in which she has pushed for the truth and for improvements in her local social services.

Lessons can undoubtedly be learned from serious case reviews. Training and work force-related recommendations need to be acted upon. The Liberal Democrats have called for serious case reviews to be published, albeit suitably anonymised and perhaps with certain details removed. I do not think that we will return to the crossfire that we have just seen, but it is important to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who could not tell anybody else what he had been allowed to read in the serious case review, was convinced that there were issues—the most crucial issues—that needed to be raised publicly. Indeed, that was also the
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view of others who read that report. This is not about putting children in danger; it is about improving safeguarding practices.

It is important to be clear about the situation with regard to the Information Commissioner. The final point in his letter, dated 21 November, stated:

However, it has been confirmed that his view on the matter in question was not sought. I therefore do not believe that we have come to the end of the line.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State fears that people would not participate fully. Indeed, Lord Laming has been asked how the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews could be improved, and whether the right balance between the public executive summary and the confidential serious case review has been struck. I would like to ask the Secretary of State whether we can be assured that he will approach this question with an open mind. He has already stated that he is against the reviews being made public, and it is clear that there are differences of opinion that need to be evaluated. For example, a senior figure who was brought into Haringey supported the idea that a large part of that case review should be made public. I am looking for a balanced approach, because at the end of the day, we have to learn lessons.

The Ofsted findings from 92 serious case reviews were shocking, and most Members have suggested that there is much more to do. More than a third were found to be inadequate. Commenting on an in-depth report on 50 of the cases, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools said:

We cannot be complacent. Some things have improved, but we must look for more.

The length of time that some serious case reviews have taken has also been highlighted, with some taking between three and four years. They must be completed quickly, and they must focus on the child. They must not just be descriptive; they need to analyse why things have happened, and they must be independent.

We are aware that the Secretary of State is keen to follow the recommendations of the NSPCC. The society has recommended that Ministers should report to Parliament on a biennial basis with a review of learning from serious case reviews of child deaths, and set out how each relevant Whitehall Department will respond to the recommendations. Perhaps a commitment to that practice, while the Laming review is being undertaken, would take us forward.

My instinct is that the local safeguarding children board should be independently chaired. It cannot be right that the director of children’s services should hold that post. I have been gathering data from local councils, and I was interested in a comment, offering the opposite view—that no one else would have the drive to take matters forward and challenge other agencies. That highlights how important the person specification, recruitment, appointment, support and training of the
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chairman of the board and its membership will be. I am sure that the board will also need extra resources and strengthening.

We have mentioned the Ofsted inspection service, and I understand that Ofsted will review how it approaches its inspections. I welcome the Local Government Association’s summit recommendation that the association should discuss with Ofsted how it can most effectively assess the quality of child protection practice and help councils and their partners to improve.

When we were talking about those issues in the Select Committee, it was noted that Ofsted appeared, on the surface, to have a strong education bias. There are issues about the heads of children’s services, the majority of whom have come via the education route. I welcome the fact that there will be a new course at the National College for School Leadership, and I would like to ask whether all directors will be required to take it, because management and accountability are all-important.

My colleague in the other place, Baroness Walmsley, has raised the issue of the General Social Care Council codes of practice, which set out the standards expected of both social care workers and their employers in delivering social care services. There is currently a substantive difference in the status of the codes for social care workers and their employers. Compliance with the code for workers is required for those who are registered with the GSCC, but the code of practice for employers has no statutory force. Would not placing the code for employers on a statutory footing and including it within Ofsted’s inspection framework ensure that employers in social care were responsible for making sure that people were suitable to enter the social care work force, to provide sufficient support and so forth?

Training and safeguarding for the whole children’s work force is absolutely vital. Obviously that includes social workers, but it is much broader than that and includes teachers, doctors and health visitors. Anybody coming into contact with children in a professional way needs to be able to recognise the signs of abuse and to be confident enough to follow them up. I believe that those two points are recognised by Ofsted and by the NSPCC. Indeed, the GSCC points out that there is no national standard for training and safeguarding.

Tonight, the official Opposition have said a lot about social workers, and I would like to place on record the fact that theirs is an incredibly difficult job: it is an undervalued occupation in which morale can easily become very low; that may be followed by a drive to move away, and with greater caseloads, the whole situation becomes self-perpetuating. This is something that we have to tackle, for the sake of giving better support to the professionals themselves. I welcome the Local Government Association campaign, which will focus on recruitment, retention and respect in children’s social work.

We discussed earlier the part of the motion that refers to

I do not think I would use the word “scrapping” at this time, but I believe that there is a strong case for reviewing that system. Again, we should think and talk constructively
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about it, as there are enough criticisms around that risk is not a core focus of the current system and that there is too much paperwork and bureaucracy. That is not to say that there should be no paperwork, but if the criticism has been made, it needs to be examined.

Throughout the change from the old to the new system, a number of academics have questioned whether it was right to get rid of the child protection register. Is there a danger that child support workers will not see the wood for the trees? Are the police being pushed off the stage a bit by the new system? Are they not brought into a situation until it is judged a crime? I think we should be prepared to ask ourselves whether we have got the right system. That does not mean changing the whole thing, but we should be brave enough to ask that.

It seems to me right to ask Lord Laming to carry out the review at this time, and to do it fairly quickly—but is there not a case for having a fresh pair of eyes, or even a group of people coming in to see what else they might see? Obviously, Lord Laming as the architect will see things in a certain way, just as the Opposition see things in a different way from the Government, but I believe that there is a case for having that fresh pair of eyes to look at how things are working out at local level.

We Liberals also oppose ContactPoint, purely on the basis that if we take costs and benefits in the widest sense into account, the benefits do not outweigh the costs. In the costs I include the potential risks. I have never been convinced that it will be a secure system—a doubt that has been backed up by a number of reports.

We have not paid much attention tonight to prevention—a subject sadly lacking in the Opposition motion. This afternoon, fortuitously, I had an opportunity to talk to a member of the WAVE Trust—WAVE stands for Worldwide Alternatives to Violence—who explained that a person’s propensity to violence can be determined in the first few years of life. It may result from witnessing violence in the home, harsh parental discipline, neglect or lack of attachment. That shows us that if we really want to improve things, we must home in on preventive measures.

The Family Nurse Partnership is an example of a good intervention. My difficulty with it is that it does not reach out far enough. I should also prefer there to be more health visitors. The number of health visitors is falling, at a time when there is a larger case load. The training has been changed—it is much more generic than it used to be—but whom do parents actually trust? Their health visitor. That really does need to be reconsidered.

The Government have put more effort into parenting classes, which are important, but much more should be done to support families. If we are to promote successful interventions by means of the strategy that I mentioned, should we not establish a national early prevention agency to drive an early prevention strategy? Every time there is a great tragedy, it is the symptoms rather than the root causes that are addressed. Public inquiries are important, but if we really want to do something, we must examine the root causes of abuse.

Further actions that could lead to prevention include confidential hotlines for whistleblowers so that there is no doubt that a complaint is being investigated if, for example, a social worker is feeling less than supported. I often observe that when a tragic case arises, neighbours talk to the media, and they turn out to have been aware
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that something odd might have been going on. Why should we not set up a hotline enabling neighbours to report their concern?

Another preventive measure that we need, about which I have said a great deal over the years, is a comprehensive system of therapeutic services. Once a child has been abused, treatment at the time may be life-saving, and may prevent the abuse from being perpetuated and affecting future generations.

I have already mentioned the first point in the Local Government Association’s five-point plan. The second is to make it easier to shift services towards prevention and early intervention. The third relates to resources, which is a big question. What we require of our children’s services departments is a big ask: we cannot expect them to do their job with less than adequate resources. Fourthly, the LGA says that councils should have access to the best possible advice, which seems pretty sensible. Fifthly, links between the care and child protection services should be improved. That in itself is a subject for debate.

I am well aware that many other Members wish to speak, so I shall merely say that this is all about family support, getting the balance right and always putting the child first. Rather than aiming for confrontation, we should look for more and more ways to reduce what I consider to be a blight on our society.

9.4 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to be given almost as long to speak in the Chamber as I was given on the “Today” programme when I was interviewed by John Humphrys. Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies. However, I consider it a sad comment on our parliamentary procedures that Back Benchers on both sides of the House have been more or less squeezed out of the debate. That is absolutely disgraceful, and should be raised on another occasion.

I was disappointed by the opening speech of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and the emphasis that it placed on certain issues. This debate was promoted as a discussion of child protection. We have concentrated almost entirely on issues around one particular case—that of baby P—and other cases of such gravity. Such cases are crucial and heart-rending examples of the dreadful things that can happen to children, but, to be totally honest, I think they are the type of cases where it will be most difficult to achieve a reduction in numbers. I have compared the Ofsted figures and those of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and I think that the NSPCC figures are more accurate. Indeed, a breakdown of the Ofsted figures suggests to me that it presented its figures to the Committee I chair in a misleading way.

I believe that child protection includes the much broader remit of stopping child abuse of the physical or sexual kind—which very often does not end in death, thank God—and that we should also have regard to child misery. It is out there, and that weighs terribly on my conscience—as well as, I am sure, the consciences of most Members. It is important to be able to pick up through children’s social services when a child is deeply unhappy, but that is very difficult to do. We must tackle this in a much more positive way, so I shall now say one or two unpopular things.

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