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I very much welcome the tone that Members across the House have taken on the importance of social work and the jobs that are done. That is something of a turnaround; in my 20 years in social work, I certainly
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never felt loved by the public generally, or by any Government of the day. The reality is that for years, Governments have not focused on the profession. The number of people in social work is much smaller than the number in teaching and nursing. The time has come to focus on the issue, and to raise the status of all involved, whether they are child care workers, nursery nurses, health visitors or social workers. That will mean more money, and more investment. We should not just raise salaries—it has been amply demonstrated that that needs to happen—but make investment in ongoing training.

Training is enormously important at the outset of the career, but continuous professional development is equally important. Quite apart from the issues that we have debated, such as whether social workers are too much tied to computers or to recording, I worry that not enough time is put aside in their day, week or month for professional development and learning. I recently tabled a question, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families responded, on what research is being undertaken on those issues. There are 22 such pieces of research being undertaken. They take up two pages of A4. My concern is not that that is too much research, or that it is problematic; my question is how people on the front line will get to know the outcome of that research. What aid will they be given to learn from those detailed investigations?

I want to come on to an issue that we have talked about at great length—serious case reviews. I do not know whether any other Members of the House have ever been involved in serious case reviews or what preceded them, but I certainly have. I have chaired them, written them, and given evidence to them. I remain strongly of the view that they should not be published. I do not think that they would give a great deal of help. They are important within authorities, because they help people in those authorities to understand what went wrong in their area, and to learn from it, but the summaries should be sufficient to enable people to learn. I commend the NSPCC for publishing those summaries on its website. That is where one goes to if one wants to find out what the child protection issues are. I ask the Department to look at the matter more carefully.

Research done on the back of those summaries to bring together the lessons learned is important. The real tragedy of all the cases that we are discussing is not that we do now know what is going wrong, but that the same things go wrong year in, year out. To concentrate on saying, “Publish serious case reviews” is to miss the point. We know a great deal about what goes wrong, so we need to concentrate on learning that and making sure that all professionals have that information.

We also need to do more about learning from good practice. I recall a case of sexual abuse that I was involved with some 15 years ago. We were congratulated by our local authority at the end of the process; we worked very well with the police and a conviction was secured. The people in the policy section of the council said, “We must come and see how you did that, and what made it work.” Of course, they never did. So much more time and effort goes into looking at the cases that go wrong than into those that go well.

Another enormously important issue is better inspection. I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on the idea
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of embedding inspectors in departments; I would worry about their independence. However, closer involvement is important. The way in which inspections have been carried out means that individual social workers, and managers, can go years without their practices ever being looked at by any external person; that is not right. We need to change that, and we need to be more rigorous in that regard.

My final plea is that we make a big effort on the issue. The Government should look at what the social work taskforce comes up with in due course, and something should then happen on the ground. In 1998, social workers stood up and cheered when the Labour Government gave money to the quality protects programme, and for the first time in 10 years we stopped cutting social work posts and invested in doing something about children. We need the same kind of energy now. We need a new initiative, but one that focuses on child protection specifically, rather than on children’s services as a whole.

9.34 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): When the Victoria Climbié tragedy happened in Haringey, the leadership took no fall for that. Only the social worker at the end of the food chain took all the blame and was hung out to dry. That is why Laming so pointedly criticised the lack of accountability in the leadership, why the Government—I am grateful to them—put in the Children Act 2004 two accountable positions for child protection, and why those people at the top had to go this time. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for acting so resolutely and swiftly to ensure that Laming’s views were regarded.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has done. The concentration has been on the practice, management and focus of children’s services, and rightly so, as that is the front line. However, those departments do not exist in isolation. They are subject to pressures. If those pressures and the wider issues are not examined, those departments, however good their work is, will again succumb to those pressures in the years to come and begin to fail. That is why I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman and continue to call for a public inquiry to examine those wider issues.

Very briefly, I shall give some of my reasons for that opinion, one of which relates to cost. Although that should not be an issue, I have been told by two sources that an e-mail and a memo are going between senior managers in Haringey instructing senior managers not to take children into care. I have made a freedom of information request to obtain that information, which was denied on cost grounds. I appealed and I am now referring the matter to the Information Commissioner. I have passed that information to Mr. Badman, because it is not inconceivable that cost was an issue in that children’s services department.

We need to look at scrutiny. It is not as though Haringey did not have whistleblowers coming out of its ears, trying to tell it what was going on. I went privately and without any coverage, so that politics and publicity would not come into it, to the leader and the chief executive of Haringey council to tell them about three cases in which there was an endemic problem of a closing of ranks when people tried to raise issues of concern. One of those people was a social worker, one was a parent and one was a school governor.

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Sharon Shoesmith famously said that her department was commendable and did not need scrutiny. Opposition members raised the matter of concern in full council and in other places. We need to consider how we can ensure that those concerns are taken seriously and that politics do not get in the way of issues being dealt with properly.

Perhaps we need to revisit the merger between children’s services and education. I tread on dangerous ground in making that suggestion. I do not know the answer. Why were health visitors not included in that merger? Where there is an education head, social services or children’s services feel that they are not covered, and vice versa. There are issues that we need to revisit.

Secrecy and injunctions are further matters of concern. Haringey has issued many injunctions to stop employees talking about what they know, quite apart from what they might say in private to a serious case review. Injunctions should not be issued like confetti. They act as a protection for the serious issues involved and should not be used to stop people talking about what they know.

We must also consider the paper trails that are created. We need to look at the Government hoop that Haringey jumped through by presenting false information to Ofsted, which did not see what was under its nose. I shall not enlarge on that, as I want to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) to speak. I conclude by asking hon. Members to sign early-day motion 53. There are already 100 signatures. We need to look at the wider issues or the Department will not be able to hold out against the pressures on it, however good the Secretary of State can make social workers.

9.39 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I preface my short contribution to the debate by re-emphasising that the issue requires genuine cross-party co-operation. It is important to recognise that there are many children who have been well protected by our care system, and they are the rule rather than the exception. However, I want to speak in this debate because of my lifelong involvement in child protection, as a result of which I have a deep desire to make sure that we get it right.

Child protection is about safeguarding children and managing risks. Although the “Every Child Matters” Green Paper was important and commendable in its motives, sadly it has not led to the wholesale reform of child protection intended by the 2003 Lord Laming report. In my view, it has not been helped by the clear tension between the two statutory duties of local authorities: on the one hand, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their areas; and on the other, and as far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families.

As a consequence, councils are seeking alternative options for children identified as being at risk—for example, section 20 voluntary accommodation and placements with family friends, as happened in the baby P case. In my experience, that has led to some cases that have gone on far too long before there has been any legal intervention to protect the child. The problem is compounded by two, more recent, introductions. First, there is the hike in issue fees in care cases and, secondly, there is the public law outline in our court system.

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I turn to issue fees. There has been a thirty-twofold increase in court fees charged for care proceedings, imposed by the Government; they have gone from £150 to £4,825 per case. As an immediate consequence, there was a 20 per cent. drop in care applications. Many see that as a significant disincentive against cash-strapped local authorities taking care proceedings. For example, from March 2007 until April 2008, Sunderland spent £32,000 on care proceedings; from March 2008 to December 2008, it spent £116,000 on them. The Government would say that they had provided £40 million to help local authorities finance those hikes in the cost of care applications. However, that additional money was not ring-fenced for that purpose and, as we know, local authorities have a number of other financial constraints. Perhaps the money would be much better spent in other ways—the issue of five care proceedings, for instance, would pay for a family support worker for a whole year. I ask the Minister how it can be right to charge such an extortionate and disproportionate fee to bring proceedings to protect vulnerable children.

Secondly, there is the issue of the public law outline. I declare an interest, as I had some direct experience of the outline when it was in its infancy in April-May last year. Even at that stage, in the pilot phase, it was obvious that although its aims were laudable, it was an unrealistic model for our current care system, particularly as we are now aware that one in seven social work positions sits vacant. The fact is that local authorities do not currently have the means, resources or expertise to fulfil everything that the public law outline requires them to do. Indeed, the shortages of social workers and the revolving nature of their involvement in a case often mean that the author of the initial social work statement is different from the social worker who carries the case through the courts.

I am delighted that in my constituency the new local authority-to-be, Cheshire East, has recognised the enormous significance of child protection in its range of responsibilities. My message to it and to the Secretary of State is that we must continue to invest in more permanent and highly trained social workers, reduce their casework load, reverse the rise in care application fees and review the public law outline and its impact. Despite the best intentions on all sides, there are still flaws in our care system, and they must be put right.

9.44 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): This debate has been an opportunity seriously to discuss the importance of child protection. It is rather disappointing that the Secretary of State did little to illustrate to those who watch our deliberations carefully that he was able to approach the debate in the collaborative manner that our constituents and others would expect. Members of this House expect better. He used statistics about the numbers of deaths of children from abuse in a way that some, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), may say runs the risk of being misleading. I would like to give the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who will wind up for the Government, the opportunity to set the record straight, because I am sure she would not want to leave
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her Secretary of State in the position of potentially misleading the House by saying that the Opposition would cut budgets in this area.

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must not use intemperate language like that. Even a hint of a reference to misleading the House is not what I expect. Perhaps the hon. Lady could gently withdraw.

Mrs. Miller: Thank you for that guidance, Mr. Speaker. Obviously what I really want the Minister to do is set the record straight.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady should withdraw that remark. That is fine—we all have to do that from time to time.

Mrs. Miller: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

We all have a clear duty to do all that we can— [ Interruption. ] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker; I withdraw my comment so that we can move on and have an important and constructive debate.

We all have a clear duty to do what we can to ensure that children growing up in our country are safe. In that respect, the Government are absolutely right to say that safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility. Yet the tragic case of baby P graphically shows that although changes have made following the death of Victoria Climbié some eight years ago, there remain unacceptable and devastating flaws in child protection that need urgent attention if there is to be a change in the unacceptably high levels of child abuse in this country. In truth, the systems that support families have struggled to keep up with the staggering pace of change in our society. Increased levels of family breakdown, highlighted by this week’s Children’s Society report, coupled with increasingly mobile families, with few people living in the same place for life, mean that the natural checks and balances and safeguards built into our communities over time have been eroded.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pointed out in his thoughtful and well-presented speech, it is not that there is a lack of legislation in this area—indeed, the scale of change may have added to some of the problems that we have encountered—but that we have to ensure that the protection system itself does not overwhelm the most important issue, which is the care of children in our society. It is important that that point is noted.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) rightly observed that these are highly complex issues, but it is clear that there are still lessons to be learned. I hope that the Minister will do what her Secretary of State has perhaps not indicated that he is willing to do and listen to the proposals for further reform that we have put forward.

I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for all the work that he has done. Under his chairmanship, the Conservative party commission on social workers has provided a clear analysis of the problems that have to be faced and some detailed and practical policy proposals that the Government should carefully consider. Those proposals would provide the framework of openness, transparency and accountability that is so badly needed.

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Most significantly of all, we have highlighted the importance of front-line professionals in delivering the changes that are needed. That was reiterated by Members on both sides of the House; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about unsung heroes. Although the structures and systems are important, it is the training, experience and continuity of front-line professionals that are critical in child abuse cases. As Dr. Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics said of the Victoria Climbié case, there was no shortage of information but there was a shortage of wisdom as to how that information should be used.

The right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) said that we must ensure that we can enable people to make sound and robust judgments; she made a very good point. Up and down the country, many of the professionals tasked with child protection are finding it difficult to ensure that the level of care that is needed is in place. Indeed, we know from the statistics that in eight local authorities, including the borough of Haringey where baby P died, a third of the required number of social workers are not in place.

It is not enough just to treat the symptoms. We also need to ensure that early intervention is in place, because it is key if we are to see a reduction in the number of child abuse cases that so many hon. Members have talked about today. It is important that Sure Start has an even stronger role in providing a focal point to support families before they reach that crisis point. That is why we have set out in detail our plans to re-establish a modernised universal health visitor service, led through Sure Start, to ensure that families, particularly vulnerable ones, get the support they need. That service will ensure that Sure Start is effective in reaching vulnerable families in our community.

In conclusion, child protection remains a top priority for Conservatives, and this Opposition day debate graphically illustrates that. I welcome the time given by the House to the discussion of these important issues. In the light of the baby P case, Lord Laming’s report on child protection is due to be published in a few weeks’ time. The Government need to take some decisive action to ensure that the professionals on whom we rely to protect and support some of the most vulnerable people in our society are trained, prepared and supported to deal with the demands that they face on a day-to-day basis.

As we sit here today, staff shortages, vacancies and spiralling case loads mean that professionals are spread thinly. They already feel that they are losing touch with some of the most vulnerable families in our community. Last month, Unison referred to the situation as a ticking time bomb that will lead to more tragic deaths in the future. We urge the Government to take up the measures that we have proposed today to defuse that ticking time bomb, and to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent future tragic headlines from hitting our newspapers.

9.52 pm

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