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Crucially, Lord Laming recognises that serious case reviews—the policy inquests that follow the death of a vulnerable child—are valuable tools for learning lessons to enable us to avoid making similar mistakes in future. He points out that the lessons from serious case reviews need to be better learned and more widely disseminated, but he fails to recommend that they now be published in full. Refusing to publish serious case reviews after a child’s death is like keeping the information from an aircraft’s black box secret after an aviation disaster—it prevents us from learning the lessons that we need to
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learn and from debating openly how we keep children safe. We cannot have a situation where we keep terrible errors secret because we will not face down those involved. The lessons of the past year are clear: buck-passing and back-covering cannot come ahead of protecting vulnerable children. Will the Secretary of State please think again on this issue and put children first?

Ed Balls: I appreciate the careful way in which the hon. Gentleman has responded to Lord Laming’s conclusions. I shall respond to his points, and I reassure him from the outset that the new national unit and the appointment of Sir Roger Singleton is not just another quango and another adviser. This will have a real impact on the translation of best practice into common practice in all areas of the country. As the hon. Gentleman reflects on the proposal, I hope that he will be able to support it.

Let me deal with his points in turn. On officials in Haringey, as the hon. Gentleman will know, it was my decision in December to remove the then director of children’s services from her position, but the issue of the appointment of staff, their terms and conditions and their continuing appointment is a matter for Haringey council, not for me. These matters are with Haringey at the moment; the council is going through the proper processes, so it would not be wise for me to comment now on the stage they have reached with different officials.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about court fees. I think I set out clearly the reason why we are having a review. It is made clear in Lord Laming’s report that there is no evidence to suggest that court fees have led to any change in the number of referrals to the courts. In fact, over recent months, there has been a substantial rise in referrals. As I have cited in the House before, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has said that it is aware of

We will carry out the review and look carefully at this issue, but unless we can demonstrably show that that statement is absolutely true, we will abolish court fees from the beginning of the coming financial year.

On the issue of process and targets, we are going to look very carefully at the national targets in our indicator set, which Lord Laming asked us to do, but I urge Conservative Members to be very careful about how they proceed here. We have made substantial progress since 2004; in that year only half—51 per cent.—of all initial referrals of children at risk were assessed within seven days, whereas the latest figures show more than 70 per cent. doing so, which is a substantial difference. The focus on quick assessment happened because of the targets. It is important that we do not use wrong targets or targets that distort, but it is also right to have rapid assessment of children at risk. I would like to go even further on that, so it will be looked at very carefully by the social work taskforce.

On integrated children’s services and bureaucracy, I have made it clear that hiding behind a computer screen or bureaucracy and procedure is not the right thing to do professionally if we want to keep children safe. That would be the wrong thing to do, and I have asked the social work taskforce to look at all those issues, including the operation of integrated children’s services, and to
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report by the end of April. We are going to move quickly. Only last week, I was in Derby talking to social workers in that city, where I heard their concerns about ICS and saw it operating in practice. I know that many authorities in the country are finding that that system is actually leading to more effective and efficient decision making, speeding up the way in which they can comprehensively get on and do their work. I do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here, which is why it is important we do this properly. The social work taskforce will take this forward.

There is often confusion between the common assessment framework and integrated children’s systems. In my experience and from what I hear, CAF processes are working well around the country, but if the hon. Gentleman has a different view, I would be happy to hear more about it.

On the issue of health visitors, it is right to have significant investment, and we have put significant investment into our health system. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is announcing today that, as we prefigured in the child health strategy a few weeks ago, there will be a significant increase in the number of health visitors. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that that happens, but I have to say to him that absolutely the wrong way to do it would be to cut the Sure Start budget, which is there to ensure early intervention and protection of children.

The fact that many children who come to harm are not known to the authorities should be addressed by our children’s centres. To cut children’s centres—to be honest, to cut the children’s budget more widely—would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. I ask the hon. Gentleman to have a word with the Leader of the Opposition and suggest to him that he may need to realign his thinking on that particular point.

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his view that serious case reviews should be published. He has also been consistently isolated in holding that view. Not only Lord Laming, but the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Commissioner, as well as pretty much every expert in the field, disagree with him. They all agree that a public, fully comprehensive executive summary, alongside a confidential full report, is the right way to go. The hon. Gentleman—probably badly advised—dug himself into a hole on that issue in the first few days when it came to light. I say to Conservative Members, “Sometimes, if you get it wrong, just change your mind. You are absolutely wrong on this particular issue.”

That takes me to a wider issue. As Lord Laming’s report says—there is a widespread consensus that is reflected across the country, across experts and across professionals—the 2004 Every Child Matters framework is the right framework for child protection. Our challenge is to implement it effectively in every area. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not agree, and therefore disagreed with the idea of Lord Laming being asked to produce the report in the first place, but again I say to him, “Read the report, reflect and think again.” I do not think that to go back on the 2000 reforms would be the right thing to do and, with the exception of the Conservative party, neither does anybody else.

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The right thing to do is ensure that the framework is properly implemented, which is what we will do. In his press conference this morning, Lord Laming said that he hopes that his report has enough compelling logic, enough compelling urgency and enough compelling determination that people can sign up to it. I believe that this is a compelling vision, and we will, with determination, ensure that all the recommendations are now implemented, which is the right way to keep children safe.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and congratulate Lord Laming on a thoughtful report. I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of it.

It will take time to absorb the 58 recommendations of this well-argued report, but may I make a few points to the Secretary of State? First, one notices that Lord Laming is frustrated when he says, “Now just do it.” He thought that in his first report. If we are just going to do it, many of the things in the statement are part of just doing it. Furthermore, just doing it also means a lot of resource implications. Social workers who are better trained, better energised and better respected will cost a lot of money. That needs to be done quickly.

Lastly, if we are to keep the new protection of children post in the limelight, can that person report to Parliament through the Select Committee? That would give them a much more independent status, and we would provide public accountability, which many would welcome.

Ed Balls: I can assure my hon. Friend, whose Committee has great responsibilities in these matters, that Sir Roger Singleton, the new chief adviser, will report directly or give evidence to his Committee. We will ensure that Sir Roger gives evidence on his annual report. There must be proper scrutiny of that report and that must happen in the House. That is our commitment.

It is also right, as my hon. Friend has said, that we need to raise the training, morale and effectiveness of the management of and support for social workers across our country. Often without public recognition, they do difficult, dangerous and sometimes brave jobs each day to keep children safe. We will ensure that the proper resources are there to support the expansion not only in the numbers, but in the training and support for social workers.

We announced in November a £73 million investment in the next three years and we will add to that to ensure the proper training in the first year after qualification, plus the return of social workers to the profession, plus advanced social worker status, plus the new masters qualification. For the long term, there will be a reform and revamp of the whole of social worker training—all that has been done and is properly resourced.

It is important not only that we challenge social workers and their managers, but that we support them in doing that difficult job. That is what we will do, and we will ensure that it is properly resourced.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for providing sight of the Laming report and of his statement. I also add my thanks to Lord Laming for producing this timely report.

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We really have to ask today, “Are things going to change?” I recall discussing these issues in 2003 before the Children Act 2004. We all said, “We must have more social workers, more training of social workers and more training in multi-agency working. Six years on, and nine and a half years since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, it is significant that the first recommendation of Lord Laming’s report refers to national leadership, which is quite an indictment after all these years. I might justifiably ask the question, what training will there be for Ministers and senior civil servants in multidisciplinary working?

I welcome today’s statement on Doncaster, but reflect on the fact that, since 2004, there have sadly been seven deaths of children. I also welcome the national safeguarding children unit. I have two questions. Will early intervention be an integral part of the work of the unit—which is all important if we look beyond the deaths to the wider issue of child abuse, with so many children being affected—and will serious case reviews be reported through the Select Committee in the way that the NSPCC requested, in a biennial report drawing out lessons from serious case reviews?

Training for children’s services directors and lead members is welcome, but what about opposition members? My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) reported how difficult it is for opposition councillors, and indeed for her, to get information, although they were asking questions. There is a place for considering the role of scrutiny in local government, as well as that of lead members.

I would like what has happened with adult social services to be taken on board in relation to the reorganisation and children’s services. We give somebody one and a half jobs, and then put adult social services on the side. Vulnerable children become vulnerable adults, and I understand that 15 authorities are pulling adult social services back, but one at least has a very low rating. Lord Laming has one paragraph on that matter, which should be looked at as a matter of urgency.

There have been a number of U-turns, which I welcome. Most of all, we need to consider the training of social workers and, indeed, of all front-line professionals who come into contact with children—for example, teachers need to be trained to recognise the early signs of child abuse. I want to be reassured that we will no longer hear of heavy case loads for social workers. How can newly trained social workers do their work with heavy case loads and limited supervision? I really feel that we have reached a point where a lot has been done, but there is so much more to do. There has to be genuine commitment.

I also repeat my request to the Secretary of State that, over a longer period, we should have fresh eyes looking at the whole system. Lord Laming set up the system and has reviewed it, but those fresh eyes—perhaps reporting to the national safeguarding children unit, a multidisciplinary team—will, I hope, add to the safety of our children.

Ed Balls: While I was, of course, disappointed that the Liberals’ shadow spokesman could not be here, the hon. Lady has great expertise in these matters and her points are well made. I will take them all very seriously.

The hon. Lady is right that things must change, and Lord Laming says that too. He also says:

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It is important to recognise that there has been substantial improvement in child protection in many areas of the country. The fact that we have more than 100 authorities that are good or outstanding is good news, but it is important to say that it is not yet good enough. It is no good having good practice in some or many areas. We want the best practice in all areas. That is our challenge and what Lord Laming drives us on to do.

I must also say to the hon. Lady that there is a real commitment from central Government, not just from my Department but from the Health Secretary—who was previously the Secretary of State for Education and Skills—the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary and others, to work closely with the national unit to ensure best practice everywhere. I take her point that we need to do more, but the new unit is a step forward.

On scrutiny, the hon. Lady is right. As I said in my statement, it is important that we open up the arrangements for child protection to wider public scrutiny. The local safeguarding children board should therefore become the watchdog for child protection, and it is important that lay members of the general public sit on that board. Effective and proper scrutiny of what is happening should be provided not only by the House but by local councils around the country. If we need to do things to improve that, and to improve training for members involved in scrutiny, we are happy to consider that as part of our work on statutory guidance in the coming weeks. That is the best way to ensure the fresh pair of eyes at local and national level.

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important to focus on the training, progression and numbers of social workers, but also on their pay and morale. It is concerning that these days we do not keep social workers in the profession in the way that we keep teachers in teaching. That is partly because we do not currently have a proper way for social workers to progress and develop in their professional understanding without moving out of social work practice into management. That is why the advanced social worker status is very important.

It is also incumbent on management in social work to do their bit. Lord Laming said at his press conference this morning that we must move away from a situation where the most junior member of staff feels the full weight of responsibility for child protection, and that is right. Front-line social workers deserve not only better support and challenge, but understanding and engagement from management throughout social work, up to director of children’s services level. That is an important part of our response to Lord Laming’s recommendations, and an especially important remit for the social work taskforce.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is clear that a large number of hon. Members seek to catch my eye. Unless both questions and, hopefully, ministerial answers are considerably briefer, an awful lot of hon. Members will be disappointed.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I ask the Minister what steps are being taken to improve the training of Ofsted inspectors and Ofsted in general? He may be aware that serious abuses have just been revealed at the Gatehouse special school in Milton Keynes, yet in 2006 the Ofsted inspection commented
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favourably on the school, and missed the fact that its recruitment procedures were so poor that unqualified staff who had not been properly checked were widespread and that restraint of behaviourally challenged boys was a first resort of staff rather than a last resort. Ofsted needs to be better trained.

Ed Balls: The issue is raised by Lord Laming in his report, the chief inspector is alive to it and the Select Committee has raised it. Compared with last year, there has been a real change in the way that inspections are being done. We will no longer have desk-based inspections, but unannounced visits. Lord Laming makes the important point in his report that inspection of social care and child protection must also be about learning, and needs to be more engaged than the school-type inspection that Ofsted has done in the past. The chief inspector will include that issue in her response to Lord Laming’s report by the end of April.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): One of the major failings of the court system involving children in child protection is the movement of cases from one judge to another—from hearing to hearing—and the lack of judicial continuity from start to finish. Will the Secretary of State raise that issue with the Justice Secretary, to ascertain what measures can be put in place to ensure better provision of judicial continuity, especially for care proceedings involving our most vulnerable children?

Ed Balls: Lord Laming does not raise that issue particularly in his report, but we will make sure that we keep a close eye on all these matters. A substantial amount has happened in the past year to improve the operation of the family courts, but we are happy to keep the matter under review.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Thousands of words have been written about cases that have tragically gone wrong. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that greater focus is given to identifying good practice, looking at what works, ensuring that that information is properly collated, and importantly, celebrating social workers and managers who are keeping children safe, because that will be part of properly valuing social workers?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has great expertise in these matters. The doctor who performs a life-saving operation, the police officer who solves the crime, the firefighter who saves a life—those are all examples celebrated in our newspapers. The fact is that a social worker who protects a child from harm does not get the same praise and recognition publicly—perhaps inevitably, to protect the identity of the child. But we need to do much more to celebrate the great work of many social workers around the country. That is a priority for the unit, in order to ensure that the best people come into social work in future.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share my concern that it was not necessarily always a good idea to merge education and social services departments, and that it is not always a good idea to split up child services from adult services? Does he agree that giving local authorities the flexibility to decide how such services can be most effective is the right way forward?

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