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12 Mar 2009 : Column 474

Ed Balls: As I pointed out in my response to the Opposition spokesman, there is a widespread consensus on the importance of the Every Child Matters reforms in the 2004 Act, but regrettably the Conservative party is outside that consensus. As Lord Laming says, there is no doubt that bringing such services together under one local authority department has provided a more integrated approach to support children. It is clear that we have further to go, which is why we will ask the National College for School Leadership to expand its remit to support directors of children’s services. But do I think that there should be local authority discretion to deviate from the 2004 Every Child Matters framework? Absolutely not.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, but does not the fact that we keep returning to the issue mean that there is a more general lesson for all of us? When we have crises, scandals and issues, it is easy to pass a new law, set up a new body or institute a new procedure, but if nothing changes on the ground we have not done very much. What makes organisations as they are is their culture. There is something going wrong with social work, and unless we rebuild the social work profession in a serious sense, we will keep returning to the issue.

Ed Balls: The fact is, though, that there has been great change on the ground, and we will ensure that that is accelerated in future. From time to time, as we have seen in recent weeks, parents do evil things to children, and sometimes there is deception of social workers as that happens. But when that comes to light in authorities there must be action, and that did not happen in Haringey. We need to sort that out for the future.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that there has been a high turnover of front-line staff in children’s services, particularly in inner-city areas. What more can he do to promote social work as a career of choice for those seeking a professional career? What more can be done to keep them in that profession and allow them to progress without so many of them leaving because of pressure of work?

Ed Balls: The answer is the advanced professional status that we have announced today. It is important that social workers can have career progression without having to move from the front line into management. We need to improve that in the way in which we pay and promote social workers.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Crawley residents were horrified to learn that West Sussex was on the list of those authorities whose services were deemed to be inadequate for safeguarding our children. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that there is an absolutely priority to ensure that the 58 recommendations are urgently implemented in West Sussex to supplement the work already being done by his Department?

Ed Balls: It is important for the recommendations to be implemented not just in West Sussex but in every other local authority in the country, but owing to our specific concerns about that authority, the spotlight of scrutiny will shine on its area in particular.

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Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Following previous tragedies such as that of Victoria Climbié, there have been many inquiries and reports. All have shown good intentions, but sadly many authorities have not implemented their proposals, with the result that—as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—we keep returning to the issue. What assurance can the Secretary of State provide that, on this occasion, the proposals will be implemented? Is there a time frame within which they must all be implemented, so that this report does not just lie in their in-trays?

Ed Balls: It might be more helpful if Conservative Members did not urge local authorities not to implement the recommendations. The Every Child Matters framework should be the law in every area. Although 101 authorities are already considered to be good or outstanding, we want 150 authorities to merit that description. Those authorities should be implementing the law and best practice now, and we will drive the system until we can be assured that that is being done everywhere.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): In his statement, my right hon. Friend said that improvement notices and additional support were now in place in Birmingham. Meetings attended by Members with both Ofsted and the city council have featured a spirit of openness and co-operation, but as my right hon. Friend said, serious case reviews must remain confidential. How can it be ensured that organisations do not return to their instinctive practice of using the need for confidentiality as a reason to be extremely inward-looking, and thus to avoid accountability?

Ed Balls: Every serious case review must be subject to a full, comprehensive and public executive summary, and when case reviews have proved to be inadequate we have required authorities to conduct them again. It is important for the work to be done in a spirit of openness and co-operation, and we believe that opening up the process by appointing lay members to the safeguarding board will achieve that.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Secretary of State has accepted Lord Laming’s recommendations and taken action to implement them as a matter of urgency, but may I press him a little further? Can he give us an idea of the overall time frame within which they must all be implemented?

Ed Balls: We will have responded to all the recommendations by the end of April. In the spring we will change our statutory guidance, which is the way in which we ensure that the law is implemented as a matter of urgency. We are making decisions today that will allow us to start implementing some of the recommendations immediately, and that will be done at the fastest possible rate consistent with doing it well.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I welcome the emphasis on training in both Lord Laming’s report and my right hon. Friend’s statement. I also welcome the establishment of a social work taskforce by my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Health, but would it be possible for it to include the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills? Reading
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university is currently planning to close its social work education department, which means that there will be no such department in the whole of Berkshire. Oxford university has already closed its social work department, as has the London School of Economics. There is a crisis in quality social work education in our universities.

Ed Balls: It is vital for undergraduate education in social work to be of the highest quality, and to prepare professionals for practice on the ground as well as teaching the theory. That will be a priority for the taskforce, and I will ensure that its members examine the capacity of the system to train social workers as well as the content of the course. I am sure that they will reflect on what my hon. Friend has said.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Abacus, in my constituency, is one of the first health-led Sure Start centres, and its success in involving local parents lies in that focus on health. One of the problems encountered by social workers trying to monitor the well-being of children living with parents who have multiple problems, including drug and alcohol addiction, is the difficulty of persuading those parents to co-operate with statutory agencies, but they may be more responsive to health professionals. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that children’s centres retain that strong health focus, and that social workers have the necessary powers to ensure that children whose parents cannot meet their social and emotional needs can benefit from the excellent child care provided in such centres? I believe that that would make better monitoring possible.

Ed Balls: We will accelerate our efforts to ensure that it happens. My hon. Friend and I have met to discuss the issue, and I know that she has great expertise in this area.

In the case of family intervention projects and, more widely, Sure Start, when children are at risk—when they are on the child protection register, or are subject to a child protection plan—it is important for them to be given all the support they need. That is partly a job for health visitors, but Sure Start has a vital role to play, and we will ensure that it is given that role.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), there is a great need for transparency in Birmingham. While it is in no one’s interest for anyone to be pilloried, it is important for Members to be kept informed of what Birmingham city council and others are doing. So far the signs are fairly good, but the council has a habit of claiming credit for anything that seems to be going right and finding someone else to blame when something goes wrong. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that does not happen in this instance?

Ed Balls: I will. The improvement notice applying to Birmingham is critically about public confidence, which must mean involving the public and Members of Parliament so that they can see that not only is progress being made, but proper diligence is being applied to the important work of child protection.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the report, but will he say a little more about the issue of prevention? Given that social workers and teachers provide children’s services
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side by side, will he think carefully about how money can be restored to primary schools so that they can continue to carry out their important work of supporting children and parents in the community? If they are to do that, more funding is needed.

Ed Balls: The local safeguarding children board has a vital role, not just as a watchdog for children who are subject to a child protection plan, but in ensuring that the children’s trusts are properly resourced and can work together on prevention and early intervention. Because it is vital for that work to include schools as well as the health service, we are legislating to give schools a duty to co-operate with the trusts. That is an important step towards achieving the objective identified by my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): There has been a damaging lack of clarity in regard to the training, responsibility and status of social care and health care workers with a duty to protect children. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that in future all of us, politicians nationally and locally, remain engaged long after the headlines have gone, in order to provide the necessary consistency and clarity?

Ed Balls: That is something that I have challenged the taskforce to consider. It is an important responsibility for the new unit. While it is incumbent on the Select Committee and the House to keep these issues under the public spotlight, that is also a responsibility for the social work profession, which needs to speak with a louder and clearer voice on the issues with which it deals. Practice and procedure should not only be subjected to external scrutiny; the profession itself should speak out with more confidence.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): When considering child protection issues, will my right hon. Friend heed the worries about informal fostering arrangements, particularly the arrangements made when a parent has gone to prison and, in the asylum-seeking community, when children have arrived unaccompanied and are living with people who are not their natural parents? Does he agree that, at local level, we ought to know exactly who every child is living with, and whether the people concerned are the appropriate people to care for those children?

Ed Balls: That is a critical responsibility for the local authority and the children’s trusts. In the case of Haringey, some of the informal arrangements were a problem, which was highlighted in the serious case review and will be highlighted when it is published again. We need to keep a close eye on the issue.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Those who harm children by using intimidation and violence against them often act in the same way towards the professionals who deal with them. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the taskforce focuses carefully on intimidation by dysfunctional, dangerous, violent, aggressive and generally unpleasant and devious families? While I welcome the changes in the system that my right hon. Friend has announced and consider them necessary and appropriate, unless social workers out there in the field, or at the coal face, can apply them, that work will have been in vain.

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Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right. He, too, has great professional expertise in this area. It is vital for us to provide proper training and support for front-line social workers who, as I have said, do what is often a dangerous job that may involve both deception and intimidation. The social work taskforce must examine that issue explicitly. Today the Health Secretary and I will write to every social worker in the country, telling them what we have announced today but also encouraging them to participate in the work of the taskforce. We hope that social workers throughout the country will take up our invitation.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I entirely endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) regarding the disgraceful closure of the social work courses at Reading university. It gives me no pleasure that the Secretary of State named in his statement two local authorities in my area—Reading and Wokingham—but does he acknowledge that significant progress has already been made in Reading in improving the safeguarding of children, with Ofsted saying:

Ed Balls: As I said, Reading is one of the authorities where we have sent in our diagnostic team—and I must say that in all the areas where we have done that, there has been real co-operation from the local authority leadership involved. Although the report has not yet come back to Ministers, I know that there is real and substantial engagement from the local authority, and a determination to make sure that any things that need to be changed are changed with speed and determination.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but I ask him to acknowledge once again that social workers are often overworked and face extraordinarily complex situations, and that, added to this mix, they frequently face parents who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) said, can be seriously devious and can hide the abuse they are perpetrating. This is a very complex area, and training, personal mentoring and support for social workers is an absolute requirement.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, social workers are often unsung heroes doing a very difficult job, but to make sure that they can do their job with confidence and determination requires us to look at both resourcing and management, and the front-line support they get from management. We need to address this; we cannot simply leave individual social workers to do the job on the front line. They need more support and training, and we are determined to make sure they get it.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He referred to the compelling logic behind the report published by Lord Laming—compelling logic that was contained in his last report, and which I think all Members must be fearful will be contained in the next report. The question I have for the Secretary of State concerns Ofsted. What steps will be taken to strengthen its capacity and competences to undertake the serious work of inspecting
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in respect of safeguarding children? Will he also answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked him about training and national leadership, and will he seriously consider submitting himself, his ministerial colleagues and senior officials in his Department to the training he expects others to undertake?

Ed Balls: I was clear that supporting the training of leadership, management and front-line social work is a priority. I do not claim to be able to second guess that professional judgment and professional leadership, as these are people who have studied and have had experience on the front line for many years, but of course it is important that we at the national level play our proper role to make sure that local leaders and social workers can do the difficult job that they are asked to do. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we as a House recognise not only the challenges we face for the future, but the substantial progress that has been made since 2004. Lord Laming is clear about that, and all of us in this House should be clear about it today.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that the best time to safeguard a child is in the generation before that child is born rather than immediately afterwards, by ensuring that when potential parents are babies, children and young people they have the appropriate social and emotional bedrock to be able to grow up and be parents? Will he therefore support alongside a late intervention policy, an early intervention policy, so that we not only continue to swat mosquitoes, but drain the swamp?

Ed Balls: I am not sure that I am fully happy with my hon. Friend’s last analogy, but I agree with what he says about early intervention and prevention. It is vital that that is central to the thinking of our children’s trusts and safeguarding boards, and of professionals throughout the country. It must also be central to Ofsted’s thinking—and it is very important that Ofsted responds properly, as I am sure it will, to all the recommendations in this report. There is a real responsibility on Ofsted to make sure that it is also inspecting that there is sufficient capacity and leadership to have effective early intervention and prevention. As my hon. Friend says, that is, in the end, the only way to make sure we can both genuinely keep children safe and allow them to fulfil their potential.

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Point of Order

1.35 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order for me to use this opportunity to apologise to the House, as I believe I may have breached the new rules on the use of Commons dining facilities in relation to political fundraising? I hosted a lunch for a leading charity in a Commons dining room on 19 October 2007. I have written a full explanation to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, asking for his advice and for him to take whatever action he considers appropriate. However, it is my understanding that he can neither give me advice nor investigate this matter at my instigation, and this may raise an issue that the House would wish to consider. I wish to acknowledge that although the new rules were not fully in force at the time, it was a mistake for me not to have taken proper advice at the time, so I apologise without reservation to the House for any breach of the rules, and I will place a copy of my letter to the parliamentary commissioner in the Library.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): That is not strictly a point of order for the Chair, but the hon. Gentleman has made his position clear on the matter. It is now firmly on the record, and no doubt the House authorities will take note of what he said.

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