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I shall revisit the Minister’s remarks on what was technically 26 March, although it must have been the morning of 27 March. Basically, she said that the requirement to see the child separately is already embedded in statutory guidance. Although the guidance, entitled “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, makes strong statements about the principle of listening to the child, about the parents’ needs being subordinate to the child’s and so on, it does not require the key social worker to see the child separately from the parents and carers when visiting the home. One would like to think that, if a key worker visited a home and, time after time, was
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told that the child was asleep or out, alarms would start to ring, and that is what the new clause is all about—ensuring that the alarms ring.

The guidance says that section 47—of the Children Act 1989—inquiries should include separate interviews with the child, but those interviews are conducted to discover whether suspicions of significant harm can be substantiated. A section 47 inquiry can run for several weeks, even if the time limits in “Working Together” are adhered to—and in practice, not surprisingly, they may not be. The key worker will probably make a number of home visits during that period, having already conducted the separate interview with the child, as the guidance requires.

Regularly seeing the child separately is about not just trying to detect the risk of harm, but developing the key worker’s relationship with the child as the client and primary focus of attention. The only time Victoria Climbié was seen alone was in two awkward section 47 interviews, both of which failed to establish the truth. That issue was highlighted by Lord Laming in his post-Climbié report.

Helpfully, the Minister stated that the Government are planning to revise “Working Together” and may include in the rewrite the issue of seeing the child separately. However, the matter should be put into statute because it is as central to effective child protection as information sharing, which is in statute. Furthermore, in many cases social workers appear to be neglecting to see the child separately. There are many—often understandable—reasons why that may happen, so social workers need a reminder that is more compelling than a new mention in a lengthy piece of guidance that covers many other issues.

The Minister emphasised the powers that local authorities have at their disposal if parents refuse to give the social worker access to the child. That does not affect the need for new clause 20, however; the question of using the powers arises only if the social worker has been blocked from seeing the child separately, and that would not happen unless they had tried to see the child separately. I therefore contend that that new clause is more important than some that are being rushed through today. It would highlight to social workers the key priority of building a genuine relationship with the child, to get a whole understanding. We have all heard about the closeness of relationships that can develop between the parent, carer and social worker. The relationship that I am discussing is all-important. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the issue.

I turn briefly to the other amendments in this group. Personally, I support amendment 15. During consideration of almost all the children’s Bills with which I have been involved, I have argued that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child should be embedded in legislation. It would be inconsistent of me not to support the amendment. The issue is so important. As a nation we have signed up to the convention, but we do not fully implement it.

I have difficulty in understanding Conservative amendment 54. Clause 187 refers to bodies that are to co-operate for the well-being of children. I welcomed the Bill’s extension of the definition of “bodies” to include schools and academies. That is absolutely first class. I am sympathetic with the inclusion of some of the bodies mentioned in the amendment, including
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short stay schools and Sure Start children’s centres. GPs are also mentioned; it will be difficult to impose the measure on them, but personally I think it important that we do. However, also mentioned on the list is

That looks like a bit of careless cutting and pasting. If the phrase had been expressed a little better, it might have fitted into an amendment on children’s trust boards. When people criticise amendments that I have written, they usually suggest that they are technically deficient, so it gives me great pleasure to point out that I believe amendment 54 to be technically deficient.

I turn to amendment 67; the Secretary of State will no doubt point out that it is technically deficient, as I wrote it. There are to be lots of players on the children’s trust boards and everybody will have lots to say. However, where will the buck stop? I fear that there is no clarity on that in the Bill. The amendment suggests that the children’s and young people’s plan should have sections clearly identified as the responsibility of particular agencies. When there is a joint responsibility, I suggest that a lead agency should be nominated.

I appreciate that the amendment may not express those ideas in the best way, but I really think that the legislation is deficient. It is not clear that, whatever happens, the director of children’s services will be ultimately responsible. Why should they be? As far as I can see, they have only one seat on the board. As the legislation stands, why should it all come back to the director of children’s services? The Government need to consider amendments that relate to that issue.

6.15 pm

Mrs. Hodgson: My comments on this cluster of amendments will focus primarily on the role and make-up of the local safeguarding children boards and the children’s trust boards. In Committee, I mentioned one or two concerns specifically about consultation. I am not sure that I received any answers, so I hope that I will today. The Local Government Association has been keen to state the case for ongoing consultation within the role of children’s trust boards. It recognises that it was consulted prior to the Bill’s drafting, but it is concerned about ongoing consultation.

Local authorities will have responsibility for a range of commissioning arrangements and accountabilities across a number of aspects of planning and delivery. If local authorities are to fulfil their accountabilities effectively and ensure that young people get the best education, training and support, the Bill must contain provisions for explicit liaison and consultation between local authorities, the Secretary of State, the Young People’s Learning Agency and the Skills Funding Agency, and for the avoidance of any micro-management.

I hope that the Minister feels that that point has been reached. It is fair to say that the directors of children’s services will be responsible for the setting up of children’s trust boards. From that point of view, we can be clear that local authorities will have a key role as a consultative partner and in steering delivery. However, these new bodies have to be as democratically accountable as possible. New clause 23 will include lay members, and that is welcome. However, the ongoing inclusion of local authorities will also help.

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Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I join other Members in paying tribute to Lord Laming and his enormous interest in and dedication to child protection. Only recently, he gave evidence to the Children, Schools and Families Committee, on which I sit. Even though he said that this would be his last report, it was clear that he remains committed to child protection. Only yesterday, he was commenting on the future of that issue when he said that social services still needed to act more quickly and decisively to protect youngsters on the at-risk register. He also said that

That tells us that Lord Laming, as he also made plain in his report, remains exasperated with the lack of progress since the Victoria Climbié case. Although that case ushered in a number of major reforms such as the child protection system, it failed to deal with the problem on the front line of child protection.

Since that report, far too much time has been spent on organisational changes and not enough has been spent on the social work force, on whom we rely so heavily for the protection of vulnerable children. The service has remained underfunded, under-resourced and, unfortunately, unable to cope with the demands placed on it.

Although it is important that we try to find ways to improve the structure of our child protection system, I have concerns about new clause 22 and how we are going about those changes. The Secretary of State has put his weight behind the statutory targets as a way forward, but I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The Secretary of State supports the statutory targets, which he believes to be right to protect children, but unless we have some idea of what they may be, it is difficult, particularly for Conservative Members, to fall in step with the new clause.

Although my instinct is that targets will not necessarily solve the problem, we can see that some would be beneficial to the child protection system—for instance, on the quality and consistency of social work care, the timeliness of protective measures for vulnerable children and, most importantly, the outcomes for children who have some contact with the child protection system. If we are to have targets, those are the sort that I would have expected the Secretary of State to mention in response to my hon. Friend.

Another difficulty is to do with the training, recruitment and retention of social workers. In some local authorities, almost 50 per cent. of front-line child protection staff have less than two years’ experience in their job. I have seen that for myself in the work that I have done in the family courts representing local authorities, children and their parents. On far too regular a basis, a social worker, or even a team manager, working for the local authority has made the application to take a child into care but their experience is woefully short for the extreme complexity of the case that is facing them. That is not their fault: it is the fault of all of us in failing to ensure that measures to improve the status of social workers, to invest in the social work profession and to train social workers better have come to fruition.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Perhaps, through my hon. Friend, I could appeal to the Secretary of State to consider placements of trainee social workers. Because of evidence
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that we received in the Select Committee, I conducted a survey of 79 universities around the country and found that although they believed that placements, where they are provided—by local authorities, in the main—are generally good, there is a chronic shortage of training places and that, in a minority of cases, some social workers go through their entire training without ever being supervised by a trained social worker. The Secretary of State needs to do something about that.

Mr. Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes the case clearly. Unless we ensure that social workers have not only sufficient training but experience through their training and the work that they do on the front line, they will not be able to do the job that we are asking them to do, which is one of extreme importance in our society—the protection of our children. We need to ensure that training is at the forefront of our minds when we look at what we are asking social workers to do.

One of the remaining problems that the new clause does not address fully, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) eloquently told us, is that, although the introduction of children’s trusts was a commendable idea in trying to involve the whole community in dealing with child protection and to ensure that there is an exchange of information about issues that that community faces, it has not—as the Audit Commission said in its report, “Are we there yet?”—resulted in an improvement in child protection. That goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about bureaucracy. One of the reasons why children’s trusts have failed to make the impact that we hoped for is that the complex bureaucratic systems that have been set up to control child protection engender a culture of trying to comply with the bureaucracy and targets, instead of helping social workers and those involved in child protection to see the wood from the trees and to commit to children’s needs, as they are supposed to.

I hope that the targets that the Secretary of State is asking social workers to comply with do not exacerbate the situation that they already face, and that they will be allowed to be free to get on with the job that we all want them to do—spending time looking after children to ensure that they are safe and have a happy and prosperous future. That should be achieved through good practice and a universally sound and robust child protection system that protects all our children, not just some of them.

I want briefly to mention new clause 23 and put in a plea to the Secretary of State. Although it has been drafted quite widely as regards who could be the lay representatives on trust boards, those who are involved in foster care, particularly foster carers themselves, could play an important role in ensuring that their views and experience, which are often left to one side, are taken seriously and make a positive contribution to child protection in their community.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure that several hon. Members saw the “Panorama” programme to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) referred. I was deeply worried by some of the things that I saw on it, particularly the interviews with Wes Cuell, who was at the NSPCC and, prior to that, head of children’s services at Luton borough council. I
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knew him well; he is a very good man. He said that, in the past 30 years, there has been very little change in the rate of deaths of children who have been abused. That is an appalling record bearing in mind that we have moved on in so many ways. He said that if things do not change radically, we will have the same death rates over the next 30 years as well. That must not be allowed to happen. I hope that the changes that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench propose—and that we will, I hope, support—will make a real difference.

Another worrying factor is that these days in social services in general, and in the health service, there is so much emphasis on budgeting, with officers being rewarded for running a tight ship financially. One wonders whether that underlies some of the problems that have arisen. In the baby P case, it was also apparent that nobody wanted to take final responsibility. The local authority, social services and the police were involved, and the national health service saw the injuries to the child on a number of occasions, yet it seemed that no one wanted to say, “This child must not be allowed to go back home, where it is clearly being abused.” I do not want to prejudice any statement that may come out at a later stage, but that is appalling. If I had been in that situation, I would simply have said, “This child must not go back into that home; it is clearly being abused.”

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): That is all very well, but the point is that there were two children in that family and at first we knew of only one. Could not the father have been taken away?

Kelvin Hopkins: I find it astonishing that there was apparently so little information and knowledge. The programme suggested that the man around the house was barely evident; although some evidence emerged, it did not seem to figure much in the action that was taken.

The financial pressures on funding for local authorities must be a factor in all this. Another worrying aspect that emerged from the programme—I think that finance was a factor in this respect too—is the so-called optimistic future strategy: the idea that people should hope that somehow the family could look after the child in future and look forward to that instead of looking at what was happening in the present. Focusing on a point in the future meant that what was happening to the child at the time was missed or, indeed, ignored. I am concerned that that strategy is yet another attempt to disguise what people are really about, which is trying to keep the child in the family to avoid the expense of taking it into care. The pressures on local authorities not to do that must be financial at root. In future, whatever happens, we should provide the resources to ensure that children are not kept in dangerous families when they should be taken into care. I hope that my remarks have been helpful to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench.

Ed Balls: I start by agreeing with the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who has great personal as well as professional experience of these matters, about Lord Laming and his contribution. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments and questions, to which I shall return in a moment. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole
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(Annette Brooke) probed in a way that was pointed and forensic, but which I hope will allow us to move forward consensually as far as possible.

6.30 pm

I believe that there is consensus in the country that we need to take all the measures necessary to keep children safe. With that in mind, and because of my determination to have ready this year, if at all possible, a revision of “Working Together”, the guidance for all areas on safeguarding, I went to Opposition Members a week or so ago to ask their permission to introduce these new clauses at this stage. I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) gave his, subject to agreement that there would be further discussion on the contents of the targets in new clause 22. I commit to those discussions happening in future. I was pleased also to have the agreement of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to the introduction of the new clauses, which was confirmed to my office. Because these issues are vital, I hope, as I always have, that we can move forward consensually.

I shall come to the points made about new clauses 22, 23 and 24 at the end of my comments, but first I shall respond to the detailed points made by Members of all parties about the other amendments. On new clause 29, we are absolutely committed to independence in the chairing of local safeguarding children boards. There has been debate about Lord Laming’s consultation process, because there are some concerns in the children’s world about whether we will have independent people of sufficient quality. We believe, as Lord Laming does, that that concern can be overcome. There will therefore be full independence. I believe that that needs to be independence from all agencies involved in safeguarding children, but we are not putting that in primary legislation because we believe that statutory guidance will provide more flexibility. It will give some areas time to find the type of high-quality, trained, independent person we will need. On that basis, and with our clear commitment to independence, I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will not press the new clause.

I turn to the hon. Lady’s second probing amendment, amendment 67, which is about accountability. We believe that current legislation makes clear the need for accountability in the role of director of children’s services, and the Bill will make it clear in the case of children’s trust boards. It will also make clear the importance of the children and young people’s plan being owned by all agencies in a children’s trust. The new targets will be duties on the local authority, but they will be owned by the whole trust. It is important that the individual agencies that are part of a trust are also accountable individually for playing their proper role in it. That is why we do not believe that we need to change legislation in the way suggested in amendment 67. The way in which we have designed the responsibility for the plan within children’s trusts meets the hon. Lady’s concerns. We will ensure that the regulations under section 17 of the 2004 Act about how that plan is drawn up make it clear where the responsibility for individual actions should lie. We will be able to discuss that with her in the coming months.

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