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On residential settings, the old, large, crumbling Victorian institution housing large numbers of children is very much a thing of the past. We saw some good examples in Denmark, but to be fair we saw some in England too, when we visited places just outside London. The nearest residential care home in Chesterfield, which is about a quarter of a mile up the road from where I live, is a modern house that has no more than six people at any one time. That is very much the direction in which residential settings have gone in this country, although there is still progress to be made. Another question raised by the Committee and left hanging is the point at which we intervene, initiate care proceedings, send children back to their families, and so forth. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who is hoping to speak shortly, might disagree with me about this. I am not saying what I would prefer, merely that these are huge questions raised by the Committee’s report. In Denmark, the key appeared to be the desire to maintain the family link, even when the child was taken into care. We were surprised to hear—the Chair referred to this example—about a child who was in care
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because he had been sexually abused by one of his parents, yet those parents were still invited along to birthday, Christmas and end-of-school events to maintain a link with the child, whereas in this country we would tend to cut that link quite sharply. It was suggested that that was one of the main reasons for the success of the Danish system.

We should not cherry-pick when we look at different ways of doing things in other countries; we have to look at the whole picture. In Denmark, we saw not only that emphasis on trying to maintain the family link at all costs, but an emphasis on intervening much earlier, with twice as many children per head of population being taken into care than in the UK. Denmark has the highest rate in Europe of taking children into care, so there is a different approach altogether. We saw that all people involved in child care were much more highly trained and paid than those in this country, so the whole system was very different. We should examine the pattern rather than pick out one of four or five matters that were different.

We have heard arguments about whether we are too slow to intervene in this country. When the Committee extended its inquiry because of the baby P case, Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said that children were being left in danger at home. Wes Cuell, the NSPCC’s director of children services, said that children

An Ofsted review reported that thousands of vulnerable children were at risk because councils did not move fast enough to protect them.

Some of the social workers who talked to us said something that I have also heard in years gone by from my wife and her colleagues—that we take too far the approach that families must always be kept together. It was suggested in the inquiry into the baby P case that the emphasis was on the mother’s needs and how we could support her, and that we lost sight of baby P. Whether we intervene too late is a huge question that has been left hanging in the air by the baby P inquiry, the Select Committee’s report and the evidence from bodies such as the NSPCC and Ofsted.

Educational outcomes were referred to earlier. It has been said that looked-after children get a much worse educational outcome than an equivalent 16 or 18-year-old who has had a normal family background and education. A comparison was made with Germany a couple of years ago, but because Germany intervenes sooner, and for a larger number of people, the sample is not comparable. We intervene late and for a smaller, hardcore sample of more damaged and more vulnerable children. Inevitably, their outcomes of any kind, whether alcohol abuse, educational success or mental illness, will be worse than in a larger, more normal sample of children.

A big question has been left hanging in the air. I certainly do not expect the Minister to answer it in 30 seconds, as it probably needs a whole new Select Committee inquiry and a national debate. It is whether we intervene too late and whether we put too much emphasis on keeping children with their family at all costs, even when the cost can be death and damage to children that could have been avoided by earlier intervention, as Ofsted and the NSPCC have argued.

John Hemming rose—

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Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House will have heard my earlier comments about the timing of speeches. I hope to get the last two Back Benchers in, but unless contributions are considerably shorter, one of them may miss out.

3.22 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): One of the interesting aspects of this subject is definitions. Let us take the definition of care. A child is “in care” when there is a care order in place, but even then, that child may be placed with their parents. The fact that there has been an intervention, and maybe an early one, does not necessarily mean that it is a stressful intervention with a child being put with a foster carer some distance away. We should look systematically at how families are supported, and organisations such as Home-Start are very good for that.

When we compare different countries, it is critical that we get our definitions right, otherwise it is unclear what is going on. We take into care, through care orders, about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year.

Meg Munn: Surely the hon. Gentleman is not ignoring the children who come into care under section 20 orders, which are voluntary, and who therefore do not have care orders?

John Hemming: That is true: there are children in care under section 20 orders, and there are a few children in respite care, too. I accept that point. Of the more than 60,000 children in care, roughly a third are voluntarily put into care under section 20 orders, but I always find it a bit of a mistake to take them into account when calculating figures on adoption targets, although admittedly we do not have those targets now. One would not expect children who are on section 20 orders because their parents cannot cope with them to be adopted.

Definitions are very important, and including those under section 20 orders we take into care about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year. The figure used to be about 5,500, according to the SSDA903 return, which goes to the Department for Children, Schools and Families every year from each local authority.

We have to look at what is best for the children. That is the key driver. We have international information and information from academic research to use in making comparisons, but where the Government go spectacularly wrong is in not doing proper research into what is happening. For instance, the Government’s response to the Committee’s report says, on page 16:

However, there is no analysis of what is being used as a reason for removing children from their parents and what is not. A small piece of research done early last year looked into some of the issues. It identified that the children of mothers who have been in care are often taken into care in part for that reason, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somebody is in care, they then have a child, and the fact that they have been in care is used as a reason to take that child, too, into care under
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section 31 proceedings. In my view, that is not a very sensible thing to do in the long term.

We have to look at the academic research. One paper, which examined the evacuation of British children during world war three, when large numbers of children were, in effect, voluntarily fostered, is particularly interesting.

Tim Loughton: World war two.

John Hemming: That is true. Sorry about that—a slight error there, but who knows?

That research was published in a report in Aging and Mental Health, volume 7, issue 5, 2003. It found that the experience created an attachment disorder, which, in a sense, suggests reasons why the Danish approach is particularly good; it is an interesting question whether we should subcontract the entire system to Denmark. What we are not doing is finding out to what extent the way in which the care system operates creates reactive attachment disorder. There are obviously a number of cases, but the Government have done no research.

Meg Munn: I question what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have tabled questions about research that may not have been done by the Government, but which was funded by them. A huge amount of research is done; my question is whether it is then disseminated. However, I could tell the hon. Gentleman at length—although obviously not today, Mr. Deputy Speaker—why certain things are done in the UK, such as the move to smaller children’s homes. Those initiatives are based on research.

John Hemming: I am talking about research into particular issues, such as reactive attachment disorder, children who are adopted and then readopted, and why we try to get so many children aged seven, eight or nine adopted when that is clearly not in their best interests.

We need to look at some individual cases. Let us take the case, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) knows well, of Sebastian Godfrey, the grandson of Conservative county councillor Janet Mockridge. He is on the run somewhere on the continent with his mother and baby sister. They are on the run because Medway, the local authority—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Obviously I do not have detailed knowledge of the case, but I am not quite sure—

John Hemming: It is not sub judice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me. I want to ensure that he is aware of the sub judice rules and that he is taking great care to ensure that he observes them.

John Hemming: My understanding is that the case is not before any court at the moment. Sebastian and his mother have been on the run for around 14 months. The father of the baby girl was jailed for 14 months, but has since been released. The family is on the run in Europe, yet Medway social services will not drop the complaint to the police and still wants the mother to be arrested under an international arrest warrant.

I look at that case and I think, “What are the best interests of the child? What are we doing that could be of benefit to the child?” There are two children living with their mother on the run in France. One is not subject to the UK’s jurisdiction because the child was
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born abroad and so cannot be taken away from the mother, but the other child could be taken away through proceedings under The Hague convention. What are the best interests of the child? Why does Medway want to continue the prosecution?

There are cases where mothers have 14 babies on the trot, each one of which is taken into care and adopted. The cost of doing that is about £200,000 a child, which totals £2.8 million. That is not unique: there are a number of cases of people with 18 children, and I have seen smaller numbers, such as 12 or 10. However, is that really a good way of handling the care process? Would it not be feasible to try to support the mother in some way? I have looked at the detail of those cases, so I know what the reasoning behind them is, but is that really the best way forward? Does it work well? I was looking at a case on Monday, and it was clear from the papers that the child, who was about 12, wanted to return to her mother. There was no reason why she should not do so, but, according to the papers, she recognised that she could not return until she was 18.

I accept that my proposition would not be the best way forward for all children, and that we need to intervene and take some children into care, and to put others with foster carers from time to time, but I tend to see the cases in which the system has gone wrong. The case of Sam and Adam Johnson is a good example of that. They are 15 and 17, and subject to a care order because they have fallen out with their mum and are prevented from living with their father. Sam has been able to go back now that he is 17. Essex county council has wasted a massive sum of money on that case. I talk to practitioners in Birmingham who say that they would never do that. Fair enough, but why did Essex county council do it? Initially, the local authority did not want to do it, but it was persuaded by the judge. Some very strange things go on, and unless we deal with them, the system will continue to steamroller people. At the moment it is steamrollering adults and children. Everyone here agrees that the outcomes of the system are disastrous.

Obviously, there is good practice going on, but there is also bad practice. It is a good idea to have advocates for children, for example, but they must be independent. They cannot be appointed by children’s services. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does some very good advocacy work, and the reason why it is good is that the advocates are not appointed by the local authority. The people providing the services cannot also be the ones who appoint the advocates. To go back to the comparison with Denmark, it has been said that the best advocates are the child’s natural parents, but we have a tendency to squeeze them out of the process. The figure of 7,000 to 8,000, based on SSDA903 returns, has been mentioned. Over half of the children under the age of 10 who go into care come out into adoption, according to the old figures. In 2004-05 the figure was about 3,800 a year.

The system causes wrong decisions to be made in a material number of cases. It does not operate proper checks and balances. Now is not the time to go into the flaws in the family court system at great length, but the report is good in that it recognises the difficulties with the integrated children’s system. I have written a report jointly with two social workers on why the integrated
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children’s system causes social workers to remain in the office and make the wrong decisions because they cannot get out to see their clients. They are forced to feed their computers instead, and I am not convinced that the Government are doing enough to deal with that. People make the wrong decisions, the whole thing is driven through the system, ignoring realities at certain stages, and come hell or high water, they stick to the original decisions.

There are social workers who agree with me that there are serious problems in the systems. In the family court system, for example, we find that the children and the parents are often trying to fight the professionals, which is not the way to achieve good child care and good outcomes for children. There are even cases involving 14 or 15-year-old children in which a guardian from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is trying to interfere. There is no role for a guardian in such cases. CAFCASS is supposed to represent the interests of a child, and it is unclear why it should be anywhere near a case in which the child is clearly Gillick competent.

One of my biggest concerns is the way in which mental capacity is abused. Rachel Pullen’s case is quite well known. I also know of another case in which a woman failed an IQ test that she was given through an interpreter, resulting in a psychologist deciding that she did not have the mental capacity to instruct a solicitor. She was then prevented from opposing care proceedings. As in the Rachel Pullen case, a later psychologist’s report found that she did have the necessary mental capacity. The second psychologist spoke the woman’s language, which made a difference.

Obviously, it is a bit of a waste of time asking Lord Laming whether he was right last time. We really need a proper investigation, and I am pleased that we are making some progress in the Council of Europe, whose legal affairs and human rights committee is to examine family justice in this country.

The Government need to carry out proper research into how the care system operates and where it is systematically going wrong. We are lucky that, in a sense, there is a social science research experiment in the country as a whole, because we have the Scottish system and the English system. In Scotland babies go home to their parents; in England they are adopted. It is thus possible to make a comparison of how the systems are operating where people speak the same language and have quite similar legislation.

I could speak at massive length about the issue, but there would be no great merit in doing so, and I want to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to contribute to the debate. We are not looking sufficiently at where the problems are. Unless we really focus on where the wrong decisions are taken, and unless we have a system of checks and balances that operates in the best interests of the child rather than what is best for the people who make money out of dealing with children, we will not make progress.

3.35 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on his leadership of the Select Committee, which brought this report about. I feel quite privileged to have played a small part in it myself, but the leadership
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is very important. When the report was published, it received considerable media attention—across a wide range of media—and I believe it was a good reflection on our society that this subject was news and that people wanted to reflect on it. I hope that only good will come out of it. I want briefly to address just a few issues and to push the Government a little further on their response.

My first point is about the threshold for taking children into care. I agree with my hon. Friends that the report has left questions in the air in that respect—and rightly so, as these are really important questions. We know that there is a great variation across the country; we do not want to think that decisions are made on a cost basis, but we do not know. We know that since the baby Peter affair, there has been an enormous increase in the number of children taken into care, and we anticipate that as that incident fades into the back of people’s minds, those numbers will diminish. We heard about the same experience—of rises and falls over time—in New York. That is not good enough; we need a balanced approach. I agree with the Government that local decision making and taking the right decision for each individual child is important, but there must be a national debate, which would also need to reflect in a deep way on international experience.

I was quite alarmed when I saw an edition of Children & Young People Now with the headline “Councils ‘capping’ care places”. Further reading revealed an example of a county council that

There might be all sorts of reasons for that; there may be some rounding of the numbers, for example. I do not know, but that example raises questions, which need answering, about whether that council has a fixed number of places and draws the line there.

I remember the introduction of quality protects and the concept of corporate parenting being introduced in 1997; there was some good stuff in that. However, as I read the Government’s response, I find it seems to be saying, “All these statutory partners in the children’s trusts will all become corporate parents,” but corporate parenting means doing something as well as being something. I suspect that there is a major role for elected members to give real leadership within their local authorities. I would like to see some good practice publicised across the country, as I suspect some authorities do corporate parenting a lot better than others.

I also want to reflect on health and well-being, as the passage of the Children and Young Persons Bill through Committee was frustrating for me. I failed to get my amendment accepted because it dealt with a health matter. I think we need more joined-up Government. The Government’s response is, I think, basically in agreement with the Select Committee, but we need more than words. Many troubled and vulnerable young people are brought into the care system and many of them will have been abused, yet therapeutic treatment is not available promptly across the country. Provision is really patchy. It is not good enough just to promise assessments; we really need to offer the treatment. It must be provided promptly if we are to break the cycle of abuse. There has been talk of what will happen in the future; perhaps the Minister will give us an idea of the time frame.

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