Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


19 MARCH 2008

  Q20  Mr Chaytor: Perhaps I can put my question to Martin first. In this morning's press, you are quoted responding to the Secretary of State's announcement yesterday about early intervention for a limited number of children who are considered to be at risk of being sucked into crime. Your response was a little sceptical in my view. Could you say a bit more about what you think of that initiative and how it relates to looked-after children?

  Martin Narey: I have not seen the press this morning, but I am surprised if my response is reported as being sceptical. I was really pleased with the publication of the youth taskforce action plan yesterday. In the Home Office, with a singular lack of success, I opposed the short-term, knee-jerk, ASBO solution to children in trouble. Since I have been at Barnardo's we have campaigned very hard for a more measured approach, which accepts that ASBOs are sometimes necessary, but argues that you need to offer some family support and some support to the child if you are to make a difference. It is ridiculous that even now only 10% of child ASBOs are accompanied by an individual support order. I thought the tone of yesterday's publication was very refreshing. I thought the investment in intensive family support to help correct behaviour was very encouraging and the only quote that I gave to the press yesterday was a genuinely positive one.

  Mr Chaytor: It did not necessarily come over that way in the paper I read this morning, but that is very useful.

  Chairman: Which paper did you read?

  Mr Chaytor: I cannot—

  Martin Narey: I must say that the press were searching throughout the weekend for someone who would say something negative about it, but we were pretty positive.

   Chairman: That is the price of a free, democratic and balanced press.

  Q21  Mr Chaytor: I want to ask about local authorities and how they measure their success, or otherwise. I am not sure who is best able to answer. New indicators for the performance measurement system of local authorities will come into force on 1 April this year. I am interested in your observations either about the new set of indicators or the limitations of the previous performance management system. Perhaps Pam would answer.

  Pam Hibbert: I wanted to say one thing, although not necessarily about the new performance indicators. One of the problems is that we do not look for satisfaction with the care service for children and young people. Roger's work is brilliant at getting their views, but if we were providing a service to any other group of people, we would look very much at their satisfaction levels. For example, Ian Sinclair from York university is a well-respected researcher into the care system in this country, and he suggests that we should have exit interviews, as we would in the case of a member of staff leaving a job. When children leave care to return home or leave as young adults, an independent person should give them a real opportunity to be frank about their satisfaction with the service that they received. Those are some of the things that are missing. Key performance indicators are for local authorities and do not necessarily involve those who are receiving the service.

  Maxine Wrigley: As was touched on earlier, outcomes are difficult to measure in matters such as who goes to sports day, or who gives the child the extra push when they are feeling a bit miserable and do not want to go to school, and says, "Oh, come on, get to school,"—as parents do. Those are soft outcomes, not outcomes that can be measured by computers. It is a people-type thing. Outcomes are a difficult area. Young people want outcomes to be measured almost in terms of business-customer or user satisfaction. The exit interview idea is good, too, but, as part of the annual stock-take proposed in the Bill, young people are asked whether they are satisfied with the parenting that they are getting. That question needs to be asked by an independent person by whom young people would not feel compromised when giving answers. There is a huge paranoia about risk, especially in respect of young children in care. We have had bad examples of things in the past and social workers often become very tied. People feel uncomfortable giving hugs. We could talk for hours about that particular subject. There is a bit of irony in the care system. I read in the Manchester Evening News yesterday about parents who had been fined for their children's absence from school. How ironic is that, given that the state is the parent to children in care and we know that their attendance at school is often bad. Is it not ironic that the state cannot take itself to court and fine itself? Outcomes are assessed in ways that young people feel are a little too scientific and not soft. I know that they are difficult to measure, but it comes down to people feeling secure and stable. As Alan Johnson said, it is not just being cared for, but feeling cared about and social workers treating young people as if they were their own children. Young people think that social workers would not do the job if they were not getting paid. There is always an element of whether they really care. I shall talk later about outcomes and measuring, because young people have set their own standards. For example, A National Voice complements the work of Ofsted. Outcome is a good issue to consider.

  Dr Morgan: First, to reinforce Maxine's point about the proposed ministerial stock-take, it is vital. It is important that it is based strongly on children's own views, their experience and their outcomes. I do not think that it is all that difficult to assess or gather children's views representatively about their outcomes. Secondly, I shall give a recent piece of personal experience. Currently, my team and I are auditing the recent Ofsted inspections and looking at whether what the children think should have come out of those inspections relates to what the inspectors came out with, and we will publish those results. That involved sitting down with groups of children, going through sets of standards with them and asking them basically as a group, "Does your service generally do sort of all right in the middle on that, does it do something that really should be praised, and if so, what, or does it have something that really needs to be sorted out, and why is that?" Children are able to do that, and to do so seriously. Thirdly, children are very worried about indicators and targets, not from the principle of looking at a local authority whose performance on a particular aspect is out of line with others, but because of the risk of targets and indicators becoming the same thing, which they are not, and being applied at an individual level. Children contact my office—some have already done so this week—and say that they are being told that they are going to be moved from their placement, not because of their needs or views, which is the proper basis, but because the authority has too many children placed there. That is an illicit use of targets and indicators, but it does happen and children are aware of it and are very concerned about it.

  Q22  Mr Chaytor: Pursuing the issue of the limitations of the performance indicators and the fact that they are crude proxies for quality, what lasting qualitative measures could be introduced to give a better reflection of children's view points? Pam mentioned the exit interview, and I like that idea. However, it is retrospective and cannot really influence what happens to children during their time in care, so could things be done at an earlier stage to give a more accurate reflection of the quality of a child's experience?

  Dr Morgan: Yes, and my team asks about various topics. There are questions about whether children get the appropriate information, what they believe the quality of the service they receive is, whether they believe that there should be changes and what issues concern them about it. Children of even quite a young age are quite capable of differentiating between factual statement and perception. It is clearly in a child's experience to talk about processes in a concrete way, such as those relating to reviews, care planning, placement change, social work access, support processes, and many of the things that we have already mentioned. Children can be asked about those as well as about their current experience of where they live. The trick is not to worry about children being particularly inconsistent, as it is my experience that children from some of those settings are actually remarkably consistent in their views and evaluations, in debating them and in reaching a consensus. The trick is to avoid a situation where only the most articulate children or the ones who, for example, are on the children in care council are consulted. As one child put it, "I think that children in care councils are a fantastic way to feed back how the authority is doing, but I doubt if I would be on it, so where do my views go?"

  Maxine Wrigley: Although not in any way an attempt to try to get young people to replace the role of Ofsted, five or more years ago young people at A National Voice set up their own set of standards and criteria in a charter mark called LILAC—leading improvements for looked-after children. That is there to complement what inspectors do, but the whole idea came 15 years ago when I was a lay assessor working with the social services inspectorate. I noticed one day that I had forgotten to mention to a group of young people whom I had come to talk to that I was a young person from care myself, and the difference in the feedback and in their attitude towards me was really huge. Young people having peers from care, and allowing young people to be involved in setting their own standards and criteria around quality is a really important point. We have seen lots of evidence, across general use services but also across looked-after young people services, that, when young people do that, they get some transferable skills and feel more confident in the whole system. That is a great way to improve quality, along with what Roger has already been saying. It is important that young people own that process.

  Chairman: Pam, you have a wonderful way of signalling with your pencil.

  Pam Hibbert: Sorry. It is a very brief point, just reinforcing that. Barnardo's and other organisations did a piece of work with SSI in 2002, where we involved care-experienced people in inspections of children's services. There was a real quantitative difference between the information that children gave to those people and what they gave to the professional inspectors. That is another way of getting such views clearly.[10]10

  Chairman: That is a pretty revolutionary innovation, is it not? Exit interviews might spill over—every child who leaves a school setting might have exit interviews. That would be revolutionary. Sounds like a good idea.

  Q23  Mr Chaytor: To pursue the question of the relationship between the individual child and the local authority, comment was made earlier about x per cent of children not understanding the concept of corporate parent, or some of them not liking the term. Does that matter? In terms of the quality of care for the individual child, do they need to know about the local authority? Surely the immediate carer and the child's social worker are the key points of contact. In terms of a child with one or two natural parents at home, does it matter whether they know the constraints on their natural parents' capacity to provide certain activities or benefits? It does not really matter that they are not aware of the limitations of the local council or of the NHS if their natural parents are looking after them. Is this a major problem, the unhappiness with the concept of a corporate parent?

  Pam Hibbert: If it is your own parent and you say, "I want a new pair of trainers", your mum says, "Well, I have the gas bill to pay this week, so you will have to wait until next week," whereas your residential worker or foster carer is going to reply, "I will have to ask your social worker, who will go back to the budget and their manager will say yes or no." I guess it is that sort of difference. As a child, you can have those negotiations or arguments, storming off or whatever, but in care you are distanced from those sorts of things.

  Dr Morgan: Of course children know that they do not have the same natural parent arrangements, but equally there is not always a clearly identifiable person who has the final say. That is the issue. Who has the final say? Who do I have to win over to the idea? It is not always my social worker, because they have all this stuff that I do not understand behind them, which means that they cannot do it. It is the speed of response—to the new trainers. Consulting with some children placed in boarding schools, they were saying that the school quite happily charges all sorts of things to parents, but people cannot do that with our children—they have to go through a system, by which time they have missed whatever it is they were going to be paying for.

  Q24  Mr Chaytor: Finally, pursuing the issue of accountability and the local authority—the nature of corporate parenthood—what are your views on the concept of independent social work practices? Is that likely to enhance the capacity of local authorities adequately to take on board children's views and improve the quality of their experience? How does that affect the nature of the corporate parent concept? Who is the corporate parent, the ISP or the council? I am curious as to how you feel that that might play out.

  Maxine Wrigley: I am not known for sitting on the fence, but I am going to have to on this one a bit. I think that the jury is out until some of the pilots have happened. As you know, we gathered over 23,000 words from young people during the Green Paper consultation and this was a question we asked. Young people are nervous that there could be another layer between them and the corporate parent. They are also slightly nervous about the idea of independent, add-in people making profit from the care system. On the other side, they are quite keen on a new model, like the GP model, that would allow for 24/7 access to support and for needs to be met better and more locally, without having to move loads of placement around the country. The result of our consultation with young people was sort of mixed, but they were keen to see how the pilots go. I am afraid that that is the best that I can do on that issue.

  Q25  Chairman: There is nothing wrong with sitting on the fence or with objective independence.

  Pam Hibbert: I agree with Maxine. This is a bit of a wait-and-see matter. I have a couple of issues. There is concern about what the relationship of the independent social work practices will be with things such as health services, education and schools. What real power will they have? I bear in mind the setting up of youth offending teams, where the idea was that they would bring in the resources of their parent agencies. That has not necessarily worked in all areas. There are some reservations about how much this move could distance local authorities from their corporate parenting role. In the end, the issue depends on how much power the independent social work practices will be given to make key decisions and have the final say.

  Q26  Chairman: As I listen to your comments, I have a mental picture all the time of a teenage child. I wonder why that is. Is it just a prejudice of mine? I guess it is to do with talking about trainers and so on. Reading through all the stuff that the Committee has received since getting into this issue, time and time again it seems that the problems are greater for the 11 to 15 age group than for younger children. Are we picking up the right resonance?

  Martin Narey: In the working group that I chaired, we inherited a view from the Care Matters Green Paper that the future population of children in care will be smaller and younger. Our working group concluded that it will be a little larger and significantly older. As we look towards 2020, the average age of that population will continue to increase.

  Q27  Fiona Mactaggart: Does not that mean that the whole issue of the transition from care to adult life must be dealt with more seriously? One piece of evidence that I was most struck by in the Barnardo's memorandum was the number of young women leaving care who were at risk of sexual exploitation. This is one of those issues that systems do not like to address. Therefore, they manage not quite to notice. This issue is a bit like preventing running away. Our system is very good at recording when young people in care run away. The police know about it much earlier than they know about young people who are not looked-after running away. I am quite concerned that we are rather stupid. One of the things that I am hearing from you is that the system can be stupid because it counts things that are easy to count in a stupid system and does not count things that you need to count in a clever system. It seems to me that this is a really critical matter that we have to nail. Do you know how we can nail it?

  Martin Narey: First, I agree with you about this particular vulnerability. You have been with me to one of our projects in Middlesbrough, and I would say that the majority of the girls and young women whom we are supporting there have previously been in care and are now being sexually exploited. We are doing some more work on that at the moment. My initial view when I was asked to chair the working group was that some fairly easy gains could be made and that it just needed a bit of strong direction. The more I got into it, the more complex I found the issues to be and the more difficult I found it to come to any generalised conclusions about the way forward. It is safe to say that this must be a very individualised process. I do not have any simple solutions, other than the very obvious one. The proportion of young people, male and female, who are on their own aged 16 and 17—precisely the time when most children of that age still enjoy huge financial and emotional support from their parents—is astonishing. We should not scratch our heads and wonder why so many of them are in prison; where else are so many of them going to go? It is astonishing that some of them survive the process.

  Dr Morgan: I would like to add to that, but may I go back to the point that you were making, Chairman, about the image of the teenager? Numerically, that is right, and I agree with Martin in terms of the trend. However, it is equally important to bear in mind that there are many much younger children in care. We must ensure that the views of primary school-aged children are sought out and considered in relation to their understanding and not necessarily their chronological age, as those are two very different things. It is too easy to fail to ascertain or take into account the views and concerns of children with disabilities, particularly those with communication problems, and I wanted to make those two points. To return to the issue of leaving care, members of my team have coined the term "careism" as something that people suffer from because they may be far younger than the majority of people going out independently for the first time. People then meet those prejudices that we mentioned earlier, which affect, for example, schooling. When people start hitting further education, vocational education, employment and accommodation and all those areas, saying "I have been in care" can trigger all those stereotypes and problems. It is an issue of equal opportunities. One of the things that the majority, although not all, of children who do not have a care experience have, even once they have left their teenage home, is the ability to go back again. Many return more than once and get financial and emotional support. However, many children in care do not have that backstop.

  Maxine Wrigley: We carried out the largest survey on this issue. It was called "No Place Like Home" and involved nearly 300 young people and nearly 300 workers. Interestingly, we spoke for the first time to housing workers and leading care workers and both groups fully acknowledged that there was not enough support for young people. There were young people out there aged 16 and 17—I was left in a flat at that age and told, "That's the end of it. Get on with it." Even since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, there has not been much change. Protocol between housing and leaving care does not exist in enough places. Obviously I do not deny that there are some good examples, but young people have no safety net. After leaving home, many teenage children can return and will always have a bedroom there. The average age for leaving home is 24 and I have friends in their 30s who know that they can go back any time; they can still take their washing back or if they are skint they can borrow £100. All those things happen for people well beyond their teenage years, and if that safety net is not there, it can be isolating for young people. There is the whole issue of 16 and 17-year-olds being exploited—we know that certain dodgy types, drug dealers and paedophiles, will prey around children's homes and residential units, or where there are hostels. In our survey of nearly 300 young people, one in 10 was still living in bed and breakfasts or hostels, and a further one in 10 were sofa surfing, staying with their mates. Some of that was because they had a flat, but it was in such a dodgy area that they did not feel safe or want to go round there, so they stayed with their friends instead. I do not pretend that the housing situation is good—generally it is not good in this country and we know that there is a massive shortage. However, some young people who are on the precipice of leaving care are bearing the brunt of that. There have been suggestions for amendments to the Bill calling for a transitional state. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 has not really worked in the way that it was intended. That is a shame—there needs to be a transitional, gradual, leaving of care. Young people should not feel that that is the end of their parental support at 18; it needs to be gradual and people should be able to go back into care or some area of support if they are not happy.

  Pam Hibbert: I endorse that, but I wanted to say something about the preparation for leaving care. The young people we spoke to said there was an awful lot of emphasis on practical things—how to cook, how to clean, how to budget—but very little on issues such as how to deal with loneliness, how to get into the social networks of the area you are moving into and how to know where to go in an emergency. They felt that some of the emotional skills needed to survive were just not being addressed in preparation. Fiona, in terms of your point around the vulnerability of children and young people, we do an awful lot of work on sexual exploitation and we have become very concerned about the incidence of young people who have been in care figuring among our service users. We are actually doing a piece of work over the next year, which we hope will be published, that will look at that matter and the surrounding issues.

   Chairman: A lot of us are picking that up in our own constituencies. We are quite interested in the report. Quite a number of lead organisations have not yet given any written evidence to this inquiry; some of the witnesses have not and a lot of the major people have not, so if you know people in the network, tell them that we are still receiving and want to receive evidence.

  Q28  Paul Holmes: I want to clarify the point that Martin was making about the age profile of kids in care. The Government are saying that they want to move towards a system in which there are mainly younger kids who leave fairly quickly to adoption or long-term fostering. You are saying that in reality, until at least 2020, it will be older kids and teenagers. Why is that?

  Martin Narey: We did a piece of work in the margins of the working group to try to see what would to happen to the population if Care Matters was implemented in full. There were two significant drivers towards there being an older population and we concluded that by 2020 there would be about a 10% increase in the numbers in care. One driver was classification, which was influenced by the possibility of classifying disabled children who were in 52-week placements as children in care, but also, a significant driver was the veto on leaving care at 16 or 17 that the Government promised would be offered to children, which will make the population larger and older. The working group did believe that you could have a smaller and younger population. In the margins of the work I did for the working group, although we did not have time to discuss this to a conclusion, I was struck by the number of professionals who told me that if the system moved more quickly and if we intervened earlier, some children would be taken into care at a much earlier age and might be adopted and have their long-term future guaranteed, but that the system was cautious and slow, so often by the time the in-care decision was made the adoption route, for example, was pretty much closed.

  Q29  Paul Holmes: Two questions arise. First, if the preponderance of children in care are teenagers, are they teenagers who have been taken into care as teenagers, or are they people who have been in the system from a young age and are still there as teenagers?

  Martin Narey: I could go back to my report and offer the Committee a better analysis of that. My recollection is that it was characteristically children who entered at under the age of 11 and then were staying for a very long period. There have been fewer children entering care for some time now, but they are staying much longer.

  Q30  Paul Holmes: You said that the system is too cautious and slow, and perhaps should be taking children into care earlier. Is it cautious and slow because it is bureaucratic, or because of the deliberate policy that the best place for children is with the family, and so you hang on until the last minute?

  Martin Narey: I did not conclude that. I made a reference to it in my report, but I did not feel that in the time we had available to write the report we could come to a conclusion. One of the consistent things that was reported to me, which the Committee might care to look at, was the contention that braver decisions made earlier in a child's life might have led to a much better outcome for that child. Many social workers said to me that it was very clear to them that some children were bound not to succeed in the family home and that the system, with the best of intent, tried to hang on for rather too long to the prospect of making a success of the child staying with the family.

  Q31  Paul Holmes: My wife was a children's social worker through the '80s and '90s, and she often said that the philosophy and training were that you must make every effort to keep the child in the family, so one went right to the wire before taking them into care. We learned from the academic research before we started this that in England, even more than in Wales and Scotland, we tend to take far fewer children into care and do so later. Many European countries take children into care much earlier because they see it as a positive thing. We see it as a desperate last resort.

  Martin Narey: My assumption when I chaired the working group—Maxine, who was certainly the most influential member of that group, changed my views on this—was that it would be very easy to set some targets and drive down the population in care. We quickly concluded that to make any such recommendation would be glib. It was much more complicated than that. Nevertheless it was interesting that if a system worked really well it would have a great deal of family support and would make a success of children staying in their own home whenever possible. It would also intervene much earlier to take children into care and perhaps get a route out for them before it was too late. Once a child has been in care for 12 months, the chances of them getting out of care are significantly reduced.

  Q32  Chairman: On that point, why is there such a differential between local authorities on the numbers in care and the speed. Is this is a real problem that some local authorities just perform totally differently from others?

  Martin Narey: They do perform differently, but it was impossible to conclude that they perform badly. The range is astonishing. These figures will have changed a little, but not very much. For every 10,000 of population the rate of looked-after children is 13 in Rutland and 221 in the City of London. In Merton it is 27 and in Manchester it is 154. It is a quite astonishing range. Although we were very impressed with what Merton was doing, we avoided the conclusion that you could simply target that and get the local authority that made extensive use of care to reduce its numbers. We thought that would run the risk of the wrong decision being made for individual children, when care would be the best option for them. What we urged the Department to do was to conduct more research into this. Having said that, we suggested that a system worked if it had the following characteristics. First, all decisions should be made at a very senior level in the local authority—I support all that Roger said about caution in this respect—and secondly, there should be a much greater investment in family support. Merton, for example, spends half as much on family support as it does on looked-after children. Authorities that have a lot of children in care spend hardly anything on family support. Thirdly, there should be a speedy decision-making process and decisions should be made at an earlier time in a child's life. Our conclusion was that that would probably lead to a smaller population and much more success in getting children permanently out of care.

  Maxine Wrigley: As I said, things have changed quite a lot from the 80s, which was more my time in care. Now, people are starting to approach it more as an individual package of care than a general population of young people in care, and that can obviously be a good thing. As someone who sat on Martin's group for the future of the care population, we felt that teenagers had their own special, unique identity. It is a difficult time in life anyway and it is particularly difficult for young people in care. We felt that more support from family, friends and carers was needed. So many young people I spoke to said, "Actually, my auntie or my nan would have looked after me and it would have prevented me from coming into care." But nobody ever asked; nobody ever thought that was possible. So we really welcome the idea of social workers considering who else could offer support before taking a child into care, because once a child has been there for more than 12 months, they tend to stay in the system for quite a lot longer. I also think that the view of care in this country is quite negative. Perhaps a cultural shift and change is needed. I believe that there is a major difference between the 150 authorities. I almost see there being 150 care systems—that is how it feels to me after doing my job for several years. I think that that is down to leadership. Where there are great directors and leaders, you will get good authorities. Finally, as Martin said, Merton having fewer per 10,000 than somewhere else is not necessarily a good thing. To return to what we talked about earlier, customer—the young people and service users—satisfaction is the best measure.

  Q33  Paul Holmes: You seem to be saying that the state should be intervening more—not less—and earlier.

  Maxine Wrigley: Yes.

  Q34  Paul Holmes: Pam said something about children saying that it is a relief to be taken into care, because at last they are safe. Is that generally the view of children?

  Maxine Wrigley: It is such a tricky decision and I would not want to be a social worker making it. It is a very difficult one—you are damned if you do, and damned if you do not. You have to be careful, obviously, because there are examples of children who have not been protected properly, when they should have been, and others of social workers who have been overzealous and come in for stick as a result. In Martin's group, which I sat in on, we discussed how some local authorities in Scotland are not hanging around for too long when drug-misusing parents have been given several chances to sort out their problems in order to keep their children. We talked about how in Scotland decisions are being made a bit quicker—if you have had a few chances, but still have not sorted things out, why should the children suffer for longer before going into care? There are more and more examples of children coming into care when social services have made that decision a bit quicker. You are right in that we cannot hang around for ever wondering whether to take a child into care. Sometimes you need to be decisive, as long as there is a uniform decision-making structure.

  Dr Morgan: A fairly consistent view of children discussing the coming into care policy was summed up by a particular group of young people along these lines: "Where there are difficulties, try and sort them; if there is a danger, take me away from it, and consider whether other members of my family can look after me instead of strangers, because I feel less safe with strangers. However, don't push the latter, if it is not the right thing for me." In summary: "Make the right decision for me, at the right time for me, and don't leave me in danger." We need to spot the right time for the child, which is the basis of a lot of children's concerns about quotas to drive down numbers. One child said, "If you make the right decision, you will end up with the number in care that you end up with." It cannot be left at that, owing to inter-authority differences and other questions, but at the individual level that is absolutely right. May I add one more point about the differences between authorities? There are also a lot of differences within the same authority—different teams and workers can have very different thresholds and approaches to the same sorts of issues, even within the same authority. That is just as important as inter-authority differences for the child on the receiving end.

   Chairman: Thank you very much. Martin is now leaving us and we are moving to Annette.

  Q35  Annette Brooke: Throughout our debate, I have been struck by the idea that, in theory, there is a very large number of adults around a young person. How do young people feel about this divvying up of the tasks?

  Dr Morgan: First, you are right; there are a lot of adults. Secondly, they keep changing and churning. Thirdly, you often do not know what their roles are. Children are clear that they want to know who makes what decision, as we said earlier, and who provides them with which service. I know that there are all sorts of theories about attachment, but within that they say, "I want some form of stability and somebody who can, at different ages, see me through situations. When there are tricky times"—for example, when going through a process of adoption—"can I please have the same person dealing with it, not somebody who doesn't know the original history?" One thing that I have picked up very clearly from children is, "Don't fall into the trap of assuming that you can provide a one-stop-fits-all solution by, for example, bringing a social worker into a school to be the gateway for everything else. Apart from the fact that I might not want my peers to know that I'm seeing that person," which is very likely to happen in school, "I understand that if I have a particular problem, I go to a particular person. I would actually quite like a choice of who I go to with particular issues." Finally, when you ask children directly, "Who would you go to with a particular problem?", you hear, "Friends and parents." Interestingly, you get parents even when children already have social workers and counsellors on the scene, but you get a choice element. They do not necessarily say, "My particular social worker." It is almost like all of us when we have a GPs' surgery with a lot of GPs. We tend to choose which one we go to for different issues, and it is not necessarily always our designated one. It is an issue of choice, as well as having that range and some stability within it.

  Q36  Annette Brooke: Following on from that, it is obviously important that there are key relationships. Could it be more flexible than it is at the moment in terms of the young person being able to choose, as you are suggesting? Could we incorporate a choice of key worker into the system? Could a young person say, "I want my foster carer to be my key person"? Could another say, "I want my social worker"? Could that happen at the moment, or could changes be made to make it happen?

  Dr Morgan: It could happen more. It is interesting. If you look at the current national minimum standards for children's homes, they stipulate that wherever it is feasible, children should have the choice which member of staff is their key worker, as well as having an element of choice, as I described, to approach others and not being limited to their key workers. Children have said very specifically, "Why doesn't that apply to my social worker?". Choice and change. It also carries forward to other people such as advocates and independent reviewing officers—the point about it being very important that it is somebody whom the individual gets on with. Children are realistic enough to know that there are constraints on choice—that they cannot just run through all the people that there are and say that they want somebody else, and that sometimes it is not in their best interests, although they may not get on with somebody, to change them. There is an issue, within the constraints, of having a choice in the first place. If we can stipulate key workers in the limited work force of a children's home, which is quite often a small group, we ought to consider it more in relation to social workers, who are key workers for children in care.

  Q37  Annette Brooke: Is that something that could be included, do you think, within the Bill that is currently passing through the House—the right to have a key worker?

  Dr Morgan: I do not see why not, as long as the words "wherever feasible" and all those sorts of statement are there.

  Q38  Annette Brooke: Could you also tell us a little bit more about how children relate to social workers in general? What are their feelings about social workers and the work that they do?

  Dr Morgan: We did a major consultation recently of over 500 children about their views on social workers. It was very interesting that when we started to do that, social care and social services audiences in particular said, "Oh dear, that's going to be a very worrying report—children's views about their social workers." It was not. They valued their social workers very highly, but there was a lot of consistency in the things that they wanted from them. We have mentioned some of them already, and some are addressed in Care Matters. We have talked about accessibility. The term "effective social worker" has come up very frequently—somebody who can make a decision and make it happen without it either unravelling or disappearing into some other process so that children do not know where they are—as well as social workers who keep them informed. About three quarters of children said that they felt that they were usually kept informed by their social workers about what was happening to them, but if that figure is turned around, almost a quarter said that they did not feel that they were informed. One child said, "Changes in my life happen suddenly and without warning." It is about being kept informed, even when nothing is happening: "Yes, we are still on it; we haven't got the answer yet". That is the issue of feedback from social workers; social workers keeping their promises. I could go on, but I think that there is a consistent specification of what makes a good social worker relationship. My final point on that concerns the ability to have a social worker whom you can contact when you are first beginning to think or worry about something, and with whom you can talk the matter through, rather than waiting—sometimes because you know that they are busy and are dealing with higher priority crises than perhaps your issue might be at the moment—and saying, "I don't feel I can approach them at the moment. They are very busy people." There should be somebody you can contact early and who can give you that time. A lot of that is reflected in the Green Paper and the White Paper.

  Maxine Wrigley: To echo what Roger has been talking about, we have also done a lot of work around social workers and young people do want more access to social workers at more regular times. They are very keen that social workers are paid well and supported well. Young people have made comments about how tired they look and how many cases they have. Young people have made some great practical suggestions about how social workers should have administration help so that they do not have to do so much paperwork and can get on with the role of being a social worker. Young people mention that a lot. Also, they were really keen that social workers should just spend more time in general with them. They wanted to spend more time with their social worker. That was the No. 1 thing that they said about them, because they felt that time with them was always quite rushed. There is also the recruitment and retention issue. That is very difficult. This is an extreme example, but I met a young person who had had more than 12 social workers in a short time. You cannot really get to know someone like that. We know that there is a big problem. In London in particular there is a big problem with recruitment and retention, and I am really glad that at the moment there is a big media campaign to improve social care. Let's hope that that does what the other campaign did for teachers and we get more social workers in the job, because that problem has had a really negative impact on children.

  Dr Morgan: A lot of children say that when they are in placements they do not get the opportunity to speak to their social worker on their own. About a quarter of them said that they always had a care worker with them. Were you going to pick that up? Sorry, I pre-empted you.

  Q39  Annette Brooke: I had read messages around social workers in your report, which is interesting. We have talked about the churn effect, and about how social workers themselves could respond more to young people's needs. Is there anything structural that could happen that would make for better, stronger relationships, in addition to the things that we have talked about so far?

  Maxine Wrigley: There is the £500 lead budget idea in the Green Paper. A care person, such as a social worker, would be able to make some basic decisions around spending in a very flexible way, and not have to go though the whole bureaucracy and that machine that is behind the social worker. That is the sort of structural measure that would ensure that there is a little more speed in making decisions and spending money. When I was in care—I know it still goes on—you could wait five or six weeks for that decision on those new trainers, by which time there was a whole new trendy pair that you might want instead. Some decisions need to be made more quickly.

  Dr Morgan: There is also the issue of clearer systems of delegation: which decisions can and cannot be made by, in particular, the front-line carer, the foster carer, the member of staff in a children's home and the social worker, and which decisions need, quite legitimately because of the cost level, to go somewhere else. And the child needs to know that. There is no reason why the child should not know who is to make the decision about their trainers, their overnight stay or whatever it might be.

  Pam Hibbert: If some of those structural changes about decision-making were made, that would be important for two reasons: not only do children not always understand the system, social workers do not always understand where they need to go to get things. The system can sometimes be used as an excuse for people to say no, to not have to make a difficult decision, so structural changes about being very clear about where decision-making power lay could help with all of that.

10   See Ev 26 Back

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