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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 57-59)


26 MARCH 2008

  Q57  Chairman: I welcome our witnesses, Margaret Dillon, Mary MacLeod, Anne Scarborough and Professor Jane Tunstill. As this is a formal evidence session, every word is recorded by Hansard and will be printed tomorrow, so everything is on the record. I think that we are also being webcast; the little green light is on. Although this is a formal session, we play it in a rather informal way. If you have no objections, we will quickly revert to first names and not titles. I hope that that is all right. I welcome you all. I will repeat what I said outside: the Committee is on a steep learning curve. It is a new Committee with new responsibilities that we take seriously in respect of all of its remit—Children, Schools and Families. Some of us are more familiar with the schools part and know from long experience how to deal with that, but the children and families part is new territory. We range right across a number of Departments—wherever there are issues to do with children, our writ runs. We are looking at Looked-after Children as our first major inquiry in this area. We give witnesses the chance to say something to get started, but first I have a general question for you. Why are we in this sector talking about the challenges of looked-after children? We have the Children Act 1989, which I read in preparation for this meeting. It should all be running smoothly; it should be done and dusted. What is the need for change—surely, everything is as perfect as it can get?

  Professor Tunstill: First, may I say something about the 1989 Act? If I had thought that you were going to ask me about that, I would have felt better, because I was commissioned by the Department of Health to do two studies on that Act. Whichever bit of the system you are looking at the efficacy thereof, to mix my syntax, the real challenge in the 1989 Act—I am looking at Gillian Pugh—was the complexity of implementing section 17 in part III of the Act, which set out the duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of children in need. So much time was spent arguing about the parameters of that definition that it resulted in what was an unhelpful, I think, focus on what would then have been called child protection and the most complicated cases, and a failure to understand the breadth of the "being in need". Obviously, we are aware of the resource constraints on local authorities, but they were not supported, facilitated or encouraged enough to put serious effort into that promoting of children's welfare, before the safeguarding bit. In many of the agendas that are endlessly talked about now, such as the looked-after system, any deficits that exist in the safeguarding system have their roots to some extent in that tension around section 17.

  Q58  Chairman: Thank you, that gets us started. Anne Scarborough, you are from a well known local authority quite close to my constituency—the local authority next door to mine, in fact. Where do you stand with regard to responsibility for children's issues in a local authority? Is everything as it should be, or can you see room for improvement?

  Anne Scarborough: As Professor Tunstill says, there are tensions. I am head of a family support service which is basically about preventive services. I am not from a social work background—my background is in education—so my perspective is probably slightly different, but there are huge tensions between the safeguarding and the well-being aspects. There are similar tensions around sending children who are excluded from school out of authority and paying for that and accepting children who come into the authority to be looked after. The tension for a council is about the cost of that. For us as a small authority, it is about looking at preventive measures and to trying to shift the focus and funding to prevention and earlier intervention.

  Q59  Chairman: Mary, what is your take? What are the big issues?

  Mary MacLeod: Thinking about the past, I started work as a social worker attached to some children's homes in Scotland with Barnardo's—that was a long time ago. I have looked at the position of children in care from working at ChildLine, where I ran a children in care line and did some research into what children were saying about their experiences in care. I now work at the Family and Parenting Institute, where we do research and policy on family support. Thinking about that history, I think we really need to bear in mind that this is very difficult to get right. It just is. We are working with children whose experiences in their families and early experiences have often been very damaging. It is hard to get it right for them. If I were to look at some of the key issues on which we should now be focusing, one would be the gap between adult and children's services. The really big problems that have an impact on children's outcomes like substance and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and mental health problems, are dealt with by adult services, and the join-up is not as good as it should be. I suppose that the other big issue for me is the need for really good therapeutic services for children in care who have had these experiences. Okay it was eight years ago now, but some research by Elaine Farmer in Bristol looked at children who were in care who had been sexually abused and found that only half of them had had any access to therapy at all. We have the children in care. Child and adolescent mental health services have had some extra funding, but I would see that as a place where you could get support to help children as they themselves become parents and maybe break that cycle if you like.

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