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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 448-459)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q448 Chairman: I welcome Councillor Les Lawrence, Caroline Abrahams, Marion Davis, Steve Goodman and Pauline Newman. Although these sittings are formal and on the record, we try to handle them relatively informally, and we use first names unless people object. We are coming to the end of the inquiry. After the ministerial meeting next Wednesday, we will enjoy the process of writing up our notes on the inquiry, which has been quite long. This sitting is very important for us. We want to ask all sorts of questions that have been prompted by visits to Denmark and to other places around the country. I know that Councillor Les Lawrence has to leave after about half an hour, so some of the questions will be directed at him in the first instance. I will give a couple of minutes to Councillor Lawrence to say where he thinks we are with regard to looked-after children and what he sees as the main challenges. I will keep him to two or three minutes.

  Les Lawrence: Thank you very much, Chairman. We are dealing with one of the most vulnerable groups of young people Although a number of challenges face us, there have also been a number of improvements. One of the major improvements is that local authority services are moving towards a more preventive and early intervention arrangement to try to stop the number of children who are coming into care. Secondly, a lot more emphasis is placed on taking children into care on a temporary basis so that they can return to their families when assistance and support have been provided. Another area in which we have seen quite a lot of improvement is the extent to which those children who are in care are becoming much more actively engaged and involved in what happens to them—how they are to be supported and assisted. Moreover, another challenge, which, hopefully, will be helped by the legislation that is beginning to wend its way through the House, is the whole issue of transition, especially at 16. As you know, much of the support that is available up to that age ceases. A number of foster carers are taking on the responsibility without support and continuing to look after young people. Local authorities are looking at how independent living can be supported and how youngsters can move into employment training, education or a combination of the two. Of course, at the moment, resources for that are becoming tighter. Another challenging issue is commissioning. How do you evaluate, monitor and set the quality? Rather than targets, the emphasis is now shifting to outcomes, and we now ask what beneficial outcome is being achieved through the commissioning process. In general, local authorities are beginning to turn the curve. It is not happening as fast as many would like but, in this instance, progress is being made with a much greater degree of clarity and care, so the benefits that are accruing can be seen by those who are being assisted. The final aspect is the extent to which we have not, as local authorities, addressed the role of all elected members, in all local authorities, in the concept of corporate parenting. That applies not only to metropolitan areas, but to the shire counties—I do not think that district councils fully understand their role in that arena, and they have some responsibilities under the "positive activities" heading. That message has not got across. The Local Government Association has done a lot of work with the Improvement and Development Agency in putting together a series of documents, and it is initiating training to ensure that lead members are fully cognisant of their role not only in the generality of corporate parenting, but in the legislative framework within which they are working.

  Q449 Chairman: Councillor Lawrence—I will give the others a chance to get their two minutes in—may I ask you, if you are looking at the general trends from an LGA rather than a Birmingham perspective, whether this worries you? Hackney has looked at the number of children going into care and reduced it through a range of policies. You can contrast that to another of your members, Manchester, which has, as far as we can tell, the highest number of children in care of almost any other authority in the country. Does that make you uncomfortable? What is your take on the contrast between Hackney and Manchester?

  Les Lawrence: I would not wish to comment directly on Manchester or Hackney, because that would be inappropriate.

  Q450 Chairman: I was using them as examples. One has a very high level, almost like Denmark, which we visited. Denmark takes twice as many children into care as we do. Does that mean that the Danish are doing the job better, or that they are not doing it so well? You might say, "Oh, that's because it's Denmark," but Denmark has twice as many as both Sweden and Norway, so the situation is more complex. Is it better to take fewer children into care?

  Les Lawrence: At the end of the day, the ultimate aim should be to ensure that as many children and young people remain within a family construct as possible. The move towards much earlier intervention and preventive frameworks, such that you can identify families that are getting into difficulty, is the right way to go. However, the bottom line must always be that, if a position arises where it is essential that a child be taken into care, that should happen—it may well be that you do that on a temporary basis to assist the family with supportive services and early intervention. At the end of the day, if it is absolutely necessary to take a child into care, that child should indeed be taken into care.

  Q451 Chairman: But should children be taken into care on the cheap? Only about 13% of children go into institutional care in England; 71% go into foster care in this country. In Denmark, it is about 50:50. Is foster care a cheap alternative?

  Les Lawrence: No, foster carers are not a cheap alternative. They are a very effective alternative and they should be remunerated at a level that enables them to fulfil all that would be expected of a normal family situation. Equally, local authorities should do their utmost to create residential environments that equate, as closely as it is possible to achieve, to a family environment. Many local authorities are now moving away from what I call the traditional institutional-type environment into three or four-bed homes where youngsters can begin to feel that it is much more of a family environment, but that requires a number of other characteristics. It needs us to raise the esteem and skill levels of the staff in those residential facilities, such that they are not seen, as they often are, as the lowest order in the social care arena and that they are trained in a way that makes them much more able to relate with the young people, so that they are seen almost like parents. However, that does not come cheap either, and it will take time to evolve. We also have to recognise that foster carers tend not to take children much beyond the age of eight, simply because often children in the older age group have become much more challenged and have many more difficulties. Therefore, we need to find a way in which we can encourage foster carers to take older children and give those children the same degree of family environment as the younger ones. You need supportive services to enable that to happen.

  Q452 Chairman: Marion Davis would sort of dissent from that point, so I will bring her in.

  Marion Davis: In Warwickshire, the vast majority of our children—about 93%—are placed in family placements. We invested heavily in foster care in the county, stemming from a decision over 20 years ago to close all our in-house residential care. Over that period, there has been a huge investment, not just in terms of the allowances that we pay, although those are important, but in the training, development and support that we offer to our foster carers. We were sheltered from some of the experiences of some authorities that have lost foster carers to the independent fostering agencies, which by and large pay significantly more and cost local authorities a lot more to place children. We would use foster care as our placement of choice for the whole age range, certainly not predominantly for the under-eights.

  Chairman: You will excuse us, but this process is difficult for the Committee. Normally, each member of the Committee has a section of questions that they supervise, but because of Councillor Lawrence not being here very long, we are breaking the mould. David Chaytor.

  Q453 Mr Chaytor: Thank you, Chairman. I would like to pick up on the points that Councillor Lawrence made about the role of the local authority as the corporate parent and particularly the position of the non-executive members of the authority. What more could be done to make non-executive members more aware of their responsibilities as the corporate parent?

  Les Lawrence: There are two or three things. The first is that those members who are involved in scrutiny can look at the whole process of corporate parenting. Secondly, all elected members should have, as part of their induction training and ongoing training, a session on corporate parenting so that they fully understand their individual role. In addition, there should be much more encouragement of all elected members to be involved on an individual basis with the section 33 visits to homes, especially those homes that are in their wards or in the constituency area around their wards. They should also be encouraged to be much more engaged with the young people themselves. Many councils have created children in care councils and corporate pledges, and that means that the young people themselves have been much more engaged in developing and playing a role in those bodies. One other way that youngsters themselves can be engaged with elected members is to have named councillors with groups of young people, which I know one or two authorities have developed as well. That is why I said earlier that district councils, which do not have a direct role in children's services within shire counties but have direct involvement in the provision of activities where youngsters can fulfil the positive activity role, also need to understand and be involved in the concept of corporate parenting. It needs to be a mandatory element of training. It is not something that is just a one-off. It has to be something that is done on a returning basis, if you like, under the concept of professional development—I use the word "professional" loosely in regard to elected members, yourselves excluded.

  Q454 Mr Chaytor: In respect of the structural changes that most local authorities have taken on board in recent years, such as the move to children's trusts and children's services departments, are there specific improvements in Birmingham, for example, that you could attribute to the more integrated approach to children's services that now applies in most local authorities?

  Les Lawrence: Yes. I think that the children's trust arrangements have enabled services around children in care or looked-after children much sooner than would perhaps have been the case if they had not been there. I am thinking of the relationship with the health service to provide health provision and the development around the child and adolescent mental health service, which is much more involved in assisting lots of young people. Yes, it is evolving. I also think that there is a greater understanding about the commissioning role, simply because there is now much closer working together not only in terms of children's services but in terms of adults and communities. Lots of local authorities, my own included, have appointed officers specifically responsible for transition not only in terms of children in care but for the generality of children, although children in care specifically are an aspect of their role. That kind of evolutionary approach is beneficial. There is one other aspect that I would like to mention. Perhaps if the Department set a floor target in terms of service expectations, all local authorities would at least have a benchmark below which they knew they could not go.

  Q455 Mr Chaytor: Leaving aside the question of multi-agency working within local authorities, certain areas still seem to be consistently weak across local authorities. The evidence that we have received points to the question of people leaving care, and the inadequacy of arrangements and advice on further training, education and employment as well as housing once they leave care. Can you say, hand on heart, that you think that the establishment of children's trusts has strengthened the provision of advice and appropriate housing for care leavers?

  Les Lawrence: It is coming. The issue of advice and guidance is becoming more strengthened now that Connexions has become embedded within the local authority. For those local authorities that still have a housing function, the ability to set aside properties to enable youngsters in care to live independently is much easier to facilitate, although some local authorities have been able to enter into agreements with registered social landlords. However, I must say that anecdotally, comments have come back that there is a reluctance on behalf of externally located housing providers to take children in care because there is some kind of stigma attached to having been in care, which I think is unfortunate. However, it is beginning to happen. I think the full extent of the issue is that, because all elected members have not owned it, it has not been fully understood, to the extent that it should, among the elected fraternity. Officers, I think, have fully understood it, but now that it is coming much more into the role of lead members it will begin to become an issue that is of high focus—linked, of course, to the whole safeguarding issue and an understanding of that interrelationship as well.

  Chairman: Douglas, Edward—do you have a question for Councillor Lawrence?

  Mr Carswell: I want to talk more about variation in local authorities.

  Q456 Mr Timpson: Can I pick up on the role of the corporate parent, but from the point of view of the child in care. The concept of a corporate parent, to a child in care, is frankly probably fairly meaningless. When they understand what their care plan is—although I think from the statistics I have seen that a third of children in care do not even know what their care plan is, which is worrying in itself—what they are interested in is that they may want to challenge the care plan. They may be concerned about the change of school that is being put forward, or a change of placement at a time when they are not ready for it. With respect to the channels they can go through with the local authority to try to make their voice heard, have we done enough to try to make sure that children in care have the ability to challenge what is happening to them, or is there more that we could be doing?

  Les Lawrence: The simple answer is not yet. There is still a lot more to be done. The concept of the designated adult, as I call it, where the child has a person they can always turn to, is one that is still being developed. Equally, the whole development of children in care councils, and the appropriate pledges, is still in its infancy, although it is beginning to allow youngsters to have a voice and a role to ensure that they themselves are not only being heard but are being listened to. I think that there is a long way to go. At the end of the day it is about getting the message across to elected members as well so that they can consistently challenge on behalf of the young people—about whether they are receiving the same degree of support and service that would be expected in all sorts of other environments. So yes, you are right—the phrase "corporate parent" is synonymous with the sort of high-flown language that they would not necessarily understand; but it is about what kind of relationships are there on the ground, and the conduits through which they can actually engage and make their own feelings and their own desires known—it is happening but we still have a long way to go.

  Q457 Mr Timpson: And does that extend to the role of the independent reviewing officer and concerns that have been expressed that the officers are not independent enough to be a channel for children to use to make their feelings heard?

  Les Lawrence: I think local authorities are doing their utmost to ensure that the word "independent" means what it says, even though they are within, if you like, the local government family; because at the end of the day you need to have a view that challenges—questions—what is being done, not only in terms of the officers but the elected members as well. Again, I think it is a developing role, because sometimes the degree of challenge is not always readily accepted; but it has to be understood that that challenge is essential if the process, the system and the outcomes are to be achieved for those who are the focus of all this—the children themselves.

  Chairman: I think we have now given Councillor Lawrence a chance to show that he is here, and he has had some questions directed at him. John wanted him to be the lead respondent on his section of questions, so John, do you want to get started?

  Q458 Mr Heppell: Everyone else can answer as well. First, back to corporate parenting. I have a slight worry about the way we are describing it—the idea that councillors at district level, as well, are getting involved in the whole process—because I worry about the corporate parent already not being prepared to take risks. There were foster parents who said to us, "The corporate parent is over-prescriptive"; they look at guidance and think "Oh, we'd better go on the safe side of this, to be certain." There is not enough delegation to foster parents because people are worried about whether the right decisions would be made. It is no good sticking councillors in, because they are elected members; I have been on a council myself, and the last thing they want is a scandal, child abuse, a child death or something like that. Is there not a worry that the corporate parent will become even more cautious as elected members get more involved?

  Les Lawrence: As they understand the nature of the role, I believe that they will be less risk-averse. If they do not understand, the very nature of the concern and the high profile of some cases will lead them to be risk-averse. However, if they understand the various component parts of the overall role—they are the guardians at the end of the day and not the prescribers or descriptors of what should happen to each and every child—they will know that a care plan is in place, that the right relationships are in place, that the young person is in a school where that youngster's potential is likely to be fulfilled, and that the foster caring arrangements are suitable for that child. In that case, the overall responsibility for the corporate parent is fulfilled, and a watching brief can take place. Yes, I agree that if you expected the elected member to be at the chalk face, providing oversight on every action and every activity, it would be a total misuse of the elected member's role. The non-executive back-bench member, as well as the lead member, should be providing that oversight and protection to ensure that the system is working for the person at the centre—the child in care. We must not forget that elected members are heavily involved in adoption and fostering panels. That is a distinct and responsible position in itself, and it facilitates the right environment to ensure that the children and young people are placed in the most appropriate arrangements for their needs.

  Q459 Chairman: John, before you follow that up, I know that Pauline Newman wants to come in, and as your section is on improving the quality of children's care, I think we should now give everyone the chance to have their two minutes. Shall we riff through them? Pauline, you wanted to come in, but will you also tell us a little about what you believe is the present situation in the quality of children in care?

  Pauline Newman: In Manchester, we have high numbers of looked-after children. The number is coming down, but our goal has been to focus slightly on the Denmark situation. In the context of circumstances in Manchester, our goal has to be to see to it that the numbers come down safely. We are trying to get to a position where we are absolutely clear that a child comes into looked-after status only when necessary and only if they are likely to benefit from that status. Figures can mirror quite a lot of difference. We in Manchester should not really have this, and we are working on not having it, but some looked-after children are at home, because orders have been made that we did not really want. We wanted supervision, and we have ended up with something else, but we are reducing those numbers through the mechanisms. However, quite a lot of young people are placed with relatives and friends as carers. Yes, there is oversight, and increasingly we are trying to make them come under special guardianship or other provisions. Manchester is a place that, despite its regeneration, has a high level of deprivation and some persistent issues that impact on children. It is the case that some of our elected members are worried that we do not admit enough children to looked-after status, so we as officers have a significant job to do, which is about developing our early intervention and prevention, and making our placements as cost-effective as we can, and not poor-relation placements, so that we can move money into early intervention and prevention. Our search for additional preventative mechanisms has led us to focus heavily on parenting—working with parents in quite structured ways—and also on emotional resilience training for children and young people; I heartily object to them being called happiness lessons, but it is a clear programme and our youngsters and the schools are now saying that it is benefiting them, without a shadow of doubt. We are managing to steer our spend more towards keeping youngsters out of looked-after status, but we need to remember that reducing the numbers of looked-after children is also about increasing new adoptions and other ways of having families support them. We are about all those things, but we are keeping a close eye on safety. While we have reduced the numbers of children with looked-after status, our numbers on protection plans have increased. What we are doing is maintaining children just below the level of looked-after status, and we have to be very careful about that.

  Chairman: Thank you. Steve Goodman.

  Steve Goodman: I was going to say something about "Reclaiming Social Work", a change programme we have been leading in Hackney for the past two years. We believe that social work with families and young people is a complex task, more akin to other professions such as psychiatry and law. Hence, practitioners need high intellectual ability, good people skills and a tool box of interventions if they are going to practise it well. In this country, we are a long way off that. The situation has probably got worse rather than better over the past couple of decades. Training courses are not fit for purpose. There is a strong emphasis on training courses on values but they teach little about methodology. Those entering social work training are often lacking the basic ability to do such a complex job well. Recognising that, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and its predecessors and local authorities have introduced more and more layers of bureaucracy around children's social care in an attempt to compensate. The system has become risk averse and it strangles good social work practice.

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