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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q460 Chairman: Poorly trained social workers result in over-compensation in regulation?

  Steve Goodman: Yes. In Hackney, we are completely changing the way in which we do social work. We are emphasising systemic approaches and social learning theory interventions, which have a good evidence base. We have created consultant social work units instead of teams, and we are attracting high-quality consultant social workers, most of whom have been trained abroad. We are protecting them from bureaucratic burdens. That is leading to far fewer children in care. We have reduced our number of children in care from 470 to 340 in the past two years. That means we have about 63 children in care per 1,000 now as opposed to our statistical neighbour's 94.[1] We also have an improved service for our looked-after children. We believe that "Reclaiming Social Work" signposts the way in which children's social care needs to be practised in this country.

  Chairman: Finished?

  Steve Goodman: Yes.

  Chairman: Jolly good. Marion.

  Marion Davis: Every local authority is in a different situation. Our looked-after children numbers are comparatively low but rising, which is a different scenario to that of my colleagues. I do not think that there is a right number of looked-after children. We should focus much more on the quality of the assessment and the work that is done with individual cases or families. As colleagues have said, what we are all engaged in now is trying to shift our resources towards supporting families, investing in early prevention and using the common assessment framework and the greater effectiveness that we have as partnerships and children's trusts to prevent families being under the kind of pressure that necessitates children coming into the looked-after system. I would not see care as always a placement of last resort. It would be a mistake to see it in that way. We know that for many children who are looked after, their long-term outcomes are not good. If we can support families to safely parent and bring up their own children, then we believe strongly that that is the right way forward. Integrated children's services departments or directorates, as they are variously called, are using the power of partnerships to bring together a whole series of measures in a way in which we did not when we were social services departments and education departments working separately. There is still a long way to go. Some ask, "Are we there yet?" The answer is no, we are not. Even this Government, who are clear that they are in a hurry to narrow the gaps—rightly—in equalities between children and families, have acknowledged that it is at least a 10-year programme, and we are only five years on from the launch of Every Child Matters. There are a huge number of measures in Care Matters, most of which local authorities welcome. An awful lot have yet to work their way through or to be seen to provide the outcomes that we need and the more positive experience for children and young people who are on the edge of care or who become looked-after. We are trying very much to see that as the spectrum these days. I can offer a perspective on corporate parenting later.

  Chairman: Yes. Douglas, do you want to ask Steve a quick question before I go back to John?

  Q461 Mr Carswell: You said that most of the social workers you were talking about were trained abroad, but in which countries?

  Steve Goodman: America, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. Basically, those training courses teach social workers methodological approaches, which are severely lacking in courses in this country in the main. It is also interesting that some of the major universities that used to provide good social work training, such as the London School of Economics and Oxford University, have stopped doing so in the past few years.

  Q462 Mr Heppell: That has thrown me. Why have they stopped?

  Steve Goodman: You might want to ask them. When I did so, they said that they stopped because they thought that academic rigour has been removed from social work training criteria.

  Pauline Newman: In Manchester, we have some excellent social workers, although I am sure that is also true anywhere else. We tried and succeeded in getting some from Canada but, to be blunt, it did not work, for a range of reasons. Broadly, there were similarities in Manchester with what Hackney is saying. There is an intense connection between the new children's trust arrangements and "Reclaiming Social Work". To effectively reclaim social work, in my view, we must have the kind of collaboration and working by other agencies that means that social workers are used only when the need is highest and at its most complex. One thing that we are trying to move to is a neighbourhood-focused model that can put a team around a child in a school using the common assessment framework and the lead professional role. We are also trying to keep the highly trained, reflective, systemic social workers for the most complex needs, and providing them with the wherewithal to offer a consultancy role to other professionals. To my way of thinking, you cannot do that unless some of the children's trust arrangements are working well, so that lower and more ordinary levels of need could be dealt with by a lead professional in a SureStart centre, a school or whatever. We have a pilot going on in the north of the city. It must have the two things running together, but it is about raising the profile of what are at times, in sharp urban areas, beleaguered staff.

  Chairman: Councillor, answer that question briefly because John wants to go back to his main theme.

  Les Lawrence: I honestly believe that we have a golden opportunity to create a work force remodelling process for social workers as we have with the teaching profession. That has raised the profile and status and the concept of teams within the classroom, let alone the school. If we applied the same principles to social work practices, we would vastly improve the esteem, value and nature of social work.

  Q463 Mr Heppell: I want to return to the earlier theme. Care Matters has lots of good intentions to give more flexibility to foster parents. How do you stop the misinterpretation of guidance from above and people taking the safe option because they are governed by the fear of risk? What is to stop that always being channelled out by the individual manager, or someone saying, "Oh no, we can't do that

  Steve Goodman: That is exactly one of the points that I am making: the culture that has grown up around children's social care is risk averse. We need to move to a culture that manages risks appropriately. That means that you have to have high-quality foster carers with yes, reasonable remuneration in terms of the money we pay them, but more importantly expert support. We have, for instance, social learning theory-trained clinicians offering advice to foster carers on behaviour management techniques for the more difficult children that they are looking after, and you have to have high-quality social workers supporting those foster carers. You have to get those two things right. There is nothing in Care Matters that I would necessarily disagree with, but if all you do is that and you do not address the fundamental issues of the quality of foster care and of social workers, you will not move the agenda on.

  Q464 Mr Heppell: Are the quality and quantity of foster carers governing how many residential places there are? Marion was saying, "If we could, we would have more foster placements." Is the reality that if we had more foster parents—most areas are always struggling to find more—and they were of good quality, we would have fewer and fewer residential placements?

  Steve Goodman: My personal view is that we should not have children in residential care. That should be the last option. Some 7% of our looked-after population are in residential care. Residential care is not a place where we should be bringing up our children. As Marion says, we should be bringing them up in family-based situations as far as possible. The evidence base for residential care is not a good one. I know that you as a Select Committee and others have been talked to by representatives of the residential care providers. They are bound to make a good case for why residential care should be used, but the evidence base is pretty—

  Q465 Chairman: We also talked to a lot of children who had been in care, and a significant number of them said that they preferred the residential situation to some of the other experiences they had had.

  Pauline Newman: I would have to offer an alternative perspective, because, driven partly by shortages of good-quality foster carers—we are currently setting some standards, meaning we are losing foster carers but we are going to stick with it—we elected five or six years ago to build six small children's homes in the city in areas of high need. We did an analysis. We went back to the notion of a children's home in an area where we are getting a lot of young people coming into care, and we have built six of them. The last two are coming on stream this month. They have already reduced our use of external residential care. It depends what you do with them. We have good NVQ programmes and good training. We have recently had some of the children's home staff on the emotional resilience training course. For Manchester, it was necessary not to put our eggs in one basket. At times, we are dealing with some young people who do not want to be fostered. My view is that you need a range and choice of places and situations.

  Mr Heppell: I have to leave the Committee to attend a debate on an Icelandic bank, but I will return.

  Q466 Fiona Mactaggart: It is often very convincing when we hear people at the leadership end of the tree, which is who we are hearing from today, but we have also spoken to children in care and to foster carers, and one story has really struck me. I was talking to a couple of sisters who were in care. They were 16 or 17, and they had a younger sister of 13 whose behaviour was obviously very troubling. She was in a children's home. The three other occupants of that children's home were 16 and 17-year-old boys, and the two older sisters thought—I think they were right—that that was an unsafe place to put their younger sister. She is obviously very difficult to manage—I have no doubt about that—but one of the things that we hear about is people choosing that to give a safe option to a child, but then saying to another child, "Oh, we haven't got around to saying you can go on your school trip and your foster carer is not allowed to approve your school trip." We have heard that story from all over the country. It seems to me that the way in which risk is being assessed is stupid. What do you do to stop it being stupid?

  Pauline Newman: To answer that question directly, I think that it goes back to Steve's point about both culture and the behaviour and attitudes that are expected from staff and how they are performance-managed. It is easy at our level to send out messages that have become heavily misinterpreted by the time that they get to the front service delivery point. It is our job to make sure that they are bolstered by sensible guidance at each level. I certainly do not want—I do not believe that we generally do—to disempower young people who want to do things as they would normally do them. We have to get the processes on the ground well understood. In relation to the discussion about corporate parenting, this is what I think corporate parenting has to be about. Oodles of statutes are written about the role of a directorate of children's services, and colleagues may agree or disagree, but at the end of the day, I have decided, it boils down broadly to encouraging collaborative working to produce better outcomes for children. There are lots of pages, but that is the nub of it. If that is our job, it is mirrored by the job of elected members, particularly executive members for children's services—or whatever they are called—up and down the country. Their job is to push those big blocks of responses from local authorities into place: responses from leisure about swimming pools, leisure passes and involvement in sport; responses from health about all the kinds of thing that it presides over; and responses from housing. There has to be involvement in personal or smaller matters in terms of looking at the performance management of the services—information is supplied to them about that—and dipping, as we all do, into the reality of the situation. In Manchester, the scrutiny committee now has a sub-committee that meets regularly with looked-after children. All these things go on, but its job is to say all the time, "What's the impact of this on the most vulnerable children in the authority, including those who are looked after, and how can we positively shape our offer to them within the broad offer to children in Manchester?"

  Steve Goodman: But I think specifically—

  Chairman: Hang on a second, Steve. Caroline was nodding, and she has been totally neglected. I think it is time that Caroline had a shout.

  Caroline Abrahams: I have been listening to this debate with great interest, and I must say that I have agreed with large chunks of it—what has been said resonates with me. We did some research over the past year with lead members for children's services about how they understood their roles, and we have been thinking a lot about the subject. It is important that lead members understand that they are politicians, not officers or super-officers. There is a bit of a risk, because when you look at the backgrounds of lead members for children's services, they are quite often selected partly because they have a relevant professional background as a teacher or social worker. At one level, that is great, but the risk is that they will get drawn into the detail of delivery. As has been suggested, a separate and different role has to be played. Those people are there to work in partnership with their DCS. All the high-performing local authorities have strong joint political and professional leadership—I do not think that there is any doubt about that—but there is an inherent tension in that relationship, and those people have to be nosey, restless and inquisitive, ask difficult questions and sometimes put DCSs on the spot. Scrutiny is incredibly important as well. We are certainly doing a lot of work to respond to the research and to support lead members for children in understanding their jobs and carrying them out as effectively as they can.

  Steve Goodman: Specifically on the issue that Fiona raised—school trips and other things that appear to the organisation to be minor but to the child in care are very important—we have said very strongly in Hackney that the consultant social worker and the members of the consultant social worker's unit should be able to make such decisions. Up and down the country, including in Hackney a couple of years ago, for lots of processes and procedures, managers who did not necessarily know the child very well made the decisions. This is about a good relationship between the consultant social worker and their unit and the foster carer so that those sorts of decision can be made as quickly as a parent would make them. Often, that involves the child bringing something home from school, with a decision being made that evening and the signed form sent back to school the next day.

  Chairman: Paul has been stimulated to come in on that point.

  Q467 Paul Holmes: You say, "Let the social worker decide." A lot of children and foster parents said to us, "Why not the foster parent?" They are much more immediate. They are there the same day, just like a parent, when the kid comes home from school.

  Steve Goodman: Yes. The issue there, of course, is that looked-after children can be in a very different position. Some looked-after children are embedded with a foster carer and have been there for a long time. As that time increases, the foster carer should increasingly be able to do the sorts of things that a parent would do. When young people have recently come into care, more discussion would be needed with the social worker. However, the issue here is the good professional relationship between foster carer and social worker; it is about enabling the social worker to make the decisions with the foster carer about what is appropriate.

  Q468 Chairman: Before I take this question back to Fiona, early in our inquiry, we were told that our terminology was old hat, that we no longer call these children looked-after children, and that we have reverted to using the term "children in care". Uniformly, however, you are using the other term, so we are totally at sea. What is politically correct?

  Pauline Newman: I think that the technical term is children in care.

  Q469 Fiona Mactaggart: That all sounds good, but we are always told that when you phone the social worker, the social worker is often not there—no one is there. Your system in Hackney sounds as though there might be someone there who could do it, but that will certainly be someone who knows the child less well than the foster carer, even if the latter has had them for only a week. That is a symptom of a sort of risk-averseness that worries me. I am talking about not only trusting foster carers to approve a school-organised trip, but the problems of arranging an overnight visit to a friend's house, which, in some ways, is much more brutal for cared-for children, because they cannot bear the fact that if they are going to go to a sleepover, Criminal Records Bureau checks will have to be made on everyone in the house that they would go to. From talking to such children, I know that that can cause more pain than most other things. It seems that we have failed utterly to normalise their lives, or to make them feel loved and respected. As corporate parents, I believe that we should all be ashamed of ourselves. I would love to hear something about changing things for them that is more radical than I think I am hearing.

  Pauline Newman: I agree, but I feel that if we now have a risk-averse social care profession, we need to consider how it got there.

  Q470 Chairman: Steve, would you say that that is because you have rotten social workers?

  Steve Goodman: I think that there are other reasons as well.

  Q471 Fiona Mactaggart: Is it because you have badly trained social workers? Let us be honest.

  Pauline Newman: I qualified as a social worker donkey's years ago—in 1976—and the profession has not had much respect over the years. Successive inquiries might have shown failings in our multi-agency systems, but from the social carers' point of view, they have been focused on as the people who—for self-preservation as well as the wish to do better—apparently got the message to take less risk. This has something to do with the societal position of the profession, and part of what Steve is talking about is raising its head again. We are saying that this is a respectable profession to be involved in. The bottom line is that many people now do not trust social carers' judgment. If they do not trust them, why should they keep moving things down so that social workers can do them—and eventually so that foster carers can do them?

  Fiona Mactaggart: I do not necessarily see foster carers as moving down.

  Pauline Newman: I am sorry. I agree entirely, but you have to feel some confidence. Someone like me must feel confident that something about the analysis among the child, the social worker or teacher, and the foster carer is going to work well so that the right decisions are made. We should feel that the person, as the youngsters themselves say, is supposed to get to know the child, to listen to them and to understand their wishes and feelings, yet that person can change every four weeks. In Manchester, we have far too many changeovers of staff. As a result, one can feel a bit insecure about that kind of decision-making process. Additionally, children still move placements quite a lot. I take your point, but for us to delegate to a foster carer comfortably, in the context in which we work, we would need relationships that were pretty sound and secure. Perhaps we should listen more to the judgment of the young people, but you can imagine the scenario when we get this wrong: we let them go, and they are abused. Perhaps we should think much more about how we protected our own children. Is not the bottom line that when you allow them to stay overnight, you might not know very much about the parents at all? You might just know something about the other child, so how do you make that judgment? One of the ways I made it with mine was to make sure that I trusted her judgment, and the signs that she would know—was she comfortable?

  Marion Davis: I think that Fiona raised some important issues about how young people themselves become stigmatised in a lot of settings, whether at school or wherever. I think that it is our responsibility to try to reduce that feeling of difference and to support them in the sorts of situations that you mention. However, I guess, as Directors of Children's Services, we never forget that we have the ultimate responsibility. We have to safely share that responsibility and safely enable decisions to be made in the best place but, in relation to the earlier debate about corporate parenting, I think that the wider you define the corporate parenting responsibility, the wider you can share that knowledge and that risk. We have talked a lot about elected members as corporate parents, but I think it is a much broader family that children have in that role. I talk to elected members when they first come on to the council and often ask them a little bit about themselves. I say to them, "How many children do you have?" Of course, they never say 488, which is actually the answer when they become an elected member. However, what we are doing is very much about involving the other partners in the children's trust as part of the corporate parenting perspective so that we are training, on a multi-agency basis, not just county council members and district and borough council members, but staff and non-executive directors from the NHS and the other partner agencies, to share in that responsibility. Just as, a few years ago, there was a phrase: "Child protection is everybody's business," I think that looked-after children should be everybody's business. The only way in which we really safeguard children and promote their well-being is by bringing all those partners together. It is not an easy journey, but I think that, in the long term, that is the way to go.

  Chairman: Can I just hold everyone up a moment to explain what we must get through. This is wonderful for us and we are really enjoying it, but we want to get the most out of the session, and that means, cruelly, that we must get through another six sectors of questions, so I shall hold Fiona in check for a moment. She can come back on lots of other things. David, why don't you go for local authorities as corporate parents, because we are there anyway.

  Q472 Mr Chaytor: One of the areas that we have not discussed so far in this respect is the relationship between the local authority and the criminal justice system. In my constituency that is a constant concern. It was interesting that Councillor Lawrence, on the concept of the corporate parent and multi-agency working, referred to health and made positive noises: had he still been here I might have pressed him on whether he really thought GPs have fully taken on board the Every Child Matters agenda, but leaving that aside, in terms of criminal justice, what do you feel is the state of the relationship between your local authority and your criminal justice system, and what needs to be done to improve that?

  Marion Davis: Increasingly, youth offending services are sited within children's services directorates in local authorities, but we are still working very much with the same partnership of police, probation, health and the local authority and voluntary sector partners, on the whole agenda of youth offending. We sometimes find ourselves in a slightly conflicting situation with the police, as our respective targets pull us in different directions. The police are urged to bring offenders to justice quickly and we are urged—we are all, in fact, charged—to prevent youth offending: but we are in particular charged to work with the individual young person who may have got into difficulties. There is sometimes a culture clash: are they children first or are they offenders first? That is not always easy to square. Looked-after young people who get involved in youth offending often suffer a double stigma, or double jeopardy. Their education and housing needs and chances of employment, training and so forth can be among the worst for our looked-after children and for children in our area. We have to work particularly closely with our partners to try to resolve some of the issues of that group. We have had some very robust discussions about whose needs we should serve. Through negotiations of the local area agreement, we are starting to bottom out some of the conflicts. Certainly the police in Warwickshire have softened their target-driven approach. We are developing a closer understanding, but we still have a way to go.

  Q473 Mr Chaytor: Steve from Hackney council, have any of your structural changes, or reorganisation of social workers into these units, impacted or improved the relationship with the criminal justice system?

  Steve Goodman: I do not know specifically whether it has. The fact that the youth offending service is part of children's services means that we are working very closely together across the piece. We are introducing the methodological approach, the systemic approach and the social learning theory into the youth offending service as well as replacing some of the old youth inclusions programmes and youth inclusion and support panel schemes. That is important. I agree with much of what Marion said. Hackney has a reputation for having a lot of crime. In fact, we are somewhere in the middle of the list of boroughs when it comes to the amount of crime, but our reputation lags behind that fact. The police have a responsibility to sanction and detect quickly. We are trying to keep children out of the criminal justice system. We have just agreed, through the youth crime action plan, to have workers from the youth offending team in custody suites to divert young people away from reprimands and into prevention services. Children who are separated from their families and taken into care in their teenage years face the worst outcomes of any looked-after children. Again, we try to involve the family when we are looking for solutions to a young person's issues. Generally, we are working very well not just with the local police but with the youth courts. We are one of the 10 multi-systemic therapy pilots in the country, and ours is the only one focused on trying to keep young people out of custody. To that end, we have been working very closely with the youth court. It is early days yet, but it looks as if we will get some good results. If you have a child in long-term care, it is very important that the social worker keeps working with that child through their journey through the criminal justice system and does not say, "I will stop now because the youth offending team is involved." Professionally, the lead relationship for that young person is with their social worker, and that must continue. That has not always been the case in the past.

  Caroline Abrahams: I think that you have put your finger on one of a number of wicked issues in this area, and that is the relationship between the youth justice and the looked-after children systems. First, there has been noise in the system for the past few years about the supposedly perverse incentive on local authorities because the costs shift once young people go into custody. I do not think that anyone has any evidence that stacks up that suggests that that influences the decisions that local authorities make. It remains a wicked issue, and there is no doubt that tensions exist. Therefore, we will be running a project that looks more specifically at the relationship. We have also been running a project over the past year and a half called "Children in Trouble", which works with four local authorities to try to reduce the number of young people going into custody. I am telling you this, because Salford, which is one of our four participating local authorities, has specifically tried to reduce the number of children in care going into custody. It has managed to do so quite satisfactorily, without an injection of new resources, by importing more restorative justice approaches into its children in care system. It tackled head-on, with good political leadership, some quite difficult issues, including the attitude of people who work in children's homes, who are not a very empowered group of people, and the way in which such people interact with some of the systems and what that means for children. It has also tackled the attitudes of people in the police force, particularly police community support officers. It took the issues on, and it has made a difference. We have a formal evaluation of the project, but that does not give a good description of what Salford has done. We are going to do that and circulate it to authorities, because there is a lot for others to learn.

  Q474 Mr Chaytor: Before I ask Pauline to comment on Manchester, may I tell a little anecdote. Last summer, I spent four weeks with Greater Manchester Police, and I spent part of the time with police officers on the street, all night, in different parts of the conurbation. The number of young people we picked up who were routinely questioned by the police struck me. The police were extremely efficient and logged incidents, but at no point did they question why the 13-year-old or 15-year-old was walking around the back streets of Ancoats at 3.30 in the morning. Is there any protocol in Manchester whereby the police report people of such ages automatically to the relevant social worker? The police might know them well, or know that they have been, or are, in care. Should they not be reported?

  Pauline Newman: Yes, the short answer is that there is a protocol. The youth offending team in Manchester is run by the deputy chief executive's office. There has been a great increase in joint working between the team and children's services in the past year. As others have said, in many places, the teams are part of children's services. In Manchester, we also need to look at what has happened in developing joint work on issues that impact on children, such as domestic abuse. We have a joint, multi-agency sexual exploitation team, because we are one of the northern authorities that have seen clear evidence of the organised, targeted sexual exploitation of young women and girls in children's homes. We have joined some things together in the past year especially, but I regret to say that performance management in both agencies is perhaps not at a stage that ensures that it happens every time. We have nevertheless developed much greater attention to missing children and children at risk of exploitation. In recent weeks and months, the new thing is the extension of the safeguarding perspective in relation to young people, guns and gangs. In fact, the police want more from children's services than we believe we can give—we need further debate of some of the issues that are arising. A pilot approach to safeguarding in relation to guns and gangs will appear in Government guidance. Protective measures such as emergency protection orders are part of safeguarding young men who are out on the streets despite repeated warnings, Osman warnings and all kinds of things saying that they are likely to be shot, or warnings about people who are likely to shoot someone else. We have a lot of close working in Manchester. It is very much part of our council-led approach and neighbourhood focus to have respect action weeks to draw in high-profile policing along with action by other parts of the council to improve things. However, we come by very different routes. Some pretty strong debates get going on such things at times.

  Chairman: We can return to that and drill down on it. I hope that you do not mind if I move on to variations between local authorities.

  Q475 Mr Carswell: I have two questions in one. Why do different local authorities have such different policies and, in explaining that, can you say whether it is necessarily a bad thing? I am not convinced that differences between localities per se are a bad thing. Why do you think there are differences, and do you think that they are a bad thing?

  Steve Goodman: Are you talking about the number of looked-after children?

  Mr Carswell: Yes.

  Steve Goodman: Well, I have never met a colleague who has not said that what they are trying to do is keep children with their families, so I think that the policy that we are trying to promote is the same; but, obviously, if you look at the number of looked-after children across the country, the outcome of that policy seems to be different, and cannot be explained simply in terms of demography. Personally, I think that it goes back to the issues that I have talked about before. There are some issues around risk averseness. There is a view, which I do not agree with, that if a child is in care somehow they are safer than if they are at home, but that is not always the case. I think also there is a value system, which actually might not be clearly stated, but which is built up in a culture in each authority, and which again might lead to different numbers. There are also issues about resources. In Hackney, we have moved £2 million to family support services in the past two years, which enables us to provide ongoing therapeutic and practical support to families, so that children can stay with them. Not every authority is in the position of being able to do that.

  Q476 Mr Carswell: Caroline, do you have anything to add?

  Caroline Abrahams: You are right, of course; there are major differences. Some of the reasons for difference are good, and some are probably less good. I think we have to make much better use of the data that are now becoming available to really drill down and ask quite difficult questions. As our colleague has just explained, to understand the different rates of children going into care, one has to see the children in care system in a much broader context of what local authorities are doing in children's services, particularly in terms of prevention and early intervention. I was on the expert working group that the Government set up to think about the size of the care population. The big question there was, "Is there an ideal size for the care population?" We decided there was not, and that was not the place to start. All things being equal, what is important is that the right children are in care and that they come into care at the right times. As has already been suggested, the outcomes for young people who come in later are very poor indeed. At the moment there are still a number of those children in the system. What one would hope is that as authorities get better at prevention and early intervention, as I think they are doing—there is some evidence of that—we will want snappier decisions, safely and appropriately taken, so that the children who need to come into care do so earlier, stay in longer and achieve better outcomes, and one has fewer young people coming in a bit later on. However, we are in the process of moving from where we have been to where we need to go to, and different authorities are going to be in different places, which is another reason why one sees those variations.

  Marion Davis: I agree with a lot of what has been said, but what we have to remember is there is not only variation between local authorities but within local authorities. A county like Warwickshire, which is perceived to be largely leafy and affluent, has areas of significant deprivation as well. We see variation in rates of children becoming looked after that mirror the social deprivation. The factors that lead children to come into care, and their families to struggle, are all those things that you will be familiar with, such as domestic violence, worklessness, substance misuse and mental health problems—a familiar catalogue of family difficulties, which are very much linked to social class. As Caroline says, it is the quality of our assessment processes, our work before families get to that breaking point, and the security of those decisions, that are important. The other factor that we have not mentioned is that some authorities have significant increases in numbers of looked-after children because of the volume of asylum seekers with whom they deal. That is spread around the country in places that you might not expect. The vast majority of our increase in looked-after children is due to asylum-seeking young people coming into the care system. They are a group that is something of a subset of the care population, but they cause some concern, and have different needs from some of the other children in the care system.

  Q477 Mr Carswell: When people talk about differences between local authorities, you often hear the hackneyed phrase, "spreading best practice". Do you know what best practice is? Do you have the wisdom to know what practice should be spread? Surely, if it is so wonderful and good, it should be allowed to replicate itself naturally. Do you think central Government should have more of a role in spreading best practice? Does it spread itself naturally?

  Marion Davis: Central Government are contributing to the spreading of good practice through things such as the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in children and young people's services, and there are now some very significant bodies of research evidence to guide practitioners and policy makers through organisations such as Research in Practice. There are some very accessible materials, not just for professionals but for elected members. The hard-pressed front-line worker is not always in a position to believe that they are in command of some of the evidence about what works, but it is the responsibility of managers, particularly senior managers, to make sure that there is an evidence focus for the way in which decisions are made. There is now a growing body of research evidence. The Committee may have heard from some researchers about what is out there.

  Steve Goodman: As I said about social work training, I think research in this country is pretty poor. The evidence base should come from academia. Certainly when we had a debate about what methodologies we should use in Hackney, we did not get that ourselves. We went to academics and talked to them about what the evidence base told us. One thing they said was that a lot of the evidence base comes from research in other countries, particularly the USA, so there is a key issue about more academic research. If you look at the amount of money that the Department for Children, Schools and Families spends on academic research in children's social care terms compared with education, you will find it is a very small amount.

  Caroline Abrahams: I think that is true. There is more that we need to know, but one of the things that has struck me since I have been at the LGA—it is coming up for two years now—is that there is a lot of stuff out there. There is a lot of information. People are bombarded with information about what they need to do, but there is very little about how to do it. That is one of the reasons why we have been running a joint project with councils and the DCSF called "Narrowing the gap in outcomes", for this group among many others. We have been trying to help local authorities to answer those "how" questions and understand what exactly they need to do. I am talking about how they get from where they are now to where they all pretty much want to be, and also what success looks like. All things being equal, what might you expect to see in a local authority area in terms of the provision and the balance of services? There will be a range of answers, which will be influenced by culture, geography and all sorts of other things, but there probably will be some basic principles. At the moment, we are not very good at painting the picture of what it looks like. That does not help people to make the progress that they need to make.

  Q478 Mr Carswell: One final question, if I may. We have talked about variations between local authorities, and in the short time available you have given a clue as to why there may be differences. This is more of a comment. It is interesting that at no point has anyone tried to explain differences between what local authorities do based on the local democratic system, the ballot box and elections. Do they have any real impact, or is it really the unelected officers who are in charge, rather than those people who pretend to run the show?

  Chairman: Steve, you are smiling the most; I think you should start.

  Steve Goodman: I thought Mr Carswell was making a comment.

  Mr Carswell: It is a question as well.

  Pauline Newman: I agree with Steve that there is a lot of evidence from abroad. Certainly in Manchester, parenting programmes and emotional resilience programmes have resulted from evidence from America that those work. You get from the DCSF a lot of national wisdom about things, but you have to tailor it to your local situation. You should be very alert to what statistical neighbours that look like you are doing. It is very helpful to look at other places and challenge ourselves with what they are doing. Clearly, officers advise members. We advise them in the context of performance regimes that mean that we have to try to get the authority into a particular position. Manchester has to improve its teenage conception rate. There is a lot of national wisdom, but the data suggest some additional actions that are Manchester-specific. We give advice, but certainly in Manchester, political commitments are there as well, such as commitments to a high level of early years provision. We advise members on the basis of what we are supposed to be achieving and what the data and all the rest of it suggest. In the end, they make the decisions.

  Q479Mr Carswell: Anyone else on the view that it is the officers who run it?

  Steve Goodman: Certainly, my experience in Hackney in particular has been that the mayor and the lead member have been extremely interested in what we have done, have listened to our analysis of how we think that we should change things and have been extremely supportive in doing so. What they are clear about is what outcomes they are looking for. They want children in Hackney to be safe, and they are looking for good services to the most vulnerable children who live in the borough, but in terms of the technical issues around achieving that, because they are so technical, quite understandably, it is not as accessible to members, perhaps, as the development of youth services, which they feel they have a better handle on. To some extent, the relationship is there, but they leave the technical issues more to officers than they might in other aspects of the council's functions.

  Caroline Abrahams: As I said before, the roles of professional and political leadership are different, but all the best authorities are strong in both. Frankly, a strong lead member cannot make up for a DCS who is struggling, but a strong DCS and a strong, visionary, powerful and committed lead member who is making the case for resource allocation with their colleagues in the council cabinet as well as championing the cause of children with the local public can make quite a big difference to what goes on.

1   Note by witness: The correct figure is about 63 children in care per 10,000. Back

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