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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)


29 OCTOBER 2008

  Q520 Mr Stuart: I think we can all agree with that, Minister. We look to the Government to set down standards to ensure that that ceases to happen. We can all join in with warm words about not wishing it to happen, but we look to Ministers for concrete action that will change the system.

  Baroness Morgan: We are producing a single set of care planning regulations for local authorities, saying that a local authority cannot move a looked-after child to independent living arrangements without first conducting a statutory review of their care plan. When such moves do take place, they should not automatically result in the child leaving care. The independent reviewing officer will review care plans and have the role of challenging local authority decisions if he or she feels that a child's welfare has not been properly considered. The Children and Young Persons Bill will ensure that there must be a review of a child's circumstances before they leave care so that it does not happen in an unplanned or unsupported way, as now. We are also mindful that when children and young people leave care, they must have access to a personal adviser for further support, should they need it, until they are 25—I think that is the age in the Bill. That is a significant change in emphasis and support for young people as they go through the difficult transition into adulthood and independent living.

  Q521 Mr Stuart: At whatever age that happens, there tends to be less of a transition and more of a coming off the end of a conveyor belt. It is almost like hitting a brick wall. Do you think there is a correlation between the age of leaving care and the level of difficulties among care leavers such as crime, drug addiction, mental health problems and unemployment? Do you agree that more young people should get the opportunity to stay in care until the age of 21, if they and their foster carers or social workers feel it would benefit them? Could not that have a positive impact on the appalling rate of unemployment, mental health problems and other issues among care leavers?

  Baroness Morgan: The advice that I have is that a successful transition into independent living and adulthood post-18 for young people leaving the care system is absolutely about improving outcomes, whether in offending, mental health or opportunities for employment. The transition is difficult and important. We are funding some important pilots to look at how we can improve the transition. One of those pilots, which you have probably heard about, is "Staying Put", which makes it possible for young people in foster care to stay with their family past 18. Obviously, for those of us who are parents, that is taken as read if our 18-year-old wants to stay put. We want to consider all the practical implications. What effect would this have on the tax status of the foster carer? What effect would it have on benefits? We are running that pilot at the moment. All being well and with the right outcomes, we hope to take action in the next spending period, so that any care leaver can have a reasonable expectation that they can stay in a family placement.

  Q522 Mr Stuart: When does the next spending period start? When could this be expected, assuming that you sort out the practical problems? As you said, it is axiomatic to anyone else that support should be ongoing, yet all that we have is pilots and talk about possible issues involving benefits. It does not seem terribly convincing to state that it should certainly be in place, run pilots and then make rather vague promises about when it might be implemented when we all agree that it needs to be implemented.

  Baroness Morgan: I do not think that I am being vague, I must say. The issue is ensuring that if we make commitments to young people in care, we can fulfil them in a practical and effective way in localities. It is important that we understand all the implications of any new policy, and that there is strong evidence to support it, before we roll it out widely. What I am saying is that I see it as important. I am sure that we will get great results from the pilots, and I see this as an area that I would very much like to pursue.

  Q523 Mr Stuart: That is good news. I am just trying to pinpoint when, assuming the problems are overcome—I know that you are not guaranteeing that today—it might be expected to become a national programme.

  Baroness Morgan: The pilot is three years, and we are not going wait until the end of three years to get the results. As soon as I get the opportunity to learn how it is going, I will take forward the ideas as best I can, using whatever opportunity I can identify.

  Q524 Mr Stuart: I apologise for accusing you of vagueness; I am sure you are absolutely not guilty of that. In the spirit of not being vague, what is the earliest date we could expect this to be implemented? I know that you will not give a guarantee today, but what is the earliest date?

  Baroness Morgan: I have just been reminded that the spending review period, as we know, is 2011 to 2014. We will have to work towards those time frames in preparing our evidence and ideas. We are obviously thinking about it now, are we not?

  Q525 Chairman: Do you think Graham Stuart is pressing you? If the Prime Minister is serious about bringing forward all sorts of programmes to help us to avoid a recession, a programme such as this—we know what the need is—is the sort that we should bring on without a pilot. We all know the real problem. Three years seems a long time for a pilot. Is this not something that the Prime Minister could give you the money for, saying, "Come on, get on with it."? Have you got the capacity to do it now?

  Baroness Morgan: I have to be honest, Chairman, and say that if the Prime Minister asked me to jump, it would be a question of how high.

  Chairman: I did not know that the writ ran that strongly in the House of Lords.

  Baroness Morgan: It does on some Benches.

  Chairman: As Graham is leaving, I want to put it on the record that this is David Lloyd's 309th sitting since he took over as Clerk to the previous Education and Skills Committee. He is leaving us, so the "Staying Put" initiative has not worked with him. While we are in formal proceedings, Minister, I want to say that you are at quite an historic sitting. The only reason why this is the best Select Committee of them all is that it comprises a team, and David Lloyd has been absolutely central to making our reports as good as they have been. The Committee thanks you, David, for all that you have done for us. We wish you very well in the next part of your career.

  Q526 Mr Chaytor: Minister, you referred earlier to the great variations in quality between different local authorities. There are also huge variations in policy in respect of the thresholds that are used to start care proceedings and in the choice of residential or foster care. I am interested to know whether the Government consider that acceptable and whether you intend to take steps to get greater standardisation in the thresholds for starting proceedings and the use of residential care.

  Baroness Morgan: You are touching on a very interesting area. There is no doubt that the direction of travel not only in the Care Matters arena, but across the board through the children's plan and children's services more widely, is about early intervention and ensuring that we are targeting the right services on children and young people to meet their needs as early as possible. A lot of that is about professional judgment and professionals using their skills, knowledge and experience to make the right judgment at the right point. My thinking on the matter is about the work that we are promoting. We are engaged actively in developing a work force strategy for children's services across the board. In a field that is about providing local services that are targeted on the needs of local populations and individual children, we must have a framework that has the right regulation, the right inspection and the appropriate guidance. We also have to have the right level of professionalism from the work force, who have to make the judgment calls. We are on a journey in that area and we still have a way to go on the work force side of things. I am not sure whether I am touching on the points that you wanted me to discuss to answer your question, but that is how I think about questions of the sort you are asking.

  Q527  Mr Chaytor: The consequence of what you are saying is that, for example, there will still be enormous variation between different local authorities in the proportion of kids in residential care. Are you saying specifically that that is acceptable because you believe that those are issues of professional judgment at the local level or do you want to reduce the extent of those variations?

  Baroness Morgan: I do not want to sit here and say that there should be target numbers in a particular locality for children and young people to be placed in particular settings. That would be a real mistake because we have to ensure that every child is placed in a setting that is most appropriate to meet their needs. We have a higher-level principle, which is that it is more appropriate for children and young people, when it suits their needs, to be placed in a family setting. First and foremost, that should be with their parents, but if that is not in their best interests they could be placed with kinship carers or foster carers. We recognise that some children must be placed in residential care because that meets their needs. The most important consideration is the interest of the child.

  Q528  Mr Chaytor: The received wisdom for a number of years has been that there ought to be a reduction in the proportion of the care population who are in residential care. You are reaffirming that that is still the received wisdom. Has that been challenged since the publication of the original Green Paper? Other European states that appear to perform far better on the welfare of children in care place a far higher proportion of them in residential settings. Is there any rethinking on the long-term trend of shrinking the residential care population?

  Baroness Morgan: You are touching on an incredibly interesting question. Comparing ourselves with other European countries, it could be said that the outcomes for looked-after children in this country are by no means as good. However, we must understand that there are very different traditions. The philosophy in this country places paramount importance on children being looked after by and staying in the family. That is not true of the rest of Europe. If the children in care are a very distilled group who have the most difficult, challenging and tough experiences, you will find that they go on to have the least best outcomes. This is a very difficult issue, but we are very different in the way that we approach that arena.

  Q529  Mr Chaytor: Another trend in recent years has been the reduction in the number of adolescents who are taken into care. You stressed earlier the importance of early intervention. Do you think that this issue should also be revisited? We are all aware, and you are particularly aware, of the growing public concern about a small number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, are on the fringes of criminal activity and are disconnected from the wider community. Many of those adolescents come from dysfunctional home backgrounds. Is there not a case for the Government to reconsider the pattern of recent years in which you do not look at care proceedings for adolescents?

  Baroness Morgan: I am not certain of the right answer to give you on this issue. The trends I see are that we are going in the right direction in terms of educational outcomes for looked-after children. I do not wish to overstate it, but there is very slightly more stability for looked-after children and young people. The vast majority of those who leave care go into appropriate accommodation and the outcomes are improving. I will come back to you on the specific point about adolescents. I am not sure about the answer.

  Chairman: A written response will be adequate.[2]

  Q530 Mr Chaytor: May I ask one more question. This goes back to Edward Timpson's point about foster carers. You stressed the importance of recruiting more foster carers, and noted the variation of payments between local authorities above the minimum amounts. Given the global economic slowdown, the likelihood of increasing unemployment in Britain, the policy of the Department for Work and Pensions of looking at those on incapacity benefits and assessing what skills people have to return to the work force, is now not the right time for a serious, concerted attack on the problem of the lack of foster carers? Would that not be appropriate in the context of what the Department for Children, Schools and Families is doing? We have a rising number of people likely to be unemployed, a growing number of people whom the Government want to get back in the work place, and a growing emphasis on the importance of skills. Is there not a huge opportunity for the Government to tie those separate strands together and recruit a new pool of talented foster carers?

  Chairman: Minister, do you agree with that?

  Baroness Morgan: I do. We are currently developing a work force strategy, as I have mentioned. That is absolutely pivotal. The legislative work has been done with the Children and Young Persons Bill, regulations and guidance are being reviewed, inspection systems are being put in place and now, the next important step is the work force strategy. We will publish that this autumn or before Christmas—I am not sure what the correct civil service term is, but it will be soon. We will be thinking about the roles of all professionals who work with children. That obviously includes the social work profession, but we will also look at the role of foster carers and how we can make the most of the opportunities before us in the coming years.

  Q531  Fiona Mactaggart: Can I add one supplementary question to your offer to come back in writing on the issue of older adolescents coming into care. Something that will not necessarily be immediately obvious from the information you receive, is that a significant reason why older adolescents are not brought into care is the costs and duties that local authorities have in relation to them. Too often, local authorities duck about for a couple of years until it gets to the point where they are no longer at risk of having to pay the bills. I am concerned about an answer that you gave to one of my colleagues about there needing to be a formal review before someone leaves care. That is another point at which a local authority might say, "We have housing costs, we need to go through a formal review process, it is only a year or so before that person is 16—we will run away from this." Can you answer that point when you write about the issue of older children. Is there evidence of local authorities avoiding the costs that they incur because of their responsibilities over these very vulnerable young people?

  Baroness Morgan: I will very happily do that.[3]

  Fiona Mactaggart: Thank you.

  Q532 Chairman: Baroness Morgan, one aspect of your responses is worrying, although I know that some things are a necessity for Ministers. Let me take this across to a Freudian sort of answer—I refer to David Freud, who was asked by the former Prime Minister to come up with radical views about how to cut the number of long-term unemployed and people on long-term disability payments, and he came up with a whole package of measures. Have you looked at any of his work or at the role that he has played in the Department for Work and Pensions? The evidence that we have been given so far is that there is a patchwork system that does not work. Children have only one chance at education and childhood. If a Minister tells the Committee that we are going to have a pilot that will take four years—that we are going to do a bit of this and a bit of that, have a bit of localism and a bit of centralism—it looks like fiddling while Rome burns in terms of those children's childhoods. Is there not a Freudian answer? For God's sake, hire a private company to look after the 60,000 kids; 60,000 is not that many. Do it properly, or get a new national organisation to do it; have a virtual head for all 60,000 kids. This Committee, and certainly I, as Chairman, would like some answers soon, not in five years' time when another generation of kids have had disappointing childhoods.

  Baroness Morgan: I do not think that it would be practical or that it would help looked-after children and young people to completely rip out the current system and put it into another box, with all the upheaval, transition and risk of failure that that would bring. It is important to focus on the areas that do not live up to our expectations, but that means, by definition, that we then do not focus on all the good things that are going on.

  Q533 Chairman: But here you are, a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and I have asked you about the complex issues of health and criminal justice, and there is no virtual supremo whom you can ask, "What is happening? Why are kids in Manchester not getting the same deal as kids in Warwickshire?" We do not want to revolutionise the system; we just want to improve it, and not through a quick fix, but through some sense of purpose that seems to be lacking from the Government.

  Baroness Morgan: I disagree. In the past few weeks, I have seen a real sense of purpose and direction come into the Department to take the Every Child Matters agenda through into Care Matters and to engage in what will be a transformation of children's services, over a period of time, particularly services for looked-after children. In preparing to come here today, I asked for a map of how we got to where we are. We started in 1998 with Quality Protects, went on to the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, and continued, in 2002, with Education Protects. There was then recognition that that work was not enough, and that is where the 2006 Green Paper Care Matters came from. We have directors of children's services who are accountable for those services.

  Q534 Chairman: Minister, we have heard about all those laudable documents, but when we met children with a recent experience of being in care, it was appalling. Children are wrenched from one setting to the next, or not sent to education. It was heart-rending to hear that during the time when Labour have been in Government, those children have had a rotten experience. We did not think that they were exceptions; we thought that they were pretty representative. On the other hand, look at the evidence from the heads of children's services before this Committee on Monday. Look at the director of children's services for Hackney, who said that he would not employ anyone trained as a social worker in this country. He recruits in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. What on earth is going on when a director of children's services thinks that even the training of social workers is so bad? It seems to me that the delay of pilots is not what we need. We need firm action now.

  Baroness Morgan: If I might reiterate it, the importance of pilots is that they ensure that the changes we make are well evidenced and will embed properly in the system. I cannot emphasise enough the point that I made earlier about the work force strategy. That is absolutely key for moving forward from here.

  Q535  Chairman: Even if that means taking an axe to social work training in this country?

  Baroness Morgan: It might be early in my career to suggest taking an axe to anything.

  Q536  Chairman: But you will read the Hackney evidence that we heard yesterday?

  Baroness Morgan: I certainly will. I am incredibly interested in the experience in Hackney. The work force of social workers has vacancy rates that are far too high. We need to raise the status and profile of the social work profession, and I am interested in and committed to considering how we should do that.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. Annette.

  Q537  Annette Brooke: Could I return briefly to questions about the "Staying Put" pilot and the situation that we are in now? Obviously, not all young people have the opportunity to stay with their foster parents after 18. Indeed, many foster children choose at 16 or 18 to go into independent accommodation. I asked the local authorities about that on Monday. Do the Government have a bigger role to play in accommodation? For example, could a duty be placed on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for care leavers? How will the Government support local authorities in improving the supply and quality of accommodation, of whatever type? We know that the situation of care leavers must be improved if we are going to make any impact on the outcomes.

  Baroness Morgan: I think that you are absolutely right. The role of the local authority in securing a range of appropriate, acceptable accommodation for young people is an important one. Through the Children and Young Persons Bill, we are creating a new duty on local authorities to ensure that they can accommodate their population of children in need within the area.

  Q538  Annette Brooke: I think that that is geographical in many cases, rather than involving the quality and necessity for support.

  Baroness Morgan: I agree. It comes back to what I was saying before about leaving care, access to a personal adviser and the assessment that must be made. The pilots, particularly the leaving care pilot, have focused on the importance of empowering the young person to take, as you would expect, a pivotal role in their own decision-making about leaving care, such as having the opportunity to make their own assessment of any accommodation that they might be offered, which to me just seems like common sense. One thing that I was particularly concerned about—

  Q539  Annette Brooke: But if it is one unsatisfactory flat or unit as opposed to another unsatisfactory unit that is being offered to them, is that a real choice?

  Baroness Morgan: No.

2   See Ev 271. Back

3   See Ev 273 Back

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