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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540-559)


29 OCTOBER 2008

  Q540  Annette Brooke: I think that that is the issue in every local authority—that these young people do not have a genuine choice of suitable accommodation at the moment.

  Baroness Morgan: That is absolutely unacceptable. I am being reminded that we are producing new statutory guidance that will cover this particular challenge. We will look at how the vetting and assessment of supported lodgings providers should be conducted and how children's services will be expected to work in genuine partnership with the full range of local housing agencies, including social housing providers and registered social landlords. In addition, there was something else that I was particularly concerned about, which is the issue of young people who leave care being over-represented in the homelessness figures. In May, we produced guidance, jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government, on joint working with housing and children's services to prevent youth homelessness. You are highlighting the issue where the choice of accommodation is between two unacceptable offers, and that situation is unacceptable. We are making that clear to local authorities.

  Q541  Annette Brooke: I hope that that will be in your annual report.

  Baroness Morgan: Yes, absolutely.

  Q542  Chairman: You are aware, Minister, that wicked people, usually men, in practically every town in this country target children in care, particularly those who are very young, with the aim of bringing them into prostitution. That is well known. In my own area, a group called the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, or CROP, tried to campaign about this issue. As I say, it is well known that young people, particularly females but not just females, who are aged 16 and on their own in a care setting—a situation that is known in the locality—become very vulnerable young people. So, from where I am sitting, it seems wrong that children at 16 are exposed to that level of danger.

  Baroness Morgan: I absolutely agree, and that is why we have made it clear that we expect 16 and 17-year-old looked-after children to remain in properly supported accommodation in care, unless there are some very strong reasons why they should do otherwise. So we aim to completely flip over the expectation, towards that of 16 and 17-year-olds being expected to stay in care.

  Q543  Mr Pelling: What can the Government do? From what we have heard elsewhere, it strikes me that there is a great deal of grooming of young girls while they are in care. What do you think the Government can do in terms of setting public policy to try to stop that happening? Unfortunately, it almost seems as if this exploitation is being dovetailed into the public provision that we already have. It is very disturbing to hear that that is happening. I am not blaming the Government at all, but I am just trying to think what the public policy solutions might be.

  Baroness Morgan: It is absolutely unacceptable that these cases should arise. Any person associated with a care setting, whether they are employed there or otherwise associated with it, must be absolutely safe to work with and support children and young people. That is an absolute must. We have a framework for safeguarding children. We have local safeguarding boards, whose responsibility is to ensure that children are protected in their care. I cannot emphasise enough how seriously we take this issue. There are local structures in place to promote the safeguarding of these vulnerable children, but I would never suggest that we are complacent at all about this. If the Committee would like me to come back to you with more information about the exact processes, I would be happy to do so. It is a very big area of concern.[4]

  Q544 Fiona Mactaggart: One of the ways in which young girls are groomed into prostitution is through the ineffectiveness of the care system in dealing with runaways—temporary runaways, young people who absent themselves from care overnight. Sometimes it is made worse by the fact that it is difficult for people to absent themselves with permission. It is more complex for adolescents in care to get permission to go to overnight stays with other people because foster carers or whoever are not authorised. They are then more likely to run away. They then get reported to the police as runaways at a point when the children's home or the foster carer knows where they are, but does not have the authority to deal with them. There is a real issue here which is going into the "too hard" box despite the extra investment in runaways at the moment. That is leading young girls to be very vulnerable to being groomed as a class. A lot of people are targeting children's homes and places where they know there are children in care in order to turn them into prostitutes later on. We are not talking about 16-year-olds, but about 13-year-olds. If you were to make it a priority as a Minister you could make a difference on this. Nobody yet has.

  Chairman: Minister, will you make it your priority?

  Baroness Morgan: It is difficult to say—

  Chairman: We did not say "the priority". We said "a priority".

  Baroness Morgan: Yes, "a priority". I would very much like to rise to that challenge. Maybe I am a bit fixated about the work force strategy. I might be. It is because I think it is so important. There is also something in there about evidence and making sure that we are asking the right questions about what is happening to runaway girls and whether we have the right measures.

  Q545  Chairman: Until a few members of this Committee organised a campaign some years ago, the fine for being found to be running a brothel was larger than for luring a child into prostitution. Our campaign changed that so the legal framework is more helpful to you than it used to be.

  Baroness Morgan: I am reminded that in the young runaways action plan, which we published this summer, we committed to a range of actions, including publishing new guidance on children missing from care and home by April 2009. That is not that far away. Certainly I would hope to have a good look at this area before then so that I can come back to this Committee in good time.

  Chairman: We will come back to the criminal justice side in a minute. Sharon, you have been very patient.

  Q546  Mrs Hodgson: I want to ask you a bit more about the work force, and specifically the training of the work force. You said that you were going to publish the work force strategy some time before Christmas. I do not want you to give anything away, but could I tease some responses out of you. You will be aware that children in residential care in England have far more severely disturbed backgrounds than children in other countries, yet the training and education of staff in this country is a lot lower than in other countries. The Committee visited Denmark earlier this year to look at looked-after children, and one thing that we all came away with was the fact that in Denmark, there is a whole professional level of staff called pedagogues, and we do not have that in this country. They are professionally qualified, they do a three-year, degree-like course in pedagogy, it is a highly regarded profession and their pay is just below that of teachers. They are, however, paid much more than our equivalent work force, although they are recruited from similar backgrounds. The difference is that they have invested in training. Added to that, in 2002, the standards for care homes stipulated that by 2005, a minimum 80% of staff in the residential and care environments should have had an NVQ Level 3 in caring for children and young people. However, the national average in 2006-07 was only 56%—so, way below 80%. And, in 25% of local authorities, the NVQ Level 3 figure is only 33%, so, even though we are talking about only a Level 3 qualification and not a Level 4, we are still nowhere near the target. Why are the levels of adequately qualified staff in residential care homes persistently so far below the national standard?

  Baroness Morgan: I am not sure that I can speculate on why they are so far below; I should like to focus on what we are trying to do about it. I have already talked about the work force strategy, which will focus a lot on training, as you would expect, and particularly on the qualifications for the residential care work force. In the Children and Young Persons Bill, we are strengthening Ofsted's powers to enforce the standards to which you have just referred, and ensuring that we have that tough enforcement is part of ensuring that we drive up those standards. The Bill will allow Her Majesty's chief inspector to issue compliance notices to homes that are in breach of the regulations, setting out the training requirements, and will have the power both to restrict admission to homes that she deems not to be meeting the standards, and to notify local authorities so that they can take the issue into account when making their placement decisions. Those are important levers for influencing and driving up the standard of training in residential care homes.

  Q547  Mrs Hodgson: Do you see the future work force as being, across the board, more highly trained—perhaps raising the level of how that work force are perceived, with the additional pay that would have to follow; or, do you think that the work force will be the same but just a bit more trained?

  Baroness Morgan: I suppose I need to be careful about what I say, given that, yesterday, we had a conference in the Department with all the stakeholders from the work force, working together to identify priorities and help the Government to develop a practical and deliverable strategy. It is going to be key.

  Q548  Mrs Hodgson: I do not want to put words in your mouth, but if we are looking at teaching as being a master's-level profession, should we start to think about residential care and looking after children as a degree-level profession?

  Baroness Morgan: I have already said that we need to raise the status and importance of the professions who support looked-after children.

  Q549  Chairman: But you said that before, and I was a bit discontent with it, because the Hackney evidence yesterday, and other evidence that the Committee has gathered, demonstrates that the state of training is awful. I am a governor of the London School of Economics, and the representative from Hackney pointed out that the LSE has ceased to do social work; a good institution has walked away from it. Surely there is something deeply wrong with the social work training system if a director of social work in a leading London borough can say that.

  Baroness Morgan: It is obviously not working in a profession where we have such high vacancy rates. We have been looking at how we can support newly qualified social workers to stay in the role by giving them protected work loads and so on.

  Q550  Chairman: What I am pushing you on is that it is not just the esteem and status of the profession—it is the quality of the training. You have half of the LSE directors in the House of Lords. Perhaps you can chat with them about why, in a place which produced Professor Richard Titmuss and which was a focus of social work training and had a proud tradition, they gave it up.

  Baroness Morgan: I will happily take that away as an action point and talk to colleagues. When we talk about what makes a profession, it is education, training, ongoing professional development, having a culture where senior members of that profession are dedicated to bringing on junior members—there is a lot to it.

  Chairman: Quite right. We want it all, but we want it now.

  Q551  Fiona Mactaggart: I was looking at the Youth Crime Action Plan, which specifically recognises that children from troubled families are at risk from being involved in crime. We look at children in care and it is almost as though the system is a way of opening a door to being involved in the criminal justice system. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that more than 70% of young offenders have a history of being in care on in contact with social services. When reading the action plan, although there is all this emphasis on troubled families and on parents and so on, I was struck by the fact that there is nothing in it which concerns the responsibilities of the care system in a situation where a young person has been involved in crime. We are giving corporate parents a free ride. I want to understand first, why that is. Secondly, I want to know what we can do to more explicitly address that issue in our planning for children in care.

  Baroness Morgan: I have looked at this coming in from the other end of the spectrum. I have taken note of concerns that were raised with me about how the care system should do better in supporting young people who end up in the system. Those concerns relate particularly to people in custody and how we need to do more to ensure that local authorities are engaging with those young people, so that there is proper resettlement planning and that when they are released they are assessed and supported further. There is also the debate, which I understand, about whether the care system is contributing to criminalising young people. Is it a question of children and young people coming into the care system from very distinct—I think you described them as troubled—families, with all the risk factors that are associated with young people who go on to offend? I think that we are talking about all the services and all the professionals that work to create the corporate parent system. Can every ounce of their activity—every moment of their working day—be about creating the right environment, in which these young people would flourish and which would not trigger the kind of offending behaviour that you are referring to? That may be about helping these young people to excel educationally, to achieve their aspirations. What I am driving at is that we need to take account of the additional risk factors that young people in care bring with them, but we also need to ensure that we do not lower our aspirations for them, so that we do not assume that they will end up in the criminal justice system. I am not sure whether I am answering the question.

  Q552  Fiona Mactaggart: At the moment, we have some tough, simple, straightforward measures regarding education. We find that bit of it easy. For example, we have put in place a requirement on schools to admit children in care. That is a practical thing that has been done. We do not find it easy to prevent children from ending up in prison, and when they are in prison they are frequently not visited, even when the local authority is still the corporate parent. When the local authority is not the corporate parent, visiting them is an added responsibility—that is interesting and it would be lovely if that happened. However, at the moment we cannot make visiting happen even when the local authority is the corporate parent. I do not get the sense that there is the drive on this issue that there is, for example, on educational achievement. As a parent, the last thing you want is your child to go to jail. A high proportion of our children—in our role as corporate parents—are ending up in jail, while they are still children.

  Baroness Morgan: I feel the need to check what our national indicator set says about that—I am not able to find it in my pack. But what is extremely important is that we do not take our eye off the ball in terms of understanding the real evidence about what is happening to these particularly vulnerable young people. It is completely unacceptable for local authorities not to be visiting as corporate parents. As I said, the Children and Young Persons Bill extends that duty, and we will be providing guidance to local authorities so that they know how to do that and do it effectively.

  Q553  Fiona Mactaggart: I think that they know how to do that; they are just not doing it. What are you going to do to ensure that they do? I understand that that is hard, but we do not have a mechanism that makes local authorities carry out their current legal responsibility. I am anxious that giving them a new responsibility will mean that there are more people not doing what they are legally supposed to do.

  Baroness Morgan: I am advised that we will use the powers given to the Secretary of State under the Children and Young Persons Bill, and that there is revised statutory guidance to ensure that there is planning—as I just said—for all looked-after children in custody, so that for each child there is a resettlement plan, including arrangements for accommodation and training, which will be put in place well in advance of the discharge. Ultimately, in answer to your question, it is about having a tough inspection regime so that if local authorities are not doing this, their Ofsted inspection will show that their children's services are not delivering in the way that we expect them to. There is a lever; we just have to make sure that we are using it.

  Q554  Fiona Mactaggart: The problem with the Ofsted lever for children in care is that it is does not have the same impact as the Ofsted lever for school effectiveness, and local authorities are frankly ignoring it. That is a real worry, because many of our frameworks are about management systems, developing the plan and so on. They are not about how many children have actually been visited and how many have not, and whether there is an impact for the local authority that hurts them if they fail on those basic things that the law says that they should be doing, which many of them are doing presently. I do not think that your Department is able to deploy any punishment. The youth crime action plan contains a lot about punishment, but there is no punishment for the local authorities who are not fulfilling their legal responsibility. I am afraid that unlike gabby middle-class parents—bless them—who are effective at making education authorities carry out their responsibilities, the parents of the children we are concerned with are not going to do that.

  Baroness Morgan: If I could just stress that the inspection regime, through Ofsted and the local authority performance management system, is at a point of change. Without going into all the detail about the national indicators set, everyone is well versed in how that change is happening: we have the national indicators set, we have the local area agreements. Central Government and all the inspectorate bodies have been through an enormous amount of consultation about how to reform the inspection of local government. One area that has come out of that, which I think is important for us, is that most of the programme-led area level inspection that has happened in the past by all the different inspectorates will not take place anymore, because of the reformed inspection process and the joint inspections that local authorities will have. Those will involve the Audit Commission, the Care Quality Commission, Ofsted, the inspectorates of the police and the probation services. They are all coming together to do these joint inspections. However, because of the incredibly important role of corporate parent, the programme of inspection led by Ofsted for services for looked-after children and safeguarding services for children will continue to have a specific and detailed inspection every three years, and that is an important exception for those services. While all the other inspections are being unified into a streamlined process for light-touch local authority inspection, we are maintaining an intensive and important three-year inspection process for children's services, and I think that that is going to be very important.

  Q555  Fiona Mactaggart: We have had evidence that pulling together the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families has helped in bringing together welfare and justice policy, but there is another group of very vulnerable young people in the system: young asylum seekers. I can think of one who I met shortly after she had arrived here from Uganda, where her father had been put in jail, in 2003. She was given leave until she was 18, which I think was about 2005 or 2006. In that period she managed to get three A-levels and is now at university. However, the Home Office still has not interviewed her or decided on her status. In the meantime, this young vulnerable woman on her own has had a baby—oh, what a surprise. She is doing well at university despite all these troubles. It seems to me that that the Home Office has said she is part of the backlog that needs to be dealt with by 2011. So our social services, bless them, are still taking their responsibilities to her very seriously. I do not believe that every local authority would do the same. I am very concerned that all around the country there are such vulnerable young people and nobody is driving the Home Office to make sensible decisions from the point of view of the State being a corporate parent for these children. I ask you to press for joint responsibility between the Home Office and DCSF in relation to these young asylum seekers. In my view, this would help the Home Office as well as you to provide care needs for them. Perhaps you could take that back.

  Baroness Morgan: I will happily take that back. There are various things I want to say about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and to use this as an opportunity to stress the point you were making about the local authority fulfilling its role as corporate parent. There should be no ambiguity. When unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrive in this country they are looked-after children and should benefit from all the services, support and care that any looked-after child should expect, or that we should be expecting to deliver as the corporate parent. That should involve all the support through the transition to adulthood that you have just described. It is important to put on record that that is absolutely how we see it. There is an issue I want to flag up. These children, as you have said, have an immigration status and all that goes with that. The UK Border Agency is required to have regard to the code of practice for keeping children safe from harm, which was consulted on earlier this year and will be published later in the autumn. The code of practice sets out how the UK Border Agency can better play its part in keeping these children safe from harm while they are in this country. We are committed to further developing the UK Border Agency's role in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in the asylum process. This is why we will be using the opportunity provided by the Immigration and Citizenship Bill that comes before Parliament in the fourth term to place a duty on the UK Border Agency to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in exercising its functions. I thought it would be helpful to share that with the Committee, although you are probably already aware of that. Guidance will be issued jointly by DCSF and the Home Office. I think that picks up some of your points.

  Q556  Fiona Mactaggart: It does indeed. As well as giving such guidance, which is good to hear about, could you focus on the issue of the transition to adulthood for these children? I think there is a leaving-care issue which is very significant for them. My constituent is now over the age she would be in care. She has a committed local authority and she has now got a baby, so things have become much more complicated, but there is an issue that in most cases these young people simply disappear at the point that they would be leaving care. There is no sensible plan. The Home Office is so inefficient that it does not deal with their immigration status, which it has a duty to do at that point. If you are giving guidance, you must give guidance about that transition to adulthood where the Home Office decides the future status of those young people, as well as the local authority taking responsibility for funding them. Some of them face complete impoverishment on becoming adults.

  Chairman: Minister, would you like to respond briefly to that because we must move on.

  Baroness Morgan: Thank you. I have just been reminded that when such young people reach legal adulthood at 18, the authority—I presume that you mean the local authority that has been caring for them—has related responsibilities to offer them support and services as care leavers. That picks up on the point that I was making earlier that they are looked-after children. This matter will be covered in the guidance.

  Q557  Mr Pelling: I can see that this is an ambitious programme by Government because many of the questions have been about working on a cross-cutting basis with many parts of the public sector. I do not want to impose a further request, but it strikes me that Care Matters is conscientious on the role of taking initiatives for looked-after children and supporting them in their education. I have one question with two parts on health care provision. Why does there seem to be a greater resonance with putting in place the structures that will provide micro-level support for young people in care? On a more macro-basis, do you think that the statutory status of the guidance promoting the health of looked-after children will put specific responsibilities on the performance of health bodies in delivering in this important area? Have I been unfair in my assumptions?

  Baroness Morgan: I am not sure whether you are being unfair in your assumptions. It is right that we question whether we are getting the right pieces of the jigsaw in place to support looked-after children. We know that the health outcomes of such children are significantly lower than the population of children at large. It is right that we should be concerned about promoting the health and well-being of looked-after children and create extra emphasis on that. Coming back to the statutory structures, it is important to note that primary care trusts are accountable for delivering services locally. They are joined through local area agreements with local authorities. As part of their duties, they must undertake a joint strategic needs assessment for the commissioning and provision of health services jointly with the local authority. For the first time, there will be statutory guidance on the joint strategic needs assessment that states that the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as looked-after children should be taken into account. That sounds like a high-level answer, but it is local primary care trusts that must examine the health needs of their communities. We are putting a specific duty on them to look in detail at the health needs of vulnerable groups such as looked-after children. That is a new duty, but it is very important and we will make sure that they do that. A particular concern is mental health services for looked-after children, and we are doing a review of that area. It is something that I am particularly interested in, and we will report on it shortly. I hope very much that we will be able to create some strong emphasis on the needs of looked-after children. It is a real issue.

  Q558  Mr Pelling: I am sorry, but I want to ask a question as a follow-up. I suppose that there are not really the resources for mental health care for you to be able to impose very much responsibility on PCTs and other public sector health providers to make that important provision. Also, a further follow-up: when it comes to these young people being supported in their education, there are some specifics such as virtual school head teachers and statutory designated teachers. Will there be something similar for health provision? There are two questions there.

  Baroness Morgan: I am a bit confused as to which question I am answering.

  Chairman: Go for the first one.

  Mr Pelling: Are there sufficient resources for mental health provision? Will you be able to live on the aspirations that you say you may reveal at a later stage?

  Baroness Morgan: The PCT is responsible for prioritising the resource. To go back to my first answer, that is why it is so important that we put the duty on them to take account of the needs of vulnerable children. I cannot sit here and devise the health care budget for each PCT. It is not possible for me to do that—it is very much a matter for the PCTs. We are saying that this is a priority for them, and that they have to ensure that they cater for and commission for those needs.

  Q559  Chairman: But the Department of Health does not have any requirement to prioritise children's issues, does it?

  Baroness Morgan: The Department of Health—

  Chairman: You are not the only person who can receive notes. One of my advisers tells me that these schemes are not working on the ground because there is no Department of Health requirement to prioritise children's issues, and that that is why we have the delay in the child health strategy. It is not happening. You are the lead Minister. You have responsibility for these children. How often do you meet someone from the Health Ministry or Home Affairs? You are the lead Minister, you are the boss. How often do you say, "Come over to my office so that we can sort this out"? How often do you do that, or do you do it?

  Baroness Morgan: I certainly will do it. I have not done it in my first three weeks, but I have a strong personal interest in health, and I was particularly pleased to be given this responsibility—I think they call it a dual key—not only for looked-after children but also for health and well-being in schools. I see it as very important. The duty for PCTs that we are talking about is new. It is a new requirement and we will expect to see some results because of it. As far as I am aware, PCTs take very seriously their commissioning and needs assessment roles, and I would expect them to take this duty very seriously.

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