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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-579)


29 OCTOBER 2008

  Q560  Chairman: Will you write to the Committee about this? The advice is that there is not a requirement to prioritise children's issues.

  Baroness Morgan: I will be very happy to clarify exactly where the duties lie.[5]

  Q561 Annette Brooke: Could I just make one little point on that. It is very much the case that there is not the duty to provide the actual treatment and, in terms of therapeutic treatment, we know that many children in care have been abused and desperately need it. but that the provision of such treatment is very patchy throughout the country. As an aside, may I ask you to look into the general provision of therapeutic treatment for abused children? It is very defective, and no amendments trying to tackle that problem yet again were accepted even for debate during discussions on the recent Bill. Minister, you have identified the many initiatives that have taken place over the past 10 years, some of which were really exciting such as Quality Protects, but we are where we are, and there has been no significant improvement in outcomes or, indeed, even a slippage in the widening gap in the GCSE educational performance of looked-after children. You said that you intend to report annually, but surely you must have some idea over what time scale you expect to see changes in outcomes.

  Baroness Morgan: In terms of the time scale, we are on a journey. We are building on the success of the work that my predecessors set in place through the implementation of Care Matters under the Bill. We are overhauling all the regulations and the guidance, and are producing a simplified and more accessible framework. We have pockets of good practice and an inspection regime coming into play that I expect to bring up the level of less good practice to the best. I know that hon. Members have been concerned that the pilots are small initiatives, but my hope and expectation would be that, through them, there will be an actually normal innovation and a driving force for new thinking, research, development of ideas and the pressing forward of care so that we move into a phase when the system will be about continuous improvement.

  Q562  Annette Brooke: I should like you to be more specific. Looking at all the indicators and poor outcomes, it would not be very satisfactory if, say in 2012, there was no improvement. Surely you must have some time horizon, otherwise we shall drift on for another 10 years.

  Chairman: Are you drifting, Minister?

  Baroness Morgan: No, we are not drifting. We have set targets through the national indicators. Perhaps I am being a bit high level but, in practical terms, local authorities will have specific targets for improving outcomes in particular areas. I shall go through them if that will be helpful. There are 150 national indicators, but an important number of them are on outcomes for looked-after children. The indicator for the stability of placements measures the percentage of looked-after children with three or more placements during the year. At the moment, 12% of looked-after children have three or more placements and the target is to reduce that to 10% by 2011, which is in three years. Is that the sort of thing that you wanted to know about?

  Q563  Annette Brooke: That is the setting of targets. The real question is what will be achieved. We know—there is quite a lot of evidence—that with existing legislation, guidance and standards there is not a universal level of provision across all local authorities. When the young people talk they say, for example, that they have not had an input into their care plans. We can have the fine words—the targets and indicators are going to be important—but given that there are so many inconsistencies in compliance with the current standards, surely you have just got to do a bit more to make sure that this time it works.

  Baroness Morgan: I totally accept that. We have to do an awful lot more. A full programme of work in the Department is driving forward this change. We have talked about the programme board, which will be ensuring that that happens on an official level and I will be accountable for the ministerial stocktakes. There is no complacency at all about this work.

  Q564  Annette Brooke: You have mentioned inspection, but are there other ways that you will be addressing underperformance by local authorities or care providers to ensure that we really have the implementation of the excellent aspirations of Care Matters?

  Baroness Morgan: Potentially, one of the most significant changes is the development of children in care councils. If there is any barometer of our success in creating the kinds of services that meet the needs of children, it will be all local authorities having such councils, all councils speaking freely and fully about the experience of care in their locality and us hearing and listening carefully, through our stocktakes, to what children and young people have to say about the services that are there for them.

  Q565  Annette Brooke: Will all councils have to have a children in care council?

  Baroness Morgan: Local authorities, yes.

  Q566  Annette Brooke: That was not the impression that I got from answers that we had on Monday.

  Baroness Morgan: It is in the White Paper. We are confident that all local authorities will do it.

  Q567  Annette Brooke: It is not in the Bill and it was clear from one answer that some authorities think that they can do things better in other ways. Would it be more important to put more emphasis on children's rights, along with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, alongside the request that local authorities have a children in care council?

  Baroness Morgan: As a Government, we have made it clear that we will pursue a rights and responsibilities agenda; the Prime Minister made that clear. I would expect that looking at the needs of children and young people would be within that agenda. I think I am saying yes.

  Q568  Annette Brooke: I certainly hope so. You mentioned the indicators, which we all agree with, to try to reduce the number of placements within a year and, obviously, if possible and appropriate, within the local authority. But has the Department done any analysis about why so little progress has been made on this over the past five years? It seems such an obvious reason for the underperformance and difficult behaviour patterns of young people, given that they are constantly moved from pillar to post. Why have we, generally, as corporate parents, failed in this so badly?

  Baroness Morgan: There will probably be an enormous range of technical and correct answers to that question, but in my view it is only now, having had this crescendo of work, that we are really in a position to take the root and branch developmental steps that need to be taken. It takes time to change an enormous system, but I think that now, building on our past success, we are giving it the right level of attention through legislation, inspection and the enormous programme of change. Why we have not succeeded is a very difficult question. Why will we succeed? It is because we have all the right elements in place with the work force strategy, when that piece is done, to create a strong system of continuous improvement. That is where we have to be. It is not about creating a fixed state system that delivers a level of care that was okay when it was created. We need a resilient system that will be able to improve as we go forward.

  Q569  Chairman: Is it not a question of political leadership as well? Many of us celebrated the fact that it was the Children, Schools and Families Committee and the Department. Perhaps this Committee is taking children in care more seriously than the Secretary of State. Do you think that the Secretary of State really cares about the issue? We have enjoyed the information that you have shared with us today, but as you pointed out, you have only been in the job for a short time, as the Minister responsible for the area has been changed quickly. Your predecessor was here for just over a year. Now he is gone and you are with us from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Is that a sign that the Secretary of State thinks that this is a bit of a nuisance area, and that his heart is not in it?

  Baroness Morgan: I think that I said at the beginning that having the new Department and the Children's Plan has created a momentum around an integrated approach to considering the services that we provide for children, whether education or residential care. Looking at the needs of the child is at the centre, as is creating the system around that child. That is a leadership question, and it is something that the Secretary of State has promoted tirelessly.

  Q570  Chairman: So Ed Balls cares about care.

  Baroness Morgan: He does. But in terms of junior Ministers, our job is to get in there and do a good job. Only being three weeks in the post is not a reason—

  Q571  Chairman: That was not a criticism of you. We have had great value from your evidence. What I am saying, as Chair of this Committee, is that I see a much greater profile and leadership from the Secretary of State on a range of other issues that this Committee considers.

  Baroness Morgan: It depends what prism you look at things through. If you use the prism of the media, it is rare that you will see attention given to the kinds of issue that children leaving care worry about in a way that is sensitive and productive for them. Look at the work that the Department is doing, the resource and the intensive nature of the work programme around Care Matters. It has really impressed me. Also, on a personal level—

  Q572  Chairman: Sorry, I am getting confused. Are you saying that there is not much media interest in the issue but you still have the political leadership, or are you saying that the political leadership is weaker because there is not much media attention? Are there any media here today? I do not think so. The British media are not interested in children. They talk about Jonathan Ross.

  Baroness Morgan: No, what I am saying is that the Department's work is being done because of the leadership. In terms of the leadership and the team, I am greatly supported by Beverley Hughes, and I am impressed by the balance of the Children's Plan. The issues for looked-after children are key, and it is a great time to join the Department and to work in this area, because there is such a high level of acceptance and enthusiasm for this area of work, and for working in partnership—that is important, and something that I have not said enough about—with local authorities, social care partners and the work force, and creating the emphasis on the voice of the child. Ultimately, we shall be tested by whether looked-after children notice the difference in the support that we are providing.

  Q573  Fiona Mactaggart: You spoke earlier about the national indicator on responsibility of placements, which is important. Are you aware that only 29 councils have included that in their targets for assessment under local area agreements? Does that give you confidence that local authorities are making looked-after children a priority? That is the one that has been chosen by most. Of the eight indicators, one has been chosen by 16, and the others by eight or fewer councils. What are you going to do about that?

  Baroness Morgan: We do not need those indicators to be chosen for the local area agreements for inspection—for our intervention—to bite. That is important. When I was looking at the national indicator set, that was the first thing that I wanted to know. Some of our indicators are new, so there is no baseline, and it is more difficult for local authorities to show progression, but that will change over time and as we go forward. It will not mean that we cannot inspect against them, or that we will not be able to see, and exert pressure for, real progress. We are on to that one.

  Q574  Fiona Mactaggart: Are you expecting more local authorities to choose those indicators in future?

  Baroness Morgan: I hope that local authorities will feel that this is an area where they can shine in future. I hope that they will.

  Q575  Fiona Mactaggart: But that is just a hope.

  Baroness Morgan: I am reminded that some local authorities are already meeting a stability indicator, as we would all hope, and that all education indicators are in every local area agreement. I had not realised that until now. There is already strong emphasis on the education indicators. To focus on the stability indicator, it is an incredibly important indicator for looked-after children, and it is important that it is included in more local area agreements.

  Q576  Fiona Mactaggart: I am beginning to get a sense—I did not think I would ever say this—that in a way we are over-emphasising educational achievement. The Every Child Matters outcomes are: to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve—between them that is one target—to make a positive contribution, and to achieve economic well-being. "Achieve" is just half of one of those outcomes. However, with regard to those children who are finding it really hard to get the other outcomes, the thing that we seem to be best at measuring is their educational outcome. We do not seem to be very good at measuring how they are staying safe, being healthy and enjoying life.

  Baroness Morgan: I think that some of the indicators are new. Interestingly, because of our thinking about the development of 21st-century schools and the need to wrap services around schools for all children so that they are more accessible, we have recently put more of an emphasis on the role of schools in promoting well-being and all the elements that you have just mentioned. There is a lot to learn from both sides in that regard, but I believe very strongly in the importance of having good measures and using them to focus the minds of those responsible for services locally. Those looked-after children measures will be important for focusing attention on the need, not just to contain, but to develop and promote better services. I think that there is a lot of learning, and you are right to highlight the stability issue.

  Q577  Fiona Mactaggart: In the Green Paper there was a whole load of proposals for the pledge that were quite specific at the beginning, but by the time they were set out in the White Paper they seemed to have become consistently less specific. That is a thing that politicians do, but children, when engaged in those things, do not have the experience to ask such questions as, "How often will I get a review?" and "On what days will my social worker talk to me?" How can we engage young people in making pledges and ensure that they are involved? Is there a risk that we will create a mechanism that is devolved locally where young people are involved and end up with nice, vague stuff, rather than stuff that young people can touch and feel and hold their corporate parents to account for?

  Baroness Morgan: I think that those are really important concerns and that the pledge idea is valuable. I understand that Bradford is launching a pledge today and that young people have fed into the development of that pledge, so perhaps that example would be worth scrutiny. Coming back to the importance that the Secretary of State places on the voice of children and how that can work practically through children in care, looked-after children and councils, their role in feeding into pledges is very important. That theme permeates every aspect of the guidance that we are reviewing and the regulations that we are producing. The needs of the child or young person, as articulated by them, must be central and must be listened to and taken into account. I think that that is a fundamental shift that has happened in recent years. The system will take time to absorb that shift fully, but we will press that as hard as we can from the Department.

  Q578  Mrs Hodgson: I was very pleased that Fiona mentioned the measuring of outcomes, specifically the Every Child Matters outcomes, and she quite rightly pointed out that only a small element of those relates to educational outcomes. As you will be aware, I had a private Member's Bill on special educational needs and the collecting of information and measuring of outcomes for children with special educational needs. I was therefore interested to read that the Refugee Children's Consortium has talked about the limited availability of data on unaccompanied asylum- seeking children in the UK. It has said that there are no official national figures, for example, on the numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in school, on the number who go on to higher education, the number who get into trouble with the law and the number of trafficked children who go missing. Also, as yet, there is no definitive data set for the proportion of young people in the youth justice system with looked-after status, although the Youth Justice Board believes that it might be possible to collect the data from 2009-10. I know you mentioned the annual stocktake that you will do across Government Departments, but will that be one of the gaps you are looking to address in that annual stocktake?

  Baroness Morgan: To paraphrase what I was advised by the Department, this is an incredibly data-rich area of policy. Apparently, there is an enormous amount of data.

  Q579  Mrs Hodgson: So it is not collected centrally.

  Baroness Morgan: Well, what I am interested in is how we can understand what all the data mean. It is all very well having numbers, but what are the trends? On the stock takes, we will be having quantitative research, but we will also be doing qualitative research—particularly with young people, but also with professionals—to find out what people think about those numbers. I do not know about the list of particular points that you just gave. I will have a look and see what data we do have on those, but it is also a matter of what people think about those numbers—are they going up or going down? On unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I was interested to understand that when the regulations and the policy we currently work with were decided, there were virtually no unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We are now talking about something like 6,000 a year, which is a significant difference. I am also interested in understanding the trends.

  Chairman: Minister, we have kept you a long time in your first session in front of a Select Committee. We have really appreciated your presence and your answers, and we hope to have a continuing relationship with you over a good period of time.

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