Finally, Lords amendment 19 addresses concerns, which were again raised in both Houses, about access to postal services. The central concern of hon. Members who have raised this issue is how we can ensure that people right across the country and from all walks of life continue to have access to the high standard of postal service on which they depend. The Bill already specifies that Ofcom’s duties include ensuring that there is provision of sufficient access points to meet the

9 Jun 2011 : Column 342

reasonable needs of users. In determining those, Ofcom will conduct thorough research and analysis, and consult users to take their views into account. Importantly—this was often misunderstood in our previous debates—Ofcom will also be bound by its broader duties, as set out in the Communications Act 2003, to have regard to, among other things, the needs of persons with disabilities, the elderly, those on low incomes and those living in rural areas.

I am confident that that will mean that Ofcom’s requirements on the distribution of access points across the country will ensure that all users can continue to post their letters, packets and parcels in a convenient way. However, although we are clear that the reasonable needs of users is the right test, it is conceivable that in some cases the Government will wish to apply different considerations. For example, the Government may have wider public policy objectives to consider, perhaps in relation to rural policy or small business support.

Such broader public policy goals are rightly a matter for the Government and not for an independent sector regulator. Therefore, amendment 19 allows the Secretary of State to step in and require Ofcom to ensure sufficient access points throughout the United Kingdom to meet the interests of the public. That is not a power that we would ever expect to use—its inclusion simply serves as a fail-safe to address the legitimate, albeit unlikely, concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by colleagues in the other place.

I hope that this package of regulatory amendments demonstrates that we have listened to the concerns of hon. Members and those in the other place. The amendments constitute a real strengthening of protection for the universal service—an objective that I believe all hon. Members share—and as such, I hope they are warmly welcomed.

3 pm

Nia Griffith: Lords amendment 17 requires that, when having regard to the requirement for a postal service to be financially viable, Ofcom should include the need for a reasonable commercial rate of return for the universal postal service. We argued this very determinedly in Committee. The provision of the universal postal service constitutes a considerable financial burden and we have seen how, in recent times, the opening up of opportunities for competitors to come in and cherry-pick some invitingly profitable parts of the postal delivery service, leaving Royal Mail to provide the universal postal service, has led to some considerable controversy about the price charged for the final mile. Royal Mail feels that the price set by Postcomm is too low, while the competitor providers would quite naturally always want the price kept as low as possible.

We welcome the fact that—as is made clear elsewhere in the Bill—Royal Mail will continue to be the provider for 10 years after privatisation, not just three. This will provide some much needed stability for the service and make it worth Royal Mail investing sufficiently in the necessary infrastructure. But crucial to the success and stability of the service is the need for the postal service to be financially viable. It would be immensely disruptive and damaging if a privatised Royal Mail got into difficulties and had to be bailed out. That is one reason it is essential that the regulator, Ofcom, should understand the need for a reasonable commercial rate of return for

9 Jun 2011 : Column 343

the universal postal service and make its judgements and interventions accordingly. This is common sense, so we shall support this amendment.

Lords amendments 16 and 18 provide clarity that the requirement for efficiency would apply after a reasonable amount of time and provide a definition of that reasonable period as a period beginning on the day that the provisions of the Bill come into force and which Ofcom considers to be reasonable. These amendments also help to improve the Bill and we shall support them.

Lords amendment 19 is an extremely important amendment. In Committee, we tried very hard to persuade the Government to amend the Bill to ensure that the post office network was used to provide the network of access points, and we were very disappointed that the Minister chose to turn down the opportunity to show any real commitment to the post office network and refused to accept our amendment on using the post office network to provide the access points to the postal service.

This Lords amendment does not safeguard the post office network. It does, however, provide some protection for the public, and some reassurance that the Secretary of State may direct Ofcom to take action to ensure that sufficient access points are provided to meet the interests of the public. It is not, however, anything like as specific or forceful as we would have liked. It does not specify, as legislation in some other countries does, the number of access points or their geographical distribution. This is done elsewhere either by specifying a precise number of outlets, as in the German model, or by insisting on specific access criteria, as in the Australian model.

This amendment is much more subjective and leaves it as a matter of opinion for the Secretary of State to decide what is meant by sufficient access points to meet the interests of the public. Will the Minister clarify the thinking behind this, and specify the number of access points? We understand that the access criteria, as laid down in the document “Securing the post office network in a digital age”, could be met by a network of some 7,000 or 8,000 post offices. When we were in government we put in money to keep open a network of 11,900 post offices, and the present Government are doing likewise. What number of access points is the Secretary of State likely to designate as sufficient to meet the interests of the public? Will it be as many as the current network of post offices, or will it be fewer? If it is the latter, some post offices could cease to be access points for postal services and not only would they lose the third of their income that comes from the Royal Mail work that they do but they would stand to lose a lot more income, as they would lose footfall.

Access points would not, of course, have to be post offices. We have already seen some very adverse public reaction when post offices have been moved into the upstairs of some high street chains, making them difficult to find and time-consuming to access. Will the Minister clarify the number of access points he envisages meeting the interests of the public, and whether the Secretary of State might also have criteria for the accessibility of access points so that we do not end up with access points that are hard to access?

Access points does not just mean counter services, but can also include post boxes. Will the Minister give us any indication of what number of post boxes the Secretary of State would consider sufficient to meet the

9 Jun 2011 : Column 344

interests of the public? Would it be the same number as now, or are we likely to see post boxes removed or boarded up? I say that as someone who has only recently had to fight for Royal Mail to restore a post box at Brynteg in my constituency, and I can well envisage that a profit-hungry privatised Royal Mail would look to reduce the number of post boxes in order to cut down on collection costs. That could mean people losing their local post box and no longer having one within walking distance of their homes. We welcome the amendment because it could improve the chances of a better service to the public, but we would have liked a much stronger amendment to give a stronger guarantee of a comprehensive network of access points.

We welcome Lords amendment 20 and the consequential amendments 15 and 25, because they enable Ofcom to impose a notification condition on any person providing, or intending to provide, a service within the scope of the universal postal service. Again, this is important for the rational management of the universal postal service, and we should support it. Lords amendment 21 makes a significant change to Ofcom’s review of the costs of the universal service obligation. Whereas previously the Bill specified that Ofcom would have to wait three years from when the Bill came into force before it could carry out a review of the costs of the universal service obligation, the amendment increases the period to five years, unless the Secretary of State intervenes and directs Ofcom to carry out a review. We have not sought amendment 21. Will the Minister clarify under what circumstances the Secretary of State might intervene before the five-year period is up?

On Lords amendment 22, we have consistently pointed out that the universal service provider incurs very large costs and needs to have as much certainty as possible about its future obligations so that it can plan long term and make the necessary investment in the latest technology. We therefore welcome the amendment, which means that Royal Mail will continue to be the universal service provider for the next 10 years, rather than just the next three years. This is a significant improvement. We know that significant modernisation has taken place within Royal Mail over the past few years. In the evidence sessions, the chief executive, Moya Greene, expressed her pride and delight in the world-class facilities that Royal Mail has in some of its depots, but she also pointed out that there are still areas awaiting modernisation. If Royal Mail is to continue to invest, the certainty of knowing that it will remain the provider of the universal service for the next 10 years will provide a much better basis for doing so than a mere three years. This is very important to create the necessary stability and justify the necessary investment. We therefore welcome the amendment.

Lorely Burt: This final string of amendments is another testimony to how the Government have listened to colleagues on both sides of the House. I greatly welcome a number of the amendments, particularly those that make the duties of Ofcom stronger than under Postcomm. I want to ask the Minister about amendment 19, which specifies that the Secretary of State can override the regulator on access points. We need to be wary about setting up an independent body but saying, “Never mind, the Secretary of State can override it”. We want to be sure that that could be done only to the benefit of the consumer. Bringing politics into the matter concerns

9 Jun 2011 : Column 345

me a little, so will my hon. Friend confirm that he cannot envisage any circumstances in which the Secretary of State could intervene, perhaps to specify that we do not need as many access points as now?

I particularly welcome amendment 17. Royal Mail has found it difficult to make a profit given the constraints under which it has had to work. The previous situation was impossible, so I am delighted with the amendment. We had to address the appalling decline in profitability, which was due to the ceiling imposed by the previous Government, who were unwise in their overzealous interpretation of the European legislation. If we can do it now, why could we not have created a more competitive environment for Royal Mail in the past? No one can make a profit with one hand tied behind their back. I particularly welcome Lords amendment 22, which guarantees that Royal Mail will remain a USP for 10 years, thereby removing any lurking uncertainty, which is particularly helpful.

Finally, Lords amendments 20, 15 and 25 require pre-notification to Ofcom of the planned commencement or expansion of a letters business on a specified scale. That will allow Ofcom to evaluate the potential impact beforehand, not after the stable door is opened and the horse has bolted. I wonder whether the Minister could say a little more about the circumstances in which he would envisage the provisions applying. Opposition Members have rightly raised the spectre of lots of other organisations wanting to come in and expand their letter delivery services, so how will the provisions work to ensure that Royal Mail’s commercial interests remain viable?

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I would like to press the Minister on Lords amendments 16 to 19, to clause 28. He has rightly spoken of the need for Royal Mail to continue to modernise, and I hope to give a simple example of why this is so important.

The House will recall the severe snow that affected large parts of Scotland last winter, including West Fife in my constituency. Fife was particularly badly hit because of the incompetence of Fife council, which failed to clear the roads and keep traffic moving. That had a huge knock-on effect for Royal Mail. If residents are stuck in villages or large parts of Dunfermline and cannot get out, it would quite obviously be unreasonable to expect Royal Mail to be able to deliver a regular service, because for genuine health and safety reasons it is vital that posties are not exposed to unnecessary risk. However, Royal Mail failed to provide a robust contingency programme to deal with the huge backlog that quickly built up.

It will probably not surprise the House to know that mid-December is a particularly busy time for Royal Mail, as there is a substantial increase in the volume of packages and cards. Unfortunately, business continues in the build-up to Christmas for many of my constituents. I was approached by a number of small businesses and local law firms that were waiting desperately for important documents—in some cases legal documents—and that were simply unable to get them delivered by Royal Mail. Many of my constituents showed some initiative and went to the Dunfermline sorting office to see whether they could simply collect their post. However, Royal

9 Jun 2011 : Column 346

Mail had no plan in place even to allow local businesses or my constituents to do so, which is a sign of poor planning by Royal Mail management. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what discussions he has had with Royal Mail about that lack of strategic or, some might argue, tactical thinking, which should be happening at the local and regional levels.

The backlog was such that many of my constituents did not receive the parcels and cards that friends and relatives had sent them until the middle of January, which is clearly a most unsatisfactory circumstance. To be fair, after I met Royal Mail in the build-up to the new year, it took a number of steps, including putting on Sunday deliveries, drafting in additional staff from other sorting offices and putting on extra deliveries. But, with the best will in the world, I hope that the Minister will agree that it should not have been necessary for us to reach a state of chaos before Royal Mail took proactive steps to tackle the problem.

3.15 pm

I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the specific issues he has raised with Royal Mail relating to the modernisation of its procedures. Has he discussed how its policies might become more robust? Has it given him any indication of whether it has learned the lessons, not only from Fife but from across Scotland, in time for next winter? I fear that we might otherwise face a rather challenging set of conditions.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I should like to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). This is a listening Government who are seeking to improve legislation at all stages and in every way, and that is evident from the Lords amendments before us today.

I should like to speak particularly to Lords amendments 17, 20 and 22. They represent a significant shift in the terms offered to Royal Mail, to the advantage of the Royal Mail group. In Committee and again today, we have heard justified praise for the present management of the group. Moya Greene is an exceptional leader of the group and she is bringing her depth of experience to the provision of Royal Mail services in the United Kingdom. It was not always thus, however. The group has at times had a poverty of good management. Indeed, its management has at times been weak. Many times during our discussions of the Bill, we have recognised that the people who best knew how to run the Royal Mail group were the postal workers themselves and their representatives in the Communication Workers Union. The amendments demonstrate our faith that the management and the unions will use the new advantages to the best effect and in the long-term interest of the people who use Royal Mail services.

We are extending for 10 years Royal Mail’s ability to be the sole universal service provider. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, that is a sensible and welcome change, because it will enable difficult investment decisions to be made with more certainty about market conditions. We are also providing that, after five years, the other operators will be able to receive a charge for any inefficiencies or burdens resulting from universal service provisions not being made. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that sufficient incentives will exist for the management of

9 Jun 2011 : Column 347

the Royal Mail group to continue to make the improvements that he rightly identifies as necessary over the next five years. Perhaps he will also be able to update the House and give us assurances on progress with the unions in relation to these advantages.

These measures demonstrate that we are placing additional trust in responsible management and responsible unions in our Royal Mail group. We are making significant changes in the Bill, to the benefit of the people who work for the postal service. They will move it forward, and they represent a welcome step. However, we shall require the recent excellence in the provision of services to continue. We do not want to have to look back in five years’ time and say, “We gave you those chances, but you didn’t take the necessary steps to modernise. Now we are going to have to burden other people because you didn’t take up all the advantages that we provided.” These are good amendments, and I fully support them.

Michael Connarty: The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) referred to the trade unions in a way that sounded as though he did not accept the hard work they have done over the past decade and a half to try to get a good relationship with the management. The amendments were driven by the work of the Communication Workers Union, working alongside the Labour Lords and reasonable people on the Cross Benches, and they have now been taken up by the Government. Only one of the amendments before us today did not come through the debates in the Lords as a result of the work with the CWU. The unions have always been responsible. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, over the decade in which I have been the secretary of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, the management have been horrendous in the running of Royal Mail and the Post Office.

Richard Fuller: I appreciate the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman that he must have misheard what I said. I said precisely what he has just said—that the people who have provided leadership in the Royal Mail group and who have provided a consistency of belief in the ethos of public service provision have been the workers themselves, and that they have been let down by the management over a number of years. I said that the CWU, with the business agreement it put in place, showed that it had learned that it needed to be constructive and positive, and that it provided great leadership. My hope was that, with Moya Greene in place, we have a solid partnership of management, workers and the unions that can move forward. The hon. Gentleman was not always present in Committee; if he had been, he would have heard more clearly that I am strong supporter of the CWU. I am glad to have the opportunity to clarify that.

Michael Connarty: I am grateful, and I am glad that we have a solid platform on which to continue the debate.

It is remarkable that not just myself, but not a single Labour member of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, which worked together with the CWU and the Post Office, was asked to participate in the Committee considering this Bill. I might ask the Minister some detailed questions that he could have answered before if I had been granted access to his knowledge and aspirations

9 Jun 2011 : Column 348

in Committee. That position will have to be explained by the business managers—not by me, as it has never been explained to me.

I wish to focus on amendments 21 and 22. Let me provide some background. The 10-year period in amendment 22 for the universal service provider—currently, Royal Mail—is welcome, but the phrasing of the provision amounts to a get-out clause. Lords amendment 22, as it says in the explanatory notes,

“would prevent Ofcom from making a procurement determination within 10 years from the day that Part 3 of the Bill comes into force, unless the universal service provider agrees.”

Thus we have a privatised Royal Mail with a universal service obligation; it has all the burdens, which are not going to be shared properly with others in the business. Others have already cherry-picked much of the provision—TNT, to name just one, and many others come through our door, delivered in the last mailbag by Royal Mail employees. As far as I can see, none of the burden is going to be shared with Royal Mail for providing that universal service; it all falls on the universal service provider.

By using deductive logic, people can see that the privatisation of the universal service provider, Royal Mail, should not be continued. We would like Ofcom to look at splitting up the obligation and sharing some of the burden by allowing some other regional post office or mail provider to come in and take on some of it. It is possible that in a privatised scenario, the interests of Royal Mail—at the moment, the public service provider—will not be the same. As I say, there is a get-out clause.

Clause 33(5) will permit the Secretary of State to amend the minimum requirements of the universal service postal provision in clause 30—a mail service for six days a week, provided at an affordable and uniform price throughout the UK. Under clause 33(7), an affirmative resolution is required before the Secretary of State can make amendments, but a coalition Government with a majority can easily achieve that. This is predicated on good will, in a sense. On a more negative view, we see these provisions as being nothing but wallpaper for public consumption, which will not help us to face up to the financial problems of a privatised Royal Mail operating in a privatised environment. In that context, it might not be sustainable.

I am concerned when the amendments can be interpreted in two different ways. I have not had the benefit of interrogating the Minister in Committee, of hearing the Committee debates or of participating in the debates in the House of Lords that led to these amendments being brought forward.

Lords amendment 21 increases the three-year period in clause 42—which provides for Ofcom to review the extent to which the universal service provider is bearing a financial burden—to five years. If that extension is such a good thing, why is this a Government amendment? Why was it not tabled, here or in the House of Lords, on behalf of the work force, via the Communication Workers Union? What is the reason for the extension?

The provision of a universal service is one of the great burdens on Royal Mail. Delivering post in parts of the constituency of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) or a constituency in Somerset is much more burdensome than delivering it within the square mile of the City of London. The last Government, who allowed

9 Jun 2011 : Column 349

commercialisation, were immediately accused of allowing some companies to cherry-pick the deliveries. That is why TNT made so much money: it is much more interested in cities and large conurbations than in the universal service obligation, which covers all the sparsely populated and difficult parts of the country. The capital and work force required by the universal service provider cannot be utilised at its optimum level because of the unevenness of the urban density and geography of the country. Some areas are more profitable than others, but the burden of delivery must still be carried.

Clause 43 provides for the regulator to consider mechanisms for a burden-sharing arrangement if Ofcom finds that such a burden exists. I welcome that proposal. Ofcom could take three possible courses. It could review the minimum requirements of the universal service under clause 33, which means downgrading the service. The Minister said earlier that that was not one of the Government’s aims. There could be an industry or users’ levy, which has been hotly resisted by the privatised cherry-picking companies which have made a killing from the commercialisation of Royal Mail delivery in the past decade. There could be a “procurement determination”, allowing the universal service provider’s obligation to be changed under clause 43. No one knows what course Ofcom will choose, but we do know that if there is to be any logic and justice in a levy across the industry to help with universal service provision, the Lords amendment will not allow it to happen for five years.

This is a negative amendment. It leaves Royal Mail with a burden that it cannot shift, cannot share with others, and cannot ask Ofcom to share with others for five rather than three years. Perhaps the Government want that to happen. If that is what they are up to, let them tell us. I know that the extension to five years has been welcomed by those who are currently making a nice killing by cherry-picking certain kinds of mail, but a real problem will face whoever bears the universal service obligation under privatisation. No subsidies will be offered; the provider will have to stand on its own two feet and make a profit. It will have to seek a change.

The extension to 10 years proposed in Lords amendment 22 is all right as long as the procurement trigger is not used by the universal service provider, but I think that the two proposals are heading in the same direction. Following privatisation, there will be pressure on the universal service provider—currently Royal Mail—to offload some of its universal service obligation. It could do that by means of a change in the number of deliveries. There have already been some changes: there is now only one delivery per day, and letters are not collected from mail boxes between lunchtime on Saturday and 5 pm on Monday. All those adjustments were made under the pressure of commercialisation, but there will be other pressures.

What worries me particularly is the possibility that regions to which a provider does not want to deliver will be offloaded on to another provider. That provider will then go to the Secretary of State or Ofcom and say, “We cannot make a profit on this.” My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) was asking about this point earlier. The provider will say, “It is not viable, so we want to be able

9 Jun 2011 : Column 350

to change the arrangement either by cutting the number of deliveries or pick-ups or by altering the price of the delivery.”

3.30 pm

All those options are available under these amendments. It may not be the intention but if it is the intention, the Minister and those who drafted the amendments are being Machiavellian in their approach to Royal Mail. I do not think they are Machiavellian, however. Frankly, I do not believe they are sufficiently smart; I think they are just blundering along, putting together groups of clauses and amendments that will have unintended consequences.

I am worried because the Bill, with these amendments, is deeply flawed. There are even flaws in the amendments that we are welcoming now. We are providing for 10-year terms, but it is still possible to get out of that by going to Ofcom and saying, “We can’t make it. We can’t cut the mustard here. We can’t make a profit. Either we give up as a universal service provider and sell out the lot, or you let us break up the franchise.” I think that is what will happen. I have serious reservations, therefore.

Also, why does the Minister want to extend the time period for Ofcom to be able to review the situation from three years to five years, under amendment 21? Is it to protect those who at present do not want to pay a levy, or to stop the burden sharing being properly looked at, or is it because he wants to save the minimum requirements of the service order? We are not sure. Will he address those concerns to give me the confidence so that I do not choose to press amendment 21 to a Division?

Mr Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for her general welcome for many of our amendments. I began my remarks by saying that a degree of consensus had emerged in the other place.

The hon. Lady spent most of her time talking about access points and amendment 19. We must be clear about what an access point is. It comes from the directive; the definition of an access point and the requirement to provide them flow from the universal postal service directive, and we then define it in this Bill. It would be wrong for us to state that it could only ever be post offices, and to enshrine that in the Bill, because, for instance, some rural communities might need access points in a form that the post office network is unable to provide. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that it is therefore important to have some flexibility.

The hon. Lady was concerned about some post offices not being accessible, and gave the example that some of them might be upstairs. In addressing the access points issue, Ofcom will be required to look at the needs of users, and its obligations, under the Communications Act 2003, are much stronger than those of Postcomm, and they include taking account of the needs of disabled people. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will understand that the accessibility requirements have been improved. On access points more generally, the hon. Lady did not give the Government credit for the fact that in the—signed and legally binding—agreement we have reached with Post Office Ltd providing the £1.34 billion, Post Office Ltd has to secure a network of at least 11,500 post offices. That is the clearest and strongest way to ensure that the network is delivered.

9 Jun 2011 : Column 351

The hon. Lady had some concerns about amendment 21, and asked why the Secretary of State would intervene before the five years was up. It is sensible to maintain the Secretary of State’s ability to intervene and direct Ofcom to conduct an unfair burden review. That measure adds some flexibility to the Bill. If all the evidence pointed towards there being a need for an unfair burden review, a process to allow a review to be conducted would clearly be beneficial. We wanted that extra flexibility in the Bill.

Nia Griffith: I am not against the idea of Ministers intervening, because it is very important to have that opportunity for a review. I was just wondering whether there were any particular circumstances in which the Secretary of State might be proactive, because of the damage that could be caused if the review was left for five years rather than three. I am all for the Secretary of State having that additional power, but are there any circumstances that would precipitate an instant review?

Mr Davey: We need to have flexibility in the legislation to ensure that if the circumstances are so bad for Royal Mail because technology is having a worse effect than we had expected on its letter flows, we can still provide the universal service. That is what this Bill is about. This extra flexibility ensures that if an unforeseen circumstance arises requiring an unfair burden review before the five years is up, that flexibility is in place. I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes that.

I was grateful for the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who acknowledged that these amendments show that the Government have listened. She was concerned that amendment 19 would give the Secretary of State an override. May I assure her that we think it very unlikely that the power would be used? We need to make it clear that the first step is for Ofcom to assess the needs of users, and it will consult the public. We would not expect to use the power, and it is highly unlikely that we would interpret the “interests of the public” as being less important than the “needs of the public”. The words in the amendment should reassure her. The amendment is intended as a broader test to capture elements that the “needs of the public” do not, and that Ofcom is not allowed to consider. I hope that she will be reassured by that.

My hon. Friend also asked about the notification scheme. I assure her that it is designed to enable Ofcom to act to prevent harmful cherry-picking, which would damage the universal service. Again, this is another tightening up of part 3 and the regulations, to ensure that we can deliver the universal service through this Bill.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) talked about what happened in his constituency following the bad weather just before Christmas, and asked me whether I talked to Royal Mail about it. Of course I regularly meet the management of Royal Mail, and they are committed to providing an excellent service. I think we all accept that the conditions last winter were exceptional and did create lots of problems. Royal Mail took exceptional measures to try to deal with them, including investing £20 million of extra resources to ensure that deliveries could be maintained.

9 Jun 2011 : Column 352

Although the details of Royal Mail’s operations are, of course, a matter for Royal Mail, it is worth pointing out that in areas of Scotland, including his constituency, the private companies had much greater problems in delivering. Royal Mail acted strongly, made the investment and was able to deliver. As the universal service provider, it showed its strength.

Mr Davidson: Does the Minister believe that that additional expenditure—that enormous cross-subsidy to the highlands and other isolated areas of Scotland—would have happened in an independent Scotland?

Mr Davey: Mr Deputy Speaker, I would love to speculate on such a matter, but Madam Deputy Speaker has made it very clear that she would not wish us to do so. All I can suggest to the hon. Gentleman is that he might wish to debate that later with the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) in order to get an answer to his question. He should not believe everything he hears.

Thomas Docherty: Let me take the Minister back to the point about some of the other providers, such as City Link, which he is absolutely right to say did not provide any service at all. That affected quite a lot of packages; for example, Amazon uses a non-Royal Mail provider. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that if one of those companies tried to become the USP, it would be expected to make the same provision as Royal Mail does, and that we would not get the kind of cowboy operations that handle some deliveries now?

Mr Davey: That is the whole point of the Bill’s ensuring that the universal provision is there for us. It will be maintained, because the regulator, Ofcom, will ensure that the universal service provider meets the minimum requirements, including on performance. If a company took over the management of Royal Mail and became the USP, it would be subject to that very tough regulatory regime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) rightly praised the management of Royal Mail, led by the chairman Donald Brydon and the chief executive Moya Greene, who have made a real difference in their time at the helm; the Government have huge confidence in them. My hon. Friend asked what the incentives for management were. Having met the chairman and chief executive and having attended a board meeting recently, I assure him that its management is really seized of the need to modernise Royal Mail. Look at the way in which we have set the regime up: the Bill makes it clear that Ofcom must, when regulating, have regard to the need for the USP to become, and to remain, efficient, so there will be a regulatory framework to bear down on management—but there also are other incentives for management. He was right to make that point.

My hon. Friend also asked about the role of the unions. Royal Mail’s management and I have engaged very constructively with the Communication Workers Union, and I have already welcomed its very strong support for the amendments we are discussing today, which it recognises as strengthening the protection of the universal service that its members provide. There are, however, some difficulties. I was disappointed by the CWU’s decision to ballot for strikes in London

9 Jun 2011 : Column 353

about modernisation and I hope that the ongoing talks will prevent a strike from going ahead, as industrial action would only damage the very universal service that we are all acting to protect.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) went very wide in his remarks on the regulation. I know that he is secretary of the CWU parliamentary liaison group, and I wish that he had been on the Bill Committee, as that would have spiced things up. We had a great time on the Committee. I remember fondly the days of Red Bull amendments, Gordian knot amendments and clause 3 amendments and all the rest that we heard from the Labour party. No doubt we would also have had the Linlithgow and East Falkirk amendment if the hon. Gentleman had been on the Committee. He is particularly concerned about Lords amendment 22, on which he spent a lot of time, about the procurement determination. As I said in my opening remarks, that change has been welcomed by Royal Mail and the CWU because it provides greater certainty. I also said that people had interpreted the option of procurement decision, if there were a decision that the USO represented an unfair burden on the USP, in ways that we had not expected. We believe it is a useful tool in the regulator’s armoury to make sure that the universal service will be provided throughout the country. It is not an attack on the USP, as some people had expected. The measure is designed to ensure that the legislation is future-proofed and to make sure that the regulator has all the necessary tools at its disposal.

Let me bring my remarks to a close—

Michael Connarty: The Minister has missed out Lords amendment 21, which came from the Government side and has not been discussed or pushed for by anyone else. That amendment changes from three years to five the time after which the issue of levy and burden-sharing will be set aside. That has been welcomed by the people who are making lots of money out of cherry-picking in relation to Royal Mail at the moment.

3.45 pm

Mr Davey: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I had dealt with that when I responded to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, who also raised that point, albeit from a slightly different perspective. We need to ensure that Royal Mail management have incentives to deliver. On reflection, I was concerned that the three-year period before which an unfair burden review could result in

9 Jun 2011 : Column 354

compensation was too short. Five years is the right length of time, because we need to put pressure on Royal Mail management—I think that they willingly accept that—to drive forward modernisation, because that is the only way in which the company will survive in the context of a universal service provider, and we will deliver the universal service.

I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Llanelli for her sterling work in scrutinising the Bill, both as a member of the Public Bill Committee and in the Chamber. I also thank her former Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), who brought a great deal of wisdom to the Opposition Front-Bench team, which I am sure it will be sad to lose. I welcome the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), although he is not in the Chamber, to his new role. I also thank all other members of the Public Bill Committee, especially the hon. Member for Angus, who was with us when he was able to beat the weather.

I am sure that all Members of this House and the other place would wish to join me in thanking Richard Hooper, whose two excellent and comprehensive reports formed the backdrop to the Bill. He has been incredibly generous with his time, and the Bill would not be as strong without his contribution.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what a historic occasion this is. For more than 20 years successive Governments have grappled with this problem, ranging from the work in the mid-90s by Lord Heseltine to the more recent attempt at legislation led by Lord Mandelson, right through to the present day. If Royal Mail’s problems were stark 20 years ago they are considerably worse today, because of the advent of e-mail, social networking and mobile communications. I am thankful that rather than having to face the problem with a blank sheet of paper, I have been able to draw on a large body of previous policy thinking and evidence.

The Bill is a culmination not just of the present Government’s efforts, but of more than 20 years’ work by successive Governments to tackle the problems faced by Royal Mail. By enacting it, we will finally be taking the action that successive Governments have recognised as necessary and, most importantly, giving Royal Mail the best chance of a successful future. Only with a successful Royal Mail can we all be confident that our constituents and businesses will continue to benefit from the universal postal service on which so many rely. This is a momentous achievement in which both sides of the House can share.

Lords amendment 15 agreed to.

Lords amendments 16 to 28 agreed to.

9 Jun 2011 : Column 355

Munro Report

3.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Munro Report and its implications for child protection.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead the debate, as well as by the number of hon. Members who wish to speak in it. I would like to set out my stall, and although I am supposed to make a winding-up speech, I am keen that we hear from Back Benchers, so I shall keep that to a minimum.

Today is significant for two reasons. First, this is the only Government-led debate on child protection in Government time that I can recall in my 14 years in the House. The debate is therefore long overdue and it reflects the importance that I and my fellow Ministers attach to child protection. It is an enormous privilege to lead the debate and I look forward to what I am sure will be a constructive discussion, as I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House hold passionate and well-informed views about the subject.

The second significance is that this week is the first anniversary of the launch of the Munro review of child protection. Hon. Members will remember that this was the first review that was established by the Department for Education. It was launched on 10 June 2010, and that underlined the fact that getting child protection right is an enormous priority for the Government. I know we all share that as a priority, so let me pass on my thanks to all hon. Members, leading organisations in the sector, the child protection work force and the wider public, including children and young people themselves, who contributed in some way to Professor Munro’s report. Their experience, insights and expertise have helped make it a well-informed and widely welcomed report.

We should not forget that the vast majority of our children enjoy a safe and happy childhood, but even now too many still do not. Some of their names are sadly familiar—Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Khyra Ishaq—but many more are not. Whether we hear about a case in the media or it goes unnoticed by the public, there is always an individual tragedy at its centre. It is those individual tragedies that have so often been the triggers for different reviews and inquiries on child protection over many years. Every one of those reviews has resulted in calls for action, and in response legislation has been passed, rulebooks have been expanded, more procedures and processes have been introduced and structures have been restructured.

However, the fundamental problems have not gone away. Despite the very best of intentions, our hard-working, dedicated social workers, foster carers and other front-line professionals are too often still unable to make the difference that they want and need to make for vulnerable children and families. Day in, day out, they are up against a system that too often simply does not help them to do their best for children.

From the start we wanted the Munro review of child protection to be different. That is why, unlike its predecessors, it was commissioned not as a knee-jerk response to a specific tragedy that had hit the headlines; that is why it is recommending that regulation and

9 Jun 2011 : Column 356

prescription are reduced rather than increased—it is not just another case of adding a few hundred more pages to the “Working Together” guidance; and, most importantly, that is why the review has focused on the child rather than the system. Professor Munro’s final report, “A child centred-system”, is wide ranging. It looks not only at the problems, but at the underlying environment that allows, and sometimes inadvertently encourages, such problems to occur. The review takes an holistic approach to child protection and bases its proposals on evidence and experience.

The report has been widely welcomed, as I said. The College of Social Work welcomed it as a “huge step forward”. Nushra Mansuri of the British Association of Social Workers described it as

“Music to the profession’s ears”.

The Children’s Commissioner praised its emphasis on the child’s right to protection. I am delighted that it has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air for all those hard-working professionals involved in child protection.

For that success, I have first and foremost to thank Professor Eileen Munro for her expert insight and analysis and the open and collaborative approach she has taken to the review over the past 12 months. I also pay tribute to the reference group that supported her so closely: Melanie Adegbite, District Judge Nick Crichton, Marion Davis, Avril Head, Professor Corinne May-Chahal, Lucy Sofocleous, Dr Sheila Shribman, Daniel Defoe, Professor Sue White, Martin Narey and the great many officials from the Department for Education and beyond who worked tirelessly over the past 12 months. I know that Professor Munro has hugely valued the support, expertise and different perspectives of all members of the reference group.

The report builds on previous reforms and the work of eminent experts such as Lord Laming, and I pay tribute also to the enormous contribution he has made in this area over so many years. This really is not about criticising previous, well-intentioned efforts to improve the system, but about making the time and space to understand why those efforts did not always work as well as they were intended to and should have done, learning from that to bring about long-term, sustainable reform in the future.

Eleven years, three months and 17 days since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié I still find myself asking whether the ever more complex systems that were created have actually made children safer now than they were then. Has the enormous additional amount of legislation, regulation and guidance made that much of a difference where it really matters? I fear that the answer may be no. Has, in fact, the child protection system in this country become rather more about protecting the system than about protecting the children whom the professionals went into their professions to protect? That is why it is now of the utmost importance that we restore public confidence in child protection, and restore confidence in the social worker profession and others—not least through those professions themselves.

The Munro review report seeks to do exactly that. Its fundamental analysis is that the system has become too focused on compliance and procedures and has lost its focus on the needs and experience of children themselves. That interest has occurred not just since the election, however; we started the process when, in opposition, I

9 Jun 2011 : Column 357

chaired a commission on children’s social workers and we produced the “No More Blame Game” report back in 2007, with contributions from all parties, followed by our policy paper “Back to the Front Line”, produced before last year’s election.

Professor Munro makes 15 recommendations for reform. She makes it clear—and I agree—that they need to be looked at in the round, because they are interrelated and impact on the system as a whole. I shall go through them briefly, and in doing so I start by noting that this is an excellent report with which I find little to disagree.

The first recommendation is to revise the statutory guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, and the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families to distinguish essential rules from guidance that informs professional judgment, because, although we need rules it is important that they are the right ones.

The second recommendation is that the inspection framework examines the effectiveness of the contributions of all local services—including health, education, police, probation and the justice system—to the protection of children.

The third recommendation is that the inspection framework examines the child’s journey from needing to receiving help, explores how the rights, wishes, feelings and experiences of children and young people inform and shape the provision of services, and looks at the effectiveness of the help provided to children, young people and their families. Too often, do we not hear that, actually, nobody really listened to the child at the centre of a case? We need inspection to look across all the relevant agencies and to focus on the things that really matter: outcomes for children and young people.

The fourth recommendation is that local authorities and their partners use a combination of nationally collected and locally published performance information to help benchmark performance, to facilitate improvement and to promote accountability. It is crucial that performance information is not treated as an unambiguous measure of good or bad performance, as performance indicators tend to be, because it is important that performance data are used intelligently to drive improvement in practice.

The fifth recommendation is that the existing statutory requirement for local safeguarding children boards to produce and publish an annual report for the local children’s trust board are amended to require its submission instead to the chief executive and the leader of the council.

The sixth recommendation is that “Working Together to Safeguard Children” is amended to state that, when monitoring and evaluating local arrangements, LSCBs should, taking account of local need, include an assessment of the effectiveness of the help being provided to children and families, and the effectiveness of multi-agency training to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people. Local safeguarding children boards play a vital role, and I see a much enhanced future for them as the linchpin of how we get this right.

The seventh recommendation is that local authorities give due consideration to protecting the discrete roles and responsibilities of a director of children’s services

9 Jun 2011 : Column 358

and a lead member for children’s services before allocating any additional functions to individuals occupying such roles. We know that that is an important concern, and it has come up in the House recently.

The eighth recommendation is that the Government work jointly with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of General Practitioners, local authorities and others to research the impact of health reorganisation on effective partnership arrangements and the ability to provide effective help for children who are suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. I shall discuss that point further, but the implementation board, which will put forward these reforms, is heavily weighted—over-weighted in fact—towards health, and it is important that it should be.

The ninth recommendation is that LSCBs use systems methodology when undertaking serious case reviews with accredited, skilled and independent reviewers and have a stronger focus on disseminating learning nationally. Ofsted’s evaluation of SCRs should end, because serious case reviews need to be about learning rather than about processes or the story of a case; they need to be about supporting analysis, beyond identifying what happened, in order to explain why it happened. They should not be all about blaming people, because blaming individuals for errors and mistakes is unhelpful and counter-productive. Rather than having a blame culture where people try to conceal mistakes, surely it is better for people to work together to identify errors early so that they can be managed or minimised, often through the redesign of local systems. That is not to say that people should go without any repercussions when things have gone wrong, but simply wagging the finger of blame has clouded our judgment too much in the past. The name of the report that we produced in 2007—“No More Blame Game”—is as appropriate now as it was then.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I feel that I should apologise for interrupting the Minister, because he is giving a very good exposition of what is in the report. However, will he deal at this point with the issue of Ofsted not looking at serious case reviews in future? I find that slightly puzzling, and I do not understand the basis for it. In my view, Ofsted’s role is not allocating blame but assessing whether it is an adequate case review that properly describes what went on.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have had reservations for some time about the way in which serious case reviews are produced, read and inspected. This area was clearly highlighted in the report, and the implementation group will need to do a lot more work to see how we get to where we want to be. Ofsted itself will say that evaluating serious case reviews is not the best use of its time and resources.

In the past, we have seen questionable gradings of some serious case reviews. We should be using serious case reviews as serious learning tools. Before the baby Peter case, I did not realise that serious case reviews were not available in their full form to every other director of children’s services and other such relevant people around the country so that they could read what had happened in a certain case in a certain authority, say, “Gosh, hold on a minute—could that happen here?”, and be alert to the problems that had happened elsewhere

9 Jun 2011 : Column 359

to see whether they needed to do things locally to ensure that they did not happen there. However, serious case reviews in their full form are available only to a very small number of people.

There have been question marks over the consistency of the quality of serious case reviews, who is commissioned to carry them out, who is controlling the quality of the people producing them, and, above all, who is bringing together the learning expertise and learning points to see whether they have generic applications for people up and down the country. That is not happening as a result of the way in which Ofsted does it, with the very best of intentions. We need to get to a place where a serious case review is not about learning from things that went wrong in a particular case but learning from things that went wrong in the system and applying that to the system elsewhere. We also need to ensure that the people producing serious case reviews produce things of a sufficiently high quality. We have a lot of work to do because the current situation is not sustainable and serious case reviews are not producing what we need them to produce.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that we have a media who are obsessed with the blame game? They will attack social workers for not intervening soon enough, and perhaps the following day attack them for wrecking families and breaking up family units.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He might have heard me say on many previous occasions that social workers, and other professionals, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Certain newspapers will carry headlines saying, “Those terrible, incompetent social workers were to blame—they should have intervened earlier and taken that child into care.” Two weeks later, they are saying that those terrible, incompetent social workers are too busy snatching children from good, decent, middle-class families and should be ashamed of it. Social workers cannot win. To get a better system we have to restore the confidence of the public in our child protection system. A key part of that is to get the media to understand more what the job of child protection is all about, and not to be so swift to wag the finger of blame but to help in the explanation and understanding of what went wrong and look to want to bring about solutions jointly, because that is in all our best interests. We are not in that position yet. Things are improving, but we have a long way to go.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): In the report, Professor Munro expresses how concerned people in the profession are about the Minister’s decision to make overviews of serious case reviews available, rather than simply the executive summaries. Many people feel that that reduces the capacity of such reviews to aid learning because it makes people more defensive. It seems that the priority is wrong. I will expand on my views with regard to Ofsted later. Does the Minister accept the concerns of Professor Munro and others who fed into the review about the negative consequences of making the overviews of serious case reviews widely known?

Tim Loughton: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Actually, Professor Munro supports the publication of full serious case reviews. She would

9 Jun 2011 : Column 360

much rather support the publication of a better form of serious case review, which is what we need to get to.

Professor Munro made the right decision to make serious case reviews open and accessible subject to three criteria: first, that the anonymity of the characters involved is maintained; secondly, that there is appropriate redaction where information would intrude on private details; and, thirdly, that it will not go ahead if a case can be made that publication in full would be detrimental to the welfare of a surviving child or sibling. With those considerations, I think it is absolutely right that we should all have access to those reports as a learning exercise.

If the hon. Gentleman is saying, as others have, that people might be less prepared to co-operate with such reviews, he is wrong, because it is in all our interests to ensure that the fullest information possible is in the public domain so that it can be assessed and the lessons learned. The people who will benefit most from the publication in full of serious case review overview reports are social workers, for the very reason set out by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who is no longer here: when there is a tragic incident, it is always the social workers what done it. When one reads the full details, one finds that in some cases the police were not too clever or perhaps there were serious shortcomings with the GP, the school or various other agencies. However, it is always social workers who are on the front line. It is only by seeing the full picture that one can get an understanding of what was the weak link in the chain or where the co-operation between agencies that is needed did not happen properly. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis.

Already, a lot of learning has come from the serious case reviews that have been published in full in Haringey and on the Khyra Ishaq case in Birmingham. All serious case reviews published after 10 June 2010—we have not had one yet—are obliged to follow the new publication process.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con) rose—

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose—

Tim Loughton: I will give way to my hon. Friend, and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs Grant: In addition to stopping the blame, does the Minister agree that more credit should be given for the hideously difficult job that social workers have to do?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend has great expertise in family law and in this matter, and she is absolutely right. Serious case reviews should reveal not just the failures and the bad things, but good practice so that we can learn from where things went right. Of course, we only ever read about the stories that go wrong in the papers. The media are not interested in the plane that lands safely. People do not really understand social work. It is easily caricatured, and that happens even in the soap operas that we see on our screens. Our report in 2007 made the not entirely flippant suggestion that there should be a soap based on social workers to give the public a better understanding of the exceedingly complicated

9 Jun 2011 : Column 361

job that they do. Day in and day out, they have to exercise the judgment of Solomon in deciding whether children should be taken into care or left with the family.

Jim Shannon: May I remind the Minister that these are devolved matters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Learning, experience and good value have been mentioned. Does he intend to make the devolved Administrations in the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland aware of the 15 recommendations in the Munro report? I think it is good to exchange information for the benefit of parts of the United Kingdom that might not have experienced what has happened in England and Wales.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There has been some correspondence between Professor Munro and the devolved Assemblies, and I have been trying for some time to meet my counterpart in Northern Ireland to go through such matters with him or her, whoever it was on either side of the elections. I am keen to go and hold conversations with our counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so that they can hear what we are doing, but also so that I can hear what they are doing. There are different ways of working in those areas.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Like the Minister, and I think everyone here, I welcome the Munro report. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) made a point about the status of social workers, how they appear in public and how the newspapers denigrate them. There is also the problem of young social workers who are just out of university and newly trained and qualified having enormous difficulty in getting their first job, because they lack experience. Particularly in areas of inner-city Britain such as the one that I represent, there is great difficulty in retaining social workers because of housing difficulties and because of the enormous pressure and case loads that they face in fast-changing, high-turnover communities. It is not surprising that many do not stay on. I am sure the Minister is well aware that that turnover debilitates the entire service.

Tim Loughton: I agree, and we could have a debate just about the list of matters that the hon. Gentleman mentions, most of which are covered in the Munro report. The social work profession in this country has an awful lot of good people who do not get recognised and some poor people who need to be weeded out. In the past, people have felt frustrated and undermined, and the media onslaught against them has been completely demoralising. They have therefore left their jobs or taken early retirement, because the pressure has been too much for them. Who would want to go into a job like that, after all the publicity about baby P and other cases? Who would want to put themselves in the firing line by taking a job in which they try to do their best, but blame is pointed at them because they happen to be a social worker, even though they might be doing a good job?

We have problems at both ends. We need to retain and encourage good social workers and ensure that they can do their job as efficiently as possible, and we also

9 Jun 2011 : Column 362

need to ensure that the people coming into the profession—there has been a big rise in applications for social work degrees recently—are the right people. They need to have the necessary calibre and dedication and be there for the right reasons, and we need them to stay the course. That is part of the work that the Social Work Reform Board is doing and part of the reason why the College of Social Work is so important. Having a chief social worker, which is the 15th recommendation in the report, will help to raise the game. It will raise the profile and status of the profession, and it will give people in it the feeling of being valued. Those are important matters.

Jim Shannon rose

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con) rose

Tim Loughton: I will give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), but after that I would quite like to make some progress; otherwise nobody else will get in.

Jim Shannon: The Minister will be glad to know that the new Minister in Northern Ireland is a colleague from my party, and that the new Northern Ireland Ministers have hit the ground running. I assume the situation is the same in Scotland and Wales. I am sure that he will find an open door from the Minister in Northern Ireland, and probably from those elsewhere in the UK.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful. I am planning a visit to Belfast next month, and if the hon. Gentleman’s colleague would like to meet me, I would be delighted.

Mr Graham Stuart: When the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families looked into the training of social workers in the last Parliament, it found that they could find themselves dealing with the most acute and difficult children’s cases having had placements in their training that did not involve children’s social work at all. They went from having no experience at all to the front line. Has the Minister been able to do anything about that yet, and if not will he tell the House what he will do about it?

Tim Loughton: The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education again makes a very good point and he has a good deal of expertise in this matter. It is completely self-defeating for newly recruited social workers to be turfed in at the deep end on tier 3 or 4 cases—serious cases—with little experience or expertise. How demoralising is that, let alone the danger it poses for the vulnerable children who need to have the appropriate level of support?

A number of things need to be done and they are being done. We need to ensure that we have the right calibre of people coming out of universities with degrees in social work. In the first year after their qualification, they should be given on-the-job guidance and training, preferably by people with great expertise. They should be eased into jobs at an appropriate rate in appropriate circumstances. My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Virtually every week I speak to social workers

9 Jun 2011 : Column 363

and visit children’s services departments—I make a point of seeing social workers on the front line—but I have met too many who are given challenges for which they are not appropriately equipped at that stage.

I should like to make progress now because I am keen for other hon. Members to contribute and I have a few more points to make. I got up to recommendation 10—I do not know why recommendation 9 brought about the pause that it did. Recommendation 10 is that the Government should place a duty on local authorities and statutory partners to secure the sufficient provision of local early help services for children, young people and families. That is very appropriate to the early intervention work that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has been doing for the Department.

Recommendation 11 is that the social work reform board’s professional capabilities framework should incorporate the capabilities necessary for child and family social work. That is precisely the point that the Chairman of the Education Committee just raised. That framework should explicitly inform social work qualification training, postgraduate professional development and performance appraisal.

Recommendation 12 is that employers and higher education institutions should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work, including through better quality placements.

Recommendation 13 is that local authorities and their partners should start an ongoing process to review and redesign the ways in which child and family social work is delivered.

Recommendation 14—I am almost there without taking another intervention—is that local authorities should designate a principal child and family social worker who can report the views and experiences of the front line to all levels of management. I have too often seen good social workers, who have built up good reputations and who are really good hands-on, get promoted, become managers and get stuck behind a desk. In that way, we lose front-line expertise. Some models, such as the one in Hackney, mean that people can gain seniority within their profession but not lose contact with people at the sharp end and the families that they entered the profession to help.

The 15th and final recommendation is that a chief social worker should be created to advise the Government and to bring the voice of the profession to policy. That was discussed recently in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill, and it was a recommendation of my report back in 2007.

Mrs Grant: Does the Minister agree that to safeguard children—in addition to that very comprehensive list—much more needs to be done generally to strengthen families?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The first priority—this is the most desirable outcome for any family who find themselves on the child protection radar of a children’s services department, and who become a social worker’s focus of attention—is keeping that family together. We should ensure that where possible, the child can be kept with that family. The phrase “fostering a family”, which has been used before, means ensuring that parents have the parenting skills and that

9 Jun 2011 : Column 364

it is safe for the child to stay with them. Only when leaving a child with a family is deemed unsafe should we consider taking them into care. Of course, the work done in the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions—the projects that deal with families with multiple problems—aims to ensure that parents have the tools and the confidence to parent properly. In too many families in this country, there is a serious problem with the standard of parenting. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made that point very clearly in the report that he produced for the Department for Education.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Tim Loughton: As the hon. Gentleman is new, I shall give way one last time.

Bill Esterson: I apologise for being late—I was on the Finance (No. 3) Bill Committee, which has just finished.

The Minister’s last point—on whether a family should be kept together and at what stage a child is taken into care—gets to the nub of child protection issues. I hope he agrees that the threshold for making, and the timing of, such decisions bears constant review and analysis.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is right. An understandable result of what happened with baby P is that social workers have become more risk averse. If it is a marginal decision, they might take the child into care just in case, whereas if they have the time, space and appropriate tools and applications to deal with that family, it might be possible to keep it together rather than break it up.

I have set out Professor Munro’s recommendations for reform. Rightly, they address every aspect of the system. Rightly, they place the child at the centre. And rightly, they have as a basic principle the importance of placing trust in skilled professionals at the front line. It is of course the case that there are vulnerable children outside the immediate child protection system, and we need to improve radically how they are supported and make sure that they have a voice.

One of the main groups of such vulnerable children, for which I have responsibility, is of course children in care. With more than 64,000 children in care at the moment, we need to improve all aspects of their lives, including placement stability, education, health and the transition to adulthood, which are all priorities for Government and the wider sector. If we get Munro’s proposals right, there will be benefits for all those involved in children’s social care, not just those at the acute end of child protection.

From 1 April, we introduced a new statutory framework for looked-after children, which is far more streamlined, coherent and clear about the “must dos” for local authorities. In particular, we have brought together the care planning regulations and guidance into one volume, which should ultimately help councils put together better care plans. Less is often more. We have also strengthened the role of independent reviewing officers so they can challenge poor care plans, and make sure children’s voices are at the heart of all reviews. We have given clear steers in the revised fostering guidance about how local authorities should support foster carers and children

9 Jun 2011 : Column 365

better. The revised transition guidance makes it clear that young people should leave care only when they are ready and have a strong support package in place.

I have also written to every local authority about foster carers being encouraged to treat foster children in their care no differently from their own children. In March, I launched the foster carers’ charter, which sets out clear principles for the support that should be available, what foster carers can expect and what foster children can expect of their carers.

I also launched earlier this year the Tell Tim website so that carers and, in particular, children and young people in care can let me—as the Minister responsible—know directly what they think is working well, what improvements they think need to be made or what is going wrong. I have also set up reference groups so that I can hear from foster children, care leavers, adopted children and children living in residential homes. Just this week, I met my regular group of young people who have left the care system, who recount their often moving and relevant experiences of what is going wrong in the system. We could all learn a lot if we spent more time with the children who are still being failed because, through no fault of their own, they have become part of the care system.

As hon. Members will be aware, some children and young people—including young runaways—become victims of sexual exploitation. The report published by Barnardo’s in January, “Puppet on a String”, highlighted the scale and severity of this horrific abuse. I pay tribute to Barnardo’s work and expertise in this area and I especially congratulate Anne Marie Carrie for hitting the ground running in her first few months at the helm of Barnardo’s.

The Government are determined to do everything possible to stamp out this abuse and safeguard vulnerable children and young people. Recent events brought to light in the midlands through Operation Retriever and the other ongoing police investigations underline the extent of this insidious abuse. As the lead Minister in this area, I have been urgently considering, with my colleagues at the Home Office, Barnardo’s and other national and local partners, what further action should be taken. The Government are now committed to working with partners to develop over the summer an action plan to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation. This will build on existing guidance and our developing understanding of this dreadful abuse, including through local agencies’ work around the country. It will include work on effective prevention strategies, identifying those at risk of sexual exploitation, supporting victims, and taking robust action against perpetrators.

Another area where excessive central prescription has had unintended consequences, leading to risk aversion rather than risk management, is in vetting and barring. The Government believe that children will be better protected if we move away from unnecessary and top-down bureaucracy towards more responsible decision making at a local level. It is vital to balance the need to protect the vulnerable against the need to respect individuals’ freedoms, and not to create a system that imposes unnecessary burdens on individuals or organisations. That is why the Government undertook a review of the barring and criminal records regimes in order to scale them back to common-sense levels. We need to get away

9 Jun 2011 : Column 366

from a system that has unintentionally driven a further wedge between children growing up and well-meaning adults who come forward genuinely to offer their time to volunteer and to work with young people. They have been deterred from doing so by all the regulation.

I spoke earlier about the action we were taking to improve the lives and prospects of children in care. For many of those children, adoption will be the most appropriate outcome, which is why in February I issued new guidance with a call to arms to local authorities to re-energise their efforts on adoption and improve front-line practice. This refreshed and improved statutory guidance will be an important element in the Government’s programme of reform aimed at supporting adoption agencies in removing barriers to adoption, reducing delay and continually improving their adoption services.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential, when adoption is the best answer, for it to take place before the baby is two in order to give that child the greatest chance of bonding with the new family?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend, who has great expertise particularly in dealing with young children and in the whole area of attachment, knows how important it is that a child growing up is able from an early age to bond with, and develop an attachment to, parents or carers. We know from all the statistics that young children who are unable to grow up safely with their own parents benefit from adoption, where appropriate, at an early stage. If we can find them an appropriate adoptive placement, their chances of growing up as normally and conventionally as if they were with their own parents are greatly heightened, and they will have a better chance of catching up with their peers who are lucky enough to be able to grow up with their parents, so she is absolutely right.

Meg Munn: I welcome the tone that the Minister is taking in this debate. On adoption, may I ask him equally to adopt another approach—if that is not too many adoptions? It is enormously difficult to make the decision to place a child for adoption. It is a lifelong decision, and it is as important not to rush into it inappropriately as it is to make the decision to go for adoption. In reality, some of the biggest problems derive from other matters in the process, whether decision making in local authorities or decision making in the courts. I urge the Minister to consider those issues as well.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is right and will know that we have been doing a lot of work on adoption. I have set up a ministerial advisory group with all sorts of people, and we have issued new guidance, as I said earlier. We need to balance timeliness with appropriateness to ensure that where it is clear—it is not always so—that an adoptive placement is the best way forward and in the best interests of the child, we get on with it.

There are, I have to say, some people who, usually because of excessive addiction to drugs and alcohol and a complete failure to rehabilitate, will never be able safely to bring up children in their care. I have sat in family courts and seen parents—usually single mothers— have their ninth, 10th or 11th child taken into the care

9 Jun 2011 : Column 367

system. If that parent’s situation has not improved, can we be sure that it will ever improve? Need we take that risk, and wait years while a child is kept in an abusive situation? Again, those decisions require the judgment of Solomon, which is why I will shortly be holding a round-table meeting with a group of judges from the family court, directors of children services and chairmen of adoption panels to consider how we can make the adoption process better, more efficient, more robust and fairer; to ensure that we are making the right decisions for the too many children who are left in the system and could benefit from adoption; and to ensure that we are not taking into adoption children for whom it is not appropriate. I know that there are concerns there as well.

Finally, we need to remember in our policies the particular needs of vulnerable young people and the fact that they have the same right to enjoy the rich experiences of growing up, the transition to adulthood and becoming valuable members of society as those lucky enough to be part of safe, loving and stable birth families of their own. I recognise that it is vital for the sensible policy put forward by Professor Munro to be backed up by proper investment. As my hon. Friends will be aware, the Government have already announced some funding to support work force development, but the real cost is the cost of failure. The current system needs fixing. Because it needs fixing, huge amounts of resource are wasted. One local authority that has been working with Professor Munro and the review team as a “journey authority” calculated that around 50% of its children’s social care workers’ time is wasted in nugatory activity that does not add to the quality of service or outcomes, which is something that the authority is now starting to recoup—a resounding endorsement of the need to eliminate unnecessary red tape if ever there was one.

Few things are more important than helping and protecting vulnerable children and young people. In our first year in government, we have shown in the wide range of actions that we have taken—on child protection, children in care, adoption, fostering and dealing with the sexual exploitation of children—that we are deeply committed to tackling these issues, and I am determined to ensure that we make progress. Sadly, we need to recognise that despite Government reforms and the hard work of professionals, tragedies will still happen. There are individuals who will harm children. We cannot eliminate that risk, but we can all work to help to reduce and manage it—indeed, we all have a duty to do so. Society is right to expect professionals to take responsibility and make the best judgments that they can in the best interests of children. Those judgments will not always be the right ones, but they need to have been made for the right reasons and on the best possible evidence.

This Government believe that we need to move towards a child protection system with less central prescription and interference, and in which we place greater trust and responsibility in skilled professionals on the front line. Professor Munro has provided us with a thorough analysis of the issues. It is now for the Government, working with the sector, to help to bring about sustainable reform. That is why I have established an implementation working group, drawing in expertise from local authority children’s services, the social work profession, education, police and the health service, to

9 Jun 2011 : Column 368

work with the Government to develop a response to Professor Munro’s recommendations by the summer recess. We are today publishing on the Department for Education website the first account of the group’s deliberations, which started at the end of last month.

Mr Graham Stuart: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Tim Loughton: Before I reach the final line of my speech, I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Stuart: I am delighted to hear that those other agencies are represented on the implementation group. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the group’s remit and how we can ensure that other Departments integrate with it, so that it is not just the social work profession that looks to respond to the Munro review?

Tim Loughton: The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education makes a good point. The people serving on the group, whose names are published on the website, have been chosen not because they are the great and the good—although I am sure many of them are great and some of them are good—but because they are experienced practitioners with expertise in their particular areas. For example, we have on the group the chief safeguarding expert from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and a safeguarding expert from the NHS Confederation. We also have the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is the Minister responsible for public health, a senior headmistress of a secondary school, a senior headmistress of a primary school, a senior police officer with a long record in child protection, a real social worker from the front line, along with a Labour councillor from an authority with a good track record in child protection, and so on.

This is absolutely about getting all the right parts of the jigsaw together and trying to produce a system that, by working together from the same song sheet and with the same priorities and the Government’s backing, produces an environment that ensures that we can keep more of our children safer. Today’s debate—even though I have taken up rather too much of it, and more than I had intended—will help to inform the implementation group’s response. I very much look forward to my hon. Friends’ contributions this afternoon.

4.34 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I echo the Minister’s welcome for the work of Professor Munro, and thank her and everyone involved in the production of the report. I also give the Government credit for commissioning this important piece of work. Unlike many other reports on social work, this review has not been produced in the immediate aftermath of a specific, much-publicised tragedy. It takes a holistic view of how we could protect the most vulnerable children in our society better. I also echo my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) in welcoming the tone of the Minister’s remarks today. We look forward to working constructively with the Government to take forward Professor Munro’s recommendations.

Protecting our most vulnerable children is crucial, difficult and emotionally charged work. Providing the most resilient environment in which to protect children

9 Jun 2011 : Column 369

is a responsibility that has challenged and exercised Governments of every hue for many years. I pay tribute to the many hundreds of social workers who, through their hard work, commitment and professionalism, literally save lives. Social workers know that theirs is often a thankless task. When they perform at the top of their game to improve lives for the better, safeguarding children from harm and assisting families to get back on to the right path, they rarely get bouquets or thanks. They do not expect to get even a mention in the local free paper. Their own satisfaction at having made a difference has to suffice. But they also know that should any of the multitude of their borderline decisions be proved, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been wrong, and should a tragedy then occur, they will be on the front page of every newspaper in the land and held to account for their decisions.

It is in that context that Professor Munro produced her report, and that the previous Government took many significant steps to support the social work profession and our children. It is also in that context that we all have a duty to speak up for the importance of the work that social workers do, and to recognise the knife-edge nature of much of their decision making in an imperfect world.

I shall also follow the Minister’s lead in thanking foster carers across the country for their invaluable work. I know from personal experience how vital their role is. I also welcome the measures to make the route to adoption a quicker one. As an adoptive parent myself, I know the importance of children being taken on by a new family as early as possible, once they have been identified as suitable for adoption.

This is not the first report on protecting children to call for a change in society’s attitudes towards and expectations of the social work profession. Nor is it the first to call for an approach that puts children at the heart of our thinking on this subject, but it is no less valuable or right to call for these things just because they have been spoken of before. We recognise that in this vital area, progress is always more easily made when there is a sense that all the parties involved are working together constructively and positively, and there is a great deal in the report that we are happy to support enthusiastically. It builds on many of the reforms that the previous Government embarked on, and endorses many of the structures that they implemented. It also builds on the work of the social work taskforce and the social work reform board, whose contribution the review warmly endorses.

I shall turn now to the specific recommendations in the review. In calling for a child-centred approach, it recognises that the needs and rights of the child, and the child’s involvement in and ownership of a process that might be happening at a confusing and frightening time in their lives, must be paramount. We absolutely support that idea, and recognise that children must feel that the interventions and decisions being made about their future should involve them and not just be a process that happens to them. We are pleased that the review recognises that we all owe a debt of gratitude to the firm foundations of reform laid down by the social work taskforce. Among many other reforms introduced by the Labour Government, the report recommends the

9 Jun 2011 : Column 370

protection of, and specifically cautions against the dilution of, the role of directors of children’s services. I shall return to that point later. The report also endorses the vital role of the College of Social Work in lifting standards and representing the profession internally within local authorities and more broadly across all parts of our society.

The report gives further support to local safeguarding children boards, and to the 10 principles of the assessment framework. We hope that, as recommended in the review, the position of chief social worker will be able to play a key role in promoting the interests of children through the improvement of the profile and professionalism of social work, and through influencing Government policy on behalf of children and the profession.

We will support any efforts that will improve the standing of social work. This includes its profile within the media and among the wider public. It includes helping to make social work a career of choice for talented graduates, helping to build the self-esteem of the social work profession and, within the House, recognising the debt we all owe to the profession for the work it does on behalf of our most vulnerable children and families.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier intervention on the Minister about the status of social workers, and I am sure he will have agreed with me. Does he also agree how important it is to have some sort of steer or directive for local government to take on newly qualified social workers and to provide them with the relevant training and entry into the profession? I observe huge cuts taking place in local government all over the country, as a result of which there are fewer new job opportunities for qualified social workers—and therein lies a problem 10, 15 or 20 years down the line.

Toby Perkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem is not just 10 or 15 years down the line; it is more immediate. When we know that there are social work vacancies around the country, it seems bizarre that newly qualified people in this sector are finding it difficult to find work. Professor Munro’s recommendations on practice and assessment years at the early stages will make a significant difference—at least, I hope they will. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the considerable anecdotal evidence that newly qualified social workers are finding it difficult to find work. I hope that the proposed measures in the report will be followed through, as it is vital that people should choose to work in this area. As the Minister has said, we want to make social work an attractive career option for talented people leaving university, but if those people find it hard to find work as a social worker, that is going to become more difficult.

Andrea Leadsom: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to support new young social workers freshly out of university would be to provide a better end-to-end network of support, taking into account what is already available in children’s centres and other therapeutic services that could be available in a package, which could help to provide the network of support that social workers desperately need?

9 Jun 2011 : Column 371

Toby Perkins: The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. The Munro review recognises the significant steps made in the direction of partnership working and some of the challenges, particularly in difficult financial circumstances. The report also deals with other innovations that might be needed to help achieve the hon. Lady’s suggestion in her valuable point.

The report’s recommendations on the education, training and continuous professional development of social workers are an important step forward. We entirely endorse the review’s commitment to the highest standards and consistency of education, the importance of the highest quality of practice placements and the new supported and assessed first year in practice, acting as the final stage of becoming a fully practising social worker. We recognise that more must be done to strengthen the quality of social work in this country, and a real commitment to improving education and recruitment will be very welcome.

We also believe that the recommendation for local authorities to appoint a principal children’s and family social worker could play an important role in ensuring that the voice of those who safeguard our most vulnerable children is heard loud and clear in every town hall in the land.

We particularly welcome the further support for early intervention to identify and work on problems as soon as they are presented. Professor Munro particularly identifies the importance of early intervention whenever it occurs in a child’s life, and we entirely agree with her on that. Although many families that require the help of social services might appear likely to head down the wrong path in life from an early stage, changing circumstances can mean that children and families hit problems and need support at any time in the childhood journey—and the earlier those problems are identified and the more broadly all parties work together, the better the chance that families can be kept together and problems averted before they become impossible to deal with.

The review also focuses at length on the importance of partnership working, extolling the virtues of the existing networks in early years practice and the importance of a constructive relationship with the police, mental health services, adult social services and health professionals. The review expresses the fear that widespread changes and the desperate financial position in which some public services find themselves could lead to a fracturing of the partnerships. Indeed, we are already seeing evidence of that.

We know from the Secretary of State’s letter to Professor Munro, the choice of Professor Munro to head the review team, and the press releases that have emanated from the Department for Education that the need to cut paperwork and bureaucracy in order to enable social workers to do what they should be doing is intended to be a prominent theme, but anyone who focused solely on that element of the report would greatly undermine its quality and depth. I hope that no one will again attempt such a paraphrase, because the quality of the research and the importance of the issue deserve better. I am thankful that the Minister went far beyond that in his speech today.

We welcome the recognition of the importance of administrative support for social workers so that they can spend more time in the field. It is sad, however, that

9 Jun 2011 : Column 372

that comes at a time when Unison is reporting that many of its members with administrative roles are among the first to be laid off in councils. Administration and record-keeping vital: they can save social workers’ time, and are invaluable to the quality of their intervention. No one in this House wants to prevent social workers from spending as much time as possible working with children and families, and we all know that social workers themselves do not go into the profession with the dream of sitting at a wooden desk typing away.

There is no doubt that the review team considered at length the amount of central prescription and the amount of time spent on administration—matters that have also concerned the profession and its representative bodies and unions. We support the pilot schemes that are taking place in four authorities with the aim of relaxing time scales. They are at an early stage, but we look forward to the outcome. We urge the Minister to ensure that the additional quality assurance measures referred to in appendix D and implemented in Hackney are tightly observed while those trials are being completed, and that before anything is done to make the changes widespread, the full implications of those changes are understood.

Mr Graham Stuart: The hon. Gentleman touched on the subject of bureaucracy, but he did not make his views clear. Does he accept that there was too much prescription from the centre, does he accept that it was getting in the way of effective social work, and will he give an undertaking that a future Labour Government would not seek to reverse sensible, practical and common-sense attempts to reduce bureaucracy and ensure that the priority is given to the front line?

Toby Perkins: I shall deal with that point in some detail later. However, I can say that we support the trials that are taking place. If the professionals feel that some measures can safely be dispensed with, that is acceptable as long as safeguards are established, as they have been in Hackney, to prevent slippage of cases. We do not want social workers to lose sight of the importance of some cases along with the paperwork.

The report is evidence based, and Professor Munro identifies both excitement and anxiety in the profession about the steps to be taken. Throughout its time in government Labour took advice from experts seriously, as the present Government are doing.

Meg Munn: In the report, Professor Munro observes that

“most bureaucracy which limits practitioners’ capacity and ability to practise effectively, is generated and maintained at a local level.”

We should consider that carefully. Headlines that blame people for bureaucracy are not helpful. We need to identify where the bureaucracy is coming from, and tackle it properly.

Toby Perkins: My hon. Friend speaks on the basis of tremendous experience as a result of the work that she did before entering the House—and, of course, since doing so—and she is absolutely right. Trade unions, social workers and others in the profession want us to proceed as carefully as possible. I reiterate that there is

9 Jun 2011 : Column 373

nothing that we want more than social workers who are enabled to spend the maximum amount of time with the children and families with whom they are working.

We support the pilot scheme in four authorities, and we urge the Minister to ensure that the additional quality assurance measures referred to in the report are followed so that the full implications of the changes are understood before any measures are taken to make the scheme more widespread. The proposed changes are important and offer advances, but they must not be rushed. The Ofsted report detailing children’s experiences before entering care demonstrates the importance of social workers spending time in face-to-face, one-to-one meetings with the children and families in their care, but the research also shows how varied the quality of practice is, and with that in mind, and in advance of the improved education and training—and also in the context of the difficult financial settlement facing local authorities—it must be stressed that it is vital that every care is taken.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children echoes this view. It states:

“The Government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children. Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built. Otherwise, children’s lives could be put at risk.”

We entirely support those comments.

We have concerns about the portability of documentation if each local authority has a different common assessment framework. The whole point of having a common piece of documentation was that it would only need completing once. Perhaps it could be slimmed down and used by all partner agencies, wherever they are. If that documentation needs to be re-done every time a child moves from one authority area to another, the intention of cutting back on paperwork may be undermined.

We also have concerns about the recommendation and current direction of travel with regard to serious case reviews. The review rightly identifies the importance of learning lessons from SCRs. Alongside learning lessons, however, they must also perform the task of building public confidence in the profession and illustrate that there is no cover-up, no attempt to hide from the truth and no sense of the ranks being closed. There is a delicate balance to strike.

Local safeguarding children boards are not forced to be independent and are inevitably seen by some as internal partners, having a relationship with the practitioners providing the service. In some cases, they are chaired by the director of children’s services. The independent evaluation of the work of LSCBs on SCRs offers an important neutral balance to ensure that the correct lessons have been learned.

Professor Munro identifies LSCBs’ unhappiness at the role of Ofsted, but I wonder whether the independent assessments analysing the quality of the SCRs might check on how successfully lessons are learned. It does not seem to me that the fact of an evaluation in itself prevents a culture change towards a more learning-based approach. Whoever does independent inspections in future can be directed by the Minister in whichever way

9 Jun 2011 : Column 374

he wants, but simply to abandon any sort of independent review until a new body is in place in the next year or so is unsatisfactory.

We also feel that the decision to publish the entire overview of SCRs is having, and will have, very negative consequences. When in government, Labour increased the transparency of executive summaries of SCRs, but we feel that the balance is now leading to a less helpful situation. Professor Munro highlights on page 61 of the review the unhappiness felt by many in the profession about this move. It can hamper the attempt to make learning the principal aim of SCRs, and it inevitably restricts the enthusiasm of some practitioners to be frank about what they may have got wrong. We need to see the culture change before there is a move towards publishing the entire overview of the SCR. This also inevitably makes it highly unlikely that the better reporting of social work practice by the media that the Munro review cries out for will happen. It is also apparent that other partners are stepping back from getting involved in SCRs because of the full reporting of them. The Minister was right to say that if people are refusing to get involved in SCRs, that is wrong, and it is important that we learn those lessons. We are worried that publishing the full overview of them is having that effect, however, regardless of whether that should be done in the best interests of our children.

There is also anecdotal evidence, which we will be investigating further, that the threshold for serious case reviews is being lifted by authorities and that they are deciding that they are less likely to do them. Again, that will have a negative impact on our capacity to learn from past mistakes. It seems an odd set of priorities to remove the independent evaluator of serious case reviews at the same time as we are opening them up to wider public and media scrutiny. That suggests a “kangaroo court” approach, which is totally out of keeping with this review, and it could be a seriously retrograde step.

I mentioned that the review had identified, as had our own work with local authorities, that the role of the director of children’s services to be a purely child-centred position was under threat. That is hardly surprising, given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is positively encouraging this sort of change to local government practice, with managers merging roles and councils becoming a little bit cheaper and quite a bit worse. That seems to be the Pickles recipe for local government. We urge this Minister to stand up for children against the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles) and we urge councils to protect the role of director of children’s services.

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the flip side of his argument about serious case reviews is compelling? We must be transparent at this point and we need to assist all professionals working in child protection. Everybody needs all that information if we are going to learn the lessons, not only from where things have gone wrong, but from good practice. We need to have full transparency, and serious case reviews must be published in full.

Toby Perkins: As I said, we take advice from specialists in the profession and many people within the social work field are deeply concerned about that issue; page 61 of Professor Munro’s report alludes to those concerns.

9 Jun 2011 : Column 375

Of course transparency is important, and it is precisely for that reason that we would like an organisation that is seen as independent continuing the evaluation of serious case reviews. However, alongside that important transparency, we need to deal with key issues relating to the protection of anonymity of both professionals and people within the families. It has been relatively easy for people in local areas to identify who has been alluded to in many of the serious case reviews. In one example that I was told about by a social work professional, a serious case review referred to a relative of a soldier serving on the front line. If that review had been published in full, a difficult situation could have been caused for someone who was already in a difficult position. Although I share the hon. Lady’s idea that transparency is important, and it is for precisely that reason that an independent review of the evaluation must remain a part of the system, I question whether this approach will aid learning and will instead reduce people’s willingness to get involved.

Much of this review is dedicated to the importance of improving the quality of social work training and the continuous professional development journey that social workers go on, yet worrying signs are already emerging about councils reacting to the savage cuts forced on them by cutting back on CPD and training. We also share Professor Munro’s alarm about the evidence of cuts to early years provision. Some 25% of Children England member organisations are experiencing cuts of more than a quarter of their income—for them it seems as if the big society is rapidly shrinking. The Minister needs to stand up for early years funding if the measures on sharing responsibility for early help set out in this report are to be more than warm words. Continued denial about the scale or fact of the cuts will simply suggest that the Government are not serious. It is particularly worrying that areas with the highest level of deprivation and the highest demands on social services are the very ones that have seen the largest Government cuts.

Andrea Leadsom rose—

Toby Perkins: I will just make this point and then I will be happy to allow the hon. Lady to intervene.

I have referred to the survey that we sent to every director of children’s services in England on the state of safeguarding services. We had an excellent response from a significant proportion of local authorities and a number of patterns emerged. Local authorities are trying desperately hard to protect spending on safeguarding, and we salute them for that. However, despite that commitment, 36% of local authorities expected case loads to increase this year and only 10% expected them to fall. One assistant director of children’s services explained the paradox of statutory guidance.

Before I move on any further, I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene. I was trying to find a natural pause, but the words just flowed so wonderfully that I could not stop.

Andrea Leadsom: I am very grateful. In this time of financial austerity, is it not more important than ever to get good value for money by focusing on prevention rather than having the massive costs, further down the line, of taking children into care?

9 Jun 2011 : Column 376

Toby Perkins: Absolutely. This is a matter on which there is clearly consensus across the House, but there is a difficulty when it comes to the reality on the ground, for example in Sure Start centres and with early intervention. People are seeing that the—for want of a better word—rhetoric around early years is not being supported by funding, and there is a danger that the massive cuts to local authorities mean that they might not be able to follow through on worthy intentions such as those that the hon. Lady mentioned, which are shared by Members across the House.

One assistant director of children’s services said that statutory guidance was extremely important to ensure that she could stand up to councillors who look to her services for cuts, as it meant she could say, “This is stuff that we have to do.” She warned that the more freedom local authorities were given to drop safeguards, the more likely councils would be to cut back on safeguarding. That is not an argument for keeping in place regulation that we can do without, but it is a possible unintended consequence of which the Minister should be wary.

Our survey also showed that directors of children’s services are almost unanimous about the impact of cuts on police, mental health and primary care services, saying that it will reduce their ability to safeguard children in their care. That is the voice from the ground and no one can run away from it.

On the subject of local authorities’ identifying which models of best practice they want to follow, we are again in support of the principle, but I am interested to know what drivers of best practice the Minister feels he has at his disposal to improve standards. Is he worried that if each council is radically different in the way that it provides services, the transition for social workers who move from one authority to another will be more difficult? Will it increase the postcode lottery? Will there be even greater variation in the quality of service provision from one authority to another?

As I have said, our greatest reservations about the direction of travel proposed in the report are not about Professor Munro’s suggestions, but about whether the Government will put legislative and financial muscle behind the changes that she suggests. An exciting opportunity to build on past progress has been presented, and the Government, having commissioned this report, now need to act on it fully, with the relatively minor exceptions that I have described.

We worry that the dogma of cutting back on the state could overpower the genuine desire to do the best for our most vulnerable children. The Minister and the Government can rely on us to support them on these reforms if they actually provide the resources needed. This is not an opportunity for cherry-picking, but it is a time for boldness. The Minister and the Government have an opportunity to act and we hope that they seize it because our children deserve nothing less.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. This was always going to be a short debate for Back Benchers, but it has been made somewhat shorter, so I am introducing a six-minute limit to ensure that as many Back Benchers as possible get in.

9 Jun 2011 : Column 377

5.3 pm

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this significant, serious and now rather too short debate on this extremely important issue. Only a few months ago, I was granted an Adjournment debate on how we can improve outcomes for children in care and I am pleased that many of the arguments I raised with the Minister, together with recommendations on how to reform and strengthen the care system, particularly around child protection, are very much at the heart of the Munro report. I must declare an interest as a non-practising family law barrister specialising in care cases as well as being the son of foster carers who have fostered 90 children over the past 30 years.

The reaction to the Munro review has been almost universal in its praise. I have read the responses of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Action for Children, Home-Start, the British Association of Social Workers and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, among others, and they all agree that the report is an important opportunity to create a high-quality child protection system. This prompts me to ask why these changes have not already happened. It is not as though previous reviews and reports have not drilled down and exposed the inherent flaws in the system.

In his second report of March 2009, Lord Laming lamented the

“over-complicated, lengthy and tick-box assessment and recording system”

that has developed since the Climbié report in 2003. Of course, he is right, but despite his exasperated pleas the tick-box culture has continued to spread its tentacles across social work and to sap the morale and professional judgment of the work force. Children in need do not require reams of paper produced by case reviews and do not benefit from a social worker who spends half their time strapped to their desk and sat in front of a computer. They also do not need social workers who sit in endless meetings.

Social workers do not want that either. As part of her social work taskforce report, Moira Gibb asked social workers to identify the factors that would most improve their professional lives and, by implication, their ability to do a professional child-focused job. They indentified: first, fewer targets; secondly, smaller case loads; thirdly, the abandonment of the integrated children’s system; and, fourthly, more experienced social workers in their teams. Of course inspection, accountability and good record keeping are important, but it has been clear for too long that, as the ADCS says, social workers are

“hindered by the restrictions and regulations concerning assessment, risk management and performance indicators that do not focus on the best outcomes for the children and young people involved.”

The social work taskforce found that those engaged in child protection work spent only a quarter of their time with the children they were there to protect. In short, the system has become too preoccupied with compliance, bureaucracy and defensiveness. As a consequence, we have a demoralised child protection work force who are depressed by negative media attention but without the confidence to break free and get on

9 Jun 2011 : Column 378

with doing what motivated them to take on such an admirable vocation in the first place. As one BASW member said:

“I feel exhausted and stressed for the majority of the time. I have only been in the child protection team for 3 months and have already decided that the work is too stressful and too risky—I am now actively looking for another job.”

High staff turnover, high levels of sick leave, a high percentage of agency workers—the figure is as high as 50% in some children’s services departments—and an increase in long-service leavers are all signs of a failing organisation. More worryingly, however, that puts the children who need protecting at a greater risk of harm. The culture needs to change once and for all.

In their response to the report on looked-after children that was produced during the previous Parliament by the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the Government clearly identified those problems and endorsed the report’s view that high staff turnover, heavy work loads and administrative burdens lead to relationships that cannot flourish and social workers who do not feel empowered. They went on to express their commitment to changing the system so that social workers have

“more freedom to make decisions, more support and understanding, and less prescription and censure.”

It was extremely gratifying that the Minister re-emphasised that the Government take those important issues seriously. I do not doubt their determination, but given that people have asked why that is yet to happen, there is a worry that if we are not careful the critical state of some children’s services departments could lead to another round of regulations that result in even more prescription and red tape, which, as history has shown, would only make matters worse.

Eileen Munro is right that we need to reduce radically the amount of central prescription so that we help professionals to move from a compliance culture to a learning culture. We need to focus on the essential rules for effective multi-agency working that have been so successful in places such as Hackney and Ealing, as well as on the principles that underpin good practice elsewhere in our child protection system. We also need to focus on the quality of the help that is given by paying close attention to the views and experiences of those who receive the services and the professionals who help them. We will never completely eradicate the risks of harm to children, but by building a system with the child at its centre, rather than one that is driven by process, we can be in a much stronger position to anticipate, flush out and deal more effectively with the risks that still remain.

5.8 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I, too, welcome the publication of the review of the child protection system by Professor Eileen Munro. Her excellent report is thoughtful, well researched and based on extensive consultation. She makes the strong point that the responses to the terrible deaths of children in recent years have shaped the existing child protection system. She identifies four driving forces and says:

“These forces have come together to create a defensive system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to developing and supporting the expertise to work effectively with children, young people and families.”

9 Jun 2011 : Column 379

I agree with her conclusion that there should be a move from doing the right thing procedurally to doing the right thing for the child.

Professor Munro points out that her recommendations are not a quick fix but should be seen in the context of changing the system while putting in place the knowledge, skills and professional expertise to enable professionals confidently to exercise their judgment to do the right thing. Judging whether a child should be removed from their family because there is an unacceptable risk to their life or well-being might be necessary in a very complex family situation. It might follow months of concern, intervention and meetings with parents and other agencies. Assessing the risk to a child relies on many agencies working together to do the right thing. I absolutely agree that over-reliance on procedures does not help make such decision making effective. As she says, procedures can be followed in a way that is technically correct but so inexpert that the desired result is not achieved.

What is the right thing for the child? In my early years as a social worker I supervised a family—a single mother who was an alcoholic and who had a seven-year-old child. The bond was close. The problem was that the mother’s drinking took the form of drinking bouts, often resulting in blackouts, during which she was unable to supervise the child in the home. The child had taken to wandering outside the house at night and his attendance at school was suffering, but there was no question of his suffering any direct harm from the mother. When sober, she provided good parenting and the child responded to it, but no amount of intervention or exhortation could stop her drinking and instead she retreated into a tissue of lies to hide the extent of her problem. I use that example to illustrate the complexity of judging what is the right thing to do, as levels of risk are not easy to assess and must be balanced against positives for the child in an existing relationship and the outcomes of any actions on their long-term welfare.

I was particularly interested in the report’s chapter on sharing responsibility for the provision of early help, particularly early in the emergence of a problem. I entirely agree with Professor Munro that preventive services will do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services and that the co-ordination of services is important to maximise efficiency.

As chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, I would like to offer some comments on the child protection system in relation to children who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation while missing from home or care. Sadly, many children and young people go missing from children’s homes. For them, it has already been decided that they cannot be safeguarded and protected at home. We are their corporate parents and they are in our care, and I was pleased that the Minister referred in particular to our responsibilities as corporate parents.

More than 100,000 children run away overnight each year. Readers of the Manchester Evening News were stunned to read recently that there were 11,819 police reports of children going missing in Greater Manchester last year. Of those, 2,281 cases related to youngsters aged 11 or younger. Another shocking figure is that half of those cases related to children living in care, with more children disappearing from the 43 children’s homes in Stockport than in the rest of Greater Manchester put

9 Jun 2011 : Column 380

together. We know that running away is an important indicator that things are not right in a child’s life. One in five children who run away will be harmed and many will become involved in the things that worry parents and society the most—drugs, alcohol and falling prey to sexual predators. I pay tribute to the recent Barnardo’s report, “Puppet on a String”, which highlights those issues.

I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of an action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation and think it is important that it focuses on both running away and child sexual exploitation, as all the research shows that the two issues go hand in hand. I will be interested to hear the results of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s current investigations on recent cases of sexual grooming. One of the problems is the collection and analysis of data and assessing the risk to children individually and in the wider community. I hope that the work being undertaken by CEOP will help to develop a risk assessment framework for incidents of children going missing that could form the basis of effective inter-agency work. Local safeguarding boards have an important role because they are in a unique position to monitor how effective local agencies are in addressing the problem.

When the Minister considers recommendation 6 in Professor Munro’s report, I would like him to take on board the child protection issues in relation to runaway children. I firmly believe that if we can reduce the massive number of children and young people running away and going missing, we can reduce the number at risk from violence, drugs, alcohol, sexual exploitation and grooming.

5.14 pm

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this excellent review.

Strikingly, we knew as far back as 2009 that some social workers spent more than 80% of their time in front of paperwork, rather than out on the front line, face to face with children and families. Cameron’s quotation:

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,”

published in 1963, has never been more apt than it is to our over-bureaucratic and compliance-ridden system. The focus on early intervention, also highlighted in the Allen, Field and Dame Clare Tickell reviews, shows the long-term benefits to the enrichment of families on the whole, as well as the massivly reduced burden in the cost to the state, and it can only highlight the need to turn that huge supertanker in a different direction.

It is time that we put social workers on the professional platform that they deserve. We need to develop a system in which child protection truly is a multi-agency business involving not only social workers but schools, police and health workers all finally working together—a system that removes constraints on local innovation and professional judgment. But let us not be under any illusions about the time that it will take to change mindsets and to implement the changes needed. The system has been so burdened for far too long.

I will home in on the role of the lead member for children’s services in local authorities, a position that Professor Munro says should not be undermined. Having

9 Jun 2011 : Column 381

spent three years as lead member for children’s services on Calderdale council, I believe that the lead member role needs to be looked at and enhanced through further guidance. I know only too well how brilliant a lead member is and how brilliant they are considered when they are out there batting for that extra £1 million in the budget, but the moment they start asking tricky or challenging questions they can almost see and feel the shutters closing down around them.

One good thing that the previous Government did introduce, just over two years ago, was the lead member’s membership of the local safeguarding children’s board, albeit on a limited basis as a participant observer. With that privilege, I could at least challenge partner agencies, and had it been introduced earlier I might have been able to use it as a tool to deep-dive issues even further.

Generally, however, partner agencies were not the only problem, because they chose to work traditionally in silos; it was also down to our directorate. The problem started at the top in Calderdale, which, like most authorities in the UK, has an educationist as its director of children’s services. Educationists also take up most head of service roles. Educationists and social workers generally lack the professional knowledge and understanding of each other’s roles, and without question there is professional snobbery between the two.

Just imagine, then, how it was for a lead member with only 30 years’ retail and people management experience going into that lion’s den. As one head of service once said to me, “With all due respect, you are only a shopkeeper.” A tongue-in-cheek comment, I know, but the battle line was drawn.

The lead member is also generally part time and often from a totally different sector. They are the only councillor with legal responsibilities, but when things do not go as well as they should, as was the case for me in Calderdale, gaining access to information can be hugely cumbersome. The information is often non-existent, and frankly the lead member can hear those shutters going down around them.

Interestingly, Professor Munro mentions Klein’s view on intuition, and with my managerial experience and intuition it became evident to me early on that we had a head of service who was not fit for purpose, an information service that was wholly inadequate, a children’s service base budget that was under-resourced to the tune of £1.5 million, a work force with low morale and a high proportion of agency staff, core and initial assessments woefully behind on time scales, two serious case reviews in the pipeline and a children’s trust in name only—and all that was just the headline stuff. When I challenged those responsible for the day-to-day running of CYP services, there were always reasoned responses and excuses, but that is often exactly what they were—excuses. It took three heads of service, three serious case reviews and more than two years before the appointment of a new director of children’s services, who agreed to an independent review by PricewaterhouseCoopers, before we managed to get a truthful picture of how bad things were in Calderdale regarding safeguarding.

Professor Munro mentions the role of the lead member staying the same. I would like the Government to consider four key points, if I can get them in very quickly. First,

9 Jun 2011 : Column 382

the lead member, who is currently a participant observer, should be a full-time member of the local safeguarding children board. Secondly, I would like the Minister to consider the fact that there is no mandatory training for the lead member role. Training of sorts is available, but it is difficult to accommodate if they have a full-time job. Thirdly, will the Minister consider guidance on making the lead member role a four-year term for the sake of continuity? Calderdale is now on its fourth in three years.

Finally, may I ask the Minister to look at the leadership—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Three out of four is not bad.

5.20 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): If the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) wants to intervene on me at an appropriate point, perhaps he can get his fourth point in.

I welcome this debate and this report. Child protection is an important issue that has been given too little attention, generally having periods of intense focus following the death or serious injury of a child or children. No one could disagree with the aims set out by Professor Munro, but I want to look at some issues that are perhaps more nuanced than the Minister set out in his speech.

Looking back, we have had investment in the past. From 1998, we had the Quality Protects programme, which made a big difference to social services; I speak from personal experience. More recent work done by the previous Government should be built on. Indeed, Professor Munro identifies the need to build on the firm foundations of reform created by the Social Work Taskforce and the Social Work Reform Board. Let us not reinvent the wheel where we do not need to.

Importantly, Professor Munro recognises the multi-agency nature of this field. There is a danger of other Government policies making child protection more difficult. I am concerned not only about the cuts but about the proposals for how things are to be done. The all-party child protection group, which I chair, and of which many members are present, will be carrying out an inquiry into the proposals on vetting and barring, and I hope that that is helpful. The next session is on Monday—a little advert there—and I hope to see many Members attending to look at this in detail.

We need to be aware of the importance of child protection for children in all settings. Looked-after children have been mentioned, and the residential sector is important. On health, what is going to happen as a result of the abolition of primary care trusts? The PCTs have played an essential role in local safeguarding because they can give an overview and they are able to get involved in the wider issues of what is happening in their local area. I fear that the proposals do not deal with ensuring proper, effective child protection policies for the future. I also have worries about the role of the police.

I have great concerns about education. I will not go into those in detail now, as I have raised them with the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb),

9 Jun 2011 : Column 383

who was here earlier. Certain aspects of the Education Bill put children at risk, and the Government need to deal with that.

I am also concerned about the localism agenda. The recommendations in chapter 4 on accountability lead us to believe that there are clear tensions in this respect. We should be able to specify what needs to be done, and there should be ways of following best practice while ensuring some local flexibility. The Government need to address that properly.

I want to speak briefly about the recording of information and time scales. That debate has been conducted in a one-dimensional way. Poor IT systems have made life difficult. However, it is significant that every major inquiry into child deaths has identified two things at fault: poor information-sharing between different professions in contact with children and poor recording of information. Not only is good recording essential to enable effective continuity of support for children, sometimes over years or when somebody is on leave, but it is part of the process that social workers need to go through to reflect on a family’s situation. The idea that the only work of a social worker is direct face-to-face contact is false.

I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) about moving to the use of all localised forms. Frankly, that would take us back round the circle. Thirty years ago when I started in social work, every local authority used a different form and a different process. Not only did that involve lots of people writing those forms and producing guidance, but it meant that when people moved authorities, it took even experienced staff a long time to understand the systems and procedures. I know that the Minister is genuinely committed to this agenda, and I commend him for that, but I urge him to consider a middle way.

I also urge the Minister to consider a middle way for serious case reviews. He and I have disagreed on the publication of serious case reviews in full, and I will not rehearse those arguments now because I do not have time. However, I think that he should have held back, carried out a review, and put in place a new system. In my experience, not only are full case reviews poor learning tools, but sometimes their publication means that people do not come forward. There was a well-publicised case in Sheffield only a year ago of serious intergenerational abuse. The people in that family would not have come forward if they had thought that their information would be put into the public domain.

This is an important review in many ways, and we need to go into it in more detail. I ask the Minister to give more detail on how a wider group of people beyond his implementation group can have an input into the recommendations to ensure that we get the best possible things out of the review for the benefit of children, social workers and all who work in this important area.

5.26 pm