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I wish to shoehorn into this debate the issue of children who are not in the care system but who are not able to remain safely at home with their family or extended family. If we do not include those children, we will fail to address some of the urgent issues in this regard. Specifically, I want to raise the matter of trafficked children, particularly children who are trafficked across borders, as, according to a recent Home Office commissioned report, they are more isolated from protective networks than their internally trafficked counterparts.

The Government published that report as a result of the pilot they introduced on child trafficking advocates. It was only after intense pressure from Members that they agreed to introduce any system of protection for trafficked children. These are not guardians with legal powers, and the Government only had a pilot of the advocacy system. Unfortunately, despite the fact that a report by the University of Bedfordshire made it quite clear that the pilot had been successful, Barnardo’s has not been commissioned to extend its service and nor has any subsequent service been provided.

I urge the Minister to speak directly to his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that there is a continuing advocacy or better guardianship provision for these children. I gather that the excuse for not carrying on providing any protection mechanism for them that is worth the name is that children within the advocacy service still disappeared. It is clear from the university report that half the children who disappeared—overwhelmingly, they were Vietnamese children who were trafficked into cannabis farming—disappeared before they had been referred to the advocacy service.

There are clear examples in the report of how advocates worked very hard to protect children who were at risk of disappearing. The fact is that those advocates did not have legal powers and could be ignored by local authorities. In one case, they were unable to persuade the local authority to put a trafficked child in safe accommodation, and the child then disappeared into the hands of a trafficker. In another case, they were unable to persuade a local authority that a child was a child, and it was only because of the determination of the advocacy service that when that child re-entered the healthcare system they were discovered again and re-referred to the Home Office protection system.

I am very concerned indeed that this group of children is falling through the gap, and that the problem is being regarded as an immigration issue rather than a child protection issue. I urge the Minister, in responding to this debate, to say that he is not prepared to tolerate the one bit of the Bedfordshire report that suggested there was no enthusiasm for this process—certain social workers felt that they should have the money rather than child protection advocates. Will he also ensure that, within the month, he will speak to the Home Office about continuing to fund proper child advocacy services, preferably child guardians with legal powers to stop local authorities ignoring those children’s need for protection, so that they, like all other children in Britain, can be properly kept safe?

4.19 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West

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and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing the debate, because how we treat young people and children in our society is really important.

I want to bring to the Minister’s attention my experience of having represented parents whose children are taken into local authority care. I also want to say a little about when I used to represent young people charged with criminal offences and prosecute adults who had been abusing young people. I have worked quite a lot with young people and seen what happens in their homes. I want to concentrate on family law, which does not get enough attention, and especially on what happens in the legal process.

I agree with everyone who has spoken, bar the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—I do not agree with a lot of what he said. Nobody is saying that children should not be taken into care. We have heard about the case of baby P and the Climbié case, as a result of which I am concerned that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. When there is even a slight expression of concern about children, local authorities come in, take them away and put them with foster parents, and then they start dealing with the parents. They never look at kinship care: often, it is the family themselves, or maybe their lawyers, who talk to the wider family and say, “Would you like to put yourselves forward to be a kinship carer?” Then the wider family members come forward, and it takes about six to eight weeks for them to be assessed to see whether they are suitable. I ask the Minister to urge local authorities and social services to proactively find a family member who could look after a child they have taken into care. I assure him that a child will always feel happier with an auntie, uncle or older brother or sister than with a complete stranger, so maybe we need to change the emphasis.

Secondly, when I was practising in the field I noticed that children often have a guardian appointed—a lawyer—and social services are involved, but very rarely do people talk to the children about what they want. I remember a case where I was banging my head against a brick wall. I asked all the people involved, especially the legal guardian who was supposed to be representing the children, “Have you spoken to the child about this? Have you got any information from them? What do they think about it? Where do you think they would like to live?” I was met with a wall of silence. I was very frustrated, and I said, “You know, if you really want to do it, you should be asking these questions. You should be trying to find alternative sources.”

Thirdly, as the Minister probably knows, sometimes when children are taken into care they have an opportunity to have supervised access to meet their parents in a contact centre. However, that tends to be on an awkward date and time and in an awkward place, and the visits are not frequent. Again, we have to fight social services to increase the number of visits for parents, make the location more accessible and allow parents to have more quality time with their children. If that happens, it means that when the process is finished, six months or a year down the road, the child will not have forgotten his or her parents. I ask the Minister to urge social services to look at those aspects of the system.

Finally, I am sorry to say that there is unseemly haste to place babies in care. We know that most people who want to adopt are happy to adopt a little baby but

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reluctant to adopt a toddler or older child. Babies are therefore carted off to the adoption system before there has been thorough and proper work with the family to see whether they can help. There will always be situations in which children are vulnerable and their family will never be able to look after them, but in my experience those cases are a small minority. We hear about them in the media, but we do not hear about the cases that do not fall into that category. We need to talk about the thousands of cases in which it would be far better to work with the family at home and spend the money that we would otherwise give to foster parents on allowing the parents to improve their home and helping them to look after their children.

4.24 pm

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I shall make a brief contribution to the debate. If people wish to read the unabridged version of my speech, it will be on my website at the end of the debate. I declare an interest as the unpaid founder and chair of both the Rebalancing the Outer Estates charity and the Early Intervention Foundation.

I fully support the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). I may surprise colleagues by not taking the opportunity to speak again about the need to change from a late intervention philosophy to an early intervention one, the need for evidence-based policy making, or the need for a “what works” organisation for the victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. Today I want to speak to the need for local people—real people in the localities—to make a difference in places such as my constituency, Nottingham North. In doing so, I pay a specific and well-deserved tribute to those connected with the Safe Families for Children programme for the phenomenal work that they are doing.

Safe Families was brought to the UK and started in the north-east of England entirely as a result of the energy and personal commitment of Sir Peter Vardy. After I spoke to Sir Peter about my constituency, with typical generosity he put at Nottingham’s disposal his fantastic team led by the unstoppable chief executive, Keith Danby, and we began to work out how we could take things forward for unsafe families in Nottingham North. We had several planning meetings involving the community convened under the auspices of the Rebalancing the Outer Estates charity. Nottingham city council put its considerable weight behind the idea. Alongside our own 20-year early intervention plan, the programme works with the many other facets of Nottingham’s early intervention city programme and with the strategy of our far-sighted and talented team led by Candida Brudenell, Katy Ball and Kevin Banfield.

Put simply, Safe Families works with three levels of volunteers. Colleagues might wish to take this up in their own constituency. Those three levels are, first, family friend volunteers, who are trained to help the families directly to overcome their problems; secondly, host family volunteers who, after proper criminal record checks, can look after the children for one night, a week or whatever, giving the family the time they need to get it together again; and thirdly, resource friend volunteers who, like us perhaps, can contribute a little bit of time here and there to help with supplying or delivering much needed household and other items to families in difficulties.

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Building the volunteer critical mass has been crucial. The wonderful Kat Osborn and the local Safe Families for Children Nottingham team have been brilliant. They have recruited, trained and approved 240 volunteers in Nottingham and throughout the east midlands—sadly, far too many to name, but I have met many of them—starting with faith-based communities and spreading to involve people of all faiths and none. Starting just a few months ago from the base in Nottingham North, the city of Nottingham has now made 32 referrals and 49 children have been supported to date. These include 32 nights of hostings, with more in the pipeline over the next few weeks.

The financial benefits are enormous. A very small upfront investment of resource, time and effort avoids costs of tens of thousands of pounds for every child who did not go into care The average cost of a looked-after child is estimated to be £48,000, excluding legal costs and council staff costs. We in Nottingham are close to making our own evidence-based savings prediction as we grow beyond the 32 referrals we have made so far.

The Safe Families for Children extended pilot became a joint venture between the Department for Education’s children’s social care innovation programme and Nottingham council. As with all the ideas we trigger in the Rebalancing charity, the idea was to pioneer Safe Families in one place and then grow it. Now, using Nottingham as a hub, all four of our east midlands phase 1 Safe Families partners—Derby, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire—have been up and running for over a month and all are now making referrals.

Will the Minister raise with the Treasury the possibility of using this as a social investment programme? Also, will he ensure that every council takes up a similar scheme?

4.29 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate on a topic that affects some 93,000 children who are in care across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I commend the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for introducing it and for their wording of the motion. How anyone in this House could have any doubts about its wording astounds me. What it says is very clear to me, and I believe to everyone outside this House as well.

I take this opportunity to commend my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly for recently passing a vital new law, the Children’s Services (Co-operation) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which will make a real and practical difference to the lives of many children in care in the Province by removing bureaucracy and putting the needs of the child first.

The figures really do speak for themselves. As of 31 March 2015, there were 2,875 children in care in Northern Ireland; in my eyes, that is 2,875 too many. Four per cent. of those looked-after children, or 112, were less than a year old; 20%, or 581, were aged between one and four; 34%, or 958, were aged between five and 11; 24%, or 693, were aged between 12 and 16; and 18%, or 530, were aged 16 and over. My reason for

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putting those stats on the record is to show the House that the majority of those in care in Northern Ireland tend to be older children or teenagers. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he is having discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly to see what its thoughts are on that. In the year ending March 2015, 72% of children adopted were four years old or younger, and 28% were aged over five. With figures like these, it is little wonder we find that the majority of those in care tend to be slightly older.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that children in care are four times more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties than those who are not in care—an extremely worrying statistic. The NSPCC claims that if children and young people do not get the help they need early enough, these problems can get worse. Such mental health issues can lead to children in care having challenging behavioural problems that may prove difficult for carers to deal with, which, in turn, causes yet further problems. If children’s placements break down, that can have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing and mental health. A placement breakdown can also mean increased costs to the system as a new placement has to be found, and as children’s mental health grows worse, they need increasingly more specialist placements. The whole thing gets worse and more complex; it is a Catch-22 situation.

Not only that, but the Department for Education has revealed that children in care are less likely to do well at school compared with their peers who are not in care. These figures cannot be ignored. The findings are further supported by figures from March 2014 showing that 34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at the age of 19, compared with 15.5% of the general population. That is another statistic that cannot be ignored in relation to the wellbeing of those in care. Clearly, more needs to be done to help those in care to reach their academic potentials. I hope the Minister will explain what steps the Department is taking to address that. It is vital that we get it right for young people, whenever they need direction, and focus on their potential and where they are going to be in adult life.

According to the NSPCC, more than half of children are taken into care because of abuse or neglect, and an estimated 20% to 35% of sexually exploited children are in care. A number of charities—the NSPCC and many others—actively work to provide support and help for children in such circumstances, but again, much more needs to be done and much more action is needed from the Minister and his Department. I hope he can tell the House what they are doing to improve the support available for children who have suffered abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. More than 50,000 children are currently identified as needing protection from abuse in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it has been estimated that for every child so identified, a further eight are suffering from child abuse. If those stats are correct, then this is another enormous problem that the Minister has to respond to.

With these figures in mind, it is little wonder that so many of those leaving care struggle with mental health and/or behavioural issues. Instead of moving these children to and fro, we need to help them to deal with and overcome their experiences, bad as they are. We have to do more to help the vulnerable in society. This will not only help children to realise their potential and secure

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the very important employment they need for their future, but help to cut costs in the system. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.34 pm

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP): I am delighted to participate in this debate on such an important issue. Indeed, after the cities of Glasgow and Dundee, my own local authority of North Ayrshire has the highest rate of looked-after children in Scotland, with 2.1% of young people up to age the 17 currently being looked after.

In contrast with England, where the figure is rising, there has been progress in Scotland in recent years, with a 3% fall in the number of looked-after children since 2013. I make that point because it is important that lessons are learned and best practice shared in all corners of the United Kingdom. There are no easy answers, but much more can be done.

I listened with enormous interest to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who said that children are often, in effect, kicked out of residential care at the arbitrary age of 16. In Scotland, under the SNP Government and the provisions of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, young people in foster, kinship or residential care may extend their stay in such care until the age of 21. The SNP Government have also further committed to providing support for care leavers up to the age of 26, to help them move to independent living.

Several Members have pointed out that, in order to reduce the number of children entering care, the focus must be on preventive work and early intervention to support children and young people and their families. Importance must be placed on early engagement to support and build on the assets in families and communities, to prevent children from becoming looked-after, wherever possible.

I agree that one of the most effective ways of providing care is by way of kinship care. The work of kinship carers is not always fully understood, and all too often it is overlooked entirely. Indeed, kinship care is often far more challenging than many people realise, and it impacts enormously on the carer’s life as well as that of the child. For a grandparent, it can be a daunting task, particularly when they believe that their life is going to go along a different path from the one they had envisaged.

It is wrong to assume, as sometimes happens, that kinship care is simply a normal family obligation, with near seamless transitions from one household to another. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the need for kinship care can often be incredibly complex and difficult to deal with for both the child and the carer. It is important, therefore, that we do what we can to recognise and confront that reality and to support kinship carers as they manage in what are often very difficult circumstances.

In Scotland, the Children 1st charity, supported by the SNP Government, carries out vital work to support kinship carers through its national helpline and national kinship care service, which offers advice, support and information to kinship carers. Over the years, the SNP Government in Scotland have been moving in the right

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direction to provide additional support to kinship carers. Indeed, the current SNP Government were the first to introduce kinship care payments.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act also provided, for the first time, specific legal entitlements to support kinship carers and eligible children themselves. Financial support is of huge importance, given the increased costs of raising a dependent child and the fact that 43% of kinship carers have to give up work to fulfil that role, undoubtedly causing a financial strain. By supporting those caring for our children, we support those children themselves, and that must be our focus.

I was delighted when the Scottish Government announced last month that they would provide £10.1 million to councils in Scotland to raise kinship care allowances to the same level as that received by foster care families, helping to alleviate financial strain and recognising the very important work that kinship carers undertake. The new funding will help to improve the lives of 5,200 children in kinship care across Scotland.

Unfortunately, despite assurances by the UK Government during the welfare reform process that they would exempt kinship carers from welfare reform changes—including sanctions, return-to-work interviews and the bedroom tax—for up to a year after they came into effect, many of them have been affected. I urge the Government to reflect on the assurances given to kinship carers during the discussions on welfare reform. I am very interested to hear what the Minister will say on that very point.

I therefore hope that Conservative Members will recognise the significant strain that the welfare reforms have placed on kinship carers. Those reforms are clearly hampering the Government’s ability to provide the necessary care to keep a child within the family unit. I hope that the Government will think again about the impact the reforms are having on carers and look at this situation as a matter urgency. I am very grateful to those who secured this debate. As I always say in such debates, I hope that we can share best practice across the border and across the UK as a whole.

4.40 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate. It has been a short, but very thoughtful one. Our attention has rightly been focused on how we can best help and support struggling families and prevent children from entering the care system.

This debate is timely, given the research published at the end of last year by the University of Lancaster. The research found that one in four women return to the family court after previously having a child removed by court order, and that the number of new-born babies subject to care proceedings has doubled during the past five years. Those findings are backed by the Department for Education’s own figures, which show that the number of children in care has reached its highest since 1985. The total population of children now in the care system is 69,450.

The significant increase in the number of children entering the care system is seen by many, including the Education Committee’s report on child protection in 2012, as a reaction to the tragic death of Baby P in 2008. That is supported by figures showing that the majority

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of children enter care due to neglect or abuse. This tells us that more must be done to support parents at the earliest opportunity to avoid situations such as those of Daniel Pelka, Baby P and the many other high-profile cases about which we have heard in recent years.

We must have a serious rethink about the current strategy to support families and about how the huge social, personal and economic costs of children going into care can be avoided. Although it cannot be denied that there are circumstances in which the best-case scenario for a child may be to be taken into care, based on the risks of remaining in the family home, that does not mean that we as a society should not feel ashamed of this failure to support all families.

There are two areas that the Government must consider when it comes to reducing the number of children entering the care system—a more comprehensive early intervention and prevention strategy, and improving the support on offer to kinship carers.

There is an old African proverb with which I am sure all hon. Members are familiar: it takes a whole village to raise a child. That reminds us of our collective duty to offer support and help to those families who need it the most. When abuse and neglect are cited as the main reasons for a child being taken into care, it is clear that comprehensive early intervention and prevention programmes are needed to reduce the threat of a child’s abuse or neglect in the family home and to avoid the eventuality of a child being taken into care.

Addressing issues about nurture and early family life is championed in “The 1001 Critical Days” manifesto. The all-party group of much the same name is steered passionately by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He was in the Chamber earlier, but he is not in his place at the moment. The manifesto calls for more support to be given to families to help nurture and support a healthy family environment for children to grow up in. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to read this excellent manifesto. If not, I am sure his hon. Friend will send him a copy of it forthwith.

A National Audit Office report in 2014 cites one of the previous Labour Government’s greatest achievements, Sure Start children’s centres, as a key measure to help to reduce the number of children entering care. The family-focused vision of Sure Start centres brings together specialists, professionals and practitioners to provide parents with vital information on how to overcome the struggles of being new parents and how to cope with challenging family circumstances in order that they do not fall apart and descend into situations in which a child may be removed from the family home. However, according to an investigation last year by the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau, cuts to Whitehall budgets have meant that overall spending on early intervention programmes has fallen by 55%, or £1.8 billion, since 2010.

The short-sightedness of cutting early intervention budgets is detrimental to the vision all hon. Members share, but which was laid out full well in “Early Intervention: The Next Steps”, the seminal report from 2011 by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). He highlighted the top 19 intervention programmes as a blueprint for government. The top of the list was the

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excellent family nurse partnership programme, which was piloted and which has since been rolled out a little—it needs to go much further to become universal.

Since 2010, almost 800 Sure Start children’s centres have closed. Many more are mere shells of their former selves—the “caretaker and bottle of bleach” model, as I like to call it, means that they are classed as open but not quite as we know it. The Government are sifting through the responses to their consultation into the future of Sure Start centres. In the light of the lack of progress since the my hon. Friend’s report, it is concerning that the hollowing out of Sure Start centres and the devastating cuts to intervention programmes that families rely on, such as parenting classes, drug and alcohol abuse support, and domestic violence services, have not been cited as causes when trying to understand the increase in children entering the care system.

Although a push for greater early intervention schemes is vital to addressing the increase in children entering the care system, there will still be situations when children must, sadly, be removed from the family home for their own safety. When a child is placed into care, all efforts must be made to ensure that they are safely placed with extended family members in a kinship care arrangement where possible, instead of within the care system.

It is estimated that 200,000 children are being raised by kinship carers across the UK. A significant number of children are being looked after by their grandparents or other relatives, but there has been little development in Government support for kinship carers that mirrors, for instance, recent announcements on adoption. Allowing a family member to care for a child instead of that child going into residential or foster care is important for the development of the child, but it can also help to reduce the strain on local children’s services, the budgets of which have been devastated by cuts. That does not mean that kinship carers should be seen as a cheaper option for providing care to children but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) made clear in his speech, kinship carers save the country millions upon millions of pounds by providing care to their kin.

Many kinship carers become so due to emergency circumstances, which means that the costs for raising that child, such as the immediate cost of providing a bed for the child to sleep in, clothes to wear and uniform for school, are not factored in to their household budgets. That is exacerbated when kinship carers must give up their jobs to look after their kin. The largest survey of kinship carers last year found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently. An analysis of the 2011 census found that 76% of children living in kinship care were living in deprived households.

The lack of joined-up thinking is laid bare when the same kinship carers who were told to give up their jobs are chased by the Department for Work and Pensions or ATOS and sanctioned for not looking for work, as my right hon. Friend said. I am gravely concerned about how both kinship and foster carers will fare when the Government’s proposed two-child policy comes into force. I echo what he said and plead with the Minister for exemptions for both kinship and foster carers if that policy goes ahead. That is why it is so important that the Government explore how the financial costs of being a kinship carer can be alleviated by allowing better access to funds and entitlements that are already

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available to adopted or foster children, who share similar adversities to children in kinship care, so that their development is not hindered or regressed.

The Government must also look at the process of placing a child with a kinship carer. Although new guidance for local authorities published last year is helpful in calling for more identification of potential family carers, there is still no statutory duty on local authorities to explore those options. That means that many local authorities look into kinship care only after a child is placed in the care system, causing avoidable upheaval for the child and the extended family.

There is a duty on all of us to ensure that every child, no matter what their circumstances, has a safe and nurturing home in which to spend their childhood. However, that is clearly not the case for tens of thousands of children who are currently in care, but who could have avoided entering the system in the first place. Continuing to fail those children is not an option. We cannot fail them; we are their village and we need to help raise them. I hope that the Minister realises that this is his moment to really make a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I hope that he makes it count.

4.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Sam Gyimah): I will begin by explaining why I am answering this debate in place of the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson). I am sorry to tell the House that his mother, Alex Timpson, died peacefully at home on Tuesday after a long illness. Many people in this House will know that, with her husband John, Alex fostered around 90 children over 30 years, as well as adopting two boys into their family.

My hon. Friend has always said that it was living with his mother’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm to give so much selfless love and support to so many desperately needy children that truly shaped who he is today. I know that he would very much have wanted to speak from the Front Bench about children in care, including those who were cared for by Alex. Our thoughts are with him and his family. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

This is an important debate. Much has been said about the role of kinship carers. A casual comment was made that suggested that they are somehow overlooked in the care system. I assure the Chamber that they are very much part of the Department’s plan. Issues have been raised about the welfare reforms and what needs to be done. The Minister for Children and Families will respond to the Members who raised those points in due course.

Enza Smith, the founder of Kinship Carers UK, was awarded an MBE for services to children in the new year’s honours list because of the important research it is doing into support mechanisms for kinship carers. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) has brought that issue to the attention of the Minister for Children and Families a number of times. I want to highlight the fact that kinship carers are very important and key to our thinking.

The decision to take a child into care and the decisions that flow from it—whether the child will return home at a future point, stay in long-term foster care or be

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adopted—are serious and life-changing. They affect not only children, but their families, and are never taken lightly. That is why I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position in the brief time I have.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are determined that no child should be left behind. That determination is even more pronounced when it comes to the most vulnerable children in our society. It means taking robust action to support families and children so that the need for children to enter care is reduced. It also means improving the children’s care system, so that when children need to be taken into public care, they are well looked after and supported to fulfil their potential. When children enter care, the state is their parent. We should want the same for those children as we want for our own: the very best start in life.

The Family Rights Group and its excellent work have been mentioned in this debate. The Department has funded the Family Rights Group for many years and it provides a valuable service to many families who have taken on the care of children who are relatives. There is a strong evidence base for continuing to fund its helpline. We will take that into account in making forthcoming decisions about voluntary sector funding.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about the Munro duty. The Government acknowledge the vital role that early help can play in getting help to children and families as soon as need arises. I will say a little more about that in due course. The Government considered implementing an early help duty based on Professor Munro’s recommendation, but concluded that an explicit duty was not necessary as there was existing statutory provision under the Children Act 2004 for such support. The Government agreed to keep the matter under review and we continue to do so. However, we have strengthened our statutory guidance to make it clear that early help services should be part of the continuum of support to vulnerable children. The guidance sets out the need for teachers, health visitors and police to be alert to the indicators of abuse and neglect, and to work with families and children to undertake an early help assessment and agree a package of support to prevent needs from escalating.

More broadly, the Government are committed to ensuring that children are protected from the risk of abuse and neglect. We want to ensure that all those children are identified early and have timely and proportional assessments of their individual needs, and that the right services are provided for them. As many Members have said today, that does not necessarily mean taking them into care. Nevertheless, that is sometimes the right decision. Such decisions are never easy, and the systems in which they are made can always be improved.

To that end, over a two-year period to March 2016, we invested £100 million in the children’s social care innovation programme to support 53 projects in developing, testing and spreading more effective ways to support children and families who are in need of help from social care services. The programme concentrates on two priorities. The first is rethinking children’s social work to empower and support front-line decision making, ensuring that that focuses on the quality of work with children and their families rather than management

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arrangements, processes and compliance. The second is rethinking support for adolescents in or on the edge of care.

In a world where, far from a spending a lifetime in care, the average length of a care episode is 785 days, we are not talking about supporting children only once they are in care. Through the innovation programme, we have supported several projects to find different ways of supporting children in their families before matters reach that stage.

There are many projects about which I cannot go into detail, given the time. However, much of what we are considering draws together a lot of practical work that can deliver for children who find themselves in vulnerable situations.

Despite all the very good work, it is inevitable that there will always be times when local authorities are required to act by taking children into care. The Children Act 1989 requires us to ask one fundamental question: what is in the best interests of the child? That is why, in addition to all the preventive work that I have mentioned, we have taken important measures to ensure that, once children are taken into care, they are safe and well looked after.

In residential care in particular, we have reformed the care planning in children’s homes regulations to improve children’s safety, including strengthening safeguards for when children are placed out of area and go missing. We have introduced new quality standards for residential settings. Work is under way with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services review to ascertain how better co-ordination and planning can be achieved across our secure children’s homes so that there is better provision.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families has set out a lot of work over the past few months. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the other sponsors on bringing the debate forward. I look forward to working with hon. Members to make the world a better place for vulnerable children.

4.58 pm

Lucy Allan: I should like to extend my condolences to my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families. I thank all hon. Members who took the time to make such thoughtful contributions to this important debate. I hope that today marks the beginning of our talking about the subject much more often. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for listening to all our ideas, thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, our discussion has been about enhancing the life chances of the most vulnerable children. We all share that common interest.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls on the Government to take steps to help reduce the number of children entering the care system by bringing forward measures to support more children to remain safely at home with their family or extended family.

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Primary Schools Admissions Criteria

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)

4.59 pm

Suella Fernandes (Fareham) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that is currently disadvantaging a small but vulnerable group of children. Many are already seriously disadvantaged, so any extra problem is one which causes considerable hardship.

First, I should declare myself as a big supporter of the Government’s schools agenda, if I can do so without seeming overly sycophantic towards the Minister. He cares passionately about raising standards and getting the best education possible for children across the country. He has personally done a huge amount of work in the past 10 years to make these issues a priority for our party, and I thank him.

This is not a party issue, however, and nor is it a question of Government policy. The issue is a very specific and technical point on how infant class admissions operate in practice. It was raised with me by a group of concerned campaigners, including many experienced people working in the field of school admissions appeals, such as those who sit on independent appeals panels and work in local education authorities. A number of them are watching this debate today and I thank them sincerely for raising this matter with me and providing me with a detailed briefing of the problem. I will draw on much of that material this afternoon, and I made it available to the Minister in my letter to him last month.

Before I come on to the crux of the issue, I want to put it on record that there is an outstanding group of primary schools in my constituency. I have visited many and I will visit them all. I am there to help all schools, teachers and parents in whatever way possible, whether Harrison primary school, an outstanding teaching school led by the inspiring Carolyn Clarke, which is leading the Pioneer Teaching School Alliance and is the home of the school-centred initial teacher training programme in Hampshire, or Locks Heath junior school led by Kevin Parfoot, where I was thoroughly put through my paces in a question time by years 5 and 6. I am proud that they are schools of national excellence in primary education. I invite the Minister to pay a visit to see that excellence for himself.

I also want to say why I care so much about schools and the education of our children. Education is the heart of social justice and the reason I am a Conservative. I owe so much to my education. My parents came to this country in the 1960s with nothing but hopes in their hearts and dreams for their child. I was blessed to have encouraging teachers, disciplining schools—I needed them—and inspiring lessons, all of which helped me along the path from an inner city state school to Cambridge University. My father started on the shop floor of a paint factory and my mother was recruited as a nurse at the age of 18. For them to see their daughter achieve in education was an aspiration come true. Education is the engine of aspiration and the reason I am a proud Conservative.

The issue of this debate relates to admissions to infant classes. Currently, the law limits class sizes to 30 pupils for infant classes, something that has been in place for many years and has widespread support.

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Let me be clear: that principle is not in question. However, the law allows an exception for certain categories of pupils that an admissions authority deems “excepted pupils” who can be allowed into a particular school even if the infant class size limit has been reached. This is set out in both the school admissions code and in the statutory class sizes regulations. At the same time, parents of children who fail to gain a place at a particular school have a right of appeal to an independent appeals panel. Herein lies the first problem with the current regime.

These appeals are limited in scope to reviewing how a decision was taken by the admissions authority and ensuring there was no error or irrationality in how the admissions criteria were applied—Wednesbury unreasonableness—and can take into account only the information available to the authority at the time of the original decision. It is not a merits-based appeal. This limited scope means that the children affected—those seeking places in reception, year 1 and year 2—are treated less favourably than older children in other years, because, in contrast, for all other appeals, known as normal prejudice appeals, independent panel members can balance the difficulties for the school in taking an extra pupil against the needs of the child, so that a more flexible judgment can be made on the evidence available.

Secondly, what happens if there is a significant change in a child’s circumstances or some other exceptional situation that might make a compelling case for them to attend a particular school? Currently, if the change in circumstances happens after the date of the family’s application for an infant class place, but before the appeal is heard, it cannot be taken into account by either the admissions authority or the independent appeals panel. Similarly, if such problems arise and there are no social or medical criteria in the admissions authority’s over-subscription criteria, the same problem arises. The family might have an exceptional and convincing reason for their child to attend a particular school, but there is no discretion. There is then no power for the appeals panel to consider those factors.

This situation is leading to serious injustice for a significant group of vulnerable children who might be facing severe and exceptional problems—things such as murder, suicide or serious domestic violence in the family, which we would all agree are serious matters for consideration. Even when the facts and their relevance are accepted, still no one in the system has the discretion to consider them. Such cases are coming before independent appeals panels, and I have heard from many involved about the distress it is causing.

Perhaps understandably, there is a suggestion that in some cases panels are nevertheless persuaded by exceptional factors to allow such appeals. They might find a technicality or artificially interpret a different criterion to justify a decision. While that might be a welcome outcome, it is nevertheless improper and leading to arbitrary justice. As a lawyer, I believe in the rule of law—its predictability and its robustness—and I do not want it to be circumvented in order for justice to be done.

Real life cases illustrate the problem. In one case, a parent had two of their children at a Roman Catholic primary school whose admissions criteria gave priority to regular practising Catholics residing in the parish. Their third child was already attending the school’s nursery, and understandably their parent wanted them to have some continuity, to join their siblings and to

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have a Catholic education. However, that child was denied a place at the school, and was instead offered a place at a different, non-Catholic school. The reason was that, at the time of their application, the family had been rehoused by the local council as a result of domestic violence and then lived outside the parish. When the case was appealed, the panel was sympathetic but could not allow the appeal because of the lack of social and medical criteria and because they had no additional discretion themselves.

Let us consider another case: a family faced an awful tragedy when the father of the child in question committed suicide, after the allocation day for places, when their child had failed to secure a place at a particular school. Her sibling already attended it, and she had other difficulties that meant she could not easily transfer to another school. Her bereaved mother naturally wanted the children to be together and set out cogent evidence of the extra difficulties both faced as a result of their father’s death. But, again, there were no social or medical criteria and no discretion for the appeal panel to take those exceptional circumstances into account. And a last case: an unsuccessful yet timely application for reception year where, after allocation day, the child had been sadly diagnosed with cancer. The child already attended the nursery at the school. It was an own admission authority school and the school governors wanted to admit the child in these circumstances but could not do so. There are many other cases, all suffering from and indicating the same problem: the rules are the rules; the law is the law; and the policy says no. My response is to ask whether the rules can be changed.

The representatives to whom I have spoken made some suggestions about what might need to be changed. There is an existing precedent for protecting categories of vulnerable pupils in the admissions process in the treatment of previously looked-after children in the current schools admissions code as exceptional cases. That seems to offer a useful model, and it would appear that a specific and discrete amendment to paragraph 2.15 of the school admissions code would be what is required, inserting a new category that could be worded along the lines of “children in crisis for whose mental health and/or physical well-being it is in their best interests to be admitted to that particular school.”

What the campaigners on this issue are seeking is not an immediate commitment to such a change, but merely that the Government should consult on it, examine its likely effects and consider the inclusion of a general discretion. They feel that this would allow the issues I have summarised today to be properly considered and aired in detail.

Fundamentally, the problem comes down to whether the current admissions regime builds in sufficient discretion for vulnerable children to be treated as exceptional cases. I believe that it does not. I am persuaded by the argument that an admissions authority should be able to consider the exceptional and compelling circumstances of a child in crisis, where they believe that the child would suffer a significant detrimental impact by not being admitted to the particular school. I also believe that making provision for this discretion would be consistent with the protection already afforded to previously looked-after children.

We all know how emotive and controversial school admissions can be. Parents pin their hopes for their children on getting them into a school that is right for

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them, and where places are limited, tough choices have to be made. So I realise how carefully the Government will need to consider any change, but I hope I have been able to demonstrate that there is an issue here worthy of that consideration. I thank the Minister for his attention, and look forward to hearing his response.

5.12 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this debate, and I thank her for opening kind comments. She, too, is a passionate supporter of high academic standards in our schools, and her pioneering work in chairing the Michaela community school board of governors is having far-reaching consequences—beyond Brent and throughout the country. She is absolutely right when she says that education is the engine of aspiration. I look forward to visiting some of the schools in her constituency, which she has kindly invited me to see.

This debate is timely, as we are currently reviewing the school admissions code and are considering at the same time whether it would be appropriate to make changes to the school admissions appeals code. The debate also provides me with the opportunity to set out how the school admissions process supports vulnerable children, as well as the importance of the infant class size limit in supporting the progress of all younger children.

I understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend about the small number of cases where neither the school nor the appeals panel can offer a place to a child who, owing to an extreme change of circumstance, becomes vulnerable with a compelling case to admit them to the school in question. The Government’s aim is to ensure that the most vulnerable children in society are provided with a place at the school that best meets their needs.

The admissions code makes it clear that the responsibility for setting admission arrangements rests with school admissions authorities. However, all schools must admit children with a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan that names the school. The code also requires that all schools must offer first priority to children either in, or previously in, local authority care. Those who have suffered domestic violence or bereavement are, of course, vulnerable, too. This is why the admissions code allows all admissions authorities to prioritise children with a social or medical need.

We are determined that a child’s economic circumstances should not predict the outcomes of that child’s education or life chances. Our aim is to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children and thereby improve social mobility in the long term, breaking the cycle of disadvantage from one generation to the next. That is why we amended the admissions code in 2014 to extend to all state schools the freedom to prioritise children who are eligible for free school meals, the pupil premium or the service premium. Previously, only academies and free schools had that freedom.

The Government want all children to receive the best possible education, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are. To ensure that all children had

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access to good school places, the Government in the last Parliament invested £5 billion between 2011 and 2015 to create the places required. Those funds helped to create 445,000 school places between 2010 and 2014, with many more in the pipeline.

As we announced in the spending review, we shall be spending £23 billion on school buildings between 2016 and 2021 to create 600,000 new school places, open 500 new free schools, and address essential maintenance needs. We are also increasing the number of good school places by tackling underperformance where it exists, and allowing good schools to expand without the restrictions and bureaucracy they have faced in the past.

The changes that we have made are working, and, despite the unprecedented rise in the number of children requiring infant school places, the average infant class size remains at 27.4, well within the statutory limit of 30. Furthermore, 96.5% of families received an offer of a place at one of their preferred primary schools. That is encouraging, but, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands as a result of her work as chair of the governors at the Michaela community school, good schools will always receive more applications than they have places.

It may be helpful if I clarify the position relating to the infant class size limit. As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory infant class size limit is 30 pupils per school teacher. The law requires schools to limit numbers in that way because research shows that smaller classes allow teachers to spend more time with individual pupils and that that can have a positive effect on the progress of younger pupils, particularly in the case of maths and literacy. The limit does mean that the admissions process for infant classes differs slightly from that applying to other year groups, as schools are restricted in terms of the number of pupils that they can admit to an infant class. There are, however, a small number of prescribed exceptions to protect the most vulnerable children, such as those in care, or those who move into an area where no suitable school places are available. The excepted pupils do not have priority over other children, but a school can lawfully admit them to a class of 30 without breaking the statutory requirements.

When parents are refused a school place for which they have applied, they have the right to appeal to an independent panel. The panel can uphold a non-infant class size appeal if it considers that the admission of an additional child would not adversely affect the school’s ability to operate effectively. The panel can also uphold an appeal if it considers that the parents’ reasons for wanting their child to attend the school outweigh the school’s reasons for refusal. To ensure that the statutory class size limit is not breached, the school admissions appeals code requires infant class size appeals to be treated differently from those applying to other year groups. When a child is refused a school place because it would breach the infant class size limit, the appeal can be upheld only if the admissions arrangements were unlawful or had not been applied properly, or if the decision for refusal was not one that a reasonable admission authority would make.

There will, of course, always be circumstances in which good schools are full and unable to increase the number of pupils whom they admit. In such cases, an appeals panel is unlikely to uphold the appeal, even when the child in question is an excepted pupil. My hon.

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Friend is suggesting an amendment to paragraph 2.15 of the School Admissions Code and the infant class size regulations, to include a new category of excepted pupil for children in crisis whose mental health or physical wellbeing mean it is in their interests to be admitted to a particular school. The important point my hon. Friend makes is that, although admissions authorities are able to give priority to children with social or medical needs, when those particular needs only arise after applications have been made, the infant class size limit means admission authorities are unable to admit the child and an appeal panel would not feel able to uphold their appeal.

We are currently considering a number of possible changes to the admissions system to support families

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and schools while ensuring the system remains fair for all, and we will look at my hon. Friend’s suggestions in carrying out this work. I am grateful to her for raising this important issue today. I hope that she is reassured to learn that we will look carefully at the important issues she has raised and consider her suggestions for changes to the codes.

Question put and agreed to.

5.21 pm

House adjourned.