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The Utting Report

4.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to repeat a Statement on the Utting Report which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Statement is as follows:

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    "The House will know that last year, after the conviction of people in North Wales for sexual and other crimes against children in their care over a long period, the previous government commissioned from Sir William Utting a review of the adequacy of safeguards against the abuse of children living away from home. They also set up a judicial tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 into the events which led to those convictions. The North Wales judicial inquiry, chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, continues and is expected to report next summer.

    "Sir William Utting has now reported to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and myself. We are publishing his report today. There is a comparable review for Scotland, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is also publishing today.

    "Sir William's review was necessary because of continuing revelations of widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children living away from home, and in particular in children's homes over the preceding 20 years. In addition to the convictions in North Wales, there are investigations or prosecutions in progress in the North West, the North East, South Wales and some home counties.

    "The report presents a woeful tale of failure at all levels to provide a secure and decent childhood for some of the most vulnerable children. It covers the lives of children whose home circumstances were so bad that those in authority, to use the jargon, took them into care. The report reveals that in far too many cases not enough care was taken. Elementary safeguards were not in place or not enforced. Many children were harmed rather than helped. The review reveals that these failings were not just the fault of individuals--though individuals were at fault. It reveals the failures of a whole system.

    "The review team found evidence of good work done by many children's homes despite adverse circumstances. It believes that residential care remains an important option for looking after children, but that staffing is a chronic problem.

    "The report makes clear the following major faults: many children are placed in homes unsuited to their particular needs, because there is too little choice and too little planning. Some children go through a damaging succession of placements. Children are at risk in small unregistered homes. Over a third of children in residential care are not receiving an education. Children in foster care can be at risk of abuse. Safeguards intended in the Children Act are not being uniformly implemented. There is no requirement for residential maintained special schools to be inspected for welfare regularly. Some children abscond from residential care and become homeless. Some remain untraced. Children who ran away and were traced, have been in the past often returned to the care of their abusers. Disabled children, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and young children are at higher risk of abuse or harm. Bullying and sexual abuse by other foster children was

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    encountered. Bullying appeared to be ignored in some children's homes. The mix of fearsome children and vulnerable children amounts to abuse by the system which was supposed to give protection.

    "Vetting of child care staff and foster parents must be improved. Unacceptable delays arise in checking criminal records. Staff who suspect child abuse can be deterred from coming forward for fear of victimisation by other staff or managers. Some directors of social services say they are reluctant to dismiss staff as their decisions can be overturned on appeal. The criminal justice system is ineffective in deterring offences against children and in securing convictions. Its failures are most marked where the victims are most vulnerable--the very young and the disabled. Prison Service policy to keep children in separate accommodation is not being achieved. Suicide, self-harm and endemic bullying occur. Boys aged 15 to 16 are still being remanded to prison because there is still not enough secure accommodation.

    "The report concludes that, although there are no grounds for complacency, the repetition of abuse in children's homes on the scale of the past is unlikely. It makes 20 principal recommendations designed to: improve safeguards in foster and residential care, in schools and in the penal system; provide more effective safeguards and checks to deter abusers from working with children; provide more effective avenues of complaint and independent advocates to whom children should have access; provide more vigilant management; effective disciplinary and criminal procedures; and effective systems of communication between agencies about known abusers.

    "The report calls also for changes to ensure that the criminal justice system provides children with better protection from abusers.

    "I would like to thank those who produced this report. The situation it describes cannot be allowed to recur or continue. It must provide a spur to all concerned to make sure that in future children living away from home for long periods get a safe, decent and positive upbringing.

    "This is a most serious report and the Government are taking it most seriously. We have set in train the following action: the Chief Inspector of Prisons has today published a report on young prisoners which reaches many of the same conclusions as Sir William Utting. The Home Office is making sure that standards to safeguard young people in prison currently being developed by the Prison Service incorporate the welfare aims recommended in the report. The Secretaries of State for Education and Wales will be making improvements to the welfare safeguards for children in boarding schools and will be working with the education service to achieve this. The Chief Social Services Inspector in England is assessing local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards which are supposed to be in place already. The Welsh Office is implementing with determination the Adrienne Jones report on child care and protection.

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    "We will be consulting widely and carefully with all the public and voluntary agencies concerned before giving a detailed and comprehensive response. The report acknowledges that the review panel was not able to assess the costs of implementing the recommendations or what the spending levels on children's services should be. It also emphasises that any extra resources must be matched by managerial and professional effort to improve performance.

    "The recommendations made in the report will be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review covering the whole range of services for children, including social services, juvenile and criminal justice, and education.

    "After careful consideration and consultation the Government will put forward a full programme of policy and management changes to deliver the safer environment to which children living away from home are entitled. This programme will be clear, affordable and enforceable. It will ensure that high standards are set and that whatever standards are set are met. The Department of Health and the Welsh Office are already committed to two important structural changes endorsed by the report--the creation of a statutory general social care council to regulate standards of conduct and practice by social services personnel, and the statutory regulation and inspection of small children's homes.

    "We are actively reviewing the way in which the courts treat children and other vulnerable witnesses to allegations of abuse. We are preparing a White Paper on social services which will set out detailed proposals for improvements in the regulation of social services. We are setting up a ministerial task force led by me, involving Ministers from all the relevant departments and a small number of expert advisers from outside government. Its first job will be to prepare the full government response to this report.

    "Finally, I should make it clear that many dedicated people are doing a good job looking after vulnerable children living away from home. This is never an easy task and they deserve our thanks. We owe it to them and to the children they look after to root out and punish the wrongdoers and also to put into place a system which helps rather than hinders their efforts.

    "These vulnerable children living away from home are the responsibility of us all. Many have been let down. We will make sure that in future they are looked after better".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.19 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I express my gratitude to the Minister for repeating the Statement. There can be no one in your Lordships' House who does not feel the utmost revulsion at the thought of children suffering abuse in residential care homes, and the deepest sadness for those children whom the state system has let down so badly.

Sir William Utting's report, from my brief scrutiny of it, appears to be a cogent and thorough piece of work. The need for it is now, regrettably, even more evident

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than it was when the previous government commissioned it in June 1996. We join Her Majesty's Government in thanking Sir William for the effort and care that he has devoted to his task.

Although on these Benches we have clearly not had an opportunity to read the report or digest its implications fully, we stand ready to encourage and support Ministers in any fair and workable proposals that they may choose to bring forward to address the shortcomings in the system which Sir William has identified. I hope that the Government will act will all due speed to respond to the report's recommendations.

One of the report's findings is that over the past few years there have been fewer and fewer residential care places available to local authorities, as homes around the country have been progressively closed. The natural consequence of that is that fewer and fewer people have the relevant managerial experience of looking after residential care homes and the children in them. Unfortunately, it is a vicious circle in that in some areas caring for children in residential homes is regarded as a low status activity. Therefore, it is all too easy to see how paedophiles might have been able to infiltrate the staff of such homes.

Equally, a number of local authorities have no residential care facilities; they are obliged to purchase the service from outside. The inspection of homes is less straightforward; there is an increasing lack of choice of homes, which leads to unsuitable placements; and the risk of abuse and children experiencing bullying and intimidation from other children is accentuated further.

We should look seriously at Sir William's recommendation for a national child care strategy. Tighter standards, better supervision and better training will be a part of that strategy. Does the Minister agree that the possibility of an independent, nationally based system of inspection should be examined on a principle similar to the inspection of schools?

Since 1985 there have been three national inquiries into serious misconduct and abuse in children's homes. We should recognise that some progress has been made, although not enough, and, as the Minister emphasised, many good and caring people look after children in residential homes with skill and dedication. But the question which always arises when such a major report is published--and I put it to the Minister--is: how can we do better in identifying those individuals who pose a risk to children in care?

I am aware that there are blacklists. I understand that the Department for Education and Employment maintains such a list and that a similar list is maintained by the Department of Health. Are those lists co-ordinated? Is the system for collecting and disseminating information satisfactory? Can we examine ways of including other names on those lists; for example, an individual who is suspected of misconduct but who resigns from his post before being dismissed and being charged with an offence? Are the provisions of the Data Protection Act an insuperable problem to widening the scope of those lists to include the category of individual to which I have referred?

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If the Data Protection Act is one of the obstacles, do the Government agree that the delicate balance between safeguarding the rights of children who need protecting and safeguarding the civil rights of individuals needs to be examined with care in order to ensure that vulnerable children are shielded from risk to the maximum extent?

I welcome the report and its recommendations. I wholly support the action which the Government have taken. I look forward to their detailed response and to the forthcoming White Paper on social services. We on these Benches undertake to adopt a constructive approach to both.

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