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I have also been reminded in this debate of a couple of conversations, the first of which was with a general practitioner who was seeing a girl of 12 or 13. He was concerned that she might be being abused sexually by her family, and he was determined to avoid so far as possible referring her to a social worker because he did not trust the social worker partner who worked in his area and wanted to send to her a paediatrician, whom he felt would be the best professional to deal with the case. I was also reminded of a young social worker who said that he would never refer a child to a children’s home. Many factors are involved, such as partnership working and working together to improve the outcomes for children—strong professional identity is very important. That involves teachers, social workers, residential childcare workers and staff in children’s homes; they have strong professional identities and can respect the identity of the other person and trust their professionalism. That is important in helping people to work together effectively.

Debra Shipley brought through the Protection of Children Act. I am very sorry that she had to retire from the House in 2005 because of ill health. She made a very important contribution when she was in Parliament.

It is important to retain experience in social care and childcare, to build on that wealth of experience over the years and to build a culture of understanding about social care and childcare. That happens in other countries, but we in this country have done that very poorly. It is important to attend more to children’s homes, to build a cross-party consensus for what needs to be done, to work in the long term and to avoid continual change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said.

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Experience is the foundation of success in improving outcomes for children and young people. It is important to recruit and retain for long periods the best staff at the front line and line managers. That appears to be what happens on the continent. They do not appear to be so interested in measurement or narrow evidence-based approaches. They are very interested in expertise and experience and in retaining people—people pass on experience and use their professional judgment, and they make their professions popular. For instance, in Denmark, the profession of working with vulnerable children is one of the most popular courses at Danish universities. Working in a children’s home is a popular profession and has a very low vacancy rate. That is in complete contrast to our experience in this country.

The noble Baroness referred to Tim Loughton’s very important work on social work. I thoroughly endorse the call for a chief social worker to be a powerful voice for social workers. Mr Loughton visited children’s homes in Denmark and was very impressed by the quality of provision there. That is a particular concern for him because there are a number of children’s homes in his constituency.

On the continent, residential childcare workers make their work attractive; there is a framework to support those workers. They are encouraged to reflect and can build up experience and understanding over many years. Many of them then move into administration or policy areas so that the best experience from front-line practice can be built into policy at all levels—central and local government. One sees that to a small extent in this country. Peter Wilson, who is a child psychotherapist and who founded the children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, of which I am a patron, brought to the national stage his very deep professional development and practice with children. His wife continued working with children as a practitioner. He had his finger on the pulse of what was going on on the front line, and he could talk to policy-makers. I also mention Paul Ennals, who is the chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau and a residential childcare worker, and Hilton Dawson MP, who was for several years the chair of the parliamentary group on children and young people in care and who was a residential childcare worker.

I remind noble Lords of my experience of meeting guardians ad litem some years ago, when they had concerns. They were escapees from authorities; they preferred not to be bound by the restrictions of bureaucracy and pressures from local authorities, and moved into the public arena. The culture was so unattractive to the best professionals that they moved away from local authorities and child protection and into public law. We must ask why we are making local authorities such unattractive places for the most experienced practitioners.

I met the then chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. He said that those guardians ad litem were angels. That might be idealising them a bit too far, but they were vastly experienced practitioners who were prepared to give up higher rates of pay in preference to working with children as they wanted to do rather than how they were told to

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do by local authorities. They had the tenacity to stick with children when they wanted to and did not have to work against the grain—against the local authority.

I very much welcome the White Paper from the Government on the best strategy for the children and young people’s workforce, which was published in December and is entitled 2020 Children and Young People’s Workforce Strategy. I hope that it will continue the good work undertaken by the Government to put into social work what they have done so effectively for teachers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we need to give the same commitment to social workers as has been given to teachers. I welcome particularly paragraph 4.13, which states:

“Social workers themselves have also told us that they want initial social work training programmes to prepare them better for working with children and families. They also told us that they wanted better access to ongoing professional training, more reflective supervision and support once in employment”.

I am grateful for the Government’s drawing on the expertise of the contributors to this report, which has not always been the case with government policy. They have not always paid strong attention to those practitioners and I welcome this development.

Recently, the New Economics Foundation published a report, A False Economy, on failing to invest in children in care, which highlights concern about children’s homes and the fact that commissioners were basing their judgments principally on cost and not on quality. The principal cost of social care and childcare is that of the workforce; that is, the carers. If one thinks only about cost, one reduces the pay and withdraws continual professional development, and the quality of care for children goes down. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at how children’s homes are being commissioned and do what she can to rectify that. I look forward to hearing her response.

1.31 pm

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for introducing this timely debate exceptionally well. I do not really need to say very much because, with her long knowledge and many years of experience, she said it all. My experience extends for almost the same length of time. I have spent 38 years in local government and, although I have not held the esteemed positions that my noble friend has held, I have been involved in children’s services of one kind or another throughout those years. Now I am the leader of Essex County Council, one of the largest local authorities in the country. Today, I am speaking from the Back Benches because I am speaking from personal experience. I apologise for rushing around: unfortunately, I have to return to my Front-Bench position to respond to the Heathrow matter in about one hour. It has been a rather busy morning.

I should also like to compliment my noble friend Lady Perry on her extremely valuable contribution. She said exactly some of the things that should be said today. As the leader of a large local authority I live with these issues every day. We have 250,000 children in schools and we have a new school initiative virtually

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every week or fortnight—for example, “coasting” schools, challenge schools and all sorts of schools. Officers and members have to put a lot of time and effort into those issues, which is quite right because we want to raise the standard of education and the performance of our youngsters. In Essex, we have just over 1,000 children in care and these issues are not compatible.

Four years ago in this House, as my noble friend Lady Shephard said, we all supported the Laming report. In my contribution I said that, however good the report was, the work needed to happen on the ground, we did not need lots of bureaucracy and we needed more social workers. At the time, there was something like a 20 per cent shortage of social workers in London and about a 12 per cent to 15 per cent shortage around the rest of country, which still applies today.

Quite honestly, after a lot of what has been said in the media recently, who would want to be a social worker? From experience, I know that some of our social workers—I would not say that Essex is one of the most difficult places to work—are subject to physical abuse when they go into homes. Sometimes five or six social workers have to go together to deal with parents. Recently, the media has been difficult. We need to encourage social workers and we need to put a lot of effort and support into that profession, rather than lambaste it the whole time. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will support social workers at this difficult time. It is now even more difficult to recruit them. In Essex, we are looking to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and all sorts of other places to recruit social workers to support our children’s services.

As the leader of a council, one of my main problems, and one of the biggest problems with the media, is when we want to take children into care, against which there is tremendous resistance. An analysis of media comment over the past five years would demonstrate more comment about local authorities snatching children away from their families than about the Baby P case. Judgments on families tread a difficult, fine line, which, again, goes back to the importance of the social worker. In this debate, we must not forget the other side of things. As leader, I am more involved in dealing with families who are fighting decisions about their children going into care.

I also support those who criticise. I was very reluctant to bring together the two departments. I took a lot of persuading by my chief executive and others. I tried to keep the departments separate because I thought that they were functioning well. One department supported the vulnerable children’s service and special needs children, et cetera, and another department dealt with school improvement. I fought that merger, although we merged them in the end. Inspection reports show that Essex is supposed to have deteriorated since we merged them, which I would dispute. All the reports, which are mainly box-ticking reports, show that our services are supposedly not as good as they were before the two departments were merged, which shows that some things noble Lords have been talking about are probably right.

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I talk to social workers all the time. I do not always agree with my Liberal Democrat colleagues but, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said at the LGA, social workers spend half their time filling in forms and a quarter of their time travelling between one family and another. Therefore, they spend only a quarter of their time dealing with cases. There needs to be a different way for them to work. I support my noble friend Lady Perry. It was wrong to merge and the box-ticking system is wrong. This is more about quality of service than about targets.

I would be the first person to do all I can to ensure that the various agencies work together. But if you talk about family problems involving physical abuse of the wife, the police are more concerned about convicting the criminal, whereas we are more concerned about supporting the family. Therefore the targets for the police are different from ours. Last night, I spoke to the head of our children’s services, who is very good. We work fantastically well with the police, but they have different objectives. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will look at that. Health authorities have different targets too. We all have to deliver lots of financial targets and time targets. In Essex, we have created 29 task forces where the police, the probation service, our service and the health service—multiple agencies—sit together. We try to do more preventive work, which I think we would all agree is most important.

As these groups have different targets to deliver in order to tick all the boxes—so that they can come out with three stars or four stars in government terms—they cannot always solve those problems. For all the legislation and all the discussion that we have had, the situation behind the scenes is probably worse than it was five years ago. It is a disappointment and I live with it every day, so I want to make certain that we improve the situation. That is why I have rushed in my contribution today.

As the leader of a local authority, and one who puts a lot of effort and energy into it, my preoccupation is always to ensure that we safeguard very vulnerable children, and that is extremely high on the list of priorities of the members of my authority. However, we must not forget all the other children in our schools who have just one chance of an education. We have to put effort into that as well, and therefore we have to find ways of dealing with both streams in the right way. I hope that I have been able to add something to the debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Shephard for her fantastic opening contribution and tremendous analysis, and particularly my noble friend Lady Perry for her remarks.

1.40 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for introducing this important debate and for all the important points that she made in her speech. What I shall remember the most is her admonition not to confuse activity with action.

Today we have heard about many failures, and it is easy to concentrate on those, but we must also recognise the successes. The trouble is that, whereas a teacher’s successes are often reflected in exam results, those of a social worker are mostly hidden. They are the things

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that do not happen: the dogs that do not bark in the night. We must find ways of recognising social workers, because they are doing one of the most difficult jobs there is. Although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that it is important not to forget the less contentious areas of children’s services, I am going to concentrate on social services in my contribution to the debate.

My principle for children’s social services is to keep a child with their family where it is safe and in the interests of the child to do so, and to provide the family with the high-quality support that it needs to give the child a good life. But when you have to take a child into care, you must provide high-quality services to compensate for the effects of past experiences. Children’s brains develop in such a way that their personalities and behaviour reflect their experiences, including those that are no fault of their own. To do all this, you need information. You need to know which families have the risk factors, so that you can do preventive work, and which children are at risk, so that you can move in and protect them. That means that you need enough knowledgeable pairs of eyes and ears on the ground and you need good leadership; in other words, you need high standards of training for social workers and their managers, compliance with standards of conduct and manageable case loads.

The General Social Care Council has briefed us about its code of practice, which has been developed by experts. However, the council points out that, while compliance with the code is mandatory for employees, it is not a requirement for employers. If it were so, perhaps it would be easier to recruit and keep social workers. As the GSCC points out, putting the code of practice on a statutory footing for employers and within the Ofsted inspection framework—although there are doubts about Ofsted, as I hope we will debate before too long—would give employers more responsibility for raising standards and would improve leadership in the sector.

To give the Government their due, I was delighted to hear about the new leadership training for directors of children’s services led by the National College for School Leadership. I wish that well, because the college is a great facility, but I ask the Minister whether all directors will be expected to take this course in the fullness of time.

My noble friend Lady Sharp and others mentioned that recruitment is in a terrible state, with some authorities having a high percentage of vacancies. Of course we need bodies on the ground, because case loads are too high, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, pointed out, but I cannot believe that a Hungarian or even an Australian, New Zealand or American social worker, however well qualified, is the best person to understand the culture of inner-city Britain. We need to recruit and retain more of our own British social workers who understand our culture and we should support and pay them well.

Children and family social work is one of the most difficult jobs I can envisage in society today. The judgments that social workers have to make are crucial and difficult; they would give me many sleepless nights, I am sure. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield,

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pointed out, there is a fine line between the right decision to leave a child with its mother in a home that is not satisfactory but not dangerous and the right decision to take a child away because the risks have exceeded what is acceptable. No one can really know the truth of what goes on in the minds of parents, boyfriends and lodgers, or what factors may arise that drive them to violence or murder. Social workers can only conscientiously gather information and use their good judgment and experience. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, they will never please everybody.

However, one thing is absolutely crucial: social workers must see the child and they must listen to the child. It is also a very good thing if appropriate people actually undress the child and check over their body for signs of abuse. Indeed, social workers must be trained both in how to listen to children and how to recognise, through what those children say and do, the signs of abuse. If that is neglected, disasters can happen. They must see the child and not be put off by excuses from the parents. Furthermore, teachers and health visitors should also listen to children carefully. I have been in the House a little longer than the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, but ever since the day I arrived I have been shouting for more health visitors, because I agree with her that they work right on the front line, provide a universal service and should stay with families at risk for much longer than they are allowed to at the moment.

To have the knowledge and confidence to do all the things that a social worker needs to do, good initial and ongoing education and training are vital. The first cohort to study for the new social work degree completed their courses in 2006 and the Government are currently examining how the qualification is working. How is this review progressing? Has it reached any initial conclusions? How are any lessons learnt to be fed into the system, and will there be a report to Parliament?

Advanced and ongoing training is also vital to keep social workers up to speed with the latest thinking and to maintain the standard of their practice. A range of new post-qualification awards were introduced in 2007, including one in working with children, young people and their families. It is important that enough social workers become specialists in this important area, but it costs money. Given the state of the finances of many local authorities at the moment, can the Minister say whether the funding for this work will be protected in any way? I know that there are difficulties during a recession, but this is absolutely vital and can save lives. I learnt recently that 6 per cent of local authority children’s services have already experienced an increase in demand because of the economic downturn, while a further 30 per cent anticipate a heavier workload. So there is already considerable pressure.

It was reported yesterday on the BBC that one in seven local councils is already cutting jobs, and the Government’s threats of capping are preventing them from raising the money that they need to keep up the level of services. I know that there is a quandary here, but we have to keep the interests of children right at the top of our agenda. At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, mentioned, there are additional pressures on budgets for child protection since the case of Baby P. People are now being particularly

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cautious, even though the cost of taking a child protection order to court has risen dramatically of late. Indeed, before the Baby P case, many people were concerned that the number of cases being taken to court had fallen dramatically because of the high cost of court fees. That is surely not a coincidence. It is interesting to note that the number of cases has now risen since the sad case of Baby P hit the headlines. That must have an effect on the budgets of children’s services departments.

I return to training. Currently, there are no national standards for training in safeguarding and therefore a lack of consistency and focus. Are the Government planning to address this so that we can be confident about the qualifications and accreditation of individual social workers’ competence? In order to renew their registration every three years, social workers must provide evidence to the GSCC that they have met the training requirements set down in the registration rules. A review is currently going on into whether more formal requirements about the content of this training should be set down. Personally, I believe that they probably should be, but I would be interested in the opinion of the Minister, as well as in hearing from the GSCC about the results of its review. A number of individual local authority reviews are also going on, both internal and external. It is important that the lessons are learnt not just by those authorities but nationally. What plans do the Government have to ensure that that happens?

I shall now say something about nurture groups in schools and the work of another third sector organisation, Place to Be. These are not new organisations; the nurture groups have been going for 40 years and there is plenty of evidence of their success. Both organisations work in schools in different ways to tackle the effects on children of failures at home and failures of the system to help them earlier in their lives, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley.

Your Lordships may have seen the “Dispatches” programme on TV last week that showed the wonderful work of the nurture groups. There is hardly a school in the country that would not benefit from one or other of these organisations working in it, yet schools struggle to pay for them. Will the Government do something about that? The investment is very cost-effective. This work saves many thousands of pounds.

Crucially, these organisations work closely with the parents. It is easy to blame the parents, but many of them were not well parented themselves. They start off determined to do better for their children than their parents did for them, but they do not know how to because they have never had an example and so eventually they give up. I was most moved by a particular aspect of the “Dispatches” programme. One parent was given a little award by the nurture group because she had regularly come into school to liaise with it about her difficult child. She burst into tears because, she said, it was the first time she had ever been recognised as a success in anything at all. That image should inspire us to focus on the families. If we do not, we forget that, if we focus on a parent of a particular child in a school who is showing problems, we are benefiting the other children in that family and the children who may come

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along, possibly even by a different father but in the same difficult situation. If you focus on the families, you get real value for money and you are helping the children.

Early diagnosis is important, and the Government have concentrated on that, but we need action, not just activity, based on the understanding of child development and attachment theory. Nurture groups are doing that sort of work. If the Minister has not already looked into their work, I recommend that she does so.

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