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1.52 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I declare an interest as a provider of services in adult care. I join all noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold on this most timely and important debate. She speaks with enormous knowledge and depth in all areas of education and social services, as do other noble Lords across the Chamber.

Noble Lords will have seen that this morning the BBC’s lead story was on disclosures by a social worker that more than 60 cases in Doncaster alone of children identified as at risk from abuse and neglect were awaiting allocated case workers. That is just one borough. How endemic is this problem going to prove to be? Why, after the lessons supposedly learnt after the tragic cases of Victoria Climbié and others, and in the light of the review and recommendations by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, are the Government still having to respond on the hoof? We cannot allow these tragedies to concentrate our minds only for the period during which they make news headlines, reviews are ordered and the Government make sweeping structural changes to departments without ensuring that the underlying issues are identified and treated.

As I sat listening to contributions from your Lordships’ Chamber, the passion, the anger and the need to get things right just rang out with every sentence. My noble friend has, in her unique and measured way, provided us with a debate that has raised some very difficult questions for the Government. They have to take responsibility and share some of the blame for failing to look not just at structural change but, more importantly, at organisational change, adequate leadership and appropriate training for staff at all tiers. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield hit the nail on the head following the widespread negative media coverage of social workers. Who would want to be a social worker?

While recent cases, and cases that have gone before, stir huge emotion among us all, my noble friend Lady Shephard and others have commented that Ofsted has reported a doubling in the numbers of local authorities failing to protect thousands of children at risk. In October last year the Audit Commission published a report that looked at the governance and resource management in children’s trusts. It found that the role of children’s trusts was unclear and confusing. One of the key findings was that many representatives on children’s trust boards lacked a mandate for committing their organisations’ resources and that systems for reporting back were rarely systematic. What action have the Government taken in view of the Audit Commission’s report and its findings and recommendations?

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The Conservative Party’s Commission on Social Workers, convened by my honourable friend Tim Loughton in 2007, examined how social work could be strengthened and supported. The findings of the commission, published in the excellent report No More Blame Game in October 2007, was met with widespread approval from the sector.

Social workers spend at least 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their time on administrative work as opposed to client contact. Twenty years ago, only 30 per cent of a social worker’s time was spent on paperwork. Absence due to sickness is endemic within social services—approximately 15 days a year compared to teachers, who take approximately eight days a year. In 2005 around 11 per cent of field social worker posts were vacant, while 81 per cent of social workers said that workload and pressure had become worse than over the previous year. I could wheel out statistic after statistic—noble Lords have mentioned many here today—but beneath all the numbers and calculations lie the lives of vulnerable individuals whose start in life has been horrific and painful.

We on these Benches have been consistent in asking for urgent action to limit the caseloads of social workers and for more concerted efforts to be made to promote social work. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is right: retention is crucial for those in the service to be able to envisage long-term career development. He is right in wanting to see evaluation and review as essential elements in raising the standards of our services.

The large majority of social workers enter the profession wishing to help and support those most vulnerable in our society—of course, there may be the odd few that are bad. However, social care for all age groups has been seen as the poor relative of care compared to the NHS and healthcare, and has been funded accordingly.

One of the immediate failings in the Baby P case in Haringey was the lack of appropriate contact with Baby P. While over a period of time a number of people had seen the child, the follow-through—the line management support—was inadequate. The other services involved also failed to see that the overall performance of the department was falling very short of satisfactory, and yet Ofsted had provided the council with a three-star rating. What support is being given to those councils in England that were deemed inadequate at keeping children safe in making the appropriate urgent changes needed? Is the Minister satisfied that those councils that have received three-star ratings will be revisited if the Government feel unsatisfied with the council’s overall performance? Will she also comment on the large volume of agency workers used within the sector and the impact on the quality of service provision? I am sure that she is aware that 5 per cent of local authority budgets—around £110 million—was spent on agency workers in 2006. That rose to 10 per cent of the budget in London.

My honourable friend Michael Gove rightly says that the public are tired of hearing that “the correct procedures have been followed” when a child dies in agony at the hands of parents or other adults. The public are both astonished and outraged that a director

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of children’s services can say, after the death of a child, that in the light of the good performance a scrutiny review would not be beneficial or add value to the service. The public are rightly insistent that we act swiftly and comprehensively to hold all those responsible to account and make the necessary changes to improve child protection across the country. Can the Minister say whether the findings in the serious case review of Baby P and others will be made publicly available?

My noble friend Lady Bottomley referred to the importance of health visitors. Does the Minister agree that until the huge shortage of health visitors is addressed, it adds to the deficiencies of the service provided in the sector? What are the Government doing to keep their pledge of ensuring that all children have an allocated health visitor?

It has been a great privilege to have contributed to this very important debate. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the concerns raised and recommendations made may help improve a sector that is there to protect our most vulnerable citizens. I suspect that it is a topic for another day, but the difficulties and concerns are equally shared in adult services, where we address the most vulnerable at the other end of the age scale.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, raised a number of important points that were constructive and helpful. I hope that the Government will examine her suggestions more closely, particularly those on how we elevate the position and perception of social workers and their work.

Will the Minister now agree to support our calls for offering much greater assistance at the front line of social services to ensure that adequate training, and time and line management are available to all field and front-line staff? What consideration are the Government giving to the size of children’s services departments and the number of children for which those departments are responsible?

My noble friend Lady Perry rightly addressed education through the reorganisation of the services and the department. My noble friend is right that the culture and language of social services and education are completely different. Communication has become more difficult, not easier. While the main body of my speech has covered social services, my noble friend expertly highlighted a number of important points I would have wanted to expand on had time permitted. I refer particularly to the point about an inspection being an inspection—thorough and face to face, rather than a tick-box exercise.

In her passionate and graphic way, my noble friend Lady Bottomley supported the experiences described by my noble friend Lady Perry, which brought home the difficulties and dangers facing social workers. I am so pleased that my noble friend is supporting our call for a chief social worker.

My noble friend Lord Harris of Peckham has to be congratulated on the enormous success of his academies, where there is shared belief partnered with discipline, order and commitment by all involved in raising standards. Where services integrate successfully, children are confident and will thrive.

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Following consultation with Conservative councillors in Conservative-run councils, my honourable friend Michael Gove has asked that the director of children’s services be different from the person chairing the local safeguarding board. Will the Minister ask all children’s services departments to follow the Conservative Party’s lead, a move supported by the noble Lord, Lord Laming?

2.03 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on securing this debate. This could not be more timely for the House; it has been extremely thought-provoking. I have listened carefully and found every contribution to be very important. I will read the debate again and think carefully about everything that noble Lords have said. I will make sure that I go through the contributions systematically, and where I have not picked up a point I will write to noble Lords and circulate those letters to those who have taken part in this debate.

It almost goes without saying that recent tragic events have brought children’s services to everyone’s attention. It is a characteristic of this House that we are able to have an intelligent and thoughtful debate that will help us to move forward and learn lessons. It is right that failings in children’s services should be brought to public attention. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, the public are concerned about this, as are we. Of course, publicity seems only to attend bad news; the work that children’s services do day in, day out, year in, year out, can go unacknowledged, but not in this House.

I believe that services are improving. I hope to explain what has been happening in the work of the Government in recent years and what is still being done to improve further services for children. Because children’s services are at the heart of the Government’s agenda, I will take a few moments to go through some of the important achievements.

Spending on children’s social care has increased by 90 per cent in real terms between 1997-98 and 2008-09, while total funding per pupil has increased by 97 per cent. More than 1.3 million childcare places have been created, there is a free entitlement to early education for three and four year-olds, and more than 3,000 children’s centres and 14,000 extended schools are in place. Teacher numbers have increased by 40,000 and those for teaching assistants by 100,000.

Last year, 107,000 more pupils left primary school secure in English and maths than in 1997. While today’s GCSE results show a further increase in the number of pupils achieving five or more good grades including English and maths, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, described eloquently how many schools are outstanding in their progress.

In 1997, more than half of all secondary schools were below our benchmark of at least 30 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths—that is more than 1,600 schools. Today that figure is down to less than a fifth of all secondary schools—around 475. That is important progress.

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We are investing £430 million to improve the lives of disabled children, something this House cares passionately about. We are investing more than £200 million to transform youth facilities and £235 million in new and improved play spaces, something I had the privilege of launching before Christmas. This is the biggest ever investment in play—an unsung transformation around the country.

Teenage pregnancies have fallen to their lowest level for more than 20 years, and 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty.

We have begun to transform the care system; we in this House played our part through the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which finished its proceedings just before Christmas. We introduced the first Children’s Commissioner for England to champion the rights of the country’s 11 million children and young people. Only this week we published the New Opportunities White Paper, which sets out a new package of support to help all children reach their potential. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, on her appointment to the panel on fair access to the professions announced in the White Paper. We have heard yet more today about how professions need to be developed, and I will come to that.

It is more than five years since we published Every Child Matters following the inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said, we benefited at the time from a significant all-party consensus on the right way to go. I start here because the Every Child Matters reform programme provided the framework for looking holistically at children’s well-being. That framework means that we are in the position today to have a holistic debate on children’s services—not just on education or children’s social services, but on children’s services altogether. These reforms have been significant. According to both the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the joint chief inspectors, they have significantly strengthened the framework for children’s services. It is important that we take account of that. Across the country, much good, innovative work is being done to keep children safe and ensure that they are healthy, do well at school and are able to make a positive contribution to their communities, as codified often in Every Child Matters outcomes. For example, South Hunsley School in east Yorkshire is open from 7 am to 10 pm on weekdays and from 7 am to 5 pm at weekends, providing a range of activities for children as well as courses for parents and year-round community access. It is a universal service promoting access to targeted services for individual children. Our 2007 Children’s Plan set out a vision for continuous improvement of children’s services and the children’s workforce, and for a world-class education system for all over the next 10 years. Our progress report in December set out significant progress over the first year of our Children’s Plan and our priorities for the coming year.

We have heard concerns raised today by many Peers about the performance of local authorities. In the annual performance assessment of each local authority’s children’s services, published in December, more than 70 per cent of all councils were judged to be good or

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outstanding in their contribution to improving services for children and young people. We can be proud of that, but it is nothing less than we should expect. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, that too many councils were judged to be inadequate in key areas. Eight were judged to be inadequate in their services to keep children and young people safe, while four were judged to be inadequate overall for children’s services. While it is possible to interpret the figures as going up and down, it is clear that we cannot put up with that kind of poor performance and need to see improvement. We are taking action and, yes, there is activity, too—activity and action are linked. We are making interventions. It is important that we are able to act decisively and swiftly to ensure that children and young people are properly safeguarded. During the last five years, we have intervened in more than 12 councils. We are not afraid to step in and take direct action when there is a clear need, but we must not overstep that mark and go in too soon.

Clear need was identified in the case of Haringey, as it has been in Doncaster and Surrey. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, raised her concerns about Doncaster. As she knows, we are concerned about Doncaster and have already initiated a diagnostic review. My right honourable friend the Children’s Minister has sent in a diagnostic team. Following the review, she and Ministers in our department will consider what steps need to be taken. The noble Baroness asked about the publication of serious case reviews. In line with government statutory guidance, Haringey published an executive summary of the serious case review. The full overview report and other associated documents are not required to be published, as doing so would be likely to compromise the very purpose of the serious case review. They would not attract the full, open and honest participation of individuals within relevant agencies and lessons would be less likely to be learned. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, has already written to the Secretary of State to make clear his view that the published summary of a serious case review has to be a good representation of it. That is an important point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked expressly about concerns over Surrey. Following a joint area review, we have issued Surrey County Council with an improvement notice, setting out the targets for improvement that we expect it to meet. This includes a series of targets for the most vulnerable, including those with SEN.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, spoke about a perceived loss of focus on child protection and asked about guidance in particular. Working Together and other guidance such as What to Do if You’re Worried a Child is Being Abused are very clear about the processes to protect children from harm. It is right that immediate action to protect children should be taken when needed, but also that children’s needs can be identified in circumstances prior to their being exposed to the risk of significant harm, which the current assessment framework and guidance do. As noble Lords are well aware, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is looking at the barriers to good safeguarding practice in the production of his report. I do not want

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to second-guess what he will say, but I am sure that questions about paperwork and the use of the ISA will be looked at.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly reminded us of the need to listen to the child. I fully recognise the importance of seeing and listening to the child. That is why government guidance states clearly that safeguarding should be child-centred and that a child’s reasons, perceptions, wishes and feelings should be ascertained and taken into account, with nothing less being acceptable.

Many references have been made to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. It is right that we look at the situation nationally as well as at significant local concerns. Local safeguarding boards in particular have an important role in ensuring that children and young people are properly protected. As we have heard, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is producing a report on progress and considering the operation of local safeguarding children boards, including the governance, accountability arrangements and the independence of LSCB chairs, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was concerned. The report will consider also whether statutory guidance needs to be revised. The noble Lord is also looking at what more can be done to improve the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews. I hope that we can maintain the important cross-party consensus that was initiated all those years ago after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié when we consider the outcomes of his report.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the need for review. The Laming report announced on 12 November will assess progress made with implementing the reforms introduced following his original inquiry. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, explained, the Children Act 2004 is very much a part of that. We expect to receive the report by the end of February. I am sure that noble Lords will want to discuss and review it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and a number of other Peers spoke about Ofsted and the importance of a robust inspection regime, which is of course crucial. From April, a new comprehensive area assessment will be introduced with two main changes regarding children’s services. The first is a three-yearly programme of inspections, led by Ofsted, focusing on children’s safeguarding and services for looked-after children. However, there will also be an unannounced annual inspection by Ofsted of each local authority to assess front-line social care practice; that front-line practice is something that has come out of this debate. This will inform the annual CAA report and it means that in future annual assessments will no longer be purely desk based, as was the case with Ofsted’s annual performance assessments up to 2008, and will involve direct inspection. There will be no paper exercises or hiding behind data, which the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, was so concerned about. Ofsted will go and look for itself, and it will be unannounced. I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured at least in part by that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, was concerned whether Ofsted has the right skills, given its new role inspecting children’s services. I remind the House that

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Ofsted has expertise across its range, in education and childcare, social care and adult skills. When it took on children’s social care in 2007, 269 social care inspectors transferred from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, along with other professional staff. Just as services for children must work together, so it is right to have a single inspectorate that looks across children’s services. Ofsted is the Every Child Matters inspectorate now. The recent inspection of Haringey shows its expertise in social care. The inspection report was incisive, clearly pointing out what needed to be done. The inspection was carried out by highly experienced professionals who are experts in their field.

The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, was concerned about the numbers. The difference between the statistics cited by Ofsted and our department is caused, as she suspected, by definitions. Ofsted’s figures include cases of children dying from causes such as anorexia nervosa or suicide, or where local authorities and local safeguarding children boards have concluded that abuse or neglect were not the main cause. Ofsted’s data capture all these cases, including where causes of death are yet to be determined. It is absolutely important, as other noble Lords have stressed, that we have the right evidence base.

Local authorities have the main responsibility for children’s services, working with their partners in children’s trusts. This is a key area of discussion. We intend to legislate further to put children’s trusts on a stronger footing by including maintained schools, academies, sixth forms, further education colleges and Jobcentre Plus as relevant partners to the children’s trusts. I am sure that we will debate that in future sessions. Children’s trusts are a very important way in which to draw in health, as many noble Lords have identified; the role of health visitors is key in this.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Shephard, referred to the Audit Commission report. The headlines did not properly reflect what the report actually said. It said clearly that partnership working was improved and that local agencies were aligning their resources better. We have made a lot of progress since the field work was done a year ago and have taken steps.

My noble friend Lady Massey talked about the importance of tackling youth crime through effective partnership and by working with different agencies. The youth offending teams are key parts of the children’s trusts. They supervise young people who have offended and ensure that they have access to the services that they need to prevent reoffending. We see this as extremely important work—and I would wish to talk for much longer on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, referred to the increase in care applications. We are monitoring that very carefully; in fact, I met with the MoJ only this week to look at that.

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