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There is a wider reason why I want to speak in this debate. I worry about our society. What kind of society do we want to be? What has happened to us that we have become so materialist that we all sneer at the concepts of compassion and concern? I sometimes wonder whether there is not a sort of defensive psychological dimension to public attitudes; people have a guilt complex about not doing all they should to ensure the well-being of children, so they look for scapegoats to blame when things go wrong and project the responsibility that we all share on to an individual, quite unfairly. We now hear that there are indications of a crisis developing in the recruitment of social workers. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but it seems likely. After the way in which the cheap, superficial, entertainment media have sensationalised serious events in recent years, I am hardly surprised. Why would somebody want to go and expose themselves to that kind of not just ill-informed, but easy, sordid criticism that will sell more newspapers? Every time something goes wrong, the overriding critical priority is to get to the bottom of it and to consider it judiciously and carefully, not quickly to find a scapegoat, blame him and run him out of town. The noble Earl is right in what he said; we all share responsibility in these circumstances.

When we are discussing penal policy, we discuss the problems of the young in detention. In debates in that context, I have said more than once over my years in this House that when I had the opportunity to see some of that work at first hand, I was repeatedly struck by how it would be miraculous if young people did not end up in an offender institution because of the failures of society on so many fronts and the nightmare that they had gone through in their lives. Then to expect a social worker suddenly to be parachuted into a situation and to make right everything that has gone wrong in society as a whole is just unimaginative and stupid, as well as being very wrong. As the noble Earl said, many social workers have been seriously damaged for a lifetime by the kind of ill informed and vicious criticism that is meted out. Of course, it is very easy to say, “All that is very well but it is bleeding heart liberalism and not the tough stuff of managing society”.

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I happen to believe that it is the liberal sentiments of the so-called bleeding heart liberal—and noble Lords present who belong to the Liberal party will forgive me if I use that word not in a party-political sense—that get to the heart of the issue. That is why it is easier to sideline them in deprecating terms of that sort.

If we are to get this right, we all have a responsibly to recognise that there are not scapegoats. It is not individuals who are responsible; we are all responsible, as the noble Earl said. In that context, we must resist the temptation to pass off our responsibility on to the shoulders of others. I am very glad that the noble Earl introduced tonight’s debate and glad of the siren call that he put forward praising and building up our social workers. Why do our newspapers not tell more success stories and more cheerful stories about the good work that is done all over the place, day in and night out, all over the country? There are, as he says, dedicated people who are working with conditions of service that are not as good as they would get working at a checkout in a supermarket. We must get our priorities right in society, and the noble Earl has again given us an opportunity to open up a debate in that direction. What can we say to the journalists who play the cheap game and play to the gallery in a nasty, sinister way? What can we say to politicians of all parties who do the same thing? Let us not pretend that the political community is immune from the fault of looking for easy scapegoats instead of taking the opportunity to educate the public as a whole about the complexity of the situation. Let us say, “Each time you behave in that way, you become very much part of the problem and not the solution”.

6.47 pm

Baroness Garden of Frognal: I, too, thank the noble Earl for introducing this debate to focus our attention on social work, and in particular residential work with children. The noble Earl is a great champion of disadvantaged children and families and raises issues with great knowledge and passion that should be of concern to us all. I am also greatly encouraged to hear the noble Lord, Lord Judd, extol the virtues of liberalism.

We have spoken on previous occasions in this Chamber of our dismay that the United Kingdom, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, fails to ensure that all our children have care and support commensurate with our national resources. International reviews and analysis have the UK well down on the list in the well-being of children. We know that the Government are investing £130 million in social work reform, including £57.8 million in response to the report from the noble Lord, Lord Laming. The increase in expenditure on children’s social care has increased by more than 90 per cent in the past 10 years, which is a commendable response to need but a sad reflection that the need is so great. The figure also raises questions over whether the resources are being used to best effect.

Without any doubt, social workers undertake a complex and difficult job, as the noble Earl described so graphically, taking decisions that can be life-changing for children and families. They work with unfortunate, dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous communities and, to quote the Social Work Task Force, they do,

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The task force's first report last month sets out clearly the messages from social workers of the stresses of their work, the pressure of high caseloads, staff shortages, bureaucracy and a lack of resources to do the job. Sometimes it is the lack of quality supervision, poor IT systems, an office environment which makes it difficult to work confidentially, or burdensome processes. In order to comply with the integrated children's system, experienced people find that in this sector, as in other professional sectors, administration detracts from professional judgment and expertise. Given the nature of this work, in sensitive and often highly charged cases, it is to the credit of this hard-working profession that, with nearly 80,000 social workers, over a period of three years only 74 conduct hearings were completed. Yet the GSCC receives an average of 42 complaints about social workers a month. That is a picture of how many of these complaints end up being without foundation or cause to pursue.

Social workers need a rich variety of personal skills, yet are often measured in mechanistic, numeric ways. We see the dead hand of filling forms and ticking boxes, which is rewarded more readily than humanity, judgment and care. We have the extreme example, which has already been cited, of the Baby Peter case, where the measurable reports rated well, yet a young child suffered and died. The publicity from that tragic case had ramifications which could endanger more young lives. The media raged against failures in social work, and this undoubtedly had an effect on current and potential social workers. Those of us in politics and Parliament at this time can begin to understand how demoralising it can be to have an entire profession tarred with the shortcomings of a very few. Following the Baby Peter case, the Guardian in February declared:

“The same voices who are so keen to diagnose gaping wounds in society are often also the most given to attack the profession that administers the social bandages”.

Vacancy rates in some areas have threatened to become a vicious circle, as shortages impose additional, sometimes intolerable, burdens on remaining staff. A recent survey from the Local Government Association reported that councils are struggling to fill vacancies in children's services, with 57 per cent finding it harder to recruit child social workers over the past six months and 38 per cent saying that it has become more difficult to keep them. A staggering 91 per cent report difficulties in retaining front-line workers; in that connection, I, too, welcome the noble Earl’s suggestion that some of us might perhaps experience at first hand what some of the social workers are living through on a daily basis. These shortages cannot be adequately filled with temporary appointments. It is a real danger that good people are being deterred and fewer people are coming forward as social workers. We are now also hearing of shortages of foster parents, so that young people who might benefit from and flourish in a family situation find themselves in residential homes, not because it is best for them but because it is the only accommodation available.

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The Government's response needs to be positive and creative, with education of course having a key part to play. Currently in your Lordships' House, we are considering the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, parts of which address measures for children in residential care. There are measures to ensure continuity of care and education for young people, endeavouring to put in place measures for the children of today to become confident and caring parents of tomorrow. As a long-term aspiration, we should surely aim to reduce the number of children and families in need of social care, through reducing the number of children who become disenchanted and demotivated while at school.

That Bill also addresses apprenticeships, aiming to expand the numbers of employment opportunities for the young. Apprenticeships can be appropriate for adults, too, and the Government have announced plans for 50,000 new adult social care apprenticeships and a new management trainee scheme. The General Social Care Council is working with other bodies to expand education and training. Since the creation of social work degree courses in 2003, they have registered over 10,000 graduates, but it is not known how many of those graduates are currently practising social workers. By its very nature, social work tends to involve high levels of practical vocational achievement, which may more appropriately be accredited through vocational certification than academic, but having a degree pathway offers wider choices to those in the profession.

It is a reality that too many children and families do not have the quality of life that this country should offer them. There have been reports, task forces, and initiatives addressing these issues. We should now be seeing action, results and improvements, not just in numeric reports but in cultural changes in behaviour, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, and in a more caring and supportive society. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on how the Government are responding to the issues raised so pertinently this evening by the noble Earl.

6.56 pm

Baroness Verma: I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who works tirelessly in ensuring that some of our most vulnerable citizens have a voice. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, is of course right: it is crucial that we do not scapegoat individuals but look more broadly at what we expect from social workers and the system.

I declare an interest as a provider of social care in the care sector. I understand very much the concerns that the noble Earl raises. The sector has undergone many dark days, yet even with all the reports, inquiries and recommendations, we often find ourselves reading news headlines reporting another victim and another social worker being blamed. Recent figures show that nearly half our local authorities have a social worker vacancy rate higher than 10 per cent and at least eight local authorities are missing at least one-third of the required number of social workers. While vacancy rates rise, we have also seen an increased demand for care places; March 2009 saw the highest figure ever

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recorded in a single month. Can the Minister say if there are sufficient resources and accommodation to care for these children?

We were all dismayed when we read the horrific details of Baby Peter’s injuries. Since then, some other cases have been reported and, while the Government have said that they accept the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, after the inquiry into baby Peter's death, I urge the Minister to look at one of the proposals made by my own party to create the role of chief social worker. That person would work across government departments, with unions such as Unison, the BASW and with other bodies to ensure that what often falls between different departments is delivered through a much more focused direction led by a dedicated person.

If we are to ensure that social workers command the same respect as workers in healthcare, we first need to raise their standing in the community. I come across social workers who are extremely committed to caring for, protecting and delivering effective services to those in their charge. The difficulty that the sector has is that it remains the Cinderella service of healthcare and social care. My honourable friend Tim Loughton convened a social workers commission to examine how children's social work can be strengthened and supported. The findings placed great emphasis on improving training, working conditions and front-line services. That cannot happen if social workers are tied to their desks through bureaucracy and form-filling. Will the Minster look at a programme, similar to Teach First, dedicated to care to help and encourage graduates enter the profession of social work?

For children who are the most vulnerable and whose start in life has seen little happiness, stability or love, the most important thing is to know that the person managing their case work is constant and that they will not be not pushed from pillar to post with different social workers as each time there is a change the relationship needs to be redeveloped.

How do we put value on those who deliver the service? We should surely do so, first, by looking at pay structures that correspond with those of similar professionals working in multi-agency teams and recognise differences in living costs across the country. Given the shortage of qualified social workers, can the Minister say whether she agrees with me that the Government’s recent recruitment campaign to encourage 500 former social workers to return to work will still fall short of the numbers required? What interest has there been and what has been the cost of the campaign?

I have long argued that if we are to be serious about encouraging people to work in the sector, there must be a real change in the Government’s attitude to the value and savings that the sector brings if early intervention with multi-agency support can be made consistent when a child enters the system. The Baby Peter case, like that of Victoria Climbié, highlighted the failings of communication and contact with the children. What is being done to employ more health visitors? How will those staff employed from outside of Great Britain be assessed for recognising circumstances that may be culturally different from their own? There may be issues around language, for example. Are there statistics

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to show what proportion of cases of abused children comes from minority communities? Is there ongoing training for working within those communities where reporting may not be, for whatever reasons, even harder than within the wider population? I ask only because a number of incidents have been brought to my attention.

This is an area of life where we all want improved outcomes for all our citizens. We know that those who have a poor start are disadvantaged educationally. Through low self-esteem, they find low-end employment, if any, and they are more likely to be the victims of drugs, alcohol and crime. I say “victims” because that is what they are. They fall into a failed-life outcome because we as a society have failed to provide the support that those children need. We then, sadly and wrongly, place the blame at the door of social workers.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I know the difficulties that social workers face. They are there to provide care. I understand why in his eloquent opening speech he asked the Government to get to grips with the weaknesses within the system. It is the system that fails the children, not the social workers.

As always, I shall listen carefully to the Minister’s response to this important debate. I know that she shares our concerns.

7.03 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): I thank noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to join a debate which only scratches the surface. I think that we are all hungry to have a full and comprehensive discussion about all the issues of concern that noble Lords have raised. As ever, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has facilitated our discussion, for which I am grateful to him. I noted his comments on behalf of his noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, who called in and listened to some of the speeches.

What we really want to talk about is the transformation of the social work profession, to which we will return. So much work is being done around the country, led, as the noble Earl pointed out, by the extremely able chair of our Social Work Task Force, Moira Gibb. There is great experience around the country to draw on, such as in Hackney, where innovative practices are being developed.

Noble Lords have touched on a real concern about the public standing of social workers and the impact that the media coverage of the tragic death of Baby Peter has had. We are extremely concerned to support the profession.

I am delighted to be able to use this opportunity to say how highly the Government value the contribution made by social workers. We recognise their unique contribution and we want to do what we can to support and develop the profession. One way in which we are going about that is to develop, for example, a marketing campaign which will help to improve the public understanding of social work. That has to wait a little until we have heard more from the Social Work Task Force. We are working at laying the foundations of that campaign and we are ready to get started as soon as the situation is right.

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I was very interested in the idea suggested by the noble Earl about how we can facilitate a greater engagement between parliamentarians and the social work profession. I shall certainly think about that, as it has cropped up a couple of times. Analogies with other professions can be well made.

I note the extreme challenges faced by the profession, which have been highlighted by noble Lords today, and the difficulty of continuing to do a great job in the face of what is sometimes very challenging media coverage. I agree that we should do everything that we can to support social workers and to ensure that they feel valued for what they do. For example, in advance of hearing from the Social Work Task Force, we have introduced the newly qualified social worker programme, which is about supporting all new social workers. That is being rolled out in September to all social workers in public and voluntary sector settings and it will ensure that newly qualified social workers have the support and the time after gaining their degree qualification to develop into fully confident professionals.

Noble Lords will be aware of how concerned we are about vacancies and the turnover of social workers. That varies around the country, but it is too high and it is a big challenge to provide the quality of service which we know the profession wants to deliver. We have asked the Social Work Task Force to look at this and to give us its recommendation about how workforce planning could be developed. In the mean time, we are sponsoring graduates to undertake social worker training and we are encouraging them to turn to a social work scheme. We are also looking at developing a significantly ambitious marketing campaign. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, the degree in social work has resulted in an increase in the number of social workers coming forward to work for a degree, which is very welcome. The bursary has also helped.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, talked about the challenge to get the balance of record keeping, administration and front-line service right. We have been very clear. We invited the Social Work Task Force to give us recommendations on, for example, how we should develop the integrated children’s IT system which has been mentioned in the media. We have been delighted to accept recommendations on how the system should be developed and simplified for local authorities to implement locally. We look forward to receiving further recommendations from the task force on further barriers to effective front-line social work practice. I know there will be many. Like many, I am committed to doing what we can to develop and transform the social work profession in the light of our experience working with the teaching profession. The noble Earl has been very clear on a number of occasions about the benefits of drawing from the teaching experience. We are doing just that.

I am slightly conscious of time, so I want to move on and talk about some of the points that we were aiming to make with regard to, for example, residential care. I want to use this opportunity to emphasise the important role that residential care plays in the lives of many children, as my noble friend Lord Judd emphasised. Although most children will benefit from living in a family setting, residential care is the right choice for

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many, and we must not forget that. The Government’s Care Matters White Paper set out our agenda to give all looked-after children a better start in life and is well established as a comprehensive and thorough programme following on from the Children and Young Persons Act, which noble Lords were very involved with. The key to achieving that is high-quality provision but, at the same time, we must make sure that children are placed in the most appropriate placement for them. That is why the work we do to develop the social work profession is so important, because of the judgments that must be made.

At the heart of our policy and of our thinking are the child and young person. That is why the Care Matters White Paper highlights the importance of basing every placement decision on a proper assessment of the individual child’s needs and why empowered professionals are so important. The care plan for each looked-after child must be based on those needs, setting out clearly agreed objectives for each individual child and timescales for achieving them. Those judgments are made by professionals. In addition, the Care Matters White Paper also committed us to revising the existing statutory guidance—this picks up a lot of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden—putting on a statutory footing the requirements for delivering best practice through guidance for health bodies as well as for local authorities. Ensuring that high-quality provision is delivered through advice and guidance is key.

I am pleased that this debate gives me the opportunity to highlight some specific actions that the Government are taking to improve the quality of care for looked-after children, especially those with particular mental health problems. As I have mentioned, we are producing statutory guidance that will raise expectations about how local authorities and primary care trusts should improve access to CAMHS services for looked-after children.

We are committed to developing innovative approaches to meeting the needs of children and young people with the most complex needs. This includes children and young people on the cusp of care, whom noble Lords have been interested in, and those who are looked after. An example of best practice that we are looking at is piloting the multisystemic therapy

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programme, working with children and their families, when the young person is at risk of out-of-home placement—they are on the cusp—custody or residential education as a result of their behaviour.

We are supporting a multidimensional treatment foster care programme to develop interventions for looked-after children and young people with the most complex needs and challenging behaviour. These are tightly controlled and carefully evaluated programmes, and are starting to show what I consider to be some positive results—which is more than I can say for the Minister’s time allocation.

I know that I will have to wind up in a minute. I will have to write a letter. I wanted to talk a lot about the Children’s Workforce Development Council and how we are reviewing the national minimum standards for residential care, which is so important. I also wanted to talk about how important Ofsted’s role is in driving up standards, and more about how to ensure that the children’s workforce is knitted together through a common language, common approaches to information sharing and common professionalism, working to deliver the best possible outcomes for children and young people.

There are so many examples of best practice around the country that it would be unfair to draw on a few, although I was particularly interested in the remodelling social work practice that Hackney has been leading on. So I fear that I will end up having to write to Members of the Committee to answer some of their specific questions.

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