Looked-after Children
Estimates Day — [3rd Allotted Day] — Department for Children, Schools and Families
1:07 pm

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 111, on looked-after children, and the Government response, HC 787.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2010, for expenditure by the Department for Children, Schools and Families—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £32,152,966,000 be authorised for use as set out in HC 514,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £32,181,534,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid. —(Steve McCabe.)

1:13 pm
Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

It is a pleasure to open this debate on the recent report of the Children, Schools and Families Committee following an inquiry that took us a long time. I should like to take the House briefly through why we decided to spend many months investigating looked-after children. We adopted the phrase "looked-after children", but as the evidence sittings went on, we realised to our embarrassment that what we had thought was the up-to-date phrase had reverted to "children in care". However, we all know the children about whom we are talking: those whose family situation is such that they are deemed to be better off in the care of the state than in the care of their own parents.

We chose the topic because those of us who had been in the Education and Skills Committee and transferred to the Children, Schools and Families Committee wanted to make it clear to everyone that we took the new Department and our new responsibilities very seriously. After serious discussion, we decided that the best way to start was to show that we wanted to understand the situation of the most vulnerable children in our society—looked-after children. We proceeded.

Not many people outside this place know how we work, but I should say that we had a seminar in which we decided that we should investigate the issue and could add value to it. Colleagues should remember that in Select Committees we do not try to think of high-profile issues that get a lot of publicity—we genuinely look to where we can add value. We may feel that the Government are not paying much attention to a particular part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families remit or are spending an awful lot of money that we are not sure is being spent wisely. That is the central scrutinising role of a Select Committee, and we take it seriously. So we decided to conduct a thorough inquiry into looked-after children because we believed that it would add value.

There is another thing that those who have never been members of a Select Committee do not realise: we operate by listening. We take evidence, read and publicly announce the terms of the inquiry. We then get a great deal of evidence. I remember that when the Education and Skills Committee considered special educational needs, there were 300 written evidence submissions. There were even 30 such submissions for a short one-day report last week on allegations against teachers. The world, of course, is divided into the 50 per cent. who are desperate to give evidence to our Committee and the 50 per cent. who would rather leave the country. We have to choose carefully who we need to appear before us so that they can be interrogated and so that we can find out the situation in their area of expertise. That skill has developed over time, and those of us who have served on Select Committees know that that is an apprenticeship that we have to get through and develop.

I emphasise how important the listening part of the Select Committee's job is. When we were examining the issue of looked-after children, we made visits to look at good practice in various places. We went to Denmark to look at the system there; many people believe that the Danes do things differently and, in some ways, better than we do. In any other field of human activity, we would take it for granted that one should listen to the people most affected, so we spent a considerable time ensuring that we met looked-after children—children who had been in care, were in care and had the experience of care—so that they could tell us first hand what being in care was like in the 21st century in our country.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and his Committee on this very important subject. Did he specifically consider the position of children who had been trafficked into this country—a concern of the Home Affairs Committee in our last report—and had then been left in care, but escaped soon afterwards to carry on being abused by those who brought them here?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

We did so peripherally, mostly in terms of children who turn up in this country with no obvious parents and are in care because of that. One of the other skills of a Select Committee is to determine where to draw the line, otherwise the inquiry would never get finished. Often, when one is doing a good inquiry and really getting under the skin of the issue, that leads to the next inquiry, so my right hon. Friend should not give up hope—we might get there.

When one looks at the care of children in this country, one sees that so much always comes back to the quality of the work force and how they are recruited, trained, paid and supported. That is absolutely central to the level and quality of care that is given. As we went on, it became obvious that we had to undertake an inquiry, which we are now doing, on the training of social workers. The two reports will go very well together. My right hon. Friend will know all about that process from his own Select Committee; it is part of the technique. That is how we conducted ourselves, and that is how we wrote, I think, a good and positive report.

When the Committee has taken all its evidence and made all its visits, we have to spend considerable time coming up with a report that we think someone will listen to and will make the difference that we hoped it would. Part of the process is ensuring that the Government listen to what we say—and it is a remarkable opportunity to be here on the Floor of the House being able to debate and discuss the report that we produced. Of course, another part of our role is to tell the outside world, through the media, what our conclusions were on the matter and what changes we want in Government policy. There is no point in producing a report that is put on the shelf, gathers dust and makes no difference to the children in our country.

Let me allude to some figures. In England, there are at any one time about 60,000 children in care, and in the course of a year about 90,000 children will go through care. One can immediately see the difficulties that we face. It is an unstable population. Some children go into care early and stay for a long time—perhaps for all their childhood—while many do so very late having been greatly damaged by their experience in their birth family. There is sometimes an easy perception that England does a poor job in terms of corporate parenting. We found early on in the process of learning the lessons that a high percentage of children who go into care do so very damaged and quite late. Extrapolating the statistics, we found that children in care perform badly in GCSEs and other examinations and in going on to higher education. As one hears the evidence, one does not wonder why that is, because it is clear that many of these children have not been supported in their education; indeed, they have not been sent to school. They have had such a turmoil of a life that going into corporate care is an attempt to bring the shattered pieces together and rebuild it. That is very difficult to do in the case of a child who goes into care at age 13 or 14; I think that some of my colleagues who have worked in the sector will endorse that.

We have to be extremely careful about laying blame and saying that what local authorities and the Government do is much worse than what anybody else does. I do not believe that that is true. This is very difficult area to work in. The churn—the movement in and out of care and the resulting instability in children's lives—is at the heart of our concerns.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

The figures that I have from the SSDA903 return state that in England between 7,000 and 8,000 children a year are going into care. That does not entirely reconcile with the hon. Gentleman's figure of 90,000. Can he explain the difference?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

The figures I cited were given to the Committee; the hon. Gentleman can read the report and check them. His figures may be different from ours, but we were told that on average 90,000 children go into care every year and, if one looked today, 60,000 children would be in care.

It is not rocket science to know that what a child who has had a very poor experience in their birth family needs more than anything else is stability and a loving relationship with someone. This is difficult, because we do not deal in apportioning and evaluating love, but we know that if a child does not have love in its formative years, it has little hope of growing up into a mature, decent and fully functioning citizen.

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Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour)

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, who is making some important points. Did the Committee consider the fact that some children do indeed love their parents from their birth family, but their parents have been unable to provide for them in that way, so such children have a loving relationship but it is insufficient for their needs? When a child then develops another relationship with a substitute carer, that can create a conflict that is a difficulty for them in settling down in a new family.

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

That is the danger of letting a real expert intervene on one's speech. Of course, my hon. Friend is right—that is one of the real strains in a child's life.

We found that as far as possible we want, of course, to keep families together. The most important work in our country is done by social workers and other people in the social care field in maintaining families in a good state. We looked at projects in places such as Morden, one of the London boroughs, where there is an excellent family support unit. Its job is to identify a family in trouble, with stresses and strains within it that had come to people's attention through a GP, a social worker or a health visitor; or it could have come by many other means. One of the jobs of a local authority is to keep good antennae identifying where children and families are in that stressed state. In areas with good practice, we saw that where a family was deemed to be in need of support, in came that support. The whole Committee was very impressed by the Morden experience, where an all-singing, all-dancing support team would go in to support the family for six months, see if it could get them back on the right road, and then step back and let them get on with their own lives. Then, if it did not work, the team could do it again. The general point is that good social work support is essential; if it can support the family and the child in the family, that must, in many cases, be the right route.

We found that the most difficult aspect of all this is the decision on when to take a child into care and striking the balance in deciding whether that child is better off in a rather dysfunctional family, perhaps with a history of mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. A large number of families have serious problems, but that does not mean they cannot maintain a family life of some quality. It is a question of identifying the problem and then supporting the family, but at a certain stage making the decision. When we compared our experience with that of Denmark, we found—certainly this was my perception as Chair of the Committee—that what was being done in Denmark seemed to lead to a better reputation for the social work process. It seemed from the evidence we took and our experience in Denmark that people did not consider it the end of the world for their children to go into some form of care; it was seen as a reasonably positive thing. We talked to families and experts and found that, in certain care situations, a good relationship with the birth family was maintained. The family would visit, even if there was a background of abuse, including sexual abuse. That relationship was maintained, and many families felt that it was right for their child to be in that situation. They valued the fact that they still had access and that that loving relationship could continue.

When we took evidence from children who had been in care, one strong voice was that of children who said that they did not want a substitute family. Some quite liked the family that they had, and had the type of loving relationship that my hon. Friend Meg Munn mentioned. Perhaps others had had too much struggle, strife and stress from the family that they had come from and did not want to try another one. Some children in that situation said that they would prefer some form of residential care.

We found that in this country there is a history of saying, "No, no, no" to residential care, because there has been a background of large-scale residential care and there was a period in which evidence of widespread child abuse came to light. Now it is very difficult to persuade people that residential care is appropriate. In Denmark, we saw small units of not more than 12 or 14 children, which had a good atmosphere and came close to recreating a family relationship, but a caring one. They were open to parents and visitors.

Photo of Graham Stuart

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness, Conservative)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Danish experience is not just that children are happier because of how they are looked after in care, but that their educational outcomes and thus their life chances are transformed?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

My hon. Friend—it is difficult to call him "the hon. Gentleman", as we work together so closely that I regard him as a friend, except when we fall out—is absolutely right.

That brings me back to the lessons that we learned in the inquiry. Families should be kept together if possible, but a really difficult decision is at what stage a child should be taken into care. Why does Manchester take double the national average into care, the highest proportion in the land? Ironically the City of London is next, but hardly anyone lives there. Other areas take only half Manchester's proportion into care. Is Manchester doing a wonderful job of seeing children who need to be in care and reacting quickly and positively, or is it Morden, in London, that is doing the fantastic job? We did not find the answer, but as the report shows, we started considering the tension that exists in the system.

Of course we must have child protection. Two thirds of the way through the inquiry, we discovered the horrific news about the death of baby Peter. We extended the inquiry a little to examine the balance between what we had been considering and what was happening in child protection. The lesson that we learned was that only the most thoughtless politician will say that there will never be another child death. Anyone who serves on our Committee or knows anything about the matter knows that given the level of mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse, there will be other child murders and deaths, and they will be horrific. We have to be aware that that will happen and react in the right way when such tragedies occur, to find out what went wrong and how to minimise them. My colleagues and I suspect that we will never be able to eradicate such events. Even in countries such as Denmark there is a pretty serious rate of child murder, despite all the resources and attention put into the matter.

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David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

Before we leave the Danish comparison, is there not a deeper cultural issue, which is reflected in how the Danish state sees the status of child care workers? It is similar in the other Scandinavian countries. Is not one lesson to be drawn from the Committee's inquiry, and previous inquiries into the early years phase, that we in the UK have historically dramatically undervalued the status of those working with children? Does that not say something about our national cultural attitude to the importance of child rearing in our society?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

My hon. Friend knows that I will agree, and I was just going to come to that.

Any parliamentarian has to face the fact that, as we want to get the best level of child protection we can—it should be as good in every local authority as it is in the best—we must have better systems. Ofsted must be better, as must leadership and the sharing of best practice, to ensure we protect every child as well as we humanly can. I feel that very strongly. We must balance that consideration with the danger that, after a tragic death, all the resources are rushed into child protection, which can starve resources for the support of families and good-quality social work. That is an interesting tension.

The Committee said in our report, I suppose quite dramatically, that we do not believe we will ever eradicate child murder. However, really high-quality care can substantially reduce child misery. A problem that we can never really resolve is finding out to what degree a child is in misery and living a blighted life without society being able to identify that miserableness—is that the right word?

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

Misery.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Thank you. The question is how we can ensure that we intervene. It all depends on having good systems and high-quality, trained people. My hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor put it correctly, because I know of no business in the world that cannot benefit from high-quality people who are selected well and have the right personality, qualifications and enthusiasm. They must be supported to do their job, and they must be paid a decent salary and given a career ladder that will keep them in the profession and motivate them to do good work.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend highlight the consequences in later life of the child misery to which he referred? Children who are miserable in care often end up being victims of sexual exploitation when they leave care. They frequently fail to get any qualifications, and they remain unemployed and turn to drug addiction not because it is inherited but, overwhelmingly, because they have been unhappy and feel like failures. We as a state—their parents—have failed to prepare them for the realities of the adult world.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

I think my hon. Friend knows that I agree with that. That is where the line is drawn—we must ask whether a child is miserable with their birth family and whether they would be miserable in care. A fundamental conclusion of the report was that care has to be a very good option. Children who have been failed by their family do not deserve to be failed again. I get the feeling that the general view out there is that people expect us to stand up for the very best standards for children in care, because that is the litmus test of a civilised society. Children in care are the least fortunate and the most vulnerable children in our society, so we should be judged on how we look after them, and we should look after them as well as we can.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport, Labour)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about maintaining the highest possible standards in care, particularly in children's homes. Did his Committee look at how we can improve standards of care in children's homes, perhaps by looking at Ofsted's inspection process and considering ways of improving it?

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

I can assure my hon. Friend not only that we did that, but that we looked at how we reward social workers, who work in the most difficult situations. As I have said, that is why we are also looking at the training of social workers. We have nearly completed that work, which we are doing now because we could not do it as thoroughly as we wanted before. In the generality, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North is absolutely right. We pay minimum wage-plus to so many people working in early years—we did an inquiry into early years—and they are the most poorly trained people in the work force. There is no doubt that things are getting better, but they are not getting better fast enough and we need crossover, particularly into residential care.

We said in the report that level 3 qualifications should be the absolute minimum, but in residential care we found the lowest paid, the lowest rewarded and valued, and the least trained people in the social care work force. That is not good enough and it has to change. Residential care should be as good as we can get it. We should experiment, pilot schemes and copy some of the good practice that we saw in Denmark and this country. Size matters a great deal—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley said that 12 or 14 for a unit was quite big—so it is important to get it right.

Let me make a general point. The care should be absolutely fantastic, but that will not come cheap—I remind the House that people in Denmark pay 50 per cent. income tax and 25 per cent. VAT. However, if such care is a touchstone or a litmus test of how civilised we are as a society, we should persuade our constituents to pay the money and make the necessary sacrifices.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

The Committee's experience of the quality of care in Denmark was that the children were less miserable because they were kept in touch with their parents. I have checked the hon. Gentleman's figure of 90,000 or 85,000 for the number of children who may have been in care in any one year, but it is not the number of children who go into care or come out of it. In practice, about 7,000 to 8,000 children go into care as a result of care orders. Of those who leave care, the majority leave to adoption—the figure was about 3,800, but it has come down slightly. However, that drives a wedge between the parents and the practitioners, because the practitioners have to reduce contact with the parents to prepare the children for adoption, which is the complete opposite of what happens in Denmark. Would it perhaps not be a good idea to invite somebody from Denmark to do a critique of the system in England?

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He has also pulled me up on my figures. I should tell him that he has read that part of our report more recently than I have—that report is three reports away in this poor brain of mine, but I thank him for his intervention. He is probably quite right about getting external evaluation, but in a sense that is what we try to do as a Select Committee by going somewhere that we think has good practice. Some of the things that we saw informed our report and we made some strong points.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

Let me bring the hon. Gentleman back to cost and Denmark, about which I would like to make a comment if I have an opportunity. I was there about three years ago and visited some of the homes that I think his Committee visited. Interestingly, although a lot of extra money goes into training and child care in Denmark, the cost of housing children in some residential homes, including the one that I visited, which was run by the local municipality in Copenhagen, works out at about £56,000 a year. That is half the average cost of a residential home for a child in the UK, so in fact the cost need not be more expensive.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Let me make just a little more progress.

I want to cover the fundamentals, which are these. First, residential care should be better, and people should be paid and supported better. I do not want to go down the road of talking about social workers too much, but when we interviewed children who had been in care, we found that the problem was the rotation of social workers. There was no one person whom they knew—no person whose face they knew; no one with whom they were familiar or with whom they had a good relationship.

We cannot have a system where a child—any child, let alone a child in care—never knows which social worker he or she will meet or when they will meet them. There has to be a consistency of relationship in the caring system. That was one of our sharpest criticisms of the experience that those children had had. Consistency means knowing someone—knowing their face and knowing that if everything went wrong at midnight or three in the morning, there would be someone whom the child could phone whom they knew, respected and, hopefully, loved. That is a tall order, but the Committee decided that we wanted to make a strong point about how key that stability in relationships is.

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Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the failures of the current system, notwithstanding improvements. We need a shift in the whole political system so that we take the issue more seriously, because progress is glacially slow compared with the moral outrage that is happening to the most vulnerable children in our country, despite this country's wealth and our expenditure in other areas. We need to speed up that change if we are not to let down another generation of children, so what specific measures would the hon. Gentleman most like to see in major party manifestos at the general election, when it comes?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly mischievous. I am not going down that route; I am going to make my speech, which will encapsulate some of the things that I would like any party to adopt as policy.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Two minutes.

Let me finish on the quality of the work force, which is at the heart of our report. The other quality is the quality of the care situation, which usually means foster carers and foster families. The people who do that job in our country and do it well are absolutely amazing. I have visited some of them individually and met others, and I know that it takes a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of dedication and a whole lot of love to do that work over a number of years for children who have no one else. There are some fantastic carers out there and they know what those children need. We know that is true: we have evidence of it and we met some of those carers, and I have certainly met some in my constituency.

Those people do an extraordinary job, but there needs to be more of them. They are not well supported. The care is very patchy indeed across the 150 local authorities in our land, which is one of the great problems of care. We need to get rid of that patchiness, so that every child in every local authority can have good quality care.

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

In a moment.

The problem is the old problem: that those people are not supported well. The Government have rejected our recommendation that there should be a national framework for the kind of support that a carer receives. Support is meagre in some local authorities and more generous in others, but it is unknowable. People genuinely do not know where they stand. When a child is taken away from someone whose profession is caring—it is what they do and where their income comes from—they lose their income. They do not get any income back until another child appears or the original child comes back because the return to the birth family was not successful.

There has to be a system that better assures those who want to come into caring that they will be well supported. They do not go into it because it pays a fortune, but they ought to be adequately rewarded. They must also be supported, because working with difficult children who kick over the traces can be a stressful job. They also need back-up from the professional social work contact that keeps them supported and on the right road.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

My hon. Friend is quite right to mention the important role that social workers play in backing up foster parents. A point that was made strongly to the Committee concerned a child's need for a good relationship with their social worker, which could help if they had an unsatisfactory relationship with their foster parents. In my constituency, the children's social workers who deal with child protection are each carrying 20 cases at the moment, and those who deal with children in need are carrying 33. This is partly because of a huge increase in the number of children in Slough. The situation is pretty unsatisfactory. What would my hon. Friend say to the Government about ensuring that the resources are made available to places such as Slough in order to provide enough good social workers to deal with this issue?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that we made a recommendation for a cap on the number of cases that such social workers should carry, and we have developed that argument further in the new inquiry.

This is also a question of recruitment and support. We found that the role of the carer in the substitute family was quite mysterious in some places. It was unclear how they got into the work, how they had been recruited and how they were maintained in the profession that they had chosen. The process was very professional in some local authority areas that I visited, and not very good in others. In many of our inquiries, one of the great dangers that we find is cases being thrown into the agency pot. The most horrific term that I have come across—and the idea that I am most worried about—is the "spot purchase" of placements. I find it horrible that there is a market in which someone with an emergency case can purchase a placement through an agency. No one can guarantee where such placements are going to be. They are often miles from the child's school or from the kin family, and sometimes within a different local authority area. The spot purchasing of placements in foster care is extremely worrying; it is the mark of a failure in the system.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a similar problem exists in residential care? Stockport is a net importer of children from outside the area—the figure is the third highest in the country—and the cost of such placements is astronomical. The homes advertise for children with difficulties or problems such as antisocial behaviour. Do you think that there is a problem with ensuring that those children are getting the quality of care that is offered by the homes? Is it not probable that some of the homes are making an undue profit and not putting the money that they get for looking after those children back into paying better wages to their workers and providing better training for them?

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Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I think that it is time for one of my periodic reminders to hon. Members that all remarks should be addressed to the Chair, and that the use of the word "you" should not come into it. Perhaps more importantly, from the hon. Lady's point of view, is that turning away from the microphone creates great difficulty in capturing her words for the record.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I have gone on for too long because I have taken a lot of interventions, so I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is about quality. There is some very good residential accommodation, some in the independent sector and some run by local authorities. One cannot judge it purely on the basis of which sector it is in: we found no evidence that private was bad and local authority good. There is good and bad in all institutional care, and there was also evidence of good agencies supplying places and finding foster homes. It is, however, completely unpredictable. In our report, we stated that the quality of care that a child gets should not be a question of luck. We talk about postcode lotteries, but this should not be up to luck. Children should be guaranteed a first-class service anywhere in the country. I would not say that about many aspects of the policy area, but vulnerable children deserve that commitment.

This has been one of the most enjoyable reports that my Committee has produced. We enjoyed it because we felt that we were breaking a path and adding value—in other words, doing the things that a Select Committee does at its best. The Government have responded positively to some of our recommendations, but, as ever, they have not done enough and not acted quickly enough. As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said earlier, there is not enough sense of urgency that the culture needs to change quickly. Improvements have taken place slowly over a number of years, but this has not happened fast enough and they have not been effective enough to get rid of the terrible situation in which what happens to a child is a question of luck.

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Derek Twigg (Halton, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report. I was not on the Committee when that work was done. A key issue is what happens when children leave care and are transferred. Will he say a little about that? I feel that a lot of work still needs to be done on managing the massive transition when children leave care to go into the outside world.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

I was going to leave out that section of my speech, because I have been speaking for too long, but I shall mention the subject briefly. Children in middle-class, better-off homes often hang around and seem to take a long time to leave home—I do not know whether you have had this experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Sometimes they stay until they are in their late 20s or—in the case of some of my colleagues—their 30s. The link to the family certainly goes on for a hell of a long time. I celebrate that and love it, especially in the case of my four children.

So why should children in care be kicked out into the world at 16 with very little support? Some of them are put into rented accommodation in the most vulnerable parts of our towns and cities. Young girls are expected to live on their own at 16, and we have all heard evidence of the pests and pimps who know where these vulnerable young women are. It is wrong that children from troubled backgrounds are suddenly pushed out into the world and expected to live independent lives on their own at 16.

I think that that is also true for 18-year-olds. I make myself unpopular with some hon. Members, including some Labour Members, when I say that the protection of childhood up to the age of 18 is very important. I sometimes worry that if we were to scuttle into constitutional reform that includes votes at 16, the protection of childhood could be nibbled away. The protection of childhood until 18 and the outcomes of Every Child Matters are fundamentally important, especially for looked-after children.

In fact, I believe that the care package for such vulnerable children—to whom we owe so much—should go right through to the age of 25. I have not had time to talk about one of the weak links that we found in relation to special care, but these children are among the most troubled. They probably have many more psychological challenges than most children, and we found evidence that it took them a long time to get the psychological and psychiatric care and support that they needed from the health sector. The health sector should prioritise those children, just as they are prioritised in regard to schools admissions. They need support right through to 25, and much more support from everyone.

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Bill Wiggin (Whip, Whips; Leominster, Conservative)

I am curious: why has the hon. Gentleman chosen the age of 25 and not 21?

Photo of Barry Sheerman

Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Because I think children in supportive homes get that right through. It can be a very turbulent period and the figures on psychological problems experienced by children show a high level in the early 20s, going on through to 25. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that is also clear in the data on psychological challenges presented to students in universities and higher education. The fact is that we owe these people support through to 25, if needed.

I am sorry if I have taken too long to make my remarks, but it is partly because I took so many interventions. I recommend the report to the House. It is a good report; it is an all-party report; it is a report based on much hard work from the team of MPs from the three parties and also from the magnificent team of people who worked with us day in, day out—the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the two Committee specialists and our two administrators.

Select Committees are very important to the House. This is the 30th year of having such Committees and I currently have a hand in writing about their achievements over that time. I sometimes worry that the link between what we do in the Committees upstairs and what happens in this Chamber is not strong enough, so it has been a welcome change to have the chance to talk about a report in detail today.

2:01 pm
Photo of David Laws

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I appreciate that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I will try not to make my comments too extended in what is nevertheless an extremely important debate.

I would like to start by congratulating the Select Committee on a thorough and thoughtful report. I also congratulate the Select Committee Chairman, Mr. Sheerman on setting out so clearly the principal issues that the Committee identified and addressed. He mentioned at the beginning of his speech that Select Committee reports are sometimes very influential and sometimes perhaps overlooked by Ministers. I hope that this will be one of the reports that Ministers take very seriously, even in the areas where the Government's own response to the report is weaker than some of us would like.

We take some cheer from the evidence of the Government's ultimate response to one of the Committee's earlier reports on testing and assessment, when the Government's initial response was overturned very rapidly in an announcement by Ministers a couple of months ago, which accepted many of the report's principal conclusions.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly started his comments by indicating that it should be no surprise to us that the outcomes for this group of young children are so poor in terms of education and most of the other proxies that we would use to measure the progress and achievements of young people. It would be astonishing if those taken into care and away from their parents were not by definition some of the most vulnerable young people in society, so we should expect their out-turns to be poorer than average.

Photo of Graham Stuart

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness, Conservative)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to suggest that current standards were acceptable, because they most certainly are not. I want to challenge him on what he has just said, because the Danish example and others show significant and massive improvement in outcomes, in comparison with those in this country, for children in precisely the same socially disadvantaged and difficult circumstances. Things do not have to be this way.

Photo of David Laws

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I wonder whether I gave way to the hon. Gentleman too early; my generosity overcame me. I should have asked him to hold off for a few seconds while I made another couple of points that were highlighted by the Select Committee's report.

Although, by definition, it would be astonishing if the performance of these young people was better than the average for the rest of the population, the principal issue we need to address is whether the outcomes are good enough, and whether more could be done for them. The striking conclusion of the report, placed prominently at the beginning of the summary, is important enough to be read into the record:

"Despite the dedication and perseverance of social workers and carers, the outcomes and experiences of young people who have been 'looked after' remain poor. Far from compensating for their often extremely difficult pre-care experiences, certain features of the care system itself in fact make it harder for young people to succeed: they are moved frequently and often suddenly, miss too much schooling, and are left to fend for themselves at too early an age."

Those are the legitimate concerns that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises, and I believe that we could and should be doing far better as a country in addressing those young people's needs.

My experience as a constituency MP with this segment of the population—the 60,000 young people, a large number of whom are in care—tally very much with the report's conclusions and with the principal areas of concern that the hon. Gentleman set out in his speech a few moments ago. Those are the issues that I would like to touch on today. My concerns fall into four categories.

The first relates to judgments about when and in what circumstances young people should go into care—an issue of some controversy to which I shall return, and I expect that my hon. Friend John Hemming will want to comment on it later if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about whether we always make the right judgments about when young people should be removed from what are often very chaotic home environments and taken into care.

The second category relates to the quality of the care provided. The Select Committee has highlighted some weaknesses in our existing system and some experiences in other countries that we could learn from. Too often there is a shortage of placements or their quality is not good. Thirdly, there are concerns about the services available—educational and those provided by our social services departments—to young people in care.

Finally, there are crucial issues, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield raised towards the end of his speech, about the support provided for young people beyond the age of 16, 18 or even 21. His comments obviously tally very much with what is in the report, but also with my experience of the problems experienced by this cohort of youngsters when they leave care—long-term drug and mental health problems, housing difficulties and problems gaining employment, for example. I shall touch briefly on all those issues.

I appreciate that no simple conclusion can be derived about the tendency to be either reluctant or very precipitate about when children should be taken into care. It is clear that experiences vary significantly across the country and that different judgments are made in different areas. The hon. Member for Huddersfield was concerned about the significantly different approaches to the thresholds used to take people into care in different parts of the country. Another concluding point in the report was:

"Large variations in care populations around the country seem to indicate that there is no consensus about the role of care in services for vulnerable children. We are convinced that in some respects the potential of the care system to make a positive difference to children's lives is dismissed too readily, but we are also concerned by how widely the quality of children's experiences in care varies, and how uneven are the experiences".

My own experiences as a constituency MP have confirmed the understandable reluctance to take young people away from their parents and into care; we all recognise that. Sometimes, however, there is a failure to appreciate the truly chaotic, frightening and neglectful circumstances that many young people experience in the home environment. We would all like to keep as many young people as possible with their parents—that will always be true for the overwhelming majority—but sadly, some young people are brought up in deeply uncaring and unloving circumstances. That is sometimes because their own parents were brought up in the same environment, do not have parenting skills and did not receive a good example of how to discharge parental responsibilities from their own parents. The more serious cases involve direct abuse rather than simply neglect.

What is needed is a willingness to acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield pointed out, for this minority of young people a high-quality care system —if we can create it—may well be a better option than any of the options that tend to be available in a home environment. As the Select Committee has observed, there is a reluctance to put young people into care, not just because of a shortage of places, but sometimes because of the financial consequences, or even because of an almost ideological belief that the best possible outcome is for children to remain with their parents. I think the most important point made in the Committee's report is that the home environment is not always the best environment for young people.

The second issue that I want to raise is the quality of care and placements. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, placements with individuals who have a real commitment to and passion for young people, and who are willing to provide them with security for many years, are in very short supply. Many of the placements available are not of the quality that we would want to see. When we meet people who were in care as children, we tend to find that they experienced a large number of placements and a great deal of instability during a period when the state, or local authorities, should have been responsible for their care. It is not surprising that some individuals are reluctant to place young people in care if they fear that it will not provide the love and stability that those young people need if they are to thrive.

We must be more imaginative. We must study the experiences of those in other countries in order to establish whether we can create settings that provide the stability described by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. They may have to contain a number of other youngsters, although I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman's reference to the large number of young people in settings in countries such as Denmark—11, 12, 14 or 15. I should have thought that the number of children in multiple settings ought to be very much lower.

We must ensure that the quality of the social workers who support young people and their families is high, and that they experience consistency and stability. The hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke of a rapid turnover of social workers and of multiple contacts. It is not surprising that young people who may have had very unpleasant experiences in the home environment before being taken into care, and who feel unloved and unsupported, will also feel that society is not resolving their problems and giving them the stability that they need if a multiplicity of individuals are responsible for their care in the new home setting, or if a multiplicity of social workers cause relationships to be repeatedly forged and then broken. Those who experience a multiplicity of both social workers and home environments will feel that no one remains committed to them as individuals, and that no one can create the confidence and belief in their own importance and value that they will need if they are to thrive in society.

The third issue that concerns me—the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned it as well—is education. In general, the educational performance of children in care has been, and still is, extremely poor. Although it has improved slightly over the past five to 10 years, it is still well below average. We need a better system of funding to target disadvantage throughout the education system.

I was pleased to see in the education White Paper the other day a reference to our proposal for a pupil premium to direct additional money towards youngsters with high levels of disadvantage and deprivation. The children whom we are discussing would clearly have the strongest claim of almost any group of youngsters for a particularly high premium to ensure that the educational establishments that they attend have the necessary resources to deliver not only the additional educational support and catch-up that they may require, but the wider support that will enable them to thrive in a school environment. I hope that if the Government seriously intend to pursue the idea of a pupil premium, they will consider that idea carefully as the review of the funding formula concludes early in 2010, and before they announce their final decisions.

There have been some useful experiences recently in an attempt to tackle one of the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield: the fact that young people are frequently moved between different local authority areas, and also—although the hon. Gentleman did not mention this explicitly—between different educational establishments. That can prove extremely disruptive. A number of local authorities have pursued effectively the idea of a "virtual head teacher" with overarching responsibility for children in care, who would follow their progress to ensure that their educational needs were met and that their support remained consistent even when, regrettably, they had to move from one local authority area to another.

A particularly crucial question, and one that it is easy to neglect, is what happens to youngsters after they leave their care settings, often at the age of 16, but sometimes later. I share the surprise and dissatisfaction expressed by the hon. Member for Huddersfield at the frequent absence of a follow-through system of care. I am amazed at the lack of support for young people: the failure to secure appropriate housing, the lack of ongoing support for those with mental health and drug abuse problems, and the lack of assistance for those who wish to become employed.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, one reason for our problems with children in care is that many enter the system late in the day. Not all of them have been in care and receiving support for a decade or more; some have experienced a chaotic and unstable set of circumstances, and have not gone into care until their mid or late teens. The assumption that they will be in a position to fend for themselves, to secure employment and to manage their own housing arrangements simply because they have reached the age of adulthood—whether that is deemed to be 16 or 18—is deeply flawed. In theory the system is supposed to provide an additional measure of support beyond the age of 16 or 18, but in practice that happens all too rarely.

Let me end by saying that I have welcomed the opportunity to debate the Select Committee's report.

Photo of Graham Stuart

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness, Conservative)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise for intervening as he was winding up his speech. I wanted to ask him about the transition from being in care to being outside it. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield that support should remain available until these young people reach the age of 25? Is that a suitable age? Last week or the week before, we met a group of social workers from around London who told us that it was not uncommon for councils effectively to withdraw support from people as young as 15. If 15-year-olds from chaotic backgrounds are being left without support by councils, we need to do something about it.

Photo of David Laws

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

My response to that important question is that, to a large extent, the support needs to be designed around the needs of those youngsters. Some who have been in care since an early age, or have been cared for very effectively, may not need the service to continue until they are 25, but I should have thought that most children in care would need it to continue—in a real and effective way—until they reach a greater age than is covered by the present arrangements. Obviously, individuals who become adults—whatever age we use to define that state—will have ongoing needs and there would be an expectation that if those needs were identified, they would continue to be met whether or not those youngsters had been in care or not. I suggest that there should be a younger threshold age, but that the youngsters who still have problems at that age—to whom Mr. Stuart was alluding—should be able to access services. There should be a proper bridge into those services regardless of the age that the youngsters have reached.

This has been an important debate on an excellent report. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister, who, I hope, will assure us—not just on the points addressed in the Government's response but in some other areas where the response was weaker or more ambiguous—that the Government are intent on dealing with the issues raised by the Select Committee.

2:20 pm
Photo of Keith Vaz

Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Laws. I begin by paying tribute to the Select Committee for its excellent report. It is literally a weighty report. If we were to weigh Select Committee reports, I am sure we would find that it was the weightiest of last year. The Committee seems to have begun its deliberations in March 2008, a long time ago. I pay tribute to all the members who participated. I only wish when we had Home Affairs Committee debates that quite so many Committee members turned up. Perhaps this is the template for other Select Committees. My hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor, the hon. Members for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), and my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman [ Interruption. ] Yes, my hon. Friends the Members for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) have left the Chamber, but all those Members were here, and I am very impressed by that.

I feel as if I am straying on to the territory of another Select Committee so I will be very brief. There is really only one aspect of policy that I wish to bring to the attention of the House. The Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, enjoyed the report so much and is ready to be tempted to look at other aspects of policy concerning looked-after children. I wonder whether his Committee might look at the issue of children in care who are here as a result of human trafficking—children brought here for the specific purpose of exploitation by human traffickers, who arrive at children's homes and disappear to carry on and involve themselves in criminal activities.

Photo of Meg Munn

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour)

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue, but may I point out that it is one of the problems that the social work profession faces? As society develops, new problems arise and social workers—who are already dealing with a wide range of complex issues, as we have heard—are expected to take on the kind of issues and problems about which he is talking. He will know from the work that he and his Committee have done in this area that the specific needs of those young people are different from those of other children about whom we have been talking. It is perhaps not surprising that the current system is failing these children, because the social workers have not been trained in this new phenomenon, and the issue of extra resources and training becomes even more acute.

Photo of Keith Vaz

Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that, when she was a distinguished Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for consular services, that was part of her portfolio. She gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on those matters. The concern is that there is not sufficient training to deal with these issues. We need to ensure that that happens. In a sense it is not just the responsibility of one Department, although the Government could spare only one Minister for the debate. It is a question of various Departments acting together. It would be helpful—I make this offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield—in the spirit of joined-up Parliament if members of the Home Affairs Committee met members of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and other Committees with an interest in order to report about these matters where they cross boundaries.

Between April and December 2008 a total of 957 suspected victims of child trafficking were picked up by local authorities. Of that number, more than 400 came from Afghanistan and 200 from Africa. Kent county council revealed that out of a total of 474 children taken into care in the eight months to the end of 2008, 86 went missing. The largest proportion of trafficked children in fact arrives in Kent.

In Hillingdon, which handles children trafficked through Heathrow airport, 27 of 285 children have been reported missing. At least 77 Chinese children have gone missing after being taken into the care of the local authority at Heathrow. In 2008, the Serious Organised Crime Agency disrupted a suspected child trafficking ring operating through Manchester airport in which Chinese children were routed through Italy and ended up in the UK. That was the conclusion of the Home Affairs Committee report into human trafficking. We did not go into great detail about child trafficking because we were dealing by and large with adult trafficking, but we estimated that 330 child victims will be trafficked into the UK each year. About 60 per cent of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found.

Our worry, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend Meg Munn has mentioned, was that the local authorities were concentrating on the "home market"—children from the UK—and were not paying sufficient attention to those who arrived here and, within hours, went missing from their home. The information put into the public domain by The Guardian suggested that those Chinese children, having arrived here, were given mobile phones, were able to ring the adults who brought them into the country, walked out quite openly from the home and then disappeared into some part of the UK never to be found again. Unless a very important relationship is developed between the local authority and those who deal with children at our ports of entry including Heathrow—the responsibility of the UK Border Agency—and that is monitored so that we know who is in and who is out of a local authority home, that seems to be the fate of children who are human trafficked into this country.

That is why the Home Affairs Committee will be looking at the subject again next Tuesday, to assess the Government's response to our report, which we published earlier this year. We asked the Government specifically to take appropriate steps in order to protect children who had come from abroad, who have the added problem of not being able to speak English. There may be the greatest training in the world for social workers dealing with these issues, but if such children cannot access translation services they will not be able to explain why they came to the country.

There is also the situation of children who come from elsewhere in the EU, and we know of the important work being done by the Metropolitan police human trafficking unit through Europol. In particular, there is an initiative for the Romanian children, who are largely from the Roma community in that country, who were trafficked into this country and then disappeared from care. They ended up on Oxford street and began to get involved in begging operations.

I am very sorry that Mr. Steen is not present, because if there is an expert on human, and especially child, trafficking in this House, it is almost certainly him. He has told the House of his activities when he has been to Oxford street with the Metropolitan police. He saw children being apprehended, and there was nothing that the police could do other than put them into care. They then went missing from care again, and ended up back on the streets. Clearly, these issues go beyond the narrow remit of the Select Committee report and the estimate motion before the House, but they are within the remit of the Government as a whole, and I know that the Minister will want to bring them to the attention of her colleagues in other Departments, because we cannot deal with them merely on a departmental basis.

My final point is on the human trafficking unit that is operated so effectively by the Metropolitan police. As we concluded our inquiry into human trafficking, we took evidence from that unit, and it informed us that its funding was to be cut. It said that the funding had been reduced over a number of years and that it would end up with no funding from the Government. During Prime Minister's Question Time a few weeks ago, I raised that with the Prime Minister, and he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the money is not being cut but being increased because of the important work done by the Government on human trafficking. I was delighted by that statement.

I asked the Prime Minister about the issue again when he came back from the European Council meeting in Brussels, because, as the Minister will know, the Swedish presidency—like the Czech presidency—has decided to make human trafficking a key priority. The Prime Minister said that the issue had been discussed at Brussels. I asked him again whether the money for the human trafficking unit had been increased, and he said yes. Before the Minister comes to reply, I hope there will be sufficient time for her to get a message to the Home Office to find out whether that is, in fact, correct, because the replies I have received to the letters I have sent suggest that nobody has received this money which the Prime Minister thinks has been increased. I am sure that if the Prime Minister announces it at the Dispatch Box, it will happen, but even if the money has not yet been received by the organisation it would be nice to know that it is on its way—in the post or about to be transferred—because it is crucial in our fight against human trafficking in this country.

2:32 pm
Photo of Bill Wiggin

Bill Wiggin (Whip, Whips; Leominster, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to follow Keith Vaz. I think that the Prime Minister should answer his question. The Prime Minister does seem to have problems with increases in spending. He has said, for instance, that

"total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013-14."—[ Hansard, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 294.]

Perhaps that is the spending rise that the right hon. Gentleman was told was taking place. He is absolutely right to push on that point. I wish him every luck, because I agree that it is extremely important.

We all want our children to get the best start in life by having the right support, food, nutrition, shelter, education, mentoring and emotional support. That is what is needed in order for them to grow up and develop into responsible, independent adults. Looked-after children consistently do not get the same levels of support and care that children in families receive. Looked-after children under-achieve in education—just one in eight gets five good GCSEs. They are twice as likely to be convicted or cautioned; almost a quarter of prisoners have been in care. They are also four to five times more likely to have mental health problems; one third of homeless people have been in care. One fifth of women who leave care between the ages of 16 and 19 become pregnant within one year, compared with just one in 20 in the general population. They are also far more vulnerable to drug abuse, school exclusions, sexual exploitation, truancy and other symptoms linked to social breakdown. They are also more likely to be NEETs— not in education, employment or training.

Being in care affects young people's life chances, and the Select Committee report into looked-after children has highlighted some of the weaknesses that need to be addressed. On our estates and in our communities, we are seeing second generation looked-after children whose parents have also been through the care system. There are three crucial areas for improving the life chances of looked-after children: education, family, and the role played by the local authority, social services and their partners. When I read Dickens, I felt that things had moved so far forward, yet there is still a failure to deliver the sort of 21st-century changes that we all want and believe in. This is, therefore, a tremendously important subject.

We need to improve access to education, because that is important and looked-after children need better chances and opportunities to succeed. Education and individual learning plans may need to be more tailor-made to suit individuals in order to encourage them to remain in education or some other form of learning or training. Having a good educational foundation can make a huge difference to job opportunities, as well as to a young person's confidence and self-esteem. Young people who have these challenging backgrounds need to be in environments where they feel valued and where their talents can be nurtured. The development of academies—and academies with residential facilities—will help to drive up the educational standards of those who are looked after. Mentoring in school makes a huge difference, and we also need to look at developing the role and expertise of school governors in matters concerning looked-after children so that they can oversee the performance of schools and how they are educating these young people.

In Herefordshire, an education liaison support service is available to children and young persons looked after by the council. It offers advice and support to children and parents, it develops individual support packages and it provides information and resources to carers. Herefordshire has delivered positive outcomes, including the fact that 92 per cent. of its young people aged 16 or over leaving care managed to obtain a qualification, which compares with the average in England of 53 per cent. That makes the council the top-performing authority in England.

Herefordshire's looked-after children are also healthier and they have lower levels of truancy from school and fewer criminal convictions than average. The council has a good record, despite receiving—this is a real shame—the third lowest school grant per pupil and despite the council's grant being 17 per cent. lower than the national average per head. Despite that financial disadvantage, the council is still achieving a fantastic outcome for these particularly vulnerable young people.

Supporting families early on can prevent children from going into care, and we should take measures to prevent family breakdown. Where possible, and when it is safe and appropriate, we should try to keep families together. Mr. Laws made the important point that that will not always be appropriate, and that is also mentioned is the Select Committee report. However, where it is safe and appropriate, that is what we should try to do. Strong families support vulnerable children and reduce the risk of children needing to go into care. I believe that the Government could do a great deal more to support families; parents are currently financially better off living apart, and that cannot be right.

Health visitors can help families, particularly those with problems and those struggling with parenthood. Local authorities, health care professionals and schools need to be equipped with the expertise to be able to identify those families where there is serious and wilful neglect; those families where the parents and guardians are a danger to children and the children need to be brought into care; and those circumstances in which the parents need help and support to improve their parenting skills. There is a difference between the circumstances of a single mother with post-natal depression who is struggling to look after her children, wants to be a good parent and needs support, and cases such as those of baby P or Victoria Climbié where the children were the victims of despicable and sickening acts of neglect, harm, violence and brutality. The people committing those acts need to be identified earlier and they should feel the full force of the law.

I come to local authorities, social services and their partners. Social services in local authorities throughout the country have a very difficult role in identifying when they need to intervene and the action that they need to take. It is through contact with social services and health and education professionals that vulnerable children can be identified and early intervention can take place.

In these discussions, there is considerable emphasis on the importance of corporate parenting and multi-agency and partnership working, and that is an important framework. But however good the systems are on paper, we need to ensure that the individuals and professionals delivering the support services on the front line can take difficult decisions and feel confident in exercising their judgment.

Inspections are important to raising standards. Can the Minister reassure me that the new Ofsted unannounced inspections, for which 30 minutes' notice is given, will not interfere with an authority's delivery of services? If a children's services director can get a call from the Ofsted inspectors saying that they are just 30 minutes away, we need to ensure that the inspections are done in a way that does not cause authorities to panic, and that while the inspectors are present for two days they are not interfering in the work of social services and causing resources to be used serving them rather than young people and families. Giving inspectors access to files and making staff available for interviews are important to assessing an authority's performance, but we must also recognise that that is time and resource-consuming for the authority. I hope that the Minister and Ofsted will be able to ensure that inspections are carried out in a sensitive and appropriate manner. It is good to have quick inspections, but they must be done right.

Building strong and long-term relationships between looked-after children and those involved in delivering their care is essential. Children going through the care system can feel unsupported when their carers change on a regular basis, and the answer is as much down to the professionalism of staff as any legislative requirement. One area that needs strengthening is the support given to young people in the transition period from leaving care to becoming an independent adult. I asked the Committee Chairman about the need for support up to the age of 25, and his answer was compelling. Children who have spent most of their lives going through the care system can suddenly feel abandoned once they are no longer of school age and no longer within that system, whereas children who have not gone through the care system continue to get family support for many years, through university and beyond.

One final aspect for the Government to consider is how often the child is consulted. Time and again, we see cases in which problems could have been avoided if only those involved had asked the child. The fear seems to be that children will not tell the truth, but in my experience it does not take Einstein to tell when a child is telling the truth. We need to be much better at listening to children as well as providing the support that the whole House agrees is so vital for these vulnerable young people.

2:42 pm
Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I think that this is the first time during my time as a Member that we have had a debate on looked-after children in the Chamber. There may have been short Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, but this debate indicates a growing level of interest in and understanding of the importance of this group of young people and the historic neglect by the state of their interests and welfare. I hope that the Committee's report has contributed to that increased understanding and concern.

Photo of Tim Loughton

Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

On a point of information, we have never before had a debate on vulnerable and looked-after children in Government time, but we have had debates on that subject in Opposition time.

Photo of David Chaytor

David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)

I congratulate the Opposition, but I also congratulate the Government on eventually finding time for this debate. Of course, it builds on the significant improvement in Government policy in recent years, which has moved the interests of looked-after children much further up the political agenda.

These children are often the poorest of the poor. They and their families are at the bottom of the pile. In contrast with most children, whose interests, welfare, health and education are universally popular among the population at large, looked-after children, especially when they reach their teenage years, are frequently reviled, stigmatised, discriminated against and scapegoated by the adult population. That is the fact of the matter. It shows the difficulty that we have—as local authorities, health authorities and Governments—in re-establishing this group as victims.

The figures are quite stark. Other Members have mentioned some of the statistics, and still only 14 per cent. of looked-after children gain five A to Cs at GCSE. Among the population as a whole, that figure is 65 per cent. Only 46 per cent. of looked-after children get past key stage 2 level 4 in English, compared with 81 per cent. of the population. The most striking figure, of which I was only reminded earlier today, is that whereas in the population as a whole 3 per cent. of children have statements, 28 per cent. of looked-after children have statements; the figure is nine times higher in that group of young people.

Let me mention two brief anecdotes that seem to me to encapsulate some of the difficulties experienced by these young people, and perhaps how the state's approach has changed. One of my earliest and most enjoyable experiences as an MP in my constituency was an awards evening for looked-after children in Bury. The children and their families were invited to the town hall for a wonderful party and celebration of their achievements organised by the then director of education. Every child received recognition in some shape or form, whether they were on their way to university and celebrating their A-level results or whether they had very modest achievements. The evening culminated in music, dance, a disco and plenty of food and drink for the children, their families and the teachers and support workers who had worked with them.

I vividly remember one of the most outgoing of those children, a young woman, partly Afro-Caribbean, who came to talk to me about Members of Parliament, Prime Minister's questions and Tony Blair. She had watched Prime Minister's questions on the television and wanted to know what it was like. I thought, "What an amazing young woman. She's come through the most difficult experiences—moved around from foster family to foster family—yet she still has, at the age of 14 or 15, this high degree of optimism. She will probably survive and have an interesting future."

Four or five years later, that young woman came to my advice surgery, heavily pregnant, dressed in a way that could only be described as eccentric, clearly under the influence of some substance and clearly with mental health problems. She came to ask me for assistance, but did not quite know what assistance she needed. She came also to complain about social workers, but was not quite able to put her finger on the source of the complaint. She wanted to complain about the national health service, but was not able to explain where it was not dealing with her needs. Her experience over the four or five years between the age of 14 and the age of 18 or 19 seemed to me to be almost a metaphor for the way in which the state had failed so many young people in care.

My second brief anecdote concerns an experience the Committee had when we were compiling the report. We met, in the Jubilee Room, a group of young people in care who had come to tell us about their experiences. They provided informal evidence to our Committee and they were incredibly resilient, confident and outgoing young people. They were older; they were aged 18, 19, 20 and 21. We listened carefully to what they had to say.

There was one thing that I occurred to me as we spoke to them—and I reiterate the comments made by Bill Wiggin about the importance of listening to children. I found it remarkable how astute they were about how their experience had gone wrong, pointing out the awfulness of the instability of not having a regular social worker and of frequent moves from one foster family or care home to another. They demonstrated that, in spite of that, with the right kind of support—they had all had significant support from voluntary organisations and charities, and particularly from committed individuals—children in care can come through and can survive. In their late teens and early 20s, those young people seemed to be getting their lives together. The message of that second experience was positive, because attitudes and policies have changed in the past few years. The result is that young people in care get a slightly higher priority and a slightly better share of the cake.

One reflection of that is the document published in May by the Department for Children, Schools and Families which tackled head-on the need to improve educational attainment in schools. I very much welcome the proposals that every local authority should have a virtual head for looked-after children, and that every school should have a designated teacher for them. Other proposals include ensuring that all looked-after children have a personal education plan and get the one-to-one and small-group tuition that are so important for those who are vulnerable and uncertain about their relationships, and who find it difficult to cope in larger numbers.

I welcome the fact that the Government have already introduced the £500 educational allowance pledge. It is not yet clear how that is working or exactly who is responsible for allocating the money, but it is crucial if we are to give looked-after young people the benefits, advantages and extra-curricular activities that are taken as read by most average families in this country. Above all, I welcome the changes in the most recent code on school admissions, which prioritise the needs of looked-after children and are central to giving their schooling greater stability. The Government's track record, in recent times and in that latest document, shows that they are moving very much in the right direction.

However, education is only part of the issue. As I and other hon. Members have noted, the stability of placements and the continuity of social workers are crucial. In this country, we have had problems with both foster and residential care. As often happens in public policy, the pendulum swings from side to side according to fashion.

The Committee looked at what happens in other countries, and at the variable experience in different parts of the UK. It seemed to us that there is no perfect or agreed model for what goes on, and that there should be no targets for the numbers of children to be placed in or removed from residential care. Both foster and residential care can be provided in a way that is absolutely suitable to children's needs, so we need to look at the matter as a spectrum rather than as an either/or problem.

In our inquiry, the Committee saw some very good examples of residential care, although not in the UK. Sadly, we had to go to Denmark to see them, but that does not mean that we cannot reach the same standards here. I know that there has been dramatic change in the UK in recent years; the old large and impersonal children's homes have been dismantled, while smaller units with a more family-oriented atmosphere and approach have been developed. That is all for the good, but let us not say that there is a unique model that must be applied in all circumstances. We need a continuum of care as well as flexibility, so we should not try rigidly to impose any particular model according to the fashion of the day.

Underlying many of the criticisms of some aspects of foster care—and certainly of residential care—is the question of how we recruit people to the wider children's work force. We know that, as a nation, we have a problem with the low status allocated to staff working in pre-school settings, residential homes or children's social work. The only conclusion to be drawn is that, if we give such jobs low status—as a profession, or in respect of the opportunities for progression, the qualifications required for entry or pay and remuneration—it is because we as a nation do not recognise sufficiently the importance of the health, care and welfare of children.

Other countries in Europe are, frankly, light years ahead of us. Until we can put the interests of children absolutely at the heart of public policy and reflect that by ensuring that some of the brightest, best qualified and most highly motivated young adults want to work with children, we will never bring about the cultural change that we need. The Chairman of the Committee has already pointed out that we felt that that was such an important part of our inquiry that it has led to a further inquiry specifically on the training of social workers that will also produce some interesting recommendations.

The selection of not just children's social workers but people who work in residential care settings should be considered. My recollection is that our inquiry was quite specific: we felt that anyone working in a residential care setting should require a level 3 national vocational qualification. There is much work to do, perhaps more formally, in improving the training and support available to those who take on the role of foster carer.

I want to make two further comments, the first of which is about the whole question of leaving care, on which hon. Members have commented. One of the biggest gaps in our provision even now is that so many children leave their care setting too early. They finish up on the streets. They finish up sucked into crime, drugs and prostitution. They finish up becoming disoriented and living in inappropriate housing, next to inappropriate neighbours. The Government are greatly interested in that at the moment. Many of the charities that work in the field are calling for a national housing standard for care leavers.

I want to compare—I do not think that this comparison has been made before—the way in which we as a nation consider housing for young people in care with how we consider housing for undergraduates. Every young person who goes to university has the opportunity to stay in a university hall of residence—not absolute luxury, but basic, clean, comfortable, sheltered, protected and regulated accommodation. If we can look after the interests of the 43 per cent. of young people who go to university by offering them appropriate housing with regulated standards, why cannot we support the interests of the much smaller group of young people who are in care with the same kind of standards for their housing when they move to adulthood? So the contrast between the accommodation that many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds live in, often by themselves and next door to some pretty unpleasant adults, and the environment in which our university undergraduates live, in their halls of residence, is absolutely striking.

With the Every Child Matters agenda and the proposals made in the "Care Matters" White Paper two years ago, we have brought about impressive integration in children's services. Certainly, social care and schools are working far more closely together than ever before, but there are two gaps. I am deeply concerned about whether the health service fully recognises the difficulties of looked-after children as a category. I am not absolutely convinced that GPs—obviously, GPs vary enormously—are fully locked into the Every Child Matters agenda. It seems to me from my experience and from listening to some of the evidence given to the Select Committee that GPs are still protecting their professional practices and less willing than other professionals to co-operate with regard to the interests of children.

I was interested in the very important point about child trafficking made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I also flag up the importance of policing. I had the interesting experience two years ago of spending some time with Greater Manchester police, touring the various towns of Greater Manchester at different times of the day and seeing a remarkable number of young people—it was impossible to say whether or not they were looked-after children—drifting and hanging around in the most unusual places and getting up to the most appalling activities at all hours of the day and night. Many of them would have been children who had been in care, but I do not think that the police have yet understood the importance of having a slightly different response where that is the case. To reiterate a point on the important issue of children who are trafficked, I point out that if there is to be a joint inquiry by the Children, Schools and Families Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, it would be fruitful to explore the relationship between the criminal justice system and looked-after children.

Finally, I hope that the report will lead to more than just short-term improvements. So much of our history of responding to issues related to looked-after children, child abuse and the murder of children has been a history of knee-jerk responses. An incident happens, the public are outraged, the Government respond and then we forget about it. I hope that we have moved on from those days, and that the report's influence on Government policy can be much longer-lasting. Our Government are starting to take the issues far more seriously than any Government have done for many years. I welcome the progress made in recent years.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I point out that, although it looks as though we have all the time in the world, and not too many people are seeking to catch my eye, it would be helpful if hon. Members would remember that we have a second debate after this one. Members ought to remember that when they make their contributions.

3:01 pm
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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield, Liberal Democrat)

I should like to start by praising the work of Select Committees, although perhaps that is slightly self-indulgent, as I am a member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. Mr. Sheerman, who chairs the Committee, touched on the subject slightly, but did not go into too much detail in order to spare his blushes. Recently, a national newspaper looked at the work of Select Committees and praised three in particular, including the Education and Skills Committee, now the Children, Schools and Families Committee, and its Chairman. That highlighted the very effective work that Select Committees, and three of them in particular, have done in recent years.

The Select Committee is a good model; it has worked very well since the big expansion of Select Committees in 1979. There has been talk of reforming the way in which this place works to make the job of scrutinising the Executive more effective. Hopefully the expansion of the role and powers of Select Committees is one of the measures that will be taken in the next year or so. It will mean that 30 years on from the '79 expansion and experiment, there will be a further expansion of the work of Select Committees. The Select Committee report that we are considering is a good example of what Select Committees can do so well.

A number of hon. Members referred to the fact that in a normal family situation—whatever "normal" is—children do not, at the age of 16, 18 or 21, leave and never again have contact with their siblings, parents, uncles and so on. In fact, it is the norm for people to get a lot of support from their family system until they are well into their 20s, and even later. A lot of the latest stories are of children going away to university, getting jobs, getting their own place, and ending up back in the family home in their early 30s. I am a parent of three children, the eldest of whom is 24. She lives close by, but she is often not in her flat but at home, emptying the contents of my fridge, drinking my drink, watching my TV and so forth. Of course, we are always delighted to see our adult children; we are pleased that they come back to see us. That ongoing support is the norm.

When considering the model for that strange creature, the corporate parent—the state as parent—we should very much bear in mind what the model is for a normal family. The state as parent takes on responsibility for children who come into care because they come from very abnormal family backgrounds. Some 62 per cent. of children in care have been taken into care because of direct neglect and abuse by their family. A large percentage of the other 38 per cent. of children come into care because of family dysfunction, severe illness or death in the family. They come into care because they come from the opposite of a "normal" family and family background. They have already had a traumatic experience in their life. Whether they come into care at four or 14, they have already had a difficult upbringing.

If the state as parent is to discharge its parental duties to looked-after children, it has to run twice as fast simply to stand still. It has a moral duty to discharge those responsibilities to the best effect, and there is common, human sense in its seeking to do so. However, if we had to make a hard-nosed case to the Treasury, we could cite the pure economic sense behind it, too. The cost of not helping looked-after children—the cost of social breakdown, the cost of substance abuse, the cost of mental illness, the cost of the fact that half of prisoners under 25 years old and up to one third of prisoners of all ages have been in care, and the cost of picking up the pieces from that failure—is far greater than the cost of investing in and looking after them properly in the first place. There is an obvious moral case for discharging that duty properly, but one can make a hard-nosed economic case in Treasury terms, too.

I am sure that the Minister, in her response to the debate, will say that much progress has been made. Indeed, the Government, in their published response to the Committee's report, agree with most of its findings and point out how they are making progress towards its objectives. They deserve praise for the progress that has been made, but we have an awful long way to go if we are to emulate what the Committee saw as the best systems in other areas. Denmark is the one that everybody has mentioned.

The point at which one leaves care has been exhaustively discussed, so I shall not go into it, but is it 16 years old, 18, 21 or 25? It was quite shocking to hear one social worker who came to talk to the Committee two Mondays ago say that, in her authority, there was pressure not to go into any permanent arrangements or accommodation arrangements with 15-year-olds, because they are only a few months away from no longer being the authority's responsibility. The idea that 15 to 16-year-olds are already being cast adrift is outrageous. There are welcome moves to extend the leaving age, but surely it should be extended beyond 17 or 18 years old.

Accommodation provision for young adults of 16, 17 and 18 years old is also an issue. The Government, in their response, talk about bed and breakfast being provided for somebody in that situation, and that is not suitable. Councils are now being told that they should give looked-after children priority for housing, but we keep being told that they should give many other groups priority, so we need to look at the issue of joined-up government thinking, because Government policy for the past 12 years has been not to allow council house building at all.

Just over 4,000 council houses have been built in 12 years, and that is meaningless. The housing associations that were supposed to fill the gap have, on average, built 22,000 units of social housing per year for 12 years, when the Government's own Barker report said that 46,000 to 50,000 units were needed just to stand still—without even reducing the waiting list. Furthermore, the waiting list for social housing in general and council housing in particular has doubled nationally: it has gone up from 1 million in 1997 to almost 2 million now.

How do councils give priority to people leaving the armed forces or looked-after children who are moving into independent accommodation? How do they give priority when their supply of social housing is totally inadequate to meet the needs of all groups—families, people with children and single mothers. Whatever the category, the massive shortage of social housing and council housing cannot meet those needs.

I can think of examples in my constituency. I presented GCSE awards at a school a few years ago, and one girl won prizes for her fantastic GCSE artwork. Indeed, one of her paintings hangs in my office here in Westminster now. She succeeded at school despite a very difficult family background and having been in care, but at 16 years old she was about to leave school, start college and move into a council flat in one of the least desirable areas of Chesterfield. How would that 16-year-old girl get on as a young, single person, living on whatever benefits were provided, on her own, while trying to pursue her education, without the normal family support that we would expect for our children? We still have a long way to go if we are to move beyond that situation.

I was a teacher for 22 years, so education is dear to my heart. When I was head of year and responsible for children's pastoral care, I noticed that some children would turn up in school, be around for a couple of months and then move on; they just kept moving on from their foster care placements, or whatever arrangements had been made. Years later, we heard about exactly the same thing from the children who gave evidence to the inquiry—about children who were constantly in a state of flux and moving from one place to another. The situation might be due to the difficulties in recruiting enough foster parents. That issue needs tackling, as the report says, but there might be all sorts of other reasons why such children are moving around.

The norm in education should always be that the young person stays in their school place. That should be a priority; it is much better than their being shuffled around to a convenient place somewhere within a radius of 20 or 30 miles, which means that they keep changing school. The stability of a child's education is essential to any success that they have in exams, literacy or numeracy.

Bill Wiggin said that placing looked-after children in academies with residential places might be an answer. He may want to respond, but I should say to him that I am puzzled by that. When academies were launched, the whole concept behind them was supposed to be that they would replace failing schools, which are almost entirely in deprived areas in the inner cities. Surely the best thing for looked-after children, who come from already difficult circumstances, is for them to be given priority for school places in the best, most successful schools—not in the academies, which take over, in theory, from failing schools in the most difficult circumstances. It would be good to see priority given to giving looked-after children the best places in the best schools.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Surely the point is that academies take over failing schools to improve the educational chances of the people there, and although it is early to say so, their record is good. Furthermore, I am sure that he will acknowledge the importance of continuity of education in a familiar environment for the young person in care, whenever possible. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that if an academy has taken over the young person's school, they should not go there any more but attend another one in another area, I tell him that that would defeat the point.

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that partial clarification. I heard what was said as meaning that academies would be the obvious, logical places for looked-after children; to me, the obvious place is the best school nearest to where the child is—that may well be the school that they already attend, of course.

This is not a debate about education as such, but I should say that the jury is out on academies. Yesterday morning, the Select Committee spent three hours considering the academies issue. The Government's commissioned research from PricewaterhouseCoopers says that only very flimsy evidence shows that academies in general improve any more than other state schools that use other educational innovation. That issue, however, is more for a specific debate on education.

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Bill Wiggin (Whip, Whips; Leominster, Conservative)

I was referring to academies and, more importantly, to academies with residential facilities. If the hon. Gentleman checks, he will see that looked-after children who go to boarding schools achieve far better results than those who do not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look more favourably on the matter. If the academy system can deliver such an opportunity for looked-after children, I am sure that he welcomes that.

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield, Liberal Democrat)

I regret the fact that boarding provision in state schools was more or less wiped out during my years of working in schools. There were, for example, two state schools in Derbyshire with boarding provision, one of which I worked at. One had disappeared before I started working at that school and the other disappeared a few years later. There is no state school with boarding provision in Derbyshire now. That is regrettable, and a move back in the other direction would be useful.

However, I disagree with the idea that provision for looked-after children should be linked only to academies, which make up a tiny percentage of the 3,000 secondary schools in this country. As I said, the jury is out on academy schools; at least a third have had worse results since they became academies. We do not want to pin all our hopes on a totally untried and minority experiment. There are questions about providing enough support for looked-after children who have come from such difficult backgrounds given the numbers of staff available. Having worked in education for a long time, I know about the difficulty of getting access to educational psychologists, for example. In Denmark, there were incredibly well-paid, motivated, intelligent, enthusiastic child psychologists in more or less every meeting we went to, and they provide a great service. In this country, they are as rare as hens' teeth.

We have already heard reference to whether an NVQ level 3 should be a minimum requirement for somebody working in a residential setting. The qualifications and pay of social workers are relevant issues, and the Committee is undertaking an inquiry into their training and qualifications. If we are to take this seriously, we may need to emulate many other countries across western Europe that do this so much better.

The major unanswered question that came out of the Committee's report and still hangs there, perhaps for a future inquiry, is the balance between adoption, fostering or residential settings as the desired way of dealing with children who go into care, and what ratios there should be between those options. There are big differences between countries in how they approach this and, as we heard from the Chair of the Committee, between local authorities in Britain. Adoption is seen as one route, much more so in this country than in Denmark, where people were desperate to avoid any adoptions because they wanted to maintain the family link for as long as possible, if not for ever. They take a completely different attitude.

On fostering, we heard evidence from several young people who, between them, had very long experience of the care system. There was some evidence of good things, but one of them told an alarming story, which was backed up by another, of being in a foster placement where the foster carer regarded it simply as a way of earning money. When there was a Christmas or birthday party, the foster child was not allowed to take part in that family event. There was a shocking example of a foster child having a separate mug in the kitchen because they could not use the family crockery. It seemed appalling that a foster carer was allowed to do that. I must emphasise that those examples are very untypical—at least, I hope so. My wife worked in social services for a long time and undertook a lot of approvals of foster parents and adoptive parents in Derbyshire. I got to know many of them in that way; some are still friends now. I have certainly never come across an example like that in Derbyshire, as an individual through my wife's work or as a politician. It was shocking to hear, only a few months ago when we were taking evidence, that those things were happening. We need to look at the standards and requirements for foster care placements across the country.

On residential settings, the old, large, crumbling Victorian institution housing large numbers of children is very much a thing of the past. We saw some good examples in Denmark, but to be fair we saw some in England too, when we visited places just outside London. The nearest residential care home in Chesterfield, which is about a quarter of a mile up the road from where I live, is a modern house that has no more than six people at any one time. That is very much the direction in which residential settings have gone in this country, although there is still progress to be made. Another question raised by the Committee and left hanging is the point at which we intervene, initiate care proceedings, send children back to their families, and so forth. My hon. Friend John Hemming, who is hoping to speak shortly, might disagree with me about this. I am not saying what I would prefer, merely that these are huge questions raised by the Committee's report. In Denmark, the key appeared to be the desire to maintain the family link, even when the child was taken into care. We were surprised to hear—the Chair referred to this example—about a child who was in care because he had been sexually abused by one of his parents, yet those parents were still invited along to birthday, Christmas and end-of-school events to maintain a link with the child, whereas in this country we would tend to cut that link quite sharply. It was suggested that that was one of the main reasons for the success of the Danish system.

We should not cherry-pick when we look at different ways of doing things in other countries; we have to look at the whole picture. In Denmark, we saw not only that emphasis on trying to maintain the family link at all costs, but an emphasis on intervening much earlier, with twice as many children per head of population being taken into care than in the UK. Denmark has the highest rate in Europe of taking children into care, so there is a different approach altogether. We saw that all people involved in child care were much more highly trained and paid than those in this country, so the whole system was very different. We should examine the pattern rather than pick out one of four or five matters that were different.

We have heard arguments about whether we are too slow to intervene in this country. When the Committee extended its inquiry because of the baby P case, Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said that children were being left in danger at home. Wes Cuell, the NSPCC's director of children services, said that children

"stay in dangerous families and end up getting killed."

An Ofsted review reported that thousands of vulnerable children were at risk because councils did not move fast enough to protect them.

Some of the social workers who talked to us said something that I have also heard in years gone by from my wife and her colleagues—that we take too far the approach that families must always be kept together. It was suggested in the inquiry into the baby P case that the emphasis was on the mother's needs and how we could support her, and that we lost sight of baby P. Whether we intervene too late is a huge question that has been left hanging in the air by the baby P inquiry, the Select Committee's report and the evidence from bodies such as the NSPCC and Ofsted.

Educational outcomes were referred to earlier. It has been said that looked-after children get a much worse educational outcome than an equivalent 16 or 18-year-old who has had a normal family background and education. A comparison was made with Germany a couple of years ago, but because Germany intervenes sooner, and for a larger number of people, the sample is not comparable. We intervene late and for a smaller, hardcore sample of more damaged and more vulnerable children. Inevitably, their outcomes of any kind, whether alcohol abuse, educational success or mental illness, will be worse than in a larger, more normal sample of children.

A big question has been left hanging in the air. I certainly do not expect the Minister to answer it in 30 seconds, as it probably needs a whole new Select Committee inquiry and a national debate. It is whether we intervene too late and whether we put too much emphasis on keeping children with their family at all costs, even when the cost can be death and damage to children that could have been avoided by earlier intervention, as Ofsted and the NSPCC have argued.

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The House will have heard my earlier comments about the timing of speeches. I hope to get the last two Back Benchers in, but unless contributions are considerably shorter, one of them may miss out.

3:22 pm
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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

One of the interesting aspects of this subject is definitions. Let us take the definition of care. A child is "in care" when there is a care order in place, but even then, that child may be placed with their parents. The fact that there has been an intervention, and maybe an early one, does not necessarily mean that it is a stressful intervention with a child being put with a foster carer some distance away. We should look systematically at how families are supported, and organisations such as Home-Start are very good for that.

When we compare different countries, it is critical that we get our definitions right, otherwise it is unclear what is going on. We take into care, through care orders, about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year.

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Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour)

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not ignoring the children who come into care under section 20 orders, which are voluntary, and who therefore do not have care orders?

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

That is true: there are children in care under section 20 orders, and there are a few children in respite care, too. I accept that point. Of the more than 60,000 children in care, roughly a third are voluntarily put into care under section 20 orders, but I always find it a bit of a mistake to take them into account when calculating figures on adoption targets, although admittedly we do not have those targets now. One would not expect children who are on section 20 orders because their parents cannot cope with them to be adopted.

Definitions are very important, and including those under section 20 orders we take into care about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year. The figure used to be about 5,500, according to the SSDA903 return, which goes to the Department for Children, Schools and Families every year from each local authority.

We have to look at what is best for the children. That is the key driver. We have international information and information from academic research to use in making comparisons, but where the Government go spectacularly wrong is in not doing proper research into what is happening. For instance, the Government's response to the Committee's report says, on page 16:

"The Government believes that children should be supported to live with their parents wherever possible".

However, there is no analysis of what is being used as a reason for removing children from their parents and what is not. A small piece of research done early last year looked into some of the issues. It identified that the children of mothers who have been in care are often taken into care in part for that reason, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somebody is in care, they then have a child, and the fact that they have been in care is used as a reason to take that child, too, into care under section 31 proceedings. In my view, that is not a very sensible thing to do in the long term.

We have to look at the academic research. One paper, which examined the evacuation of British children during world war three, when large numbers of children were, in effect, voluntarily fostered, is particularly interesting.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

World war two.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

That is true. Sorry about that—a slight error there, but who knows?

That research was published in a report in Aging and Mental Health, volume 7, issue 5, 2003. It found that the experience created an attachment disorder, which, in a sense, suggests reasons why the Danish approach is particularly good; it is an interesting question whether we should subcontract the entire system to Denmark. What we are not doing is finding out to what extent the way in which the care system operates creates reactive attachment disorder. There are obviously a number of cases, but the Government have done no research.

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Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour)

I question what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have tabled questions about research that may not have been done by the Government, but which was funded by them. A huge amount of research is done; my question is whether it is then disseminated. However, I could tell the hon. Gentleman at length—although obviously not today, Mr. Deputy Speaker—why certain things are done in the UK, such as the move to smaller children's homes. Those initiatives are based on research.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

I am talking about research into particular issues, such as reactive attachment disorder, children who are adopted and then readopted, and why we try to get so many children aged seven, eight or nine adopted when that is clearly not in their best interests.

We need to look at some individual cases. Let us take the case, which Tim Loughton knows well, of Sebastian Godfrey, the grandson of Conservative county councillor Janet Mockridge. He is on the run somewhere on the continent with his mother and baby sister. They are on the run because Medway, the local authority—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Obviously I do not have detailed knowledge of the case, but I am not quite sure—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me. I want to ensure that he is aware of the sub judice rules and that he is taking great care to ensure that he observes them.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

My understanding is that the case is not before any court at the moment. Sebastian and his mother have been on the run for around 14 months. The father of the baby girl was jailed for 14 months, but has since been released. The family is on the run in Europe, yet Medway social services will not drop the complaint to the police and still wants the mother to be arrested under an international arrest warrant.

I look at that case and I think, "What are the best interests of the child? What are we doing that could be of benefit to the child?" There are two children living with their mother on the run in France. One is not subject to the UK's jurisdiction because the child was born abroad and so cannot be taken away from the mother, but the other child could be taken away through proceedings under The Hague convention. What are the best interests of the child? Why does Medway want to continue the prosecution?

There are cases where mothers have 14 babies on the trot, each one of which is taken into care and adopted. The cost of doing that is about £200,000 a child, which totals £2.8 million. That is not unique: there are a number of cases of people with 18 children, and I have seen smaller numbers, such as 12 or 10. However, is that really a good way of handling the care process? Would it not be feasible to try to support the mother in some way? I have looked at the detail of those cases, so I know what the reasoning behind them is, but is that really the best way forward? Does it work well? I was looking at a case on Monday, and it was clear from the papers that the child, who was about 12, wanted to return to her mother. There was no reason why she should not do so, but, according to the papers, she recognised that she could not return until she was 18.

I accept that my proposition would not be the best way forward for all children, and that we need to intervene and take some children into care, and to put others with foster carers from time to time, but I tend to see the cases in which the system has gone wrong. The case of Sam and Adam Johnson is a good example of that. They are 15 and 17, and subject to a care order because they have fallen out with their mum and are prevented from living with their father. Sam has been able to go back now that he is 17. Essex county council has wasted a massive sum of money on that case. I talk to practitioners in Birmingham who say that they would never do that. Fair enough, but why did Essex county council do it? Initially, the local authority did not want to do it, but it was persuaded by the judge. Some very strange things go on, and unless we deal with them, the system will continue to steamroller people. At the moment it is steamrollering adults and children. Everyone here agrees that the outcomes of the system are disastrous.

Obviously, there is good practice going on, but there is also bad practice. It is a good idea to have advocates for children, for example, but they must be independent. They cannot be appointed by children's services. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does some very good advocacy work, and the reason why it is good is that the advocates are not appointed by the local authority. The people providing the services cannot also be the ones who appoint the advocates. To go back to the comparison with Denmark, it has been said that the best advocates are the child's natural parents, but we have a tendency to squeeze them out of the process. The figure of 7,000 to 8,000, based on SSDA903 returns, has been mentioned. Over half of the children under the age of 10 who go into care come out into adoption, according to the old figures. In 2004-05 the figure was about 3,800 a year.

The system causes wrong decisions to be made in a material number of cases. It does not operate proper checks and balances. Now is not the time to go into the flaws in the family court system at great length, but the report is good in that it recognises the difficulties with the integrated children's system. I have written a report jointly with two social workers on why the integrated children's system causes social workers to remain in the office and make the wrong decisions because they cannot get out to see their clients. They are forced to feed their computers instead, and I am not convinced that the Government are doing enough to deal with that. People make the wrong decisions, the whole thing is driven through the system, ignoring realities at certain stages, and come hell or high water, they stick to the original decisions.

There are social workers who agree with me that there are serious problems in the systems. In the family court system, for example, we find that the children and the parents are often trying to fight the professionals, which is not the way to achieve good child care and good outcomes for children. There are even cases involving 14 or 15-year-old children in which a guardian from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is trying to interfere. There is no role for a guardian in such cases. CAFCASS is supposed to represent the interests of a child, and it is unclear why it should be anywhere near a case in which the child is clearly Gillick competent.

One of my biggest concerns is the way in which mental capacity is abused. Rachel Pullen's case is quite well known. I also know of another case in which a woman failed an IQ test that she was given through an interpreter, resulting in a psychologist deciding that she did not have the mental capacity to instruct a solicitor. She was then prevented from opposing care proceedings. As in the Rachel Pullen case, a later psychologist's report found that she did have the necessary mental capacity. The second psychologist spoke the woman's language, which made a difference.

Obviously, it is a bit of a waste of time asking Lord Laming whether he was right last time. We really need a proper investigation, and I am pleased that we are making some progress in the Council of Europe, whose legal affairs and human rights committee is to examine family justice in this country.

The Government need to carry out proper research into how the care system operates and where it is systematically going wrong. We are lucky that, in a sense, there is a social science research experiment in the country as a whole, because we have the Scottish system and the English system. In Scotland babies go home to their parents; in England they are adopted. It is thus possible to make a comparison of how the systems are operating where people speak the same language and have quite similar legislation.

I could speak at massive length about the issue, but there would be no great merit in doing so, and I want to allow my hon. Friend Annette Brooke to contribute to the debate. We are not looking sufficiently at where the problems are. Unless we really focus on where the wrong decisions are taken, and unless we have a system of checks and balances that operates in the best interests of the child rather than what is best for the people who make money out of dealing with children, we will not make progress.

3:35 pm
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Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)

I congratulate Mr. Sheerman on his leadership of the Select Committee, which brought this report about. I feel quite privileged to have played a small part in it myself, but the leadership is very important. When the report was published, it received considerable media attention—across a wide range of media—and I believe it was a good reflection on our society that this subject was news and that people wanted to reflect on it. I hope that only good will come out of it. I want briefly to address just a few issues and to push the Government a little further on their response.

My first point is about the threshold for taking children into care. I agree with my hon. Friends that the report has left questions in the air in that respect—and rightly so, as these are really important questions. We know that there is a great variation across the country; we do not want to think that decisions are made on a cost basis, but we do not know. We know that since the baby Peter affair, there has been an enormous increase in the number of children taken into care, and we anticipate that as that incident fades into the back of people's minds, those numbers will diminish. We heard about the same experience—of rises and falls over time—in New York. That is not good enough; we need a balanced approach. I agree with the Government that local decision making and taking the right decision for each individual child is important, but there must be a national debate, which would also need to reflect in a deep way on international experience.

I was quite alarmed when I saw an edition of Children & Young People Now with the headline "Councils 'capping' care places". Further reading revealed an example of a county council that

"has had 60 children in residential care every year from 2004 to 2008".

There might be all sorts of reasons for that; there may be some rounding of the numbers, for example. I do not know, but that example raises questions, which need answering, about whether that council has a fixed number of places and draws the line there.

I remember the introduction of quality protects and the concept of corporate parenting being introduced in 1997; there was some good stuff in that. However, as I read the Government's response, I find it seems to be saying, "All these statutory partners in the children's trusts will all become corporate parents," but corporate parenting means doing something as well as being something. I suspect that there is a major role for elected members to give real leadership within their local authorities. I would like to see some good practice publicised across the country, as I suspect some authorities do corporate parenting a lot better than others.

I also want to reflect on health and well-being, as the passage of the Children and Young Persons Bill through Committee was frustrating for me. I failed to get my amendment accepted because it dealt with a health matter. I think we need more joined-up Government. The Government's response is, I think, basically in agreement with the Select Committee, but we need more than words. Many troubled and vulnerable young people are brought into the care system and many of them will have been abused, yet therapeutic treatment is not available promptly across the country. Provision is really patchy. It is not good enough just to promise assessments; we really need to offer the treatment. It must be provided promptly if we are to break the cycle of abuse. There has been talk of what will happen in the future; perhaps the Minister will give us an idea of the time frame.

Of course children and young people need to stay in care for longer, especially as 45 per cent. of those in care are adolescents. Evidence given to the Select Committee by one of our witnesses suggested that the GCSE results of 16-year-olds in care were remarkably good in view of the state that those children were in when they entered the care system. Because there is so much catching up to do, young people in care are likely to need to continue their education for quite a bit longer. I was pleased when Dorset was chosen as one of the areas for a "staying put" pilot scheme. Has the Minister any idea when we may be able to move beyond the pilots? I understand that they are going rather well.

I was also pleased that the Committee considered the issue of kinship care. However, although a little more money is available since the passage of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, I know of grandparents who are forced into hardship when they are doing their very best for children. Of course we do not want them to do it for the money, but I have witnessed the making of great sacrifices. "Voice of the Child" is dear to my heart, and I welcome the creation of children in care councils, although I should have preferred them to be statutory. I am not sure that they will be provided by all local authorities, but I sincerely hope that they will.

The Committee said a great deal about advocacy. We argued strongly that every child should be entitled to an independent advocate whenever a decision was made about him or her. The Government responded favourably, making a commitment that future statutory guidance would state explicitly that children were entitled to such support. When will that guidance be introduced, and when will this actually happen? Let me issue a particular plea for disabled children. Many children in the care system are severely disabled, and they of all people need advocates—not necessarily the advocates whom we might expect to appoint, but those who will understand their gestures and emotions.

Keith Vaz made an important point about trafficked children. We have much more to do in that regard. I was disappointed that the Government did not accept the Committee's recommendation that a guardian should be appointed for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Government keep turning their back on that all-important issue.

There is much to celebrate in the progress of some young people through the care system, and indeed much to celebrate in terms of their achievements on the way; but as we have been saying for a long time, we must do better. The quality of the work force across the board is key, as is the stability of placements. I agree with Mr. Sheerman that every child in our society ought to be entitled to live in a stable loving relationship.

I suspect that the Select Committee's report on social workers will be of great significance. We have heard compelling evidence to suggest that things need to be done very differently. Having read the preliminary report of the Social Work Taskforce, I hope that the Select Committee's report will make a bigger contribution. There is good practice, but we need to provide the best for all our children. We must make a cross-party commitment to tackling a very real issue that we have not faced up to over the years.

3:44 pm
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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

We have had a good and full debate for a Thursday afternoon, with some excellent contributions from both sides of the House on a range of different subjects. Different expertise was introduced into the debate, starting with Keith Vaz who spoke about child trafficking. My hon. Friend Bill Wiggin catalogued all the very poor outcomes—I will not repeat them—that I am afraid are very much a fact of life for children in the care system and the generational vicious circle of under-achievement that we so often see.

Mr. Chaytor is no longer in his place but he mentioned that we are talking about victims. It needs to be reinforced that in 99.9 per cent. of cases of children who find themselves in the care system, it is not their fault. They are the victims. They come from a damaged background and they deserve and have the right to a second chance at a decent upbringing, which is what the care system should be able to provide for them.

Paul Holmes made some interesting points about the respective ages of leaving care and the particular pressures of the availability of housing. I will not mention the particular cases mentioned by John Hemming, one of which I have a special interest in. He certainly had a great fascination for the detail of statistics and the research that was needed—until, of course, it came to researching the number of world wars, where he was out by a margin of 50 per cent.

Annette Brooke has spoken a lot on this subject and she made the point that the report received a lot of good media coverage. I wonder whether it would have received the same level of media coverage had it not been in the wake of the baby Peter tragedy. Probably the biggest tragedy is that it takes such a high-profile case to put the subject in the public consciousness and on the front pages, yet it is a problem and a scandal that has been going on day in, day out for too many years.

I congratulate Mr. Sheerman and his Committee on the detail and thoroughness of the report and on being able to secure this debate. As I said, we have not had debates on vulnerable children and children in care in all the time that we have had a Children's Minister; such debates have been held only in Opposition time. They should be held more and we have a responsibility to do that.

The report should not really be necessary. We should have tackled the scandal of these under-achievements a long time ago. Along with child protection and safeguarding, the Government have done a lot in terms of legislation over the past few years, especially since the Climbié report. We have had big structural changes—in children's services and in directors of children's services. Lots of new positions and new databases have been created, with varying effectiveness. We have had new qualifications for the professionals involved in looking after vulnerable children. I fear that the system has become rather bureaucratic. In some cases, it can be said that the system has become more about protecting itself and conforming with the rule books than about protecting the vulnerable children and families whom the people involved are there to protect.

We have been clear for some years—we published "No More Blame Game", the results of the Conservative party's commission on social workers, almost two years ago and made a submission to the Laming inquiry—that new structures, new personnel, new titles and new computer systems are all very well, but they are subsidiary to making sure that there are adequately resourced, motivated, trusted and respected professionals, especially social workers, able to get on with their jobs at the sharp end. It is not computer systems that rescue vulnerable children and provide them with a decent opportunity to rebuild a damaged upbringing by giving them the tools to succeed. It is the right interventions by the right people, properly informed by computer data rather than shackled to those computers for too much of the time as they struggle to fill in ever more bureaucratic integrated children's systems and other assessment forms—constantly chasing their tails, reacting to safeguarding children cases, rather than getting involved proactively to keep families together and steer them away from crisis situations or to remove a child speedily when the value judgment needs to be made.

Nine years on from the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, and following numerous reviews of the care system, it is unacceptable that, for many children, simply taking them into care will condemn them to a childhood of significant under-achievement. If we are taking a child into care, it must be able to replace that child's growing up environment with something that is better. It must take them out of immediate danger but surely gives them something better than they would have put up with had they remained with their birth parents.

We have heard all the statistics. The proportion of children in care achieving five GCSEs or equivalent at grade A* to C has risen from 8 per cent. in 2001 to 13.9 per cent. in 2008. That is progress, but over the same period the proportion of all children—including children in care, so the figure for non-children in care is even higher—achieving those grades at GCSE has risen from 48 to 65 per cent. The gap, which is what is important, has risen from 40 per cent. in 2001 to about 51 per cent. That under-achievement gap is the true scandal, and it shows how we regard children in care. We permit them to under-achieve so badly because the system is simply not looking after them.

Let us look at some other outcomes. The report underlined the fact that 45 per cent. of looked-after children aged between five and 17 have mental health problems, compared with one in 10 of the school-age population as a whole. Also, up to 49 per cent. of young offenders in young offenders institutions have been in the care system, and we condemn them to a recidivism rate that makes it very likely that they will get on to the slippery slope to a lifetime of crime. We still have a long way to go, therefore.

It is not only right in itself that we should redouble our efforts to get a better deal for children in care, but it is a false economy not to do so, as children from the care system feature disproportionately in the fallout from broken Britain. Following the baby Peter case, the situation has become even more urgent, as the number of applications for care proceedings has risen sharply from December of last year. Interestingly, however, the proportion actually resulting in care orders has fallen quite sharply over that period, which raises the question of whether there is an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction. We need to do more research into that.

I do not want to be entirely negative, because in my travels around children's services departments throughout the country in recent months I have seen some excellent examples of good practice—as, I am sure, have many hon. Members. They need to be disseminated more widely, however.

Yesterday morning, I visited an excellent small residential home in Harrow that is run by the local authority. It gives very good support to the teenage residents there. I met the director of children's services for Harrow, Paul Clark, who knows all of the 150 children in the care of that borough. Last week, he took a group of them out bowling. All the children in care in that authority can have access to the director of children's services. We should be able to expect such hands-on contact in all authorities.

On Monday, I spent the day with social workers in Hackney, and saw the effective new social worker units there with their consultant social worker professionals. They are fired-up and motivated people, and they told me that they are now spending more of their time with the vulnerable families and their children, rather than in front of computers filling in assessment forms—although they would like to scrap the integrated children's system or ICS all together. In the past few years, that borough has gone from being almost a basket case in child safeguarding to reducing the number of children in care by about a third. It has done that by being far more proactive, putting in far more resources, and freeing up far more social workers' time to spend with the families in order to try to keep the children with their families and keep the children together. That is the result that all of us want to achieve. Consequently, whereas there are a great many problems with vacancy rates in other authorities throughout the country, for its posts of consultant social worker that authority was turning away 10 applicants for every one recruited—so it can choose the cream of the crop. This can be done, therefore.

Barnet had an innovative recruitment campaign called "Got a new Barnet?" It has brought in a buddy system: every child in care is buddied up with an officer of the council, from the chief executive downwards. Educational achievement, for one thing, has gone up considerably.

Nearby, in Ealing, where I opened the Horizons education centre the year before last, there is a drop-in place for children in care. It is run largely by people who used to be children in care, who went on to university, and who have taken up work with that borough, so they really know what children in care want. As of this year, 18 per cent. of children in care in the borough of Ealing are going on to university, which compares with some 1 or 2 per cent. of the looked-after children population as a whole. That is an extraordinary achievement, and I believe that Ealing's figure is the highest in the country.

Another example that I have seen is the family drug and alcohol court in Wells street, here in London. It is a new pilot scheme, based on an experiment in the United States, whereby intensive support is given to parents who are on the verge of losing their children to the care system. It involves not only rehabilitation for drug and alcohol problems, which are so often the cause of family break-up, but housing support, education support and so on. It is a real last-chance saloon aimed at trying to keep families together.

I have seen examples of family conferencing through the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and we need a lot more of that. I have seen Foster Care Associates projects offering intensive support to foster carers such that the educational achievements of children in that sort of foster care are alarmingly higher than the average that would be expected. I have seen the Action for Children black families adoption project, which is run out of south London, where black children, and black teenage boys in particular, who are disproportionately represented in the looked-after children system are now finding prospective adoptive black parents, of whom there has been a great scarcity. That innovative project is offering those black children stable, loving homes and a second chance to have the stable family upbringing that they have missed out on.

The Government response to the report was a bit light and could have gone a lot further, although the spirit of it was very much in agreement with the thrust of the Committee's report, most of which I agree with. I support the measures in the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 designating a teacher responsible for looked-after children. I would have also liked to see a designated governor to give some extra beef to the accountability line and ensure that things are carried out in practice. It is important to ensure that children in the care system are kept, wherever possible, in a familiar environment that is close to home, close to family members and extended family members and close to their school so that they can receive some continuity of education, as the lack of that is such a big problem for so many children in the care system.

Let us consider some of the points that the Committee made and the Government's response. The first point is about removing the barriers that obstruct the development of "good personal relationships". We have heard a bit today about the Danish experiment, but I do not think anyone has mentioned the pedagogue view of social work, which is all about empathy between the social worker responsible and the child in the care system. We hear so often from children in the care system about the lack of continuity in social workers. Children are constantly chasing their tails, they cannot rely on the social worker to turn up when they want them to do so, and before they know it the social worker has moved on and there is a change. How on earth can we expect to rehabilitate a child who has gone through such a damaged and disruptive family background if we constantly give them different schools or different foster carers because they are being moved around, or different social workers? These children need to establish empathy, stability and a link with people who have their best interests at heart.

That is why the Danish experiment was so interesting. What I saw in the homes that I visited—I went to Helsinki with the shadow children's team—is a flexibility in the system. In this country, a child is either in care or with their birth parents. In the homes in Denmark—many more children in care there are in residential children's homes, which are almost exclusively owned and run by the municipalities in that country—there is greater flexibility. The children will go home, whatever home may be, at weekends. Once a week in one of the homes family members come in and the children cook dinner for them. We lack that greater flexibility in this country, and we need to see how some of the social pedagogy pilots that are being developed and that will be coming in with residential children's homes pan out, because I think that they could offer some interesting examples of how we can do things rather better.

The social worker practices to which we gave legislative authority in the recent Bill will be very important, certainly in providing specialisations to deal with some of the more challenging children. We need to consider how to ensure that we can fill the gap in the number of foster carers; there is a shortage of up to 10,000 quality foster carers in this country. There is a postcode lottery of what we pay foster carers and how we support them. If we invested a bit more in the support that we give them, especially those dealing with some of the most challenging children, fewer placements might break down—which is a big problem. We should also do more with kinship carers. It is crazy that in this country some 4 to 6 per cent. of social worker-instigated placements are with kinship carers, but in Denmark the figure is nearer 25 per cent. The guidance says that we should do more, but in practice we are not achieving it. Much more practical help for foster carers, especially kinship foster carers, is needed.

I have a serious concern about what Ofsted is actually inspecting in children's social care. There is still a big problem with the legacy from the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Ofsted is dominated by people from educational backgrounds and we know that there is not a single qualified social worker on its board, so we need to review the way in which it inspects children's homes and other forms of children's social care.

I am glad that the Government have set aside any notion of a target number of children in care. That was a nonsense, as are any targets for children in care. Every child must be treated as an individual.

Many hon. Members mentioned the need to intervene early wherever possible. It is a false economy not to do so, because some children are so damaged when they eventually come into care that it takes twice as much effort to get them back on to the straight and narrow.

It is crazy that in this country the average age at which children leave their parents' home is 25—it is getting later and later because of property prices and the recession—but we expect many children in residential care to go into the big wide world at the age of 16. They face enormous questions about whether to get a job or sit more exams, and how to find housing. We need more flexibility in the system because, while some children may be up to doing all that at 16, some certainly are not. Even for those able to do it at 16, everything can go pear-shaped a couple of years later and they find that they cannot cope. That is why we need support mechanisms so that children can leave the care system, but dip back into it if they need to do so.

It is absurd that many care leavers are declared intentionally homeless and have to fall back on the local authority to give them emergency housing. That is crazy, and I am pleased that the report mentions this vicious circle that affects too many of our most vulnerable young people. Housing is one of the biggest practical problems that they face.

The recommendations in the report include a request to the Government

"to guarantee future funding for social workers posts in Youth Offending Institutions."

Earlier this year I visited the YOI at Brinsford and met the social worker of the year, Jacqui Knight, who is doing fantastic work there. She sent me a letter earlier this week from the Association of Directors of Children's Services, which warns that the funding for the scheme that has been working for some time to secure the long-term sustainability of social worker posts in YOIs is now seriously under threat. For that reason, some of the posts may be lost and the future of people such as Jacqui Knight is seriously in doubt. That would be an enormous loss in dealing with some of the most challenging young people who have left care and ended up in the youth justice system. I hope that the Government will look at the issue again, because those social workers are doing some fine work.

I could also mention the whole problem of unaccompanied asylum seekers, of which I have particular experience in West Sussex, where we have Gatwick airport. Many children come into the care system as a result, only to be abducted by pimps from west Africa and to end up in the sex trade in northern Italy.

This is an important report on a really important subject. It deserves much greater exposure than it has had over too many years. It is a tragedy that it has taken a high profile tragedy such as baby Peter to get this sort of work noticed.

The outcomes for children in care in this country are a scandal that we have accepted over too many years. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that we do not fail so many children in the care system who have already been failed by their families. They have the right to expect the state to give them a second chance at a stable upbringing so that they can become the decent members of society that we all want them to become. We have a duty of care to ensure that that can happen.

4:05 pm
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Diana Johnson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman and all the other members of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families for compiling this report, which, as my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, concerns the most vulnerable children in our society. I also want to thank members of the Select Committee for their interventions and speeches throughout this afternoon. I found the speeches of my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor and Annette Brooke particularly useful and helpful. Some very interesting points were raised in both.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, moving from issues such as council house building targets to the presidency of the EU. If I do not answer all the points that have been raised, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. I shall try to write to them on any outstanding points.

The report is a good one and it provides a thorough analysis of the care system. I am delighted that it recognises the commitment and investment that the Government have made since 1997 to help children in care. I think that we all agree that those children deserve exactly the same opportunities in life as their peers, whether that means a good education, good health care or simply the consistent support, advice and practical help that provides the foundations on which young people build their lives. The Government have set about strengthening those foundations through critical reforms such as Every Child Matters, "Aiming High" and "Care Matters".

We recognise that there is always more to do and more support that we can provide to young people. Local authorities will have to open up new opportunities for children and ensure that the highest quality support is available to children in care everywhere, not just here and there. Councils need to stop thinking in terms of what is good enough for children in care. They should think instead about their role as corporate parents in helping the children in their care to shine.

When I read the Select Committee report, I was very struck by the phrase "pushy parents". That is absolutely right. In these circumstances, we want corporate parents to be really pushy parents. That means making the appropriate financial investment and ensuring that the right services are in place, but it also means having very high expectations—the same expectations as any good parent.

As corporate parents, councils need to ensure that their children and young people have the same access as others to educational and other opportunities. For example, if a child is musical they should be encouraged to learn an instrument and given the necessary funding, or if a boy has a sporting talent he should be provided with a sporting programme tailored to his needs. If a child needs one-to-one support tuition, councils should use the £500 personal education allowance that we have made available to pay for it. I recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, who is not in his seat at the moment, talked about that point and had concerns about whether the money would get to where it is needed.

This comes down to the fact that corporate parenting is just that—parenting. It is very important for the welfare of the child in care that councillors do not lose sight of that fact. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North also mentioned the need to celebrate the success of young people in care and how opportunities to do that should be embraced to make young people feel as they would in a family situation. If they pass exams, there should be a celebration of that.

The Government recognise, of course, that we have responsibilities to make the changes happen. We must help improve children's services by providing the right legislation and structural frameworks, by setting clear objectives and standards and by monitoring and inspecting services and outcomes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield knows, last year we passed the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which we believe will put the right legislative framework in place. Through our "Care Matters" programme, we now have a comprehensive programme of reform in place to provide clear objectives and standards.

However, we will continue to do everything we can to transform the quality of care, and to raise aspirations for care leavers. That means taking action from the moment that children are placed in the hands of a local authority, which is why we want a shift in the quality of care provided by local authorities for looked-after children. We want to make sure that young people receive good parenting from every person involved in their lives. We want children in care to be consulted about their needs and views, and we want the educational performance of looked-after children to be improved so that the overwhelming majority attend school regularly and achieve good examination results.

We also want to make sure that young people leaving care can participate socially and economically as citizens, while living in suitable accommodation and being in employment, education or training. I accept that those are very tough objectives, but we are confident that they are achievable. Indeed, we have already started to see the results of the investment that has been made. There has been a steady increase in the educational attainment of children in care, and the greater support given to care leavers has led to more children living in suitable accommodation. In addition, young people in care are experiencing fewer placement moves.

Now is the moment to build on that success, and I hope that the report can act as a catalyst. I particularly want to talk about the voice of the child, because that has to be at the heart of policy development in this area. Listening to children in care is critical to ensuring that the care system can replicate the secure care of good parents for every looked-after child. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield stressed the need for the listening skills that were employed when the report was compiled. It is absolutely right that we must continue to listen to looked-after children so that we can hear what their experience has been like and what they would like to be changed.

That means that decisions should always be made in the best interests of the child, based on a thorough assessment of their needs. We must take the child's wishes and feelings fully into account, just as any parent would. We expect all local authorities to establish children in care councils and to put in place pledges to give children and young people a real opportunity to influence services and support in their area.

We have asked the charity A National Voice, which represents children in care, to contribute to this autumn's ministerial stock-take on the progress of children in care councils. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is particularly interested in that. In addition, local authorities and their children's trust partners are expected to consult young people in developing their children and young persons plan. For individual children in care, the current framework of legislation and statutory guidance already requires the local authority to involve children and record their views.

Good children's services should be developed with young people, not foisted on them. We know that children in care want to be listened to on the day-to-day issues that affect their lives, such as pocket money, bedtimes, sleepovers or clothes. As parents, of course we listen to the views of our own children on these issues, even if we do not always agree with them. As corporate parents, we should do exactly the same thing for children in care.

I agree that care planning has not always taken proper account of the child's wishes and feelings, but the role of the independent reviewing officer is being strengthened to ensure that children participate in planning for their own care, and that the care plan is based on a thorough assessment of all aspects of the individual child's needs. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 will enhance that framework, and reinforce the responsibility of the child's social worker for establishing and recording the child's views.

A lot has been said this afternoon about the relationship between the work force and children. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned the vital importance of social workers or residential or foster carers having a strong bond with children and their families. I absolutely agree with him on that point, and on the report's conviction that the care system should be seen as part of a continuum of effective family support services, rather than as something separate and distinct. We know that, where there are strong attachments between children and at least one adult, children are happier and achieve better outcomes. The Government are absolutely committed to improving the skills and competencies of foster and residential carers. We want to support them in building strong relationships with the children and young people whom they look after, and help them to take good decisions about their care.

As my hon. Friend knows, the "Care Matters" implementation plan sets out a programme of work to achieve those aims. That includes much better training and support for foster carers, with the roll-out of the fostering changes programme and the piloting of the social pedagogy model in residential children's homes that comes from Denmark. We have heard a lot this afternoon about the experiences in Denmark and other European countries. There is a pilot in England, and careful attention will be paid to its outcomes.

Supporting relationships with family members is crucial. Most children are in care only for short periods, and a primary aim must be to try to settle them back with their parents, wherever possible and appropriate. Even when children are likely to remain in care for the long term, most children will want to maintain their links with their family.

Let me deal with foster carers. "Care Matters" highlights the need to support foster carers to develop their own training and skills, thus allowing them to respond more appropriately to children in their care. But I agree with the Select Committee report that foster carers should also be given practical support, including financial support and information about how to access education and health services. That is why, as my hon. Friend knows, we have funded a number of initiatives in recent years to improve the support for foster carers, such as working with the Children's Workforce Development Council to develop foster care training, support and development standards; funding the national roll-out of the fostering changes programme; introducing a national minimum allowance for foster carers in 2007; and, of course, funding Fosterline—a national, independent advice line for foster carers.

A number of Members have commented on residential care. I am in complete agreement that such care has an important role to play as a placement option. For many young people, particularly the older ones, it will be the right placement choice. However, many local authorities and social workers still do not see it as a positive option; they see it as an option of last resort. That is why the Government are committed to ensuring that residential care is seen as a positive option for those young people who would benefit from it.

Children's homes cater for some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and it is important to note that the quality of that provision has been improving. As my hon. Friend will know, 92 per cent. of children's homes have been rated satisfactory or better by Ofsted and two thirds were rated as good or outstanding at their most recent inspections. But there is no room for complacency, and we need to continue to do everything that we can to raise standards in children's homes. That is why we are now funding the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, introducing tough new enforcement powers for children's homes that fail to comply with the national minimum standards, revising the national minimum standards for children's homes, and working with the Children's Workforce Development Council to look at developing training and development standards for staff in children's homes.

Social work reform is a very important issue, which my hon. Friend raised in his contribution at the beginning of the debate. The Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into that critical area, in which the Government have made significant strides. As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretaries of State for Children, Schools and Families and for Health established a joint Social Work Taskforce at the end of last year to make recommendations, and it has already consulted widely with social workers and other key partners. The work of the taskforce will build on Lord Laming's report, and it is important to acknowledge that much good work is already under way to improve social care services for children and young people locally and nationally.

Alongside new funding, the Secretary of State has also announced a number of new measures that are intended to have an immediate impact. That includes addressing recruitment issues through the return to social work scheme, the graduate recruitment scheme and the roll-out of the newly qualified social worker programme. The very nature of social work means that it will always be a challenging job. Too often, our social workers do not get the recognition that they so thoroughly deserve. We must therefore ensure that they are properly supported to carry out their hugely important work, while also being properly valued and respected.

On the education of looked-after children, the report rightly raises the issue of the gap in educational attainment between children in care and their peers. We know only too well that every poor GCSE result chips away at a young person's aspirations and prospects. However, progress is being made; in 2008, 14 per cent. of looked-after children achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C. That is double the figure in 2000, but it has to be better. Of course, huge progress has been made by the young people as a whole, which is to be applauded and welcomed, but we must get things right for looked-after young people in particular.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield will know, key stage 2 attainment has been improving steadily. Undoubtedly there is more to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North spoke about the fact that looked-after children are given top priority in admissions arrangements. That goes for all schools; there was some debate about academies. There is a £500 personal education allowance. We are already piloting the role of the virtual school head, which Mr. Laws mentioned, and there will be designated teachers for looked-after children in every school from the start of the new school year. It is worth recognising that opportunities for boarding are available, where they are suitable for the needs of a child.

We have talked about health. We have been working hard to improve the health of children in care, and in recent years there has been an increase in the proportion of children who have had their annual health assessment and visit to a dentist. By 2008, some 87 per cent. of looked-after children had received a dental check and a health assessment in the previous year. The 2007 child health mapping survey found that 76 per cent. of primary care trusts had a designated doctor for looked-after children in post, and 93 per cent. reported having a designated nurse in post for looked-after children.

I agree on the need to improve the support that child and adolescent mental health services provide to children in care, particularly given the very worrying statistic that around 45 per cent. of looked-after children aged five to 17 have a mental health problem of some kind. That issue is being explored as part of the consultation on the revised statutory guidance on the health and well-being of looked-after children.

On the outcomes for care leavers, there are some encouraging signs that things are getting better. For instance, the proportion of care leavers in suitable accommodation rose from 79.6 per cent. in 2004 to 88.4 per cent. last year. The proportion of care leavers in education, employment and training has risen from 55.4 per cent. to 64.9 per cent. However, I agree that we need to do much better and go a lot further more quickly. That is why we want to change the way in which we think about that period in a young person's life. It should no longer be seen as leaving care; it should be seen as a transition to adulthood.

We cannot and should not arbitrarily assume that young people are ready to move on simply because they have reached a certain age; a number of hon. Members have made that point. Instead, we need a presumption that children will continue to be looked after up to the age of 18. There will only very rarely, I think, be good reasons for a local authority to cease looking after a child before he or she turns 18. Local authorities will be prevented from moving a looked-after child from a fostering or children's home to what they call "other arrangements" unless they decide to do so following a statutory review of the child's case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield knows that through "Care Matters", we will pilot a scheme whereby care leavers stay with former foster carers at 18. He will also know that a care leaver can access health and care services up to the age of 21, and that they will have personal advisers available up to the age of 25 if they need help with further learning or training. As I think Members in all parts of the House recognise, having a job is, for any young person, the first step to improving social mobility. For too long, too many young people have fallen into the trap of poverty and joblessness after leaving care because there was no one to give them the help that they needed.

Our new employment programme for care leavers will provide that helping hand and give such young people the opportunity to realise their true potential. There will be career mentoring and work experience to support them into stable and rewarding work, and access to an appropriate range of accommodation options, which is vital to improving a young person's successful transition to adulthood. We would not accept our own children leaving home to live in unsuitable accommodation, and we certainly should not accept looked-after children living in unsuitable accommodation.

In conclusion, I hope that I have shown that the "Care Matters" programme is about the Government, local authorities and voluntary organisations building a new partnership and investing to reverse past failings. Our most fundamental aim is to ensure that vulnerable children in this country get the best that society can offer—the care, safety and security that each and every child deserves. We need services that act no longer just as a safety net against failure, but as a springboard for success.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Mr. Speaker, we have had more than our fair share of time. We have had a great, well-informed debate—a debate that shows the role that Select Committees can play in informing the House and in holding the Government to account, and I thank the House for the time.

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John Bercow (Speaker)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54(4)).