Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

5:00 pm
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Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)

Let me say, Mr Speaker, how graced we are by your again being in the Chair for our debate.

This is a very important debate. I hope that one or two other Members who have an interest, apart from the Minister, to whom I spoke two weeks ago, will find it beneficial. I labelled it “The Lessons of Daniel Pelka in Coventry”, which happens to be my own constituency. It is a horrid shock to MPs who have never had anything like this happen in their constituency before but have to get to grips with it as part of the job. As so much is taking place at the moment around the discussion groups, this debate is a unique opportunity for us, as a small group in the House, to see what might be done and what might be improved. One thing is for sure: there has been report after report, study after study, and still we get these dreadful incidents from time to time, all too frequently.

Some people say to me, “It will always happen—don’t worry about it. It’s bound to happen and you can’t stop it.” I find that repugnant. I cannot believe that Daniel Pelka, whose home was visited 27 times following domestic violence incidents, who turned up at school getting thinner and thinner, who was showing bruises and was clearly being maltreated in every other respect, needed to die. I cannot accept it; it seems ludicrous to me. We have to find a much better way of dealing with the situation in an improved way, step by step; I am not saying that it can all be put right at once. I want to put forward four points for consideration, if not action.

I very much thank my hon. Friend Ann Coffey, who is a great expert in this area, and has done a tremendous amount and mounted campaign after campaign on it, for suggesting that my focus in terms of the Coventry report—she had read before I did, typically—should be on the fact that nobody spoke to the child. The poor child was going to school starving, being beaten up, and in the end clubbed and killed, and nobody tried to speak to him. One of the answers given is that he was Polish. Well, there are Polish-speaking people we could draw on, as we saw the other night in Wembley—although they are not exactly the experts that we would want for that.

The first thing we have to do is to make it very clear that in any one of these cases where there is a failure to speak to the child, consequences should follow. Nobody wants witch hunts or people being sacked, but they clearly cannot follow the basic instructions for getting into a dialogue with the child, who admittedly may be too young.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. We all want to see life made better for some of our most abused children. A few weeks ago I visited an organisation called Triangle in

Brighton, which is strongly committed to helping children who have been harmed and abused to communicate their experiences, and I saw the extraordinary work that it does using drawings. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important that that kind of expertise is made available throughout the United Kingdom so that we can better help children to communicate their experiences and intervene in their lives before they are abused and killed?

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Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it might have been plagiarism—I hope that is not an inappropriate word—but that was another idea I was going to take from her. We should have not one huge centre but various centres in which creative means of communicating with difficult children are imaginatively developed and explored. The day before Daniel Pelka died, a teacher was found in another school in Coventry—there are loads of them—to talk to him. She happened to be Polish and was able to speak the language, but that is not good enough. It is pathetic that things got to that stage.

I agree with my hon. Friend, so let us make that our No.1 point: children must be talked to and we should develop a whole area of useful specialisations, as opposed to a load of paper that gets churned out continually. Children could tell us what their parents look like by using diagrams. We might start to learn something and it could tell quite a story.

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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need to talk to the child. The situation was even worse in this case, because I gather that they relied on another child in the family to communicate with him, which obviously is not appropriate.

There is a big issue of social workers being fobbed off at the door. When social workers are dealing with communities that are not naturally fluent in English, we need to make sure that they have people alongside them who can communicate in the relevant language so that they are not fobbed off by communication difficulties, let alone by all the problems involved in crossing the threshold and finding out exactly what is going on. This is a real problem for some of the incoming communities, particularly those from eastern Europe.

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Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)

Yes, that is a problem. Let us think creatively and commonsensically about how we can deal with it. It will not be enough to train a whole load of interpreters to become experts in Polish, arts and crafts and other languages and grammars. We need the same sort of practical thinking as inventive mothers who work part time and know how to do things with their kids.

I do not want to be unkind to the Minister, because he inherited the situation and was gracious and courteous enough to agree to meet me on the afternoon the case review was published, but at that meeting he said, “I think we’re going to make a big difference now,” and produced a 74-page document full of all sorts of jargon. The Minister should not worry, because I will say something else to qualify my comments in a moment. The document was statutory guidance, which is an oxymoron—it is either statutory or it is guidance; it cannot be both. The Minister said, “Well, Geoffrey, if

you think that’s feeble, it was 700 pages when I got it.” Think of all the time, effort, pen-pushing and talking that is going on, and yet we cannot find a means of getting through to a young kid because he speaks a different language. It does not make any sense at all.

Secondly—I owe a good deal to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport for this point, too—the lines of responsibility have to be much clearer. Who is responsible? I thank the well meaning and extremely professional National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and half a dozen other agencies, as well as probably a dozen people from other constituencies who have been, or fear they will be, affected by this issue, for their response to tonight’s debate. The first recommendation in the NSPCC’s briefing paper is:

“Front-line agencies must see and listen to the child”.

That is sensible and we all agree with it, but it then states in a green box:

“All notifications of domestic abuse should be sent to a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH)”.

What sort of line of communication is that? What it amounts to is a mishmash. We see that more and more.

It is not that the agencies are not talking to each other. They probably are not as good at communicating with each other as they should be and improvement is necessary, but the problem is that we do not know who is responsible. The NSPCC says that a lead is needed. It is not a lead that is needed, but somebody who is responsible for the case and who knows that he is responsible for it. I am sorry, I should have said “he or she”, because the only person who had the guts to put a foot in the door and leave it there was a female youth community officer, who did a fantastic job and found out that the abuse was going on.

MASH just about sums up what is wrong. What we need is clearer lines of communication.

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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

I am loth to intervene again in case the hon. Gentleman does not get on to his other points, but I must say that the MASH is the way to go. It allows all the different agencies to communicate with each other better because they sit next to each other in the same room. In a relatively short period of time, all the relevant people can come together and swap information. Importantly, somebody then picks up the ball and acts on what has been said. That is the responsible person to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly refers. It is happening more effectively in MASHs than it has done before. That is why most London authorities and most other authorities in the country are going that way. It is the way to go.

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Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)

I am delighted to hear that and I wish the hon. Gentleman well with it. I hope that it works. However, a MASH can work only if at the end of all the talking—I accept that that has to happen, because there is no other way of getting everybody to know what they need to know—there is a clear line of responsibility. Somebody has to write the minutes, somebody has to say what will be done and there must be a clearly identifiable responsible person or group of people who are charged with carrying it through. Otherwise, it will not happen.

The MASH is a committee and committees do not do anything. It serves the useful purpose of bringing people together so that they can talk and exchange the information

that they need to know about. What is missing from the system is a clear way of saying at the end of the meeting what the conclusions and recommendations are. Those must be very short. A person or group of people—a lead, or whatever you want to call them—must then be responsible for carrying out those recommendations.

That was certainly what was missing in Coventry. There was meeting after meeting. Everybody was grouped together and the information was being exchanged. However, when the dreadful news broke, I asked who was actually responsible. The reply was that we were all responsible. If we are all responsible, no one is. We must not be afraid of allocating responsibilities and ensuring that they are carried out. If they are not, retraining is always a good option. People do not have to be sacked. We are not like that on this side of the House. However, people in the country cannot accept that the head of the department, Colin Green, resigned a few days or weeks before the report came out and was appointed to exactly the same position elsewhere. That was wrong. What sort of confidence does that provide?

That point reminds me of another Adjournment debate that I secured about a distinguished surgeon at Walsgrave who was almost sacked because he had reported somebody else. It turned out that the chief executive of the hospital was not up to the job—there were a whole series of these cases—and all six neighbouring MPs served by that hospital called for his resignation. He was sacked—well, that was what it was called, but within six months he was back in charge at Birmingham Heartlands hospital. It is unbelievable what such a network of controls can do.

My next point will, I am sure, again be contentious for Tim Loughton, and others who are a bit on the side of the establishment, because it concerns the compositions of serious case reviews. Each area has its own chairman—that is all it has, actually—and lay members. When it comes to the inquiry, the chairman or chairwoman brings in a rapporteur, a writer of the report, and both she and he know each other—I am not suggesting that is wrong; it could sometimes be very helpful—and have written many of these reports in the past, either together or separately. Already in my book that does not seem quite right. It is not independent, and the essence of the serious case review is that it must be seen to be independent.

My last point—I have left plenty of time for the Minister—concerns Ann Lucas, whom I begged to carry out an independent report. “Why should I be the only one to put Coventry through that when nobody else has ever done it?”—she did not say that, but that was what I felt she felt. That would have meant a completely new board, fresh blood, with people who did not know the situation in Coventry or the chair of the Coventry group, and who had a completely dispassionate view.

I do not think anybody would agree any longer with the police investigating the police. Why should the civil servants who had administered the case in question be those who were the team supporting the independent chair—she was independent—and the so-called appointed independent rapporteur, or reporter? He wrote the report and one could see he is a professional. Every perfect piece of civil service-ese was in it; it could not be faulted. However, out of that comes nothing so far, and

so Ann Lucas wrote to me and asked whether I would relay this message to the House tonight. She is an outstanding council leader who has been in the job about six months. She was distraught to find that she had inherited this case, and she went along with a traditional conventional review. She said that

“we need a national debate around safeguarding issues—

that is obvious—

“with the setting up of a Commons Select Committee to take evidence from all concerned. From politicians, from front-line workers, from all agencies, social workers, the police, health agencies—including GPs, hospitals, health visitors and schools. And very importantly, from experts working with Domestic Violence”,

in which she is an expert.

I do not know whether that is a runner, but I am clear that I do not see it ever working—I have not left the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham time to add his comprehensive view. We need a more forensic direct attack. For example, there were four or five points at which Daniel Pelka could have been saved. That is clear. We need a mechanism so that when such a point is reached—I guess the people doing it did not know—or anything like that, the man at the top should be informed. We need a mechanism to intervene and bring things to a head, and in a way it is about management. I hope those points will have helped the Minister in his reply.

5:19 pm
Photo of Edward Timpson

Edward Timpson (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education; Crewe and Nantwich, Conservative)

I congratulate Mr Robinson on securing this important, timely and serious debate. The tragic case of Daniel Pelka is a stark reminder to us that we can and must do more to ensure the safety and well-being of our children. It was helpful to meet the hon. Gentleman recently to discuss the findings of the serious case review in Coventry and its implications. I welcome the opportunity to set out the steps that are being taken to ensure that we fully understand what went wrong and why, and ensure that any individual and collective failures are identified and addressed.

National accountability for child protection rests squarely with the Department for Education, working closely with other Departments. However, all of us have a part to play in keeping our children safe. In March 2013, we published revised statutory guidance—“Working Together to Safeguard Children”. I was pleased the hon. Gentleman mentioned the scything of the original document from 700 pages to just over 70, which was quite a feat in anybody’s language. The guidance clearly states that anyone concerned about a child’s welfare should bring it to the attention of the relevant authorities.

It is also clear that the focus of our attention must be on the needs of individual children rather than on the interests of adults. The serious case review by the Coventry safeguarding children board showed that, although many professionals were concerned about Daniel, they did not speak to him or focus efficiently on either his experiences or his needs. Our statutory guidance is clear that, if someone is concerned about the safety of a child, they should refer them to the local authority children’s social care and ensure that they take into account the wishes and feelings of the child. That is abundantly clear and should happen in every case but,

too often, Daniel was not at the heart of the assessment process. His needs were completely overshadowed by the perceived needs of his mother and her welfare.

I was pleased that the SCR was published swiftly and without redaction—my hon. Friend Tim Loughton has argued for that practice for a long time. It is important that reports are published in full so that the lessons are transparent and can be learned. The report highlights a number of basic practice failures, across a range of agencies, to share information, keep accurate records, use those records appropriately, and carry out robust assessments of Daniel’s needs adequately. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there were numerous opportunities to intervene and examples of concerned professionals who wanted to do the right thing, but no decisive intervention was made.

The purpose of any serious case review is not only to provide a retrospective description of what happened in the case; nor is it simply to apportion blame to individuals. An SCR should provide a sound analysis of why the incident happened and identify the issues on which agencies need to act individually and collectively to improve services for children. The SCR in Daniel’s case begins that process, but I believe that Coventry needs to deepen the analysis to address why failings occurred.

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Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)

I intervene on the Minister to pay him a compliment. There were five or six occasions when intervention should have happened, and he has asked in his letter why it did not. There is not a word on that in the SCR, so I hope he gets some satisfactory answers.

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Edward Timpson (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education; Crewe and Nantwich, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Without that type of analysis, we cannot be confident that the lessons have been learned. We need to be able to distinguish between errors of practice and errors of judgment, and identify where there are systemic weaknesses. That is why I have asked for that further work.

As he knows, on 16 September, I wrote to Amy Weir, the independent chair of the Coventry safeguarding children board—I should emphasise her independence and the fact that the writer of the serious case review is appointed independently from the local authority—to set out my concerns about the serious case review. I was clear that, unless we get to the bottom of why things happened, we will be unable to put the right solutions in place. I have asked her to provide a time scale for carrying out a deeper analysis of that appalling case; why basic information was not recorded properly both between and within agencies; why information needed to protect Daniel was not shared between the relevant agencies; why four separate assessments by children’s social care fail to identify the risk to Daniel; and what oversight there was of those decisions. I have also requested details of the actions that have already been taken to respond to the report’s findings, including the support and training put in place for professionals involved in the case and more widely

I met Ms Weir yesterday and she was able to provide me with an update on the work that is taking place in response to the report’s recommendations. I was very clear with her, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I will continue to pay close attention to the evidence emerging from Coventry. The lessons identified by the deeper analysis will be

made publicly available, which should give to the people of Coventry the confidence that the right actions have been taken in response to Daniel’s death and ensure that everyone with a role in safeguarding children has the opportunity to reflect on their own practice.

We will also consider whether the lessons from the analysis have national implications, something touched on by the hon. Gentleman. The Government remain focused on driving through our programme of reform of the child protection system, building on recommendations from a wide range of reports and inquiries, including the Munro review, the Education Committee report and Lord Carlile’s report into the Edlington case. I remind the hon. Gentleman, in response to the point he made towards the end of his contribution, that there has been a recent inquiry by the Select Committee into child protection, which is being reopened to consider what progress has been made, and he might want to make his views known to it. The lessons from Daniel Pelka’s tragic death, and those of Keanu Williams and Hamzah Khan, will add to that body of evidence. The Government are requiring the publication of serious case reviews for the very reason that it enables national lessons to be learned. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is helping to collate the analysis at a single point, so that social workers and other front-line practitioners can understand how they can benefit from it.

We want a child protection system where all children at risk of abuse or neglect are identified early, have timely and proportionate assessments of their individual needs, and receive the right services at the right time. That is why we are fundamentally reforming the system to put the needs of individual children at its heart. We want a system that fits the needs of children and not the other way around. We have strengthened the framework underpinning child protection by publishing the revised “Working Together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidance. It is clear that the needs of individual children, whatever their age, are paramount. That puts the needs of children back at the heart of assessment processes by removing the requirement to have separate initial and core assessments.

Good practice is out there. We have had a discussion about the merits of multi-agency safeguarding hubs. I have had the opportunity to visit some myself, and they are doing fantastic work in their co-location with different agencies. They are sitting in the same room talking to each other, rather than communicating via computer or at a greater distance. That helps to bring about joint responsibility. It is not a panacea, but it is one way of working more closely together to provide a better service.

We want social workers who are able to confidently identify, assess, decide and act on individual cases where children are at risk of abuse or neglect. We want social workers who have a commitment to self-improvement and are not afraid to challenge one another. We want managers who provide appropriate and timely support and supervision to their staff. That is why we are seeking a step change in the quality of the contribution that those entering the profession can make. The Frontline programme is providing an innovative route into the profession for top graduates, and the Step Up to Social Work programme is doing the same thing for high-calibre career changers. We are introducing reforms to support better local and national leadership, which in turn

should help to create a more confident profession. The newly appointed first ever chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, will provide leadership for the profession and help to drive improvement in front-line practice.

We want to see stronger leadership, accountability and learning in the system, and less variability in local authority safeguarding performance. From next month, Ofsted will be using a reformed inspection framework that will bring child protection services for looked-after children and care leavers, and local authority fostering and adoption services, into a single inspection. We are setting up an innovative arrangement in Doncaster to run social care services independently from the council.

It is this kind of innovative approach that is needed to bring about a fundamental shift in the quality of our child protection services.

I am enormously grateful for the support and concern that the hon. Gentleman has given to this issue today. He knows as well as I the challenge we still face to prevent such tragedies. I take the deaths of Daniel Pelka, Keanu Williams and Hamzah Khan as stark reminders of the work we still have to do. As I said at the time of the publication of the serious case review, this is as important as anything the Government do.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).