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Photo of Alex Fergusson

Alex Fergusson (None)

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-2922, in the name of Adam Ingram, on supporting Scotland's looked-after children.

Photo of Adam Ingram

Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss with colleagues in the Parliament the important issues that Scotland faces in addressing our commitment to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people and care leavers. In that context, I am a little disappointed that Labour's amendment is so narrowly focused, but I will respond to it when I sum up.

As I have said publicly before—and I make no excuses for repeating my comments—the way in which we have treated children in public care is a national disgrace. If, as a nation, we are to be judged on our treatment of our most vulnerable citizens, that judgment must be damning. The previous Administration recognised that when it published "Looked after children and young people: we can and must do better".

I am sure that members will share my commitment that there should be no difference between the outcomes for young people who have experienced the care system and those for their peers who have not. That should not be too much to ask, but currently the differences are stark. Children in care are half as likely to leave school with any qualifications, they are more likely to be excluded from school and they are more likely to self-harm. Care leavers are less likely to be in employment and more likely to be in prison or homeless than their peers who have not been in care. I could go on, but I will not.

So what is different about those children? Their early experience will have been damaging and chaotic, and their experience of parenting will have been poor or non-existent. The protective factors that children gain from conventional families and which help them to grow up happily are likely to have been absent. It is not the children who are different, but their circumstances.

I hope that our commitment to getting it right in the early years, early intervention and prevention will, in the fullness of time, ensure that fewer children come into care. Families who need support will be identified early and supported to care for their children. However, we must ensure that those who do come into care get a better experience.

The term "corporate parent" can be controversial. I understand why people say that we need less of the corporate and more of the parenting, but we need to get both bits right. Agencies that care for looked-after children and care leavers must work together effectively and must have robust planning, monitoring and scrutiny mechanisms that drive up standards. They must recruit and develop the best staff and must be committed to improving services to children and their families. To achieve that, they must act corporately and have a corporate responsibility for those children and young people.

Good parenting is at the heart of a good childhood. Professionals and carers who take on that role for children in care face many challenges. I do not pretend that it is easy, but everyone involved must be able to answer positively the question, "Is this good enough for my child?" That is the message set out in "These Are Our Bairns: A guide for community planning partnerships on being a good corporate parent", which covers all services—the corporate extended family, so to speak. It is unique in the United Kingdom in its multi-agency approach to looked-after children and young people and care leavers. That approach, which is underpinned by the getting it right for every child framework, is reflected in all the other associated materials that we have recently published.

To bring the document to life and illustrate what we can all do to make a difference, the guidance includes stories from people who are part of the corporate family and quotes from young people. I heard recently about some young people from Dumfries and Galloway, one of whom has left care to go to drama school in London and another who has set up her own business as a professional photographer. That would not have been possible without a supportive corporate family.

A range of people work with looked-after children and care leavers. They have a wealth of experience, which, together, we can bring to bear on improving outcomes. Social work and education are crucial, but they cannot do this alone. Others have a valuable contribution to make: housing; health; the voluntary sector; and the police, to name but a few.

Photo of Rhona Brankin

Rhona Brankin (Labour)

Does the minister agree that the evaluation of the funding and pilot projects that addressed the educational attainment of looked-after children was very positive? What is the Government doing to ensure that that good work carries on?

Photo of Adam Ingram

Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

I thank Rhona Brankin for that helpful intervention. We have published a report on the evaluation of the local pilots to which she refers and have distributed the report, along with a range of other materials, to our local authorities. We want best practice to be adopted elsewhere. It is clear that different local authorities have different local circumstances and can pick and choose from the options available, but there are a range of successful interventions that people can take up and, I hope, implement in their area.

Those who run services—elected members and board members—must promote a culture of high expectation and ensure that systems do not present barriers to good childhood experiences.

Young people want to lead a normal, stable, secure life with people who care about them, and they want access to the same opportunities as their friends. Does the corporate family ensure that its children can play with friends and do sports? Does it ensure that young people are immunised, go to the dentist or optician and eat healthily? Do the young people grow up feeling supported, with the boundaries that they need to be responsible citizens?

When young people leave care, many of the differences come into sharp focus. Some members will have had the opportunity to see the National Theatre of Scotland's "365" production at this year's Edinburgh festival. It was a challenging production, which dramatised the turmoil that faces young people who are trying to set up home for the first time without the support that other young people access through their family. The good work that might have been done while they were in care can very quickly be undone because their vulnerability leaves them open to exploitation and failure through a lack of preparation for independence and the lack of having someone at the end of the phone with the time and resources to help them.

Members may recall that, in June, the Parliament debated the issues raised by Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, in her report "Sweet 16? The Age of Leaving Care in Scotland". I was grateful to Karen Whitefield for raising the issue and for the positive words from colleagues throughout the chamber.

Many areas are developing innovative ways of tackling corporate parenting. Inverclyde's children's champion scheme has now been operating for a year. Each member of the council's corporate management team is champion for two looked-after children and must address barriers that become apparent in their areas of responsibility. The chief executive and directors have risen to the challenge and the council is now being approached by partner organisations, such as the local health board, who have asked whether they can participate. One of the children championed by the education director was excluded from school and, as a direct consequence, he rewrote the council's policy on exclusions. That is one example of the scheme in action.

A cross-community planning partnership approach is already being tried in Perth and Kinross, where the Tayside child health commissioner is a children's champion and the police actively support the scheme. The child health commissioner has told me that her involvement has opened her eyes to the barriers that systems, which make sense to organisations, can present to young people.

Other areas such as Fife and Renfrewshire have appointed lead councillors to champion the needs of all looked-after children. The councillors are already challenging their services to improve the experience of children in care. One issue that young people raise with them repeatedly is access to MSN and satellite television. Such issues may seem trivial to us adults, but for teenagers they are part of being normal.

I firmly believe that we can learn a lot from listening to young people. I am sure that all members share that belief and have heard from young constituents with strong views. How do we hear the voices of young people who are not so confident and need support to express themselves? Learning to express oneself confidently should be a normal part of growing up—effective advocacy can help vulnerable young people to do that. Who Cares? Scotland provides advocacy across Scotland. This year it is celebrating its 30th anniversary by undertaking a major piece of work to challenge stigma.

We in the Parliament also have the job of challenging stigma and ending discrimination. What can we do? We have a unique role in formulating policy and legislation. We are also community leaders and can challenge public perceptions of young people in the care system and challenge our local services to do better. We can contribute by promoting a culture that is aspirational for young people, their families and carers, communities and Scotland.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that it is unacceptable that outcomes for looked-after children and young people and care leavers across a range of indicators fall so far behind those of their peers and agrees to do everything possible to end discrimination and stigmatisation of those who have experienced the care system and to challenge all services to offer the best possible childhoods to the children and young people in their care to ensure that looked-after children and young people and care leavers are able to grow up into successful, responsible and happy adults.

9:26 am
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Karen Whitefield (Labour)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this morning's debate. I hope that once I have finished speaking the minister will see that the Labour Party's focus is not narrow, but broad. However, we recognise that it would be wrong for us not to mention in today's debate the report on child protection services in Aberdeen.

For far too long, young people who are looked after have been faced with levels of care that fall far short of anything resembling a stable family environment, despite the best efforts of social care staff. I am pleased that a number of Scottish councils are taking steps to address the problem, to try to provide young people with a level and standard of care that is more akin to that provided by a family. Today I will mention some of the excellent work that my local authority, North Lanarkshire Council, is doing in relation to some key issues.

Central to the efforts of North Lanarkshire Council is the quest to provide children in its care with a level of support that nears that provided by the family. That approach is the basic thrust of all recent policy statements on corporate parenting.

The council has spent a great deal on campaigns to recruit prospective foster carers, because it recognises that, without doubt, foster care is the environment closest to a child being with his or her parents. Most, if not all, workers in the child care profession agree that foster care is preferable to residential care in a home. The North Lanarkshire why you campaign, which aims to recruit 36 additional fostering resources over a three-year period, has proved very successful. After two and a half years, the campaign has recruited an additional 29 fostering resources and an additional 38 adoptive parents. It is true that the exercise is not cheap, but I believe that it is worth the cost. I urge the Scottish Government to look at that example and to consider funding similar high-profile campaigns throughout the rest of Scotland.

It is vital that, having recruited foster carers and adoptive parents, we retain them as a resource. That is why we need to ensure that they have access to proper training and support mechanisms. For corporate parenting to mean anything, it is vital that all key players and agencies should train properly staff and volunteers who are responsible for the elements of a child's care.

The importance of training is illustrated by an issue that is raised in the Government's policy document "These Are Our Bairns": the importance of ensuring that young people in care homes are given the opportunity to engage with their community. The document recognises that often young people who are looked after miss out on some of the normal family activities that other children take for granted. They may find it difficult to access clubs or other activities, through lack of money, lack of transport or even lack of encouragement and support from a carer. That may seem a trivial point, but comments from young people in care clearly demonstrate that they want to be seen as playing a normal part in the community and not as being different. It is a training issue, because it is easy to see how hard-pressed care home staff may see such activities as less of a priority than effective management of the home. Only through training and emphasis on the importance of extra-curricular activities as a matter of policy will staff realise that such activities must be a priority and not an add-on to their normal practice.

Another step that North Lanarkshire Council is taking to improve the lives of children in its care is the rebuilding of all its children's homes. The council has invested approximately £2 million per home in rebuilding new, smaller-scale residential homes. The homes have been designed to cater for no more than six young people at a time; efforts have been made to make the design more akin to a family home than a cobbled-together institution. It is important to note that North Lanarkshire Council consulted young people on the design of the new homes.

Improving child staff ratios has required the council to employ more care home staff. That is an important point, as proper, good-quality corporate parenting cannot be done on the cheap. It is not easy to sustain when council budgets begin to tighten, and it requires a real commitment from both local and central Government to ensure that it does not move down the list of priorities for public spending.

There is acceptance that we must do better in relation to the education of children who are looked after; the minister touched on that issue. The fact that a child has been taken into care usually means that they have serious problems in their family home. That alone will have an impact on educational attainment, but living in temporary foster care or a children's unit creates added difficulties. It is easy to see why attainment rates for looked-after children are significantly lower than those for other children. A recent report by Dr Graham Connelly of the University of Strathclyde pointed out that the exclusion rate for looked-after pupils is 368 per 1,000, compared with a rate of 60 per 1,000 for non-looked-after pupils. The uphill struggle that children and young people who are looked after face when seeking to obtain qualifications is clear even from those figures.

I was somewhat disappointed by the minister's response to the intervention by my colleague Rhona Brankin. Although disseminating good practice is important, we also need money to allow good practice to continue. The projects that the previous Government piloted were resourced; I hope that the present Administration will consider doing the same.

I believe in the development of children's champions, an initiative that started in the London borough of Barnet and has now moved to Moray Council and Inverclyde Council. The project aims to ensure that the barriers to achievement that children and young people who are looked after face do not continue to compromise the ultimate success of their care plans. It also seeks to raise awareness of the corporate parenting function and to combat effectively the stigma and exclusion that children and young people who are looked after by councils face.

Champions will be recruited from staff at senior officer level in councils and, as in the Barnet model, will not meet the young person whom they champion. The rationale behind that is not to expand the number of professionals who are involved in a young person's life. Champions will be responsible for assessing information on a young person's progress to date and asking the right questions about their potential and the opportunities that can be made available, just as any good parent would. They will also be responsible for considering what additional resources or provisions would ensure the best outcome for a young person.

That could be a worthwhile approach. Not only will it broaden our knowledge of the issues that affect young people who are looked after, but it will also provide some of the most disadvantaged and powerless young people with strong support from some of the most powerful people in their community.

The Labour Party's amendment

"calls on the Scottish Government to make a statement"

to the Parliament on the recently published report on the joint inspection of services to protect children and young people in Aberdeen city. Anyone who has read the inspection report will have been shocked by its contents and will be concerned that some of our most vulnerable children and young people are not being protected.

The inspectors highlighted their lack of confidence that children who are at risk of harm, abuse or neglect were receiving the help and support that they needed. Inspectors were concerned that too many children were being left to live with drug-abusing parents and were being given insufficient support or protection. It appears that, in many cases, early intervention happens too infrequently and action is taken only when a crisis point is reached. Worryingly, staff have not always been aware of the correct policies and procedures to use, and there has not been a clear framework in which to operate.

The inspection report makes for difficult reading, but it is the shattered lives that it leaves in its wake to which we must attend. The report concluded that four aspects of the service were unsatisfactory, including recognising and assessing risk and planning to meet needs. It described 10 aspects of care as weak.

Sadly, this is not the first time that a council's child protection service has been criticised. In 2007, Midlothian Council's deputy leader and social work director both resigned following the publication of an inspection report that showed serious weaknesses in the council's service. In opposition at the time, Fiona Hyslop said that social services in Scotland were being "stretched beyond acceptable limits" because of a funding shortfall.

Given that, on the night before publication of the report for its area, Aberdeen City Council announced that it would have to make £8.5 million of cuts, can the minister give the Parliament an assurance that social services in Aberdeen will not face funding cuts and that support will be there to improve child protection services? I accept that this is an extremely difficult time for Aberdeen City Council. Given that, and given the seriousness of the situation, the Labour Party believes that it is important for the Government to act. Has the minister met representatives of Aberdeen City Council? How does he intend to work with the council to ensure that the recommendations of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education are enacted? A statement to the Parliament would be helpful.

I accept the Government's belief that legislative solutions to problems are not always appropriate. However, the previous Administration consulted on the draft children's services (Scotland) bill, which we believed had the potential to improve and protect services for children. We hope that the Government will re-examine that proposed legislation and consider whether there might be merit in proceeding with all or part of the draft bill.

I welcome the steps that have been taken by both the previous Executive and the current Government to develop a more serious approach to corporate parenting. There is little serious division on the policy, but I call on the Government to ensure that all local authorities in Scotland have sufficient funding to carry out their role as a corporate parent properly.

I move amendment S3M-2922.1, to insert at end:

"; in that spirit recognises that looked-after children are among those considered as most vulnerable and therefore believes that integral to their success is for the Scottish Government to ensure that local authority funding for the care and safety of children more generally is properly protected, particularly in light of the recent worrying HM Inspectorate of Education report into child protection services in Aberdeen, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to make a statement on that report and to revisit the Children's Services Bill consulted on in the previous parliamentary session."

9:39 am
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Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrat)

The minister's motion focuses on the important general issue of looked-after children. It is only right, given last week's publication of the worrying HMIE report on its inspection of services to protect children and young people in Aberdeen city, that we also discuss that report.

We have returned to the question of looked-after children many times in the chamber over the past nine years. Throughout that time, we have worked together on the issue, and I hope that we can continue to do so today. I say that not out of a sense of complacency—far from it—but out of a sense of shared ownership of the matter and, no doubt, a shared concern that, despite the advances that we have made in this area across the United Kingdom, we are still confronted with events such as those in Haringey, Manchester and Aberdeen, which have dominated our thoughts in recent days.

All of us who are fortunate enough to be parents surely agree that we want the very best for our children. It is never an easy job, and it is not an easy job to be a corporate parent any more than it is an easy job to be any other form of parent. However, as a society and as corporate parents, we should want no less than the best future for the children in our care—for Scotland's 14,000 looked-after children. I welcome the recently published "These Are Our Bairns" report on corporate parenting, which makes very clear what the responsibilities towards such children are across a broad range of stakeholders. As ever, the challenge is to ensure that the aspirations go from the pages of such documents to the front line and develop into actions by the various stakeholders and a greater respect and care for the individual child. It is crucial that the individual child's voice and needs are heard.

The minister caught the essence of that when he highlighted the importance of computer access to Bebo, Facebook and other such sites for teenagers. We must remember that what we think of as being important is not necessarily what they think is so important. We must provide the wraparound care of the best family, to allow children to grow and to access opportunities in their community.

Statistics from a variety of areas show that we are failing looked-after children: 60 per cent will leave care with no qualifications beyond standard grade foundation level; 36 per cent will have been in contact with a children's panel; and almost half of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scottish young offenders institutions were formerly looked-after children. Looked-after children are more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to become homeless in later life, more likely to suffer from mental health problems and more likely to be out of work. It is always worth remembering that children continue to be twice as likely to be referred to children's hearings for their own care and protection as they are because of offending behaviour on their part. Children are products of their families. In too many cases, those families are chaotic and dysfunctional.

There are a number of ways in which looked-after children are cared for. Almost 60 per cent of them are looked after at home by parents or family members, and 40 per cent are in foster care or residential or secure settings. Each child has their own history, and they need services and support around them to reflect their particular needs.

For every time that social workers, health professionals, the police or politicians have got it wrong, there are a number of occasions when they have got it right—when what they have done has improved a child's life. They might even have saved a child's life. We should never forget that Baby P was killed not by the care professionals, but by his family. The best system in the world and the most caring professionals in the world might still fail in the face of terrible evil. We owe a debt to those professionals who are working in this very difficult and important field. I put that on the record.

Nevertheless, we need to learn lessons, and we need effective, responsive and accessible services that minimise the chances of failure. It is crucial that, at all times, the interests of children and young people, especially those at risk, are placed at the heart of future policy developments, services and decision making. However, too often, an adult's parental rights or the inability of professionals to take ownership of a situation seem to take precedence.

We believe strongly in early intervention. It is the right thing to do and it is a spend-to-save strategy. One of the concerns that comes out of the recent Aberdeen inspection report is that

"In many cases effective action was not taken until crisis point had been reached."

Unfortunately, I am sure that Aberdeen is not alone in that regard. We know of too many situations in the past—in Midlothian, Edinburgh and elsewhere—to believe otherwise. It is vital that services for the care and safety of children are properly resourced and staffed, and that problems are not left to get out of control.

Having had a chance to look at the conclusions of HMIE's Aberdeen report, I hope that the minister will agree to the request for a statement on the report and that he will accept our amendment's point about the need for early intervention and an immediate and on-going review of child protection practices across Scotland's local authority areas.

The HMIE report makes worrying, sobering and disturbing reading, but time and again it returns to key themes: that services were not provided quickly enough or for long enough; that children at significant risk were not seen regularly enough; that all partners were not kept informed; that councils and voluntary sector partners suffered from a lack of resources and because of staffing issues; that even when models of practice and communication had been put together, they were often ignored; and that crucial meetings were often not well attended. The report found:

"When there were high levels of risk to children social work staff relied too heavily on the parent's agreement to work voluntarily with them."

It continued:

"Risk assessments placed too much emphasis on how well parents cooperated with staff."

The fundamental point is not how parents co-operate with staff, but what parents do in caring for their children. Children were not protected from harm. They were left at home because no alternatives were available, and many who were on the child protection register were not even allocated a social worker. No wonder, then, that most children did not have their protection plans reviewed, even when their circumstances changed.

I hope that the council, the Government and the other key partners will respond effectively to the HMIE report, so that when inspectors revisit the area next year, they will be able to see that real progress has been made on the protection of children in the area.

We know from Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People and from others that real issues arise when young people leave care. Eight times as many of them leave care at 16 or 17 as leave at 18. Given the childhoods that they have had, who can blame them for wanting to leave? We have to take the care that they have been given and continue it beyond the time when they leave. We need effective throughcare and other support.

The numbers in residential care have reduced since 1990, and the use of alternative support such as fostering, adoptive placements and community-based alternatives has contributed positively to that reduction. Foster parents, kinship carers and others are playing a crucial part, but they need support as well—financially and in other ways.

I put on record my personal disappointment and my party's disappointment that the Government has decided to delay the repeal of regulations that would allow same-sex couples to apply to become foster carers—even though the Fostering Network estimates that 450 new foster carers are needed each year to meet demand. That flies in the face of what Parliament decided in the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007. We should be ensuring that children have access to as many loving homes as possible. People who come forward to offer that love and care will all be vetted vigorously. Repeated delays do nothing to help the delivery of the kind of caring homes that children so desperately need.

The Government has laudably taken on the getting it right for every child proposals from the previous Administration. The Labour amendment calls on the Government to revisit another piece of work that was undertaken by the previous Executive—work on a children's services bill. We are happy to support that; but we would not wish to prejudge the outcome of a fresh look at the bill. We do not believe that legislation is the only way to improve corporate parenting or communication between professionals. Reflection will be required.

In our amendment, we call on the Government to work with councils and other partner agencies to ensure that child protection practices are kept under immediate and continuous review. The events of recent weeks have shown us again that we must be vigilant when it comes to child protection and looked-after children. As corporate parents, we must do all that we can to improve the care given to the thousands of children and young people who rely on us.

I move amendment S3M-2922.1.1, to insert at end:

"and to work with local authorities and other partner agencies to ensure that appropriate early intervention and support is available across Scotland and that child protection practices are kept under immediate and continuous review."

9:48 am
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Elizabeth Smith (Conservative)

It would be a very dispassionate human being who could remain untouched by recent events related to child care and looked-after children, so let me say unequivocally that we support the Government and the other political parties when it comes to taking this matter very seriously indeed, and especially when it comes to finding a more joined-up approach between the professionals and carers who are involved in the lives of Scotland's looked-after children. Last week's television images were a stark reminder of just how vulnerable some children are, and of the difficulties that we face in adopting policies that can deal successfully with cases in which the child's voice is never heard.

Members will be aware of the vast array of reports on the subject. I thank people from the huge array of public bodies who regularly provide members with informative briefings. The Centre for Social Justice estimates that family breakdown now costs the United Kingdom about £22 billion a year, not including costs to the care system. That speaks volumes about the scale of the task that is in front of us. The centre makes it clear that our current care system is overloaded, that too much is demanded of our social work services, and that morale can, at times, be very low. Naturally, none of that is helped when serious mismanagement occurs, as was revealed last week both north and south of the border. Members will also be mindful of the fact that the number of children and young people who come under the "looked-after" heading has been increasing year on year for the past two decades, as has the number of child protection referrals.

I have no doubt whatever about the Government's commitment—or, indeed, the commitment of the other political parties—to addressing the matter, including the very difficult and sensitive issue of child protection legislation. Such commitment was evident in the cabinet secretary's swift and honest response to the publication of the damming report on the state of children's services in Aberdeen City Council, to which Karen Whitefield referred.

In addressing all such matters effectively, I hope that the Government will be mindful of the following important principles. First, it would be totally unacceptable if the large number of financial commitments that are being placed on councils at present—a time of economic downturn—were to mean that there will be a squeeze put on the funds that are available to support children's services. It is to be hoped that councils and the Government will, via the regular concordat discussions, recognise just how important this area of support is. We need to be sure that councils are able to provide a structure that is both secure and transparent, and which represents best value for money.

In that context, it will be important to make the most effective utilisation of the services that are offered by the voluntary sector, which in so many cases is able to provide vital support and expertise to local authorities in providing quality care. Just last week, I was told by a charitable trust that because of tax changes in the past few years—principally, the fact that advanced corporation tax was replaced with taxes on income revenue—the trust is more than £500,000 less able to support good causes each year. That area of policy needs urgent attention.

There is also the question of educational provision for looked-after children. The recent publication of the HMIE report on improving education provision for our looked-after children makes clear what was already known—that, overall, looked-after children face a bleak outlook when it comes to educational opportunities, particularly in the tertiary education sector. The report recommends that a number of improvements be implemented, including a clear vision for councils on the specific educational needs of looked-after children; increased support for children leaving care who are beyond the school-leaving age; and better methods for assessing the needs of looked-after children, especially in regard to access to the wider curriculum. That is why the Scottish Conservatives also believe that better educational support must be offered to children who are excluded from school, so that they can be provided with a more focused and disciplined approach that allows them to gain more confidence and self-esteem.

We have a wealth of expertise in many voluntary sector bodies—whether in groups such as the Prince's Trust, Fairbridge or eTEN, or in private sector groups such as Spark of Genius—and we need to ensure that they are fully supported and known about by the communities that wish to make use of their excellent support. It is simply not acceptable that some of our children are excluded and have nothing to do or any means of feeling they have something worthwhile to contribute.

We welcome the pilot schemes that have been conducted across 18 council areas in Scotland, and have examined a variety of techniques to provide direct support to help youngsters become the major stakeholders in planning their educational and employment futures. The outcome of those pilots saw improvements in attendance, advancement in assessment levels, faster and more effective educational progress, and indirect improvements in the level of support for parents and carers. As Karen Whitefield and Margaret Smith said, those areas require considerable attention.

However, as the minister said in his opening remarks, perhaps the most important issues to tackle in the longer term are the problems with parenting. I hope that we in Parliament can agree that the problem is among the most acute social difficulties that face this country. In far too many cases we are now witnessing a third generation of parents who lack basic parenting skills—parents who no longer know how to pass on the skills because they themselves were children of parents who did not possess those skills. Although the Government can help—as it is doing in improving kinship and foster care, in reforming the children's hearing system, and in developing legislation that is presently under consideration—it cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of the problem. As Margaret Smith said, parents are the most effective means of bringing up children, so we need to ensure that we have social policies that address that issue, and that we have tax policies that create much greater incentives for families to stay together and which help a parent to stay at home in the earliest years of a child's life. Care at that early stage is vital.

We will work with the Government and, more important, we will work on a cross-party basis to improve the outcomes for our looked-after children and for all those who are such vital links in the human chain. However, we also believe that we have to do more in other policy areas in order, we hope, to reduce the numbers of children who are placed in care in the first place.

9:55 am
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Christina McKelvie (Scottish National Party)

When we offer a decent future to children, we offer a secure future for our nation. I am pleased that yesterday we took a small step towards achieving the ambition—as expressed in the instrument that was debated—of ending discrimination against, and stigmatisation of, some children, through the decision to pass the statutory instrument enabling the provision of free school meals to every child in primaries 1, 2 and 3. I presume that those who opposed that measure will take time to consider the evidence of the benefits of it over the next few years and will ensure that the additional benefits to society of the provision of that nutrition are examined properly.

As always, however, we must move on to another challenge. The inadequacies of provision for looked-after children are well documented, but that does not reflect the dedication and professionalism of the people who are involved in the provision of that care. Their efforts should be acknowledged by everyone, as they have been in the chamber. I assume that every member of Parliament will agree that their work should be applauded. Neither is it the case that we have had politicians ruling our country who would wish harm, neglect or failure to thrive on any child.

Much as the SNP Government is clearly superior, I cannot believe that any Scottish politician would want anything less than the best outcomes for all children in Scotland. The devil, therefore, is in the delivery.

I will focus on a couple of areas rather than try to cover the whole spectrum. I was pleased to learn recently that the Equality and Human Rights Commission's legal committee has agreed to inquire into the rights of looked-after children in accessing additional support for learning in Scotland. The additional support needs tribunal can hear appeals against local authority decisions about ASL provision, but children cannot bring appeals to the tribunal—only parents can do that, or those who have left childhood. On the other hand, sheriff courts can hear claims of disability discrimination in schools and children can bring claims in their own names. That seems to be an issue that we should address, especially for looked-after children.

No matter how dedicated the staff are, it is a lot harder for a person who is not the parent—natural parent, foster parent or adoptive parent—to ensure that they do not miss important points. The right of the child to speak for herself must also be clear. Unfortunately, that is not the only issue that we will have to address.

In 2005, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education identified problems for looked-after children in respect of implementation of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004. In particular, the report identified concerns about access to service provision and advocacy services for looked-after children and young people. It also identified other problems in respect of communication with them.

I was, therefore, heartened by the commitment that was made in the chamber a few weeks ago to consider ways in which to incorporate into Scots law the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That has been welcomed by everyone in the chamber and by all the children's organisations that have contacted me in the past few weeks. The report recommended action by Government and children's services—we have a duty to ensure that we can deliver on that now. I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, in her Opposition days, raised concerns about some of the measures in the 2004 act when it was going through Parliament. I am therefore confident that she will be determined to improve the legislation. I am also aware, however, that the bill progressed through Parliament on a consensual cross-party basis, and that no party can claim the moral high ground above any other. The whole Parliament—all the parties, some of which are no longer in Parliament—can take the credit for the legislation.

I look forward to the same consensual way of working throughout the passage of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill. I understand that organisations that will respond to the stage 1 consultation will raise concerns about the additional support needs of looked-after children. I look forward to that engagement and to a multilateral attempt to address those concerns. I note that little—if any—research has been conducted into ASL needs and looked-after children. I hope that the ministers will take that into account in planning the next round of Government research and will seek to provide us with appropriate research findings in due course.

Photo of Rhona Brankin

Rhona Brankin (Labour)

Some research that has been done by way of freedom of information requests has found that, in the whole of Edinburgh, only four looked-after children currently have co-ordinated support plans. Given the fact that the SNP, in conjunction with others, runs the City of Edinburgh Council, what would the member like to say about that?

Photo of Christina McKelvie

Christina McKelvie (Scottish National Party)

The Liberal Democrat/SNP-run City of Edinburgh Council will obviously look at that. I hope that the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill will address such issues, as well. However, I remind Rhona Brankin that Glasgow faces the same issues, and Glasgow City Council is not a Liberal Democrat/SNP-run council.

Photo of Christina McKelvie

Christina McKelvie (Scottish National Party)

Let us get serious. I will move on.

There are specific concerns that I hope that we can examine. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that children who are looked after by their local authority are in the strange situation of their parent also being the body that makes decisions about their additional support for learning needs—surely, a conflict of interests. We could address that, too.

There are also concerns—which I understand will be raised in evidence—about access to education for looked-after children, and about protection of the human rights of those children. We will address those issues during our scrutiny of the bill. I trust that the cabinet secretary and her ministers will provide us with their views throughout.

One of the key issues regarding looked-after children is their low level of educational attainment. The standard among them is considerably worse than among other children. Members from throughout the chamber will speak about that this morning, as some already have.

This nation is proud of its ability to rebuild and refashion itself, and we have come a long way in the past few years. I trust that we will continue to make good progress when opportunities to do so present themselves in the future. I support the motion.

10:01 am
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Dr Richard Simpson (Labour)

I declare an interest in that, until August 2008, I was involved in the development of an electronic single shared assessment, which includes elements of child protection and child care. Also, my wife is a consultant in interagency training in child protection, and I have a son who is a medical specialist in addictions. I will talk about addictions today.

The number of looked-after children in Scotland has risen from about 11,500 in the first Parliament to 14,000 now. To some extent, that reflects the fact that we now recognise the fact that families in which there are problems with drugs and alcohol are often significantly damaged.

On the medical aspects of looked-after children—the other aspect that I will address—we have the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007, but we still await the regulations and guidance for that act, although I understand that they will be forthcoming shortly and are being consulted on. I would be grateful if, in summing up, the minister could give us a timetable for that. It is vital that there is no slippage on it, that there is effective training in relation to the 2007 act and that we achieve an implementation date of June 2009.

An area that interests me, and on which I have questioned the minister previously, is provision of medical information to adoptive and foster parents. Under section 74 of the 2007 act, medical information must be supplied to adoptive parents. However, that addresses only adoption, not permanency, which is a significant problem that is of concern to me. In 1989, I wrote to the General Medical Council in my capacity as, at that time, the chair of the medical British Association for Adoption and Fostering Scotland, because I was concerned that medical practitioners were not providing information on the family histories of children who were being placed for adoption and fostering because the families refused to allow that information to be transmitted. I think that section 74 of the 2007 act will deal with that, but I would like the minister to say whether he has had discussions with the General Medical Council about the need for instructions to be given to doctors to ensure that that medical information is passed on.

I also suggest to the minister that, if it is possible, any children's bill should incorporate a change that extends the measure to include permanency and not just adoption. We are no longer dealing with the clear-cut situations that I found when I started work as an adviser in adoption and fostering in 1974-75. At that time, there was adoption and there was fostering. There was a very clear gap between the two. Once a child was adopted—I was adopted myself—the family was left on its own, with no support, and that was the end of it.

Now, however, there is adoption with support, although provision is patchy; adoption with or without contact; and permanent and temporary fostering. In addition, a process of concurrent planning is being trialled in London. It has been highly successful, particularly in relation to families with drug problems, who must be given a chance to change. When I was lead clinician in addictions in West Lothian, I found no drug-addicted parents who did not want to love and care for their children, but there were many who were unable to do so because their addictions got in the way. It is necessary to give those parents chances, but those chances must not be at the expense of the ability of that child to attach. If the basic trust of the child is damaged badly in the early years, we end up with an older person who will need the services that others have described—40 per cent of the children about whom we are talking require child and adolescent mental health services.

The services have to have clear guidance about how they should tackle the issues of addiction and the management of children, but I do not believe that they have that at this time.

When I was chair of the medical BAAF in the 1980s, I was engaged in the development of a medical passport for every looked-after child, which would be held by the adoptive parent, foster parent or local authority until the child reached the age of capacity. When used in conjunction with the child's family book, which gives the child's family record, the medical passport should give a clear medical history of the child. I suggest that the proposal is still an important one.

I used to lecture in social work—Scott Barrie and David Stewart make me feel old by reminding me that they were students of mine. At that time, the health issues that we were concerned with in that context were continuity of care and smoking among foster parents, which are still issues for looked-after children. When children are moved around and placed with different foster parents, continuity of care is often broken. The minister should consider that issue.

Around 100,000 children live in families with drug and alcohol problems. We need to provide support not only in the early years but in the ante-natal period. In Edinburgh, there is a specialist team that provides such support, and research into the issue is going on in Glasgow, but we need such specialist teams in every area. The current guidance is that there should be a case conference at 20 weeks. However, we need to manage and support those families from a very early stage of the pregnancy—as soon as it is confirmed. It is not sufficient for that to be done only by the midwife. There must be social work, health visitor and drug specialist involvement from that early stage.

Photo of Dr Richard Simpson

Dr Richard Simpson (Labour)

I could go on for many more minutes, but I will curtail my speech.

I understand the Government's desire not to legislate in this area but, with regard to the sharing of information, I must say that I spent my time after I left Parliament in 2003 trying to implement policies around information sharing in respect of drugs and alcohol, which I had been trying to promote as a minister. The electronic single shared assessment on which I have been working has been on the blocks since 2003 and is still not operational. That reflects not only my experience but the experience of everyone who has been active in this area in the more than 35 years since the Maria Colwell inquiry. Information sharing is absolutely fundamental to the development of effective shared care.

I hope that there will be full information for all, not just adopted children; that preplanned support for their medical needs will be provided in a way that ensures continuity; that there will be prior and guaranteed access to child and adolescent mental health services, which is an issue to which the Health and Sport Committee will return in its inquiry; that there will be specialist drug and alcohol teams that will intervene in the antenatal period and at least the first year after birth and will also work with addicted children and those suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome; that there will be an end to voluntary information sharing and that it will instead be made statutory; and that there will be effective guidance on managing children in families with drug addiction problems.

10:10 am
Photo of Sandra White

Sandra White (Scottish National Party)

I declare a special interest in this subject, as my sister has been a foster carer for many years.

I agree entirely with what Richard Simpson said about continuity of care for looked-after children. Government guidelines say that the care services need to think like a parent and to constantly challenge what is happening around the child by asking, "Is this good enough for my child?" That question must be at the forefront of the minds of everybody in the services that serve those children.

The tragic case of Baby P has been raised by previous speakers. Such a case must never happen again. Protection of the rights of children must be paramount in any legislation and those rights must come before the rights of parents.

I want to concentrate on what we are doing in this Parliament to protect the people who I consider to be the most vulnerable in our society. Children do not ask to be born, but they are born. Further, they do not ask to be born into a certain lifestyle, but that happens as well. Their parents might lead chaotic lifestyles, be drug dependent or simply be unable to cope. That is why we, as a caring society, have put in place certain measures to protect such children. However, as has been said, sometimes those measures do not work. We must all ask whether we are doing enough or could do more. I hope that the debate will raise some questions and supply some answers.

Rhona Brankin's amendment calls on the Government to ensure that

"local authority funding for the care and safety of children more generally is properly protected".

In that regard, I am quite concerned by the news—which I received last night—that the City of Glasgow Council has decided to remove direct and care services from council control, which could lead to the loss of 600 jobs. That decision will have a direct effect on the very vulnerable children we are talking about today. I ask the minister to instigate a meeting with the Councillor Steven Purcell, the leader of Glasgow City Council, on that matter so that we can ensure that vulnerable children are not further disadvantaged. It is important to do something about that right now.

I agree whole-heartedly with what Margaret Smith said about early intervention and continued support. That is where the child protection committees come to the fore. They have oversight of protection measures at local level and work in partnership with the police, social work, health agencies and others to ensure that support is put in place. However, it must be put in place as early as possible. If it is not, the child's life could be in danger. It is good that the child protection committees work at grass-roots level, and I believe that they are working well. However, nothing is perfect, and we must continue to monitor the committees to ensure that they continue to intervene at an early stage.

Foster parents do a terrific job, as Karen Whitefield said. However, their views are not always taken into consideration. I have spoken to foster carers—not just my sister—who say that they are not always listened to. One issue that arises frequently in my discussions with them is the length of time that children are kept in the care system. The sad fact is that, by the time children get to the age of four or five, many people do not particularly want to adopt them. However—as was alluded to by Richard Simpson and Margaret Smith—the reason why they are kept in care for that length of time is that, time and again, they are sent back to their parents, who are trying to co-operate with the services, only to be returned to the care system when things do not work out. That must damage those children. Richard Simpson spoke about trust: imagine being a child who is learning to trust someone, but is taken back to parents, and then again back to carers. What long-term damage must that do? That is why we have such problems in the care system for older people. I would like the minister to consider that issue.

Another issue that I and others, including those who come to see me, constantly raise is children being given access to parents. Children are told that they are going to see their parents, but the parents often do not turn up to meet them. What damage does that do to a young child who had looked forward to contact with their parent? It does not always happen, but it happens time and again. Children turn up and wait, but the parent does not turn up and there is total damage. Obviously, such children are left in pieces—we perhaps pick up those pieces later. I promised the foster carers who I spoke to that I would raise such issues, and I would like the minister to consider them.

If possible, I would like the minister to organise or instigate a meeting, a conference or something else in which foster carers can express their concerns to the relevant departments and be listened to. Foster carers are at the coalface and must be heard for the sake of the children I see daily and other children who will come into the system. We cannot fail those children. The costs are being paid, but not by us—those children's lives are the cost.

10:16 am
Photo of Claire Baker

Claire Baker (Labour)

I remember as a young—or perhaps younger—researcher in the early months of the Parliament preparing a paper on looked-after children for Labour MSPs. The inequalities that face that group of young people have never left me. I prepared the paper at the time of the first big debate on the issue, which took place when Sam Galbraith was the responsible minister. The genuine importance that has been placed on the issue is clear from previous Executive ministers' speeches and their actions in government. However, reform and the increased resources that have accompanied reform have not led to the progress that we all wanted and still want to see.

The statistics make for depressing reading. The numbers of children in care have steadily increased over the past few years. Some 26 per cent more children are now looked after than were looked after in 1999. Many life chances are taken away from children in care. We know that such children are more vulnerable to teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and severe health inequalities, which Richard Simpson discussed.

Change has not happened anywhere near as fast, and has not gone as far, as we wanted it to. That has not been because of lack of effort, lack of support in Parliament or even lack of consultation outside it. Many of the indicators on which the wellbeing of looked-after children is based will take a while to improve, but children and young people are being let down daily. Looked-after children do not need to see such reductions in their life chances. Other countries do much better in this area. We must improve parenting and corporate parenting in this country so that we do not continue to waste the talents of Scotland's looked-after children.

Education has been focused on and has received resources—Rhona Brankin highlighted that. Last year, 48 per cent of looked-after children over school age left care without any qualifications. That figure is an improvement on the near 60 per cent who left care without any qualifications in 2002-03, but it is still unacceptably high.

It is depressing that the figures for my region—Fife—do not compare well with the poor national figures. The educational attainment of looked-after children in Fife is lower than that of looked-after children in other parts of the country. They have lower attainment in many qualifications, and lower attainment in English and maths. Furthermore, there has been a large drop in attainment from last year to this year. Fife Council was one of 18 authorities that took part in pilots that were aimed at increasing educational attainment among looked-after children, but the process revealed as much about what needs to be improved as it did about the ability to deliver results. However, it is important that there is a legacy from the pilot so that the necessary change that was identified can be achieved.

In recent discussions that I have had with teachers and other professionals who work with looked-after children in Fife and throughout Scotland, concerns have been expressed about the serious lack of foster care places and the lack of training for foster carers so that they can cope with challenging behaviour. Despite fostering being most beneficial to the most disruptive children, many are placed in bought placements in which they find themselves in mixed age groups. That leads to frequent disruption, which can obviously impact on children's attendance and attainment at school. Only 27 per cent of care leavers who are entitled to after care are still in touch with Fife social work services, and only a third of care leavers in Fife had pathway plans. Those figures are well below the national averages.

There are also concerns about weaknesses in some local authorities' single outcome agreements on looked-after children, and about stretched social work budgets, which must ensure that children on the margins of needing care will always have that option open to them.

However, some positive actions have been taken in Fife. There are people in Fife who are very committed to looking after looked-after children. I am pleased to be an ambassador for Barnardo's Fife children's rights service, which provides independent advocacy for children throughout Fife. Many of the service users are children who have been, or will be, taken into care. The service is entirely independent of other interests within child care services. Children feel that they can trust it, and it can speak freely and fully in support of the child's rights. I would like to see such a service available to looked-after children throughout Scotland.

If we are to improve corporate parenting for looked-after children in Scotland, and improve parenting in Scotland so that we will rely less on corporate parenting services, we need properly protected investment by the Scottish Government and local authorities throughout Scotland. I know that we are working in a changed financial relationship with local authorities, but it is clear that progress is slow on local delivery and translating words into actions, and that the Parliament's intentions often struggle to be realised.

10:22 am
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Ian McKee (Scottish National Party)

We all agree that the 14,060 children who needed to be looked after by local authorities as at March 2007 are 14,060 children too many, but, unfortunately, for many children a form of corporate parenting is the only sensible option that is in their interests.

One thing is certain: looked-after children are vulnerable. They have a much higher incidence of mental ill health. Their attendance rates at school are significantly below average compared with their peers' attendance rates, and it is not surprising that a very high proportion of them—especially those who are looked after at home—leave school with minimal or no qualifications.

Improving the care of looked-after children is vital to ensure that they have productive futures. The minister said that action is being taken in pilot projects to accomplish that aim and that the results have been encouraging. Such measures are valuable, but I am particularly concerned about the needs of looked-after children who still reside at home. I said that such children attain far less educationally than do children in residential care, which perhaps is not surprising. Despite the bad publicity that residential homes have had in recent years, there is no doubt that most of them are run by caring staff who provide some sort of stable base on which to develop the circumstances in which children can prepare for adulthood. A child who is at home must cope with the circumstances that led to referral and being categorised in the first place. Unless it is absolutely necessary, we do not wish to break irretrievably the bonds that bind families together, but living in such circumstances can place a burden on children that is greater than they can easily bear.

Richard Simpson was right to draw attention to the predominant needs of the child, but we must not assume that parents in certain situations wish ill for their children. They may not be able to express their love, perhaps because of ignorance, the adverse effects of alcohol or drugs, or simply because they had an emotionally deprived upbringing and do not know how to care or show love properly. Members should not forget that in a few years' time, the children whom we are worrying about today will be parents, and that a few years ago, many of their parents were looked-after children. The figures show that there is a much higher incidence of the children of looked-after children being taken into care.

What is needed is not just educational input for looked-after children who stay at home but input for the whole family unit. There is an interesting initiative at the moment at the National Gallery in London, in which looked-after children and their parents are encouraged to produce works of art in the educational section of the gallery and then exhibit them in the gallery itself. That not only allows the calming effect of artistic endeavour to work its magic but, by virtue of exhibiting work in a prominent gallery, enhances the self-esteem of people who for years have been accustomed to being at the bottom of the pile and of no significance to anyone, including themselves.

Photo of Hugh Henry

Hugh Henry (Labour)

I agree profoundly with Ian McKee on the need to support not just children but their families, but does he agree that some of the budget cuts that we are seeing in local councils across the country affect the ability of professionals to do exactly that?

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Ian McKee (Scottish National Party)

I do not want to get into a dogfight about budget cuts. We have been talking a lot about funding and physical resources, but I want to draw attention to a more profound problem that we face in our society: the lack of support that we give to our social workers.

With the benefit and wisdom of hindsight, we are all tremendous at determining what should have been done in certain circumstances. About 10 days ago, I was motoring to Lochgilphead as part of my duties on the Health and Sport Committee, so I had a chance to listen to the radio. There was a long interview with a young mother who had rushed off to Ireland when she was 32 weeks pregnant to avoid her child being taken into care by social workers. She got a most sympathetic hearing, as did her mother, and the interviewer obviously agreed that the social workers were wrong. It was only at the end of the interview that a statement was given by the social work department that there had been no intention of taking the child into care. Throughout the interview, it was accepted by the interviewer on behalf of society that social workers were wicked people who took children away from young mothers.

On one occasion during my medical practice, I referred a child to hospital because I was worried about some bruising. I am glad to say that it turned out that the cause of the bruising was innocent, but my relationship with that family was ruined permanently because I had shown that worry and asked for confirmation from the hospital. I was inhibited from taking further steps with other children because of the damage that it would do to my relationships with people.

We must get away from the idea that social workers are wicked if they take children away from people and wicked if they leave children with people. We must respect them as people who do a very difficult job and one that needs society behind them. If society is not behind them, we will continue to see mistakes like those that have happened recently.

It is salutary to think of the hundreds of young children who are killed on the roads every year. I do not want to denigrate what has happened to children in care, but if we paid a lot more attention to the general safety of children in our society, a lot more children would benefit and we would have a better society as a result.

Let us work with the children and their families, but above all let us support and not denigrate the social workers, who have an awful job in society.

10:29 am
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Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat)

I begin by agreeing with Ian McKee's comments, which echoed earlier contributions by Margaret Smith and others, on the importance of the social work facility and the different roles that it can play. Social workers get the blame in lots of situations, but Margaret Smith was right when she said that we should remember that, ultimately, it is not social workers but some parents who, sadly, harm children.

Over the years, we have had a lot of debates on looked-after children, which is to the Parliament's credit. The minister made an excellent opening speech, but I had the slight sense that it was a speech more for the opening of a conference than for a debate in Parliament. I make that point seriously, against the background of the Government's accountability. No major initiative or progress was announced, and the debate was not set in any context. It would help if, when the minister summates, he indicates how the points that have been made today will be taken forward and will fit into Government policy and, given the great interest in the subject, how he will report to Parliament on progress in the weeks and months to come.

For me, the Social Work Inspection Agency's 2006 report "Extraordinary Lives" was both a wake-up call and an indication of what was possible. I cannot remember if it was that report or another that was published about the same time that said there is nothing inevitable about poor educational outcomes for looked-after children. Before then, I had met a lot of young people who had been or were looked after, I had talked to groups such as the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum, and I had spoken to foster carers, adopters and children who had been adopted. I knew that some young people had developed extraordinary resilience and made tremendous achievements, despite horrendous starts in life, but somehow I did not really believe that it was possible to change things in a substantial way. The message that came from the reports was that change was possible.

As we have heard, about 14,000 young people are looked after by local authorities—more than half at home, nearly 30 per cent with foster parents and the remaining number in a residential setting. All those situations are important components of our facilities for young people. The numbers are not impossible either to visualise or target effectively. It is true that we have to consider the context of the 40,000 to 60,000 young people who live with drug-abusing parents, and the 80,000 to 100,000 young people who are affected by parental alcohol abuse. Many more children than the central core are at risk, but, even then, the numbers are manageable and change is possible.

We know what makes a difference: the SWIA report spelled it out in detail, and Sandra White was right to mention the disappointment that arises when those things do not happen. It is long-term stability, suitable home backgrounds and links with birth families. It is regular attendance at school, strong and satisfying friendships and networks, and the provision of nurturing experiences into adulthood. It is listening to young people and acting on that listening, and it is strong relationships with key individuals in their lives. It is effective transition planning and building resilience.

I will touch on three aspects of the challenge. The first is the need for effective and speedy assessment at the right stage—many members have touched on the implications of that. I was told by the Scottish institute for residential child care that some countries have more children in care than does Scotland. I do not know whether that is true, but it is an interesting sideline if it is. There may be lessons to draw from them.

We know that too many children and young people go through failed placements and can be in too many foster homes, with all the disadvantages that go with that. We heard from Elizabeth Smith that parents are the best people to bring up children—but, sadly, not all parents. We must keep that fact in mind. We know, too, that fostering organisations have identified a shortfall of 10,000 foster carers throughout the UK. The pressure on foster carers brings its own problems of inadequate or unsuitable placements. Those problems should not be understated. The number of potential foster parents can cause issues in getting the right placement for children.

Photo of Dr Richard Simpson

Dr Richard Simpson (Labour)

Does the member agree that there is concern that foster parents in Scotland foster more children than do foster parents in England? In England, there is a limit. I am not suggesting that we should have a limit, but we could phase one in when there are complex needs. Overplacing children with foster parents places an undue burden and expectation on those foster parents.

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Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat)

I accept that point, the background to which is the inadequate number of foster parents in the first place. We need more foster carers, and given that foster care across the board results in the best outcomes for looked-after children, it is a major priority. It is worth stating that again: outcomes with foster parents are the best. Outcomes in residential homes are the second best and, sadly, outcomes for children who stay at home are often the worst. That may seem contraindicative, but it is an important aspect.

The second aspect of the challenge is the transition to adulthood. Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People was spot-on in identifying that as a major weakness. The Scottish tradition is for forisfamiliation at 16—the right and ability for young people to leave home and fend for themselves at the age of 16. For looked-after children, that is a bad tradition. It means that there is pressure to get immature and vulnerable youngsters out at 16. It means feeding the sad cycle of loneliness, homelessness, criminality and ill health that is so often the fate of many young people in those circumstances, and it can mean that they cut links with the significant adults in their lives. For those who are in residential schools, there can be disconnects in funding when it is needed most. We need to heed the call of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which regards 18 and not 16 as the age of adulthood, although even 18 should be a liberating age and not a cut-off-and-throw-away age.

Karen Whitefield talked about the exclusion rate of young people who are in care. In the UK, almost a third of ex-looked-after children are not in education, employment or training at the age of 19, and an extraordinary 45 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds in young offenders institutions have been looked after.

The third aspect is staff. I would like to see a massive recruitment campaign for foster parents, perhaps along the lines of the one for children's panel members. We also need better trained and qualified staff in children's residential establishments, which still have a long way to go. The fact that many local authorities do not have a proper recruitment strategy is not a minor problem, given that there are 4,500 workers in the sector.

It is a worthy objective that the state should act as corporate parent to looked-after children, but that objective needs to be given substance and spirit, with champions at all levels who listen and relate to children. That is not a bureaucratic requirement but a flexible and living one. We have had an excellent debate. Let us take forward the messages and ensure that they are actually implemented on the ground for all the children whom we are concerned about.

10:36 am
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Hugh Henry (Labour)

I join Robert Brown and others in praising the work that social workers do, often in difficult circumstances. Ian McKee is right to talk about the complexities of their work and the difficult decisions that they make. Often, we do not dwell on the good, correct decisions that are made, because we take them for granted, but tragically we have to confront the wrong and bad decisions that are made, and that is often done only with the benefit of hindsight.

Having been friendly with many social workers for many years, I know how difficult decisions can be, and I know the dilemmas that they face and the pressures under which they work. No one should underestimate the work that social workers do or the complexity of the decisions that they make.

We can agree about much of what has been said in the debate. I agree with Adam Ingram when he says that what we have is a national disgrace. He is right—the judgment is damning, and not just for the current Administration. The same applies to previous Administrations, including the one of which I was a part. Collectively, we have failed looked-after children over many years, and local authorities, collectively and individually, have also done so.

Sometimes, we get into the trivia of wanting instant responses to everything, but we cannot make simple judgments about many children, given their complex lifestyles. As has been said, we want to avoid taking some children into care. Instead, we should do whatever we can to keep them with their family. However, as recent reports have shown, some children need to be removed from their family for their own sake and their own protection. Richard Simpson is right to point out the complexities that drugs and alcohol bring to the equation.

As the Minister for Children and Early Years said, we can undoubtedly point to some successes. Some children have gone on to lead hugely productive and rewarding lives, but I wonder how much of that we can put down to the system and how much of it is to do with the individual and what they have achieved despite everything that they have had to confront. In passing, however, like Richard Simpson, I note that the families with which they are placed make an enormous and beneficial contribution to their development. We should thank those families for that.

On the one hand, the debate is encouraging, because of the consensus and shared values that we have, but on the other it is profoundly depressing. I suggest that we all—including me—have a degree of complacency on the issue. I address the following words in particular to the minister. I worry that complacency can turn to negligence if we are not careful. In effect, we are neglecting looked-after children. Offering warm words, as we have all done this morning, is complacent. We need much more than warm words.

Ian McKee said that we do not want to get into a squabble about budgets, but if social workers are not properly resourced at the local level, they are unable to make the decisions that children need. As politicians, we cannot turn away from that. We are guilty if we simply exhort social workers to take on better practice and say, "It doesn't matter about the budgets. We're not going to squabble about that." We need to confront that.

We need to take action. Whether ministers and the Scottish Parliament should take action through legislation or just through policy development is a matter for debate, but action is needed. I ask the minister to consider the results of previous work and reports. If he cannot do so in today's debate, I ask him to respond to me in writing.

One reason why I am depressed about the situation is because, when I look back to the words that Peter Peacock and I said as ministers, and compare them with what Adam Ingram is saying, I find that we are not moving forward. In 2007, I said:

"Too many of our most vulnerable young people are not fulfilling their potential ... This is a problem that needs care and attention from everyone ... We must increase the possibilities".

We can go on with the warm words, but what has happened—

Photo of Hugh Henry

Hugh Henry (Labour)

Can I just finish, minister? There is a specific point that I want to make.

What happened to the commitment, which was made publicly on behalf of us all, that the Scottish Cabinet would get regular reports? How many times since 2007 has the Cabinet been given a report on how looked-after children perform at school? What has the national champion that was suggested been doing, if indeed they have been doing anything? What have we done specifically to remind councils of their role and responsibilities as corporate parents? What have we done to improve training for teachers and other professionals, as we committed to do? Can the minister give me details of the guidance that key workers have been given on their role in supporting young people?

It is all very well to say that we want councils such as Inverclyde Council to be emulated—every council should have a champion—but we need not an exhortation but an insistence that that happens. Indeed, we should set an example by having a Cabinet of champions. Not just the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning—who, unfortunately, is not here—but every member of the Cabinet should be responsible for making sure that a certain number of authorities do their job. If we do not give a lead, how can we expect others to follow?

As Adam Ingram said, the issue is a national disgrace. It has gone on too long, and we are all part of it. We need to finish with the warm words and commit ourselves to effective action.

10:44 am
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Nigel Don (Scottish National Party)

As usual, I am batting well down the order, so I will not rehearse things that have already been said. In passing, however, I commend Robert Brown's point that children do not suddenly change at the age of 16. Those of us who are parents know fine well that change goes on for a considerable time thereafter, and it seems to get more expensive. The point is that our relationship with our children continues to develop. The idea that a looked-after child can suddenly be shown the door at 16 and all will be fine is obviously nonsense.

I will address several issues briefly. First, I remind members of a few statistics on prisoners. Of our prisoners, 80 per cent have the writing skills of an 11-year-old; 50 per cent have the reading skills of an 11-year-old; 65 per cent have the numeracy skills of an 11-year-old; and 70 per cent used drugs before they entered prison. That is relevant to the debate because, compared with the general population, prisoners are 13 times more likely to have been in care as a child. We can do the maths any way we like, but that is a significant issue. The figures show that there is a cycle. We know that children of prisoners are more likely to come into corporate parenting; that children of teenagers are more likely to come into corporate parenting; and that those teenagers are more likely to become prisoners and so on. We must accept, as the Government has in principle accepted, that we have to break that cycle.

My second point is about Aberdeen. As a citizen of Aberdeen who lives within walking distance of the city centre, I recently tried to find out what is going on there. To be absolutely clear, I am not here to defend the indefensible. However, the measures that I will mention were in hand before the HMIE report that members have mentioned was published. Aberdeen City Council is spending an additional £170,000 this year on six qualified social workers for the children's social work fieldwork team. As I said, the decision on that was taken long before the HMIE report came out. The city is spending capital moneys on bringing looked-after children back into the city, which will significantly improve cash flow for the service. The city's adoption and fostering service has recently been inspected and received a very high rating, so it is not all doom and gloom. The council is trying and is doing its best, although that is not to pre-empt what the minister might say.

My third point is about the children's hearings system. Members may be aware that a consultation is being carried out on the future of the system, which is a significant part of the looked-after children process. I quote from the consultation document to make a point about the reason for the consultation:

"When local government was reorganised in 1996, the structure of the Children's Hearings system was partially reformed. The Children's Reporters were taken out of local control and placed within a Non-Departmental Public Body—the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration. The children's and Safeguarder panels however moved from a regional basis"—

under which there were 12 of each—

"to 32 Children's Panels, 30 CPACs and 32 Panels of Safeguarders.

This caused a considerable increase in bureaucracy as each children's panel required a chairman and at least one deputy".

Members will understand that there was reduced flexibility all round. I am not in the business of blaming people for the changes in 1996, but that explains why the Government is anxious to clarify the system and reduce the bureaucracy.

The three overarching principles governing the operation of the children's hearings system are that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration, the child's views must be taken into account when major decisions are made about his or her future, and no supervision requirement should be made unless doing so would be better for the child than making no supervision requirement. In all those processes, an element of legal advice is involved. One issue in the consultation document is that the same lawyer may advise a panel—which is proper—and one of the parties, which may be the council social work department. It is entirely clear that that is not good legal practice. It is a basic legal principle that those who advise a tribunal should be independent of those who take either side in the argument. However, as the consultation document points out, that is not always what happens. Although the issue is peripheral to the debate, it is important that we get the system right, because it is important that youngsters are represented properly.

I will extend the argument by pointing members to a recent article in the online Journal of the Law Society of Scotland that was put together by cl@n—the Community Law Advice Network. "Jack's story" takes us through an education appeal committee process in which exactly what I described happened. In the case, which was anonymised, the appeal committee was advised by the council's lawyer on matters of law, but the same lawyer took the council's side. Had the child not been represented independently by the group that wrote the article, it is obvious that he would not have been well represented and the result would probably have been different, for reasons that members will understand.

That adds a little more to the argument. I encourage the minister to examine the way in which appeal systems operate and to try to encourage people to ensure that we follow the correct legal procedures. In part, that is because we do not want challenges in European courts, which is a complete waste of everybody's effort, but it is also because it is important that children are represented properly. They have a view and are entitled to have it taken into account in such processes. By definition, when someone gets to an appeals tribunal, they have reached an important stage.

10:50 am
Photo of Helen Eadie

Helen Eadie (Labour)

All members who have spoken have acknowledged the importance of this debate on looked-after children. I join them and agree that young people who live in residential services are among the most vulnerable in Scotland. In many ways, our society has the right priorities, with high ideals and the aims of providing the best possible help and support for the most vulnerable around us. As members have said, that includes looked-after children. We are fortunate that, over the decades, people who care have focused much effort on setting acceptable standards and regulations. We are thankful for those who have devoted their lives' work to such an important mission. Parliamentarians owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have given their best to make a difference on a vital matter.

Inspections by the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care have found that several services use good practice in protecting children and planning for care. However, the commission has found that more than 50 per cent of services need to improve aspects of their practice in one or more areas. It is also interesting to note that the commission has taken formal legal enforcement action in two residential special schools because of concern about the safety and wellbeing of the young people who were living in them.

Hugh Henry was right on many issues. As other colleagues have done, he made a point about the pressure on social workers and other key professionals. Case load has been cited in newspapers in the past couple of weeks as a contributing factor to instances in which serious problems have emerged. We must keep a close eye on resources for social workers and other key professionals. The points that members, particularly Hugh Henry, have made on that are really about resourcing. We must watch where the money is going in local authorities now that ring fencing no longer applies; Labour members, rightly, hold strong views on that issue.

I welcome the news of further intervention by another crucial organisation. Only yesterday, I received an e-mail from the Equality and Human Rights Commission regarding the important issue of support for learning. The e-mail advises that the Equality and Human Rights Commission's legal committee has agreed to conduct an inquiry into the rights of looked-after children in accessing additional support for learning. The commission points out that the Additional Support Needs Tribunal for Scotland has jurisdiction to hear appeals against local authority decisions on ASL provision, but that children cannot bring appeals to the ASNTS, as the legislation allows only young people and parents to do so. Currently, the sheriff court has jurisdiction to hear claims of disability discrimination in schools, and children can bring claims in their name.

In 2006, there were 12,966 looked-after children and young people in Scotland, 44 per cent of whom were looked after and accommodated in foster care, residential care or secure settings. In 2005, an HMIE inspection report identified problems with the implementation of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 in relation to looked-after children and young people. In particular, the report identified concerns about access to service provision; advocacy services; and communication with looked-after children and young people. The report recommended action by Government and children's services.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in partnership with many of Scotland's leading children's and disability organisations, is raising concern about the ASL needs of looked-after children in a joint submission at stage 1 of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill, which is before the Parliament. Despite there being consensus on the specific concerns about the legal rights of looked-after children and young people to challenge decisions about their ASL needs and service provision, no research has been done to provide robust evidence on the impact on looked-after children and appropriate service provision.

In Scotland, the commission's initial concerns focus on children whose parent is a local authority; often, such children have no independent person to bring an appeal on their behalf because the corporate parent is also the body that decides on the extent of the child's special educational needs. The commission is also concerned about looked-after children's access to education; in particular, it is concerned about those with ASL needs, because disabled and black children are overrepresented in that group. Further, the commission is concerned that there is a failure to provide looked-after children with their basic human rights.

I am aware that the commission will meet Scottish Government officials in the next few weeks to discuss its initial concerns, the possible scope of an inquiry and appropriate terms of reference for Scotland. I very much hope that real and meaningful efforts will be made to extend commitment to such an important issue.

I would like us to reflect for a moment on our situation in Scotland, where there is a great deal wrong but much more to aspire to and put right. Members might have seen, or heard about, the sometimes harrowing and grim TV programmes about what is happening to children in eastern European care homes. I watched one such programme about a year ago and received numerous e-mails about it from constituents and others. I raised their concerns with my colleague and friend Catherine Stihler, who is a member of the European Parliament, and the Romanian home that featured in that programme was closed as a consequence of concerns expressed throughout Europe. I mention that because we need to embrace the idea of sharing the knowledge and experience of our many experts here in Scotland with people who work in care homes and other professionals in eastern Europe. To that end, grant funding programmes are available throughout Europe.

I hope that civil servants, the Government and my colleagues in this Parliament will join me in trying to ensure that such children are cared for. I remember hosting a meeting in the Parliament at which Cardinal Keith O'Brien was a key speaker. He said to me that the very worst examples of care were in Romania and that, as parliamentarians, if we did just one thing to remember Ceauşescu's legacy, we should work to help such children. That is why I was pleased when I saw Jack McConnell's motion this week in which he applauds J K Rowling and others for their contribution to helping more than 25,000 children in eastern Europe. I hope that we will each do our little bit, too.

10:58 am
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Angela Constance (Scottish National Party)

In our deliberations about Scotland's looked-after children this morning and our expressed desire to improve, promote and protect children's welfare, it is paramount that we reflect on the suffering of Baby P, which is a haunting example of what can happen when we get it so very wrong, by acts of either commission or omission.

Baby P was visited 60 times by health and social work professionals—the equivalent of twice a week. He was seen by 19 health professionals and had been in hospital three times. He had more than 50 injuries. Three days before he died, he was seen by a paediatrician who failed to diagnose his broken back and ribs, injuries that would have left him paralysed. Instead, he was described as cranky and miserable.

As a former social worker, I am incredulous about the single and collective failings of each agency towards Baby P and, as a mother, I can barely bear to think about it. However, as a parliamentarian and a citizen, I must and we must. Closer to home are the death of baby Caleb Ness and the HMIE reports about Aberdeen and Midlothian, which are chilling reminders of the tragedies that could have been.

Following Victoria Climbie's death, the Laming report, among other things, focused on corporate parenting. Corporate parenting is defined as:

"formal and local partnerships needed between all local authority departments and services, and associated agencies, who are responsible for working together to meet the needs of looked after children".

Forgive me, but that is rather staid, managerial, civil service, policy-maker language. The important thing is to consider who corporate parents are. Local councillors need to take on leadership and ownership and they need to be at the vanguard of their local child protection system and services.

What then is the role for parliamentarians? We should be the corporate interfering granny, looking over the parents' shoulders to ensure that they are doing it right. We should be the nosy neighbour, always watching and asking searching and probing questions about outcomes for Scotland's children. We have reams of well-meaning legislation and policy statements. As we know, professionals have a duty of care and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 rams home the point that children's welfare is paramount and that their needs and rights take precedence over those of everybody else.

To its credit, the previous Scottish Executive produced "It's everyone's job to make sure I'm alright." The Scottish Government has produced, "These Are Our Bairns: a guide for community planning partnerships on being a good corporate parent." Government has to be blunt and concrete in saying that it is entirely unacceptable for any professional—not just social workers, but nurses, doctors, health visitors, housing officers or anybody who is paid from the public purse or who works in a service that is funded by the public purse—not to share information or not to work in children's best interests. That must be the case irrespective of whether people work in a service that works directly with children or one that provides only indirect support to children, or, indeed, whether their client is an adult as opposed to a child.

Often, in the wake of the death of a child, we hear commentators, particularly in the press, say that in the years following all the horrific revelations of institutional abuse of children in our child care system, the pendulum has swung the wrong way and we have gone to the opposite extreme. Apparently, social workers are now too reluctant and reticent to take children into care and the current presumption is that a bad family is better than no family. However, the clear message from Government and Parliament is that there must be no room for fashion or fads when it comes to protecting Scotland's children. Protecting children is a straight-down-the-line decision, which should be evidence based and made with vigour and rigour about what is best for each child. That decision should be made without fear or favour. The quid pro quo from parliamentarians and Government to workers and other professionals is that when they make those decisions without fear or favour, we will stand by them.

According to some studies, 60 to 80 per cent of a social worker's time is spent staring at a computer screen, wrapped up in bureaucracy or doing paperwork. Of course, as Hugh Henry said, resources are always central to any discussion about protecting children's services. I am glad that we have expressed our support for the difficult job that our social workers do and that we recognise the successes that often go unreported. We also recognise that work with children and families is complex and takes time, and that there needs to be dialogue and sharing of information.

I am proud of Scotland's children's hearings system. However, there is never any room for complacency. Approximately 50 children throughout the UK die every year at the hands of their parents or carers. As we know and as we have heard today, there are many forms of abuse. We have to stand by our children. The challenge for policy makers and politicians is to feel for the children who do not have parents or people to put their interests first. As Sandra White said, we must want for those children what we would want for our own children.

Like most parents, I would rather lose a limb than see any harm come to my son. As parliamentarians and legislators, that is the desire and ethos that we need for all Scotland's children.

11:05 am
Photo of Hugh O'Donnell

Hugh O'Donnell (Liberal Democrat)

This has been a useful and valuable debate. As Robert Brown said, we should feel no shame in continuing to have such debates.

If we are honest, everyone in this chamber knows that, notwithstanding its good intentions, the state in all its guises is often the worst of all parental options for vulnerable children. All the available data, to which members who are more knowledgeable than me have alluded during the debate, tell us that In summing up for the Liberal Democrats, I will raise a couple of issues relating to excluded children and training. We need to find a mechanism within the joint working that goes on that takes account of the fact that the priorities of our education services are often at odds with the expectations that we have about supporting vulnerable children. Our obsession with standard grades and highers and so on means that we do not recognise that many children who come from chaotic backgrounds and who might be looked after are making a success of their lives when they get to school on time and do not punch a fellow pupil or verbally abuse a teacher. Our system of education means that children who bring a lot of baggage with them into the classroom are immediately excluded when they vent their feelings in the only forum that they have to do so. That places them at considerable disadvantage. We have to train our teachers to recognise that wee Mary or Johnnie is not necessarily just a bad kid but has a huge number of issues. Exclusion will not necessarily help those children unless we have back-up systems in place to provide the help that is needed.

Karen Whitefield was right to mention the work that North Lanarkshire Council is doing. It provides a good range of support services for young people who are at the point of being accommodated. That involves joint working between education services, social services and health services. We have to consider all the things that we have referred to and the statistics that we have bandied about, such as those that we have received from a variety of voluntary sector organisations. However, we also need to take practical steps to address those issues.

I want to put on record a concern of mine, which is reflected to some extent in the findings of the Barnardo's report that was published at the beginning of the week. All too often there is an assumption in the wider sphere that children who are in care, however we define that—whether they are under formal supervision orders or are being looked after—are there as offenders. We all know, and the statistics show, that most of the young people who are part of our care system are there for their own protection. It grieves me when the local reaction to the refurbishment or siting of residential facilities for children in an area is that bad kids are being brought into the area. We need to change the way in which the media engage with those issues; otherwise, we will have a nimby attitude to the most vulnerable children in our society. That is a particular hobby-horse of mine.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the pathfinder project in Falkirk, which I understand that the minister is going to see on Friday. That is a classic example of how things can be done—there is sharing of information, to which a number of members have referred, and the getting it right for every child model is followed. That requires people to have an understanding of where each of the contributing agencies is coming from in relation to its philosophy and training. I am not convinced that we have got that right and I still believe that we need some form of cross-discipline training for social work, education and police services. Various local authorities are trying to pull those things together, but that is not done universally. We need the Government to take a lead on that.

Where there is a need for secure accommodation, it should not be about just incarceration; it has to be focused on delivering the best outcomes for these children. It is critical that we build these children's self-reliance and resilience, because they are vulnerable and do not react well to changes in circumstances. Other members—Richard Simpson in particular—said that small changes in circumstances, which most of us can absorb and deal with readily, often cause negative reactions in and negative outcomes for such children. We need to build up their resilience, so that they can deal much more sensibly with what we would regard as the normal trials and tribulations of life.

I commend the GIRFEC model and the work that is being done in Falkirk and Polmont in that regard.

As other members have said, we need to provide much more support for adoption and fostering, because the provision is patchy across the country. We also need to take account of the role that kinship care can play and to ensure that the recognition of and funding for it are equitable.

As Hugh Henry said, we must take all the necessary steps to ensure that these children and young people get the best possible start. There is no great contention in the Parliament about how to do that. These children and young people should be the focus of the attention and they deserve our maximum support.

11:12 am
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Murdo Fraser (Conservative)

I welcome not just the debate but the terms of the motion in the name of Adam Ingram, which are quite clear. The motion states:

"That the Parliament agrees that it is unacceptable that outcomes for looked-after children and young people and care leavers across a range of indicators fall so far behind those of their peers".

Adam Ingram went further than that in his opening remarks when he said that the treatment of looked-after children was "a disgrace". We have heard that that view is shared throughout the chamber by members in all parties. The Conservatives are happy to support the motion.

I will deal briefly with the amendments. We have no difficulty with the Liberal Democrat amendment, which amends the Labour amendment and refers to the need for keeping under continuous review child protection practices, which is relevant at present.

There is an awful lot in the Labour amendment with which we would agree. It is right to refer, as Karen Whitefield and others did, to the worrying HMIE report into Aberdeen City Council and some of the questions that that raises. There are serious concerns about effective action not being taken until the crisis point is reached. That is not acceptable and the Parliament is right to be concerned about it. Such is the seriousness of the matter that we are happy to support calls for a statement to be made to the Parliament about it, because ministers have to take a serious interest in it.

We are happy to look again at the question of a children's services bill, which, as Karen Whitefield, said, was consulted on in the previous parliamentary session. We are happy to engage with that.

My concern about the Labour amendment is the wording about funding. I appreciate that there is an issue about funding; I will talk more about that later if I have time. However, I am not clear what the Labour amendment means when it talks about ensuring that

"local authority funding for the care and safety of children more generally is properly protected".

That sounds like a proposal to reintroduce ring fencing. Perhaps Rhona Brankin will clarify that in her closing remarks. If that part of the amendment is not intended to mean that ring fencing should be reintroduced, I am not clear what it is intended to mean. It would be helpful if that could be clarified. If the intention is to reintroduce ring fencing, that is not something that we could support.

I move on to the wider issues. Elizabeth Smith talked about the cost of family breakdown, which is at the core of many of the problems that we have discussed. The Centre for Social Justice estimates that family breakdown costs the UK £22 billion per year. All levels of government must consider policies to support families.

One issue is helping to develop parenting skills. We all acknowledge the problem of parents—some are the second or third generation—who do not have the basic skills to bring up youngsters. We do not want a huge new initiative of Government programmes to deal with that. Tremendous voluntary groups throughout Scotland—Barnardo's springs immediately to mind—are already helping to deliver parenting programmes. The Government should support those groups in their work to ensure that they reach into the areas in which parents have difficulty, to support parents and deal with the cyclical problem of generation after generation bringing up youngsters without the skills that they need to get on in later life.

We must acknowledge that families break down. No matter what Governments do, that will always happen. We will end up with looked-after children in institutional care or foster care and we need better help for those youngsters. Adam Ingram was right to say that corporate families are the substitute of last resort for natural families. Corporate families must perform better, whether on education or on access to friends, sports and other extra-curricular activities. Corporate families could and should do much more to become more like natural families and improve the outcomes for looked-after youngsters.

Foster care was discussed, but one issue that was not mentioned—except by Richard Simpson in passing—is whether smokers should be allowed to foster children. Some local councils are debating that controversial subject. I am not a smoker, but I think that it is difficult to argue for artificially restricting the number of people who can foster children. I would find it difficult to say to well-qualified people who otherwise had the necessary skills, "No, you cannot foster, simply because you smoke," provided that they did not smoke where the children were in the home. We must consider that carefully.

Hugh Henry made excellent points about the pressure on council budgets. The last thing that we want at this time is cuts in children's services. As in Aberdeen and down south, when local authorities face pressure and look for cuts to make, the danger is that they will decide to cut the children's services budget. That can have serious consequences.

I have no wish to bring a discordant note into the debate, which has been largely consensual, so I say as gently as I can to Christina McKelvie that spending £30 million of the education budget on free school meals for children of parents such as me, who can well afford to pay for those meals, is not a priority when budgets for children's services are under pressure. If I had the choice between funding free school meals and funding social work, I know which I would choose. We must rethink those priorities.

Angela Constance and many others referred to the Baby P case. No one in the country could not have been shocked by the details of that horrific case. Margaret Smith was absolutely right when she said that the blame for what happened to Baby P must rest with the evil people who tortured and murdered him and not with the authorities. However, that does not absolve of responsibility the social work authorities in Haringey, which had a duty of care towards the small child and which failed him.

I agree with Ian McKee and many others that social workers are hugely undervalued professionals. They do a vital and difficult job—I would never want to or be qualified to do it—that is pressured, stressful and sometimes dangerous. They face tortuous decisions daily, in which they try to balance the rights of parents with the protection of children. At what point is the decision made to take children away from their parents and put them in a looked-after situation? The judgment of Solomon is required week by week and day by day. That judgment is immensely difficult to make.

However, that does not mean that we should not recognise that very serious failures occurred in the Baby P case. The authorities must be accountable for what went wrong. We must move away from the closed-ranks mentality that is all too prevalent in the public sector. Resignations should have occurred as a result of the Haringey case. That is not because of rage or revenge, but because, unless we have accountability and a resignation, we will not properly learn the lessons of that dreadful case.

11:20 am
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Kenneth Macintosh (Labour)

Like many members, I will start on a positive note. Before the minister starts to worry, that does not mean that I will become unremittingly negative later. I want him to accept my speech in the tone in which it is given—as constructive criticism—and in the context of our general acceptance of the direction of travel, as my colleagues have made clear. It is worth mentioning the broad support from all parties in the Parliament for the approach to looked-after children and for the principles that underpin the getting it right for every child agenda. It is clear that members share a concern not only to protect Scotland's most vulnerable children from harm, but to do what we can to improve the life chances of those who are in care.

I welcome the minister's opening remarks about the importance of corporate parenting. Many members, including Liz Smith, supported what he said about the importance of good parenting in general. He gave encouraging examples of young people who have prospered following their experience of care, and he listed positive examples from the many agencies that are involved in looked-after children's lives and which can and do make a difference.

Much as I agree with the minister that we in Parliament have a role in challenging attitudes and promoting a positive and supportive culture, I was disappointed not to hear more about the concrete action and specific steps that he and his ministerial colleagues are taking. Hugh Henry and Robert Brown made that point well, and it was a theme in the debate.

I will give just a few examples of practical steps that were mentioned. My colleague Karen Whitefield talked about the importance of training for staff in residential and other surroundings and about investing in decent buildings and homes. I add to that the need to offer decent pay rates for jobs that are often undervalued and remain unfilled as a result.

Liz Smith, Claire Baker and several other members talked about the importance of improving educational attainment among looked-after children. The minister's response on what has happened to the pilot projects to address that concern simply highlighted the fact that little action has been taken and no resources have been put in place.

As Helen Eadie did, I highlight the Equality and Human Rights Commission's forthcoming inquiry into the rights of looked-after children to access additional support for learning. I hope that that inquiry's findings will inform the minister's approach to the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill. Given that Christina McKelvie also referred to that inquiry, I should be congratulated on finding something positive in her speech, too.

I assure Murdo Fraser that we deliberately did not refer to ring fencing in our amendment. However, we wanted to emphasise the central importance of funding. Liz Smith made the point well that we should use the concordat as a device to prioritise resources and action, rather than a cloak to hide behind, which it is used as too often.

I support and sympathise with the sentiment behind the motion. The debate, if not the motion, has been full of practical suggestions for policies and initiatives that could make a difference to looked-after children's lives. We can improve how we operate, but I worry that the motion carries the implicit assumption that the care system lets children down and that that system is somehow responsible for poor outcomes for many young people. It is difficult for looked-after children to break out of the cycle of low self-esteem, low expectations and low attainment, but much of the damage to their lives is done long before they enter the care system. We can do better but, in foster families and residential placements, the care system is full of committed, sympathetic and professional people who overwhelmingly try to provide a safe, secure and stable environment for young people who might never have experienced such a home.

Although it is right that we work to improve the service, children who are at risk but not yet in the care system face the biggest problem. We know that early intervention would make a difference in nearly every case, but too many children become looked after almost as a form of crisis management rather than a structured intervention. For example, very few of the horrific abuse cases that Angela Constance recounted took place in a foster family or care home; they nearly all involved children who were identified as being at risk but who were not taken into care.

I am only too aware that, as others have said, the debate takes place against the backdrop of the Baby P case in London and, closer to home, the report into social work and children's services in Aberdeen, which, as my colleague Karen Whitefield highlighted, was one of the most critical inspection reports that we have ever seen. As Margaret Smith and Ian McKee argued, social workers do not harm babies; unfortunately, some parents and families do. However, given what we know about Baby P, Caleb Ness, Victoria Climbie and the frightening, depressing list of abuse cases that grab our headlines, we have an obligation to address the identified shortcomings. In Aberdeen City Council's case, that means a ministerial statement on the steps that are being taken to turn round a failing service. At a national level, it means a clear statement of intent on a children's services bill.

Time and again, the point has been made that, if only information had been shared, tragedy might have been averted. Richard Simpson gave some forceful illustrations of what that means in practice. The children's services bill that was drafted in 2007 would introduce a statutory duty on people to share information, rather than relying on a voluntary system. The minister knows that he would enjoy my party's support if he were to enact such a measure.

I imagine that most of us are familiar with the phrase "needs not deeds", which is often used to describe the focus of the children's hearings system. To turn the phrase on its head in describing the Scottish Government's approach, we need to spend less time describing what needs to be done and more on our deeds because, unfortunately, there is a gap between the minister's good intentions and the practical actions that are being taken.

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Hugh Henry (Labour)

Will Ken Macintosh refer to the point that Murdo Fraser made about funding? I understand that the Labour amendment does not call for ring fencing but, notwithstanding what Murdo Fraser said about that and in light of Ken Macintosh's point about deeds, it is surely incumbent on the Parliament and on ministers to get local authorities to specify the resources that are intended for child protection and to guarantee that they will be spent on ensuring that children are protected.

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Kenneth Macintosh (Labour)

I agree with Mr Henry about that. I hope that I can reassure Murdo Fraser that we do not have to ring fence, because other mechanisms exist. The Government has put in place a supposedly historic concordat of which it is proud. Surely that historic concordat and the single outcome agreements can be used to deliver for Scotland's children and ensure that money is spent on the priorities that we have identified in the Parliament.

By way of illustration, I will give a few examples in which that approach is not being taken. What has happened to the support that should be in place for vulnerable two-year-olds and the £34 million that was earmarked at Westminster for the families of disabled children? Why are we witnessing cuts in pupil support and additional support for learning? Where is the much talked-of financial support for kinship carers?

Sandra White talked of a threat to 600 jobs at Glasgow City Council, but—to use a favourite Scottish National Party expression accurately for once—that is simply misleading scaremongering. It is perhaps more worrying that SNP back benchers and ministers are unwilling to follow through the logic of their rhetoric on the financial settlement for local authorities. It is not enough to have a consensus on the will to look after children better if we are not prepared to will the means to do so.

I do not underestimate the challenges that face those who care for our young people or the difficult decisions that ministers face when they set priorities and allocate funding. However, we need to accept our responsibilities. Given the overwhelming support that the Parliament has expressed for ensuring that we get it right for every child, I hope that the minister will tell us less about what needs to be done and more about what is being done to make a difference for our looked-after and vulnerable children.

11:30 am
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Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

I will deal first with the Labour amendment. Aberdeen City Council, like all local authorities, has an existing statutory duty to protect children. Statutory obligations have first call on a council's resources. The deficiency in Aberdeen was related not to the financial resources that were at the council's disposal, but to its failure to deploy and manage them efficiently and effectively for the purpose of child protection. Margaret Smith highlighted those deficiencies accurately and well in her speech.

Social work and child protection services at Aberdeen City Council are being reorganised and restructured to ensure that the deficiencies are rectified. The various inspectorates that are involved will conduct follow-up inspections to ensure that their recommendations and the remedial action plan have been successfully implemented. I have already made public statements on the HMIE report and intend to issue further information to MSPs in a fact sheet, but I will respond to members if they want more information.

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Rhona Brankin (Labour)

Does the minister accept that one of the key findings of the HMIE report on services in Aberdeen was that there was a failure to share information adequately? Will he refer to that in his speech?

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Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

I am about to come to information sharing, which was not at the heart of the problem in Aberdeen.

Labour calls on us to revisit the draft children's services bill, but the First Minister has made it clear to Iain Gray that the key issues with which we have to deal relate to hard, practical policy implementation. We are taking that forward through the getting it right for every child programme.

Local authorities are not short of statutory obligations and guidance. Thresholds for taking a child into care should not be determined nationally by a tick-box policy formula but must be determined by the individual needs of, and risks to, the child. Every case is different, and professionals need to be empowered to take confident, competent and timely decisions for the child. We can achieve that through the getting it right for every child practice model, which we are testing out in pathfinders in the Highlands and elsewhere—including Falkirk, as Hugh O'Donnell said.

Because professionals sometimes disagree about which course of action is best for the child, the GIRFEC approach proposes that agencies agree on a lead professional to co-ordinate multi-agency discussion. As Hugh O'Donnell pointed out, joint training is another important aspect, as that will enable professionals to understand one another's language so that the cultures of the organisations involved do not impinge on decision making.

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Kenneth Macintosh (Labour)

We accept that there is not just one way to address the problem, but will there come a time when the minister will revisit his approach if it does not work and reach a new view on the statutory sharing of information?

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Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

Yes. I am pointing out what we believe should be the way forward. People protect children, so building relationships at a local level—allowing appropriate information to be shared and action to be taken—is the key to improvement in child protection. Legislation is not a magic bullet. However, if it becomes apparent that a change in the law would help, we will introduce legislation, for which we would obviously welcome the Opposition parties' support. However, there is no such imperative at this time.

The tone and substance of the amendment in the name of Margaret Smith strike the right balance. The Scottish Government will introduce proposals to shift culture and practice towards prevention and early intervention and away from an approach in which people wait for risk to materialise, as happens, unfortunately, all too often under current systems.

I will respond to other issues that were raised during the debate. I am indeed encouraged by North Lanarkshire Council's example of investment in fostering and residential care. I agree that, throughout the country, more foster carers are required, along with better training and support.

Members asked what I am doing. I have tasked the fostering and kinship care reference group with making recommendations, and I shall receive the group's report shortly. A national residential care review is on-going, and it will report soon, too. I confirm to Sandra White that I would be happy to meet the foster carer groups that she mentioned to address the many issues that I know are live at the moment.

I can confirm to Richard Simpson that, in implementing the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007, we are currently consulting on the looked-after children regulations. The consultation ends in January and the regulations will be laid before Parliament shortly thereafter. Discussions with the GMC are on-going—I take on board the thrust of Dr Simpson's arguments. I think that we need to make more use of the medical expertise of professionals such as Dr Simpson to ensure that all professionals understand the importance of stability, early intervention—including prenatal care—and continuity of care. I would be more than happy to sit down and work with Dr Simpson on the issues that he raised. Clearly, Ian McKee has an important contribution to make, too.

I agree with Hugh Henry that there is no point in mere exhortation to do better. We need to drive improvements. Our single outcome agreements with local authorities provide the vehicle for so doing. I agree with him that ministers must take responsibility—I like to think that I am doing so—for driving those improvements.

I thank members for engaging so positively in the debate. It is good to hear that colleagues from all parties are committed to improving outcomes for looked-after children, young people and care leavers. Sometimes we in Scotland have a tendency to focus on the negatives and, as we have heard, it is all too easy to do that with the care system. However, there are many success stories and there can be many more. The contribution that we all make to the lives of looked-after children and young people can have a positive impact on their lives. We can give them a positive future. I believe that Scotland has the potential to be a successful country that values all its citizens and empowers them to be all they can be. The Parliament has a central role in making that happen. Why should our looked-after children, young people and care leavers do less well than their peers? Why should our expectations and aspirations for them not be as high as for young people who are not looked after?

Across the country and across sectors, we are seeing a growing enthusiasm, understanding and desire for real change. I believe that the materials that we have recently launched in the context of our commitments in "Early Years and Early Intervention", "Getting it right for every child", "A Curriculum for Excellence" and "More Choices, More Chances" will support the care system in providing a positive experience so that looked-after young people grow up to be effective, responsible citizens and, above all, happy.

Let us not forget—Robert Brown made this very point—that around half our looked-after children live at home with their birth parents under a supervision order from a children's hearing. Those children currently fare worst of all. Over the coming months, I am making it a priority to examine what we can do to make a real difference for such children.

In partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we have just completed four regional events at which I have engaged with more than 400 stakeholders from all sectors. From that engagement, we are building a picture of not only the good practice that already exists but the ideas that people have that could make a real difference in the future.

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Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

That engagement is a three-way process: local services will inform national policy; national policy will influence local delivery; and local services will learn from one another. To build on that further, recognising the key role that local councillors have as corporate parents, we and COSLA will organise a session in the spring at which elected members will be offered the opportunity to share learning, so that they feel better equipped for that challenging task.

I see that the Presiding Officer wants me to close—

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Adam Ingram (Scottish National Party)

As a minister, I am a member of that corporate family, and I will ensure that the Scottish Government plays its part. I look forward to members' support in enabling us to do that.