Children in Care

– in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 4 February 1998.

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Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 1:30, 4 February 1998

It is a shame that, rather than remaining in the Chamber for a significant and important debate, so many hon. Members feel the urgent need for lunch. I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this subject. Many issues raised are important—unlike the subject of the previous debate—but this issue goes beyond that. How we look after children in care defines what sort of people we are. I have applied for this debate many times. It raises issues with which I have been concerned for many years. It carries the hopes of people whom I am privileged to call friends: young people in care—and those who have left care—excellent residential social workers, fine foster carers.

I shall not spend too much of the brief time available detailing the problems of local authority care. They are well set out in Sir William Utting's recent report, "People Like Us"; in recent submissions to the Select Committee on Health; and in notable publications from bodies such as the Who Cares? Trust, the National Foster Care Association.

We are all aware of investigations into scandalous sexual abuse. Many of us are learning about other issues: of the significant shortages of foster carers; of the 75 per cent. of children in care who leave formal education with no qualifications; of the 23 per cent. of the adult prison population who were brought up in care; of the 30 per cent. of homeless 16 to 17-year-olds who have care backgrounds; of the sheer lack of placements; and of children who experience placement breakdowns and heart-wrenching moves time and again. No honest person who asks the simple yet searching question, "Would this be good enough for my child?" could possibly answer in the affirmative. Is there any decent person who is not affronted by such facts?

Many good people work in local authority care. Brave and resilient young people have benefited from it. Some progress has been made. The Warner recommendations of recent years have improved staff selection and slightly raised qualification levels. There is hope from a ministerial task force that will give the Utting report its utmost serious consideration. "People Like Us" calls for urgent action to raise standards, a national strategy for residential care and an inspection of the recruitment and support of foster carers, followed by a Government code of practice.

We have a Minister—it is good to see him in his place—who palpably listens to young people and people working in residential and foster care. It is the 50th anniversary of the Children Act 1948, which established children's officers. The deep irony is that the Act was in the wake of an inquiry following the death of a child in foster care. This year, the United Kingdom must prepare a report on its implementation of the United Nations convention on children's rights.

I suggest that we need to do three big things. They will not solve every problem, but they would set us on the right track and could form the basis of a properly valued and intensely valuable care system. First, we should put children's rights at the forefront of our agenda. Secondly, we should develop the training and career structure of residential workers. Thirdly, we should instigate a significant element of professional fostering in every local authority.

To justify the latter two suggestions, the House should consider the tasks that we ask of largely unqualified residential workers and inadequately supported foster carers. They do not simply play a parental role, which is familiar to many of us, or merely undertake the hugely complex and stressful task of keeping children warm, safe, fed and open to play and education. Moreover, they do not just negotiate boundaries and deal with growing pains and all the horrors of adolescence. They do much more than that.

Residential workers and foster carers comfort and help children to come to terms with abuse and overwhelming rejection; handle the manifold issues and tremendous inconsistencies surrounding parental contacts; undertake the acutely sensitive work of settling someone in and offering trust; make all the complex preparation for possible moves to permanent family placements or to independence; assist children to make relationships with all the strangers with whom they did not choose to live; try to maintain consistency and make the needs of children paramount; understand anger and deal with sometimes appalling behaviour without rejecting the person behind it; undergo advocacy on behalf of the child with the plethora of institutions, professionals and agencies who come in and out of the child's life; listen and communicate, often at those times of acute distress which just happen to be late at night when they are just off to bed, no one else is around and they are left to deal with the problem; understand law and social policy and—crucially—how to make bureaucratic systems work; manage carefully the competing demands of needy children who vie for one's attention immediately; keep going when their best efforts are rejected, are able to have a laugh, and at the end of the day, still actually like children.

I have observed and managed residential and foster care. It seems that such activities are grounded in the everyday task of parenting—but they go way beyond that. The tasks are professional, yet at the heart of this most distressing problem, we expect that the complex, deeply sensitive, emotionally and physically exhausting task of looking after the most needy children can be done on the cheap by low-paid and unqualified workers; by people with other jobs and families who work in their spare time; by people whose esteem is lowered by the lack of credibility afforded them; by people whose career opportunities largely rest on getting out in order to get on.

We shall never really offer a better future for children in care until that is changed, and we recognise the ludicrously simple reality that all residential workers need to be professionally qualified, with a proper career structure, and that we need at least a good proportion of foster carers to be people who are paid a living wage and properly trained and supported for doing what is more than a full-time job.

We shall never get things right until then; we shall never give the more than 40,000 children in care their basic right to the best childhood that they can have. If we really want to stress children's rights, perhaps we should heed the words of Sir William Utting: We should make direct use of the experience of young people in developing policy, planning and training for services for children who live away from home … looking after them would be easier and much more effective if we really heard and understood what they have to tell us. Listening to a new national organisation for young people in care would be a good task for the Government. Listening to children in care could be the basis of a new system of local authority care. Putting residential care and foster care on a proper footing could help us all to be proud of who we are.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health) 1:40, 4 February 1998

The whole House will welcome the opportunity to address this important issue. Our children and young people are our future and we as a society must be a better parent than we have been to a crucial group of children—children who are looked after, those for whom we have a responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) brings to the debate, and to the topic in general, a body of knowledge and experience in the care of children in institutional settings that is especially valuable. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought to my Department just such a group of young people, thus enabling them to share with my officials and me their valuable insights into the experience of care.

There is much that we need to do. When describing the Government's approach to Sir William Utting's report, the Secretary of State made it clear that we attach special importance to the subject. A ministerial task force under the leadership of my right hon. Friend has been established, and it will operate across government to ensure that the various Departments with an interest in the area are well represented.

It is not without significance that we see a special role for education. It is a vital task when it comes to moving young people from care into the world of adulthood and work in a seamless way that is supportive of them. Sadly, that is far from characteristic of the current situation, in which young people leaving care all too often find themselves adrift in a hostile uncaring world. Unlike so many other children, they do not have parents and a wider family there for them.

We as a society have a duty to ensure that we do not allow that group of vulnerable young people leaving care—after perhaps spending their whole lives there—with all the problems that my hon. Friend has described. We cannot have them launched out into the world in a leaky vessel, likely to add to the statistics of failure and criminality that are too often the sad consequences of neglect at that vital time. The Government are determined to put an end to that situation.

What are we doing about the problem? First, we see a role for good practice and training. Her Majesty's chief inspector of social services has carried out an important assessment of local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards, to ensure that what is already supposed to be in place is there. That body of work continues, and is giving us valuable indicators of what we have to do. We shall continue to act on the messages brought to us.

We also see a role for a change in the way in which we focus social care, and in the context in which such care is delivered. That is why, in the late spring or early summer, we shall publish a White Paper on social services that will set out our detailed proposals for the improvements in the regulation of social services that we believe are long overdue.

That will mean a transparent, tough, accountable but independent regulatory and inspection system, which will drive up standards in residential settings for young people. It will also mean closer co-operation between health and social care services, so that we can deal with some of the health problems, not least those involving mental health, that affect young people in care.

The Government are committed to the establishment of a general social care council, and the statutory regulation and discipline, where appropriate, of professional workers in the field. We believe that such a body, which will also have a responsibility for training, will make a real difference where, as my hon. Friend knows too well, a difference needs to be made.

I shall now address some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised. He mentioned the vital role of training and qualifications in the delivery of services to that group of under-privileged and vulnerable young people. We recognise that there has been some progress in the training of heads and deputy heads of homes. Less progress, however, has been made in the support of other staff in gaining relevant national vocational qualifications.

That, I know, is an area of concern for the Select Committee, to which I had the pleasure of giving evidence last week. What I said to the Committee, and what I now repeat to the House, is that, in view of the importance that we attach to ensuring that residential child care staff are qualified to do the difficult and challenging task expected of them, we have ring-fenced about £2 million for 1998–99 to fuel the demand for level 3 NVQs for residential child care staff.

That will have a significant impact in ensuring that those young people receive care from people who can draw on the qualifications that equip them better to do the job, and on a body of knowledge and learning that gives them as residential workers a greater sense of status and self-esteem. One of the problems that my hon. Friend recognises is that, for too long, residential care work has been regarded in some circles as an inferior form of social work. That is not acceptable. For the Government, it is a vital branch of social work, and we want it to be given the recognition and status that are its due.

My hon. Friend mentioned fostering. In stark contrast to my predecessor at the Department of Health under the departed Conservative regime, we recognise that there is a problem with the recruitment and retention of foster carers. They are required to carry out some difficult and complex tasks in relation to the upbringing of some difficult and vulnerable children, some of whom have complex needs. Other children whose problems are not so severe or complex do not necessarily require the same degree of attention, but they do require the love, care and support that every child needs.

The recruitment problems go across the board. The Department is determined to encourage support for local initiatives to recruit foster carers which are rooted in an assessment of local needs. We want the measures necessary to encourage a particular group of people to come forward to deliver this valuable service. Those will vary from area to area. For instance, where there is a particular problem with recruiting foster carers from the ethnic minority communities, the evidence shows that it is a good idea to put advertisements in newspapers and publications that are read within those communities. The evidence also shows that, whatever the ethnic background of a community, locally based campaigns, using local media, institutions and person-to-person contact, are the best way to recruit foster carers.

We want to encourage local authorities to learn from one another, and to learn good practice. We also want to make sure that, once foster carers are recruited, they are retained. That means ensuring that they have appropriate training and flexible levels of remuneration to recognise the differing degrees of complexity and the differing demands required of foster carers according to the needs of children and young people. We are not saying that all carers should be paid the same; we recognise that some will need to be paid more than others. Some do not see their role as essentially professional at all but as a voluntary contribution to the welfare of the community, and they want it to be recognised as such. The system needs to be sufficiently flexible to recognise that, and work must be done in relation to the residential staff of children's homes and other institutions and foster carers.

My hon. Friend called for a greater recognition of the importance of children's rights. Following the start that the Government have made in this area, I hope that he feels that we have shown that we regard children's rights as important. We set that approach within the broader framework of the rights and responsibilities that parents, children and society have as well. Rights need to be balanced with responsibilities. It is central to the approach of the Government to ensure that that is applied to children just as much as to parents.

My hon. Friend was present at a conference at the beginning of this week at which we began, as a United Kingdom, to prepare our response to the United Nations in terms of our fulfilment of our treaty obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child. It will be our second report, and we are determined that it will be characterised by a child-centred approach that recognises that children and young people must be given a voice.

We started the process on Monday. My hon. Friend was present, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who has done so much inside and outside the House for children and children's rights. Also present, I am glad to say, were many distinguished representatives of the voluntary sector and the president of the family division of the High Court. We are drawing on all those strands, with children and young people at the heart. I hope that we will see the fruition of that work in a report that will, of itself, provide an agenda for change.

We must make sure that the issue is taken forward across Government. That is why the lead given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in terms of the establishment and operation of the social exclusion unit is so important. In launching the unit at Stockwell Manor school, my right hon. Friend put the rights and interests of children and young people in care—particularly at the vulnerable time when they leave care—at the heart of Government policy. Within the Department, we shall ensure that the work of the unit is co-ordinated with policy to focus on the needs and interests of children and young people.

In terms of the new deal and welfare to work, we have seen the process begin. We must make sure that care leavers claiming jobseeker's allowance are able to enter the new deal programme early if they choose so to do. That is one example of the way in which we have adapted policy to make sure that we deliver to that most vulnerable group of young people. The new start strategy—part of our investment in young people—is a national strategy based on partnership projects, which co-ordinates local action to tackle poor motivation and non-participation in learning, with a focus on 14 to 17-year-olds who have dropped out of learning or are at risk of doing so. That strategy also ought to focus on care leavers, and that is why a number of new start projects focus specifically on that particular group.

The voluntary sector is working with us in partnership. My hon. Friend knows of First Key and the vital work—supported by the Department—that it does in seeing how the Government ought to meet the challenge of giving children and young people in care a voice and a role to play in the development, formulation, monitoring and implementation of policy. We are studying the results of that research carefully. The ministerial task force will consider the matter as it responds to Sir William Utting's report and, in due course, we shall make announcements.

I also want to mention the Who Cares? Trust and the valuable work that it does in this area. The Prince's Trust recently launched a three-year programme, specifically addressing the provision of mentors for care leavers. The aim is to ensure that, by the year 2000, all young people leaving care will have access to someone to help, support and advise them. My hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for Newcastle-under-Lyme have taken up this issue, and it was a matter of concern for the Health Select Committee.

The notion of mentoring is that we bring someone on board in the life of that child. We can call that person a mentor, a befriender, a counsellor, a supporter or a champion; the important thing is that they are there for the child in care. Being there: that is what it is all about. The House has to be there for the child and young person and it is as a result of debates such as this, and the interest and concern that they generate, that we shall be there for children and young people in care. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling the debate to take place. I must tell him, and all my right hon. and hon. Friends interested in this matter, that, for children and young people in care, the best is yet to come. We shall be there for them.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.