Vulnerable Children

– in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 16th July 2003.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 4:18 pm, 16th July 2003

I beg to move,

That this House
notes that it is now almost six months since the publication of Lord Laming's report on the Victoria Climbié Inquiry and well over three years since the death of this little girl;
further notes that, of the 108 recommendations by Lord Laming, 82 were recommended to be acted upon within six months;
condemns the Government for its continued failure to produce the long-awaited Green Paper on Children at Risk, which was originally promised in the spring as the Government's response to many of the systemic failures in child protection highlighted by Lord Laming;
is concerned at the continued failure of the Government to address the crisis in recruitment of social worker professionals skilled in child protection who are essential to addressing these failures;
regrets that local authorities are unable to implement changes recommended in the Report which would improve the delivery of children's services, because of the delay in the publication of the Government's response;
welcomes the creation of the post of a Minister for Children, after six years in government;
and calls on the Government to publish the Green Paper immediately as planned in order to secure the confidence and support of all those involved in the protection of vulnerable children.

This debate should not be happening today. On the penultimate day that the House sits before the summer recess, it has taken an Opposition day debate to force the Government to address the issues of child abuse and safeguarding vulnerable children that were highlighted so graphically and alarmingly by Lord Laming's report into the death of Victoria Climbié. The report was published almost six months ago, and the number of hon. Members remaining in the Chamber shows what a pent-up demand there is for this debate.

Since 28 January, no Minister has made a further statement to the House and we have been constantly fobbed off with the excuse, "It's all in the Green Paper, just wait a little longer". We are still waiting. Only this month, we were told that we and, more important, vulnerable children will have to wait even longer, at least until the other side of the summer recess, despite the Government's previous undertakings, on a matter of the utmost urgency and relevance for all hon. Members.

The events and circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, set out in Lord Laming's excellent, comprehensive but deeply worrying report, cannot have failed to move everyone in the House and beyond. It is the most harrowing case that I have ever experienced in my six years as a Member. An eight-year-old child was brought to the United Kingdom from the Ivory Coast, supposedly in search of a better life, in the care of a distant relative, only to die 10 months later with 128 injuries, including cigarette burns, weals from beatings with bicycle chains, belts and coat hangers, and hammer blows to her feet. She weighed only 3 stone 10 lbs, with severe muscle wasting and lung, heart and kidney failure after months of systematic abuse. As Lord Laming said, she was

"the victim of almost unimaginable cruelty".

Thankfully, the perpetrators of that horrific crime, Marie Therese Kouao and Carl Manning, are currently serving long jail sentences. More worryingly, the serious systemic failures that let down Victoria Climbié have still largely to be addressed.

In a report of 405 pages with 108 recommendations, in an inquiry that took 279 witness statements and sifted through 4,000 documents, Herbert Laming insisted that changes to the system were urgently required. He identified 46 recommendations that could be implemented within three months and 36 that could and should be implemented within six months. The rest could be implemented within two years. Those recommendations, as he put it,

"cannot be deferred to some bright tomorrow".

He made the grave finding:

"Not one of the agencies empowered by Parliament to protect children in positions similar to Victoria's—funded from the public purse—emerge from this inquiry with much credit. The suffering and death of Victoria was a gross failure of the system and was inexcusable . . . bad practice can be expensive."

Haringey police admitted:

"In the A-Z of an investigation, that investigation did not even get to B."

The then Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Milburn assured us:

"If some good is to come out of this tragedy, lasting change must come out of it too."—[Hansard, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 741.]

The Opposition have offered unqualified support to address a situation that brings shame on our society, with whatever measures are needed, and quickly, and have expressed a determination that this report—the latest of 30 reports on the deaths of children known to social services in as many years—should be different.

Despite all that, since 28 January, no Minister has come to the House to report on the progress of the measures being taken in the wake of Lord Laming's report. No Government time has been allocated to debate child protection measures in the Chamber. The Green Paper on children at risk, promised much earlier in the spring as the Government's formal response to the Laming inquiry, and almost "sexed up" as the universal panacea for everything that is wrong in the whole issue of child protection, has still not appeared. It has been shunted off until some unspecified date in the autumn at the earliest.

The tragedy is that the events surrounding Victoria Climbié's death were not isolated. There have been numerous other high-profile cases of children dying at the hands of parents or carers: for example, the case of six-year-old Lauren Wright from Norfolk; the case of two-year-old Ainlee Walker from Newham; and the case in my own constituency of four-year-old John Smith, who died on Christmas eve 1999 with 54 bruises, bite marks and burns that he suffered at the hands of his foster carers. We know that, on average, 80 children, mostly under the age of one, die in such circumstances every year, and that most of the perpetrators go unpunished.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children survey of 366 such cases found that in 225 no further action was taken against the suspected perpetrators, and 99 convictions were secured, but few of them were for the charge of murder—they were mostly for the lesser charge of cruelty. The indictment rate for such people has been falling drastically.

As hon. Members know, there is a particular problem with the legal loophole of proving joint enterprise that still needs to be resolved despite the efforts of hon. Members on both sides of the House to amend Home Office Bills to that effect.

It is not only the extreme cases that end in death about which we need to be concerned. Many more problems associated with vulnerable children urgently need action from the Government. For example, a quarter of all rape victims in the United Kingdom are children and those are just the ones that we know about. Despite the good work that is being done as a result of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which we all supported, there are still about 55,000 looked-after children and 30,000 children are on the child protection register, with 600 being added every week. Those children are 50 times more likely than the average child to end up in prison, 60 times more likely to become homeless and 88 times more likely to be involved in drug abuse.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged the Adoption and Children Act. Will he also acknowledge the fact that the Adoption Forum has decided to wind up because the Government have fulfilled its agenda, including the passage of that Act and the creation of the post of Minister for Children?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Indeed. I pay tribute to the excellent work that members of that forum did. It is regrettable in many ways that it has been wound up, but it is a sign that much work has been done and I pay tribute to the progress that has been made as a result of the 2002 Act on which we both spent many hours, days and weeks—in fact, more than a year.

It is also estimated that three out of every five children who suffer abuse have mothers who experience domestic violence from their partners, that 19 in every 10,000 children under the age of 18 are receiving support services from local authorities—in inner London, that figure rises to as many as 43 in every 10,000—and one in 10 have mental health problems. It is estimated that about 450,000 children are the victims of bullying at school. We have recently seen too many examples of children being driven to suicide as a result of those and other pressures. Furthermore, 130,000 children call ChildLine every year.

We also have a crisis with the children and family court system. A recent report revealed that children at risk of abuse are waiting up to 15 weeks in some parts of the country for court hearings on their future because of a shortage of guardians to represent them after the Government's bungled reorganisation resulted in the loss of many skilled professionals in that area of child protection.

In London, where about 190 children are waiting for hearings to decide whether they should be taken into care, vulnerable children often remain with the people who pose a threat to them because the system is overloaded and taking too long at a crucial and sensitive time. As the Minister recently revealed in a written answer, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is dealing with about 12,245 public law cases concerned with care, adoption and guardianship.

There are also serious concerns about the number of children who are held in prison, which has doubled from 1,328 in 1992 to 2,609 last year. The provisions of child welfare considerations under the Children Act 1989 do not extend a duty to prison authorities.

There are concerns about the continuation of private fostering despite the strong recommendations of the Utting report, echoed by Lord Laming, which affects more than 10,000 children, primarily from west Africa whence Victoria Climbié came. There are concerns about the continued delay in the national service framework for children, which now seems to have been put back well into 2004.

All in all, the health and welfare of our children does not appear to have been a priority under this Government and the delay in the Green Paper, which is intended as a discussion document and not firm Government proposals, can only add to that impression. As the all-party parliamentary group on children put it in its annual review,

"In general children are, and have been ignored in the area of health policy. But children should be a focus because nothing matters more to families than the health, welfare and future success of their children."

As Lucy Thorpe, policy director of the NSPCC put it,

"Children are ¼ of the population and for too long their health needs, from a child-centred perspective, have come a poor second to those of adults."

What the Government have been good at, however, is coming up with new schemes, bodies and titles, supposedly to deal with child welfare: the children and young people's unit, area child protection committees, sure start, home start, children's fund, children's trusts, children's centres, the neighbourhood support fund, the parenting fund, Connexions, quality protects, the neighbourhood nurseries initiative, children's strategic partnership bodies, the national service framework for children—or lack of it—CAFCASS, the children's tsar, and so on. I am sure that each of those has merits, but taken together, they represent a bombardment of local initiatives from central Government. They are not joined up, often work in silos and, as Lord Laming has said, often poach staff from one another.

Conversely, what the Government are particularly bad at producing is the increase in the number of social workers skilled in child protection who can carry out those initiatives and look out for children on the ground. The Government always claim that they have no central information on recruitment or retention rates. According to Library figures, the social worker vacancy rate is well above 10 per cent. and much higher for child social workers, and things are much worse in London and the south-east.

Many experienced professionals are demoralised and leaving the profession. The figures conceal the real problems of a heavy reliance on agency staff and a big turnover in staff. A Unison survey revealed that 60 per cent. of departments said that, even if all the vacant posts were filled, there would still not be enough social workers to manage the current case loads—and those case loads will increase, with the extra duties being placed on local authorities, for example, with responsibilities under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and so on.

Clearly, there are many problems with the welfare of children that the Government urgently need to address, and we might have expected them to be addressed urgently after the then Secretary of State's encouraging response to the Laming report.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

My hon. Friend mentions social worker vacancies. Does he agree that it behoves all of us, particularly the press, to act with great responsibility when social workers are brought into the limelight for having done something wrong? Although we would all want such matters to be fully and properly investigated, we must bear in mind the effect on those thinking of joining the profession if the downside seems huge and the upside is ignored.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I could not agree more. No one is interested in reading the story about the plane that landed safely. The press only like to come up with the bad news stories that pillory social workers, who are given a bad reputation. The vast majority of them do a very good job in increasingly difficult circumstances, and we all have a duty to improve the image. There has been too much finger-pointing, which is most unhelpful.

There are many questions still to be answered. In his response to the Laming report, my hon. Friend Dr. Fox posed a series of practical questions to clarify the Government's intentions. He asked how the House could monitor progress on the Laming report in a truly transparent way. How will communications improve in practice, beyond just setting up new structures? What role is envisaged for the greater use of information sharing in early detection? What review of the Data Protection Act 1998 will the Government undertake to ensure that nothing stands in the way proper information sharing? To what extent does the Secretary of State believe that the current classification of children in need of protection militates against appropriate protection? What changes will be made? What has the Secretary of State learned from the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which places a positive duty of care on parents to promote children's well-being? Should sections 27 and 47 of the Children Act 1989 be amended to include the police and general practitioners as agencies that should support local authorities in carrying out their duties in relation to children in need of protection?

Many other hon. Members have asked questions as well about the future of children's trusts and whether the Secretary of State agrees that all the agencies involved in area child protection committees should have a statutory duty to take part in them. In answer to all those points and more, which the Secretary of State welcomed, he pointed to the forthcoming Green Paper to provide the comprehensive answers. I say again that we are still waiting, so I and other hon. Members have been tabling a number of questions to elicit answers from the Government.

For example, earlier in the year, I asked the Secretary of State

"how many recommendations by Lord Laming in his report on Victoria Climbié shown as achievable within three months have been initiated; which have not".

The response from the Minister, who is present today in a new role as the Minister for Industry and the Regions, was:

"There are 46 recommendations in the Victoria Climbié Inquiry which are . . . achievable within three months . . . the checklist of good practice recommendations sent to police, health and social services . . . were also included in the self-audit tools which were issued subsequently by the Commission for Health Improvement and the Social Services Inspectorate. The remaining . . . recommendations will be covered in our substantive response to the report, to be published shortly as part of the Green Paper on Children at Risk."—[Hansard, 3 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 65–66W.]

Sending out a checklist is not the same as acting on the recommendations and being able to see how the system has changed as a result. What auditing mechanism is in place to make sure that local authorities have acted on the good practice recommendations? Will compliance, for example, be a component of social services star ratings in future?

Earlier in the year, I asked which area child protection committees are complying with the guidance from the Laming report. I received the answer:

"The information requested is not held centrally."—[Hansard, 10 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 96W.]

I asked which recommendations the Government intended to implement. The Government's answer was:

"we will make our substantive response to the report as part of the Green Paper on Children at Risk, which will be published in the spring."—[Hansard, 3 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 882W.]

We do not therefore know how much of the Laming report the Government agree with and want to implement. Which recommendations do they not intend to adopt?

I asked:

"what communications to GPs regarding procedures for dealing with children suspected of suffering harm at the hands of their carers have been issued"?

I received the answer:

"There were no communications directly to general practitioners regarding procedures for dealing with children suspected of suffering harm at the hands of their carers".—[Hansard, 27 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 701W.]

I asked,

"what discussions he has had with social services authorities in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast about the dangers to children coming to the UK to live without their parents."—[Hansard, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 516W.]

The answer was, "None". One might have expected the Government to address the source of the problem in Victoria Climbié's case—not least because of the high incidence of child trafficking from that part of the world and private fostering involving children from west Africa—either through dealing with international social services or directly with those Governments. The answer, however, is that nothing has happened.

I asked the Minister,

"what assessment he has made of the compatibility of the confidentiality considerations contained in the Data Protection Act . . . and the sharing of information about vulnerable children between agencies recommended by Lord Laming."

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring mentioned, that was a key consideration. Surprise, surprise, the answer was that the Government

"will publish a full response to the report in the spring."—[Hansard, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 31W.]

I therefore asked what estimate the Secretary of State had made of

"the cost of the implementation of recommendations in the Laming report for each local authority".

We were told:

"This good practice . . . is covered within the budgets already allocated"— but, surprise, surprise—

"The response to the Inquiry, covering all the other recommendations, will be made as part of the Green Paper on Children at Risk."—[Hansard, 3 June 2003; Vol. 405, c. 368W.]

Never in the history of Parliament, it would appear, has so much been promised in a single Green Paper.

Local authorities are in limbo as to what resources to use for the Laming recommendations, let alone which will take priority, and we all know that without the resources and the professional staff, the Laming report will not be implemented in anything like the comprehensive way that is necessary if it is to make a real difference.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Those of us who were on social services committees during the last Conservative Government will not recognise anything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. As a member of a social services committee that went through the Kimberley Carlisle inquiry, I know that the Government did not fund a single recommendation that came out of it. Local authorities were forced to fund that from their existing budgets. For his information, the local authority was also forced to pay for the entire inquiry out of that budget.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Labour Members may like to play the usual game of saying that it is all the fault of the Conservative party.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Let me give an answer first. In the 1990s, we had nothing like the same haemorrhaging of professional, skilled social workers—the people with the experience of dealing with these cases day in, day out—demoralised by having too many agency workers filling places and having extra responsibilities placed on them without the extra resources to go with it. We do not therefore need to take any lessons from the Labour party.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I will give way in a minute, if I can make a little more progress.

In many respects, therefore, an awful lot is riding on this Green Paper. Its non-appearance is not simply an unfortunate oversight in parliamentary procedure—something for political debate, relevant only to the confines and niceties of this Chamber—but is having seriously detrimental effects on professionals involved in child protection, and, inevitably, on the welfare of children themselves. The lack of progress is causing chaos for other Bills as well, with Bill teams increasingly saying that legislation depends on issues still to be raised in the Green Paper.

Photo of Ms Debra Shipley Ms Debra Shipley Labour, Stourbridge

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that measures such as my Protection of Children Act 1999 show that there has been a constructive approach from all parts of the House on child protection? I especially pay tribute to Opposition Members for their work on my Act. Will he outline his party's opinion on the Laming report and tell us how it would contribute constructively to the report's recommendations?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Gladly. We published a response on 28 January. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring outlined a series of criteria that we want and on which we largely agree with Lord Laming. We also held a summit on child health and protection issues at Westminster on the day that the Laming report came out, which brought together a whole host of professionals. We have made many suggestions on how we should move forward from the report. We have been waiting for the Green Paper so that we may make our suggestions formally in response to the Government's consultation.

Let us listen to what other people have said about the problems caused by the lack of progress. The Local Government Association said:

"The Local Government Association . . . is disappointed and frustrated at the further delay to the Green Paper on Children at Risk. Five months after Lord Laming's report into Victoria Climbie's tragic death, progress should have been made on introducing measures to address the failings that Laming identified. Councils should not still be waiting for the government to give an indication of the changes to be proposed. Too many councils are in limbo, ambitious about improving their services in line with Laming's recommendations but afraid to implement changes without knowing what is around the corner."

Voluntary bodies such as the NSPCC have voiced their frustration at being constantly fobbed off about the timing of the Green Paper. Doctors need clear guidance and training. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said:

"Implementing Laming advice will mean a lot of extra work. We will need perhaps 30 trainers across the country to roll out the programme to . . . 6000 college members in the UK".

On the point about information sharing, it says:

"All reports into child abuse say it is essential to share information—with other doctors, with social services, with the police. But the laws on confidentiality state that we must not share this information"— although that is a crucial point that Laming identified. Doctors point out that we need a rational system for classifying abuse cases because, as their representatives say:

"At the moment child protection is seen as black or white. Either there is a child protection issue or there is not."

Many questions and problems need urgently to be addressed. There is a lot riding on this illusory Green Paper and there is no excuse for further delay. Victoria Climbié was murdered three and a half years ago. The trial of her killers ended two and half years ago. The proceedings of Lord Laming's inquiry opened more than two years ago. Numerous studies on child protection have been commissioned, such as the "Safeguarding Children" report that was published last autumn and dealt with arrangements for area child protection committees.

On 30 October 2002, the Prime Minister promised that a Green Paper would be published early in 2003 on the whole issue of children at risk and that the problem would be dealt with across the whole of government. However, there has been great confusion about which Department has taken ownership of the Green Paper and the Departments that have inputted information; I gather that it has largely been under the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. On 28 January, the former Secretary of State for Health said:

"We will make our substantive response to the report as part of the Green Paper on children at risk which we intend to publish this spring."—[Hansard, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 737.]

The spring has come and gone. Secretaries of State have come and gone. A new Minister for Children has come. We welcome the creation of the post of Minister for Children if it will genuinely join up Government policy on children across Departments. We have long called for that as an alternative to the situation under the previous nominal Minister with responsibility for children, Mr. Denham. He was also the Home Office Minister with responsibility for prisons, so that sent out all the wrong signals about the way in which the Government deal with children.

Margaret Hodge made a terrible start as the first holder of the important, sensitive and much-trumpeted post of Minister for Children. She has spent her first four weeks on the defensive for her track record as the leader of Islington council when she presided over one of the worst cases of systematic child sexual abuse and neglect in a local authority, despite the strong warnings that she was personally given by senior social workers.

Yet perhaps we should not be surprised when we see that senior officers in other Labour-run London councils, who all had responsibility for departments that should have looked after Victoria Climbié, went on to greater things. One became the head of the Commission for Racial Equality; one was head-hunted by Hackney council; one council leader went to the Lords and is a member of the Greater London Authority. If we add to that the track record of the hon. Member for Barking for putting the considerations of political correctness before the common-sense welfare of children, personally launching a booklet about banning skipping ropes, musical chairs and GCSE grades below C, we have to ask whether this important appointment is not already fatally flawed and one of the biggest let-downs of the botched reshuffle.

Although the creation of the role was widely welcomed by all sorts of organisations involved with children and by us, the hon. Lady's appointment was greeted with deafening silence. Rather than spending her first month defending her record, claiming that her mistakes make her ideally placed for this new role and trying to sell us the line that the Green Paper will again be delayed because the Prime Minister wants to be personally involved in its launch, which she says is an unparalleled commitment—it is not, because he took ownership of the review on adoption, for example—she should be answering questions about what her new Department will cover.

Will the new Department or the Department of Health be responsible for children and adolescent mental health services? Will the hon. Lady be responsible for the even more delayed national service framework for children? When will we get serious and comprehensive solutions to the issues raised by Lord Laming? When will responsibility for child protection be properly joined up at local level, and which individual will ultimately take responsibility for drawing all the relevant agencies together locally? Where, and when, will the buck stop? When will we have properly informed assessments of need for individual children, properly monitored, resourced and implemented? When does the hon. Lady expect to have established a framework for children at risk which is all about outcomes, not structures, and which is child-centred, not concentrated on the adult agenda?

Those are the issues that need addressing urgently. Instead, it would appear that the hon. Lady's sole achievement today is an undertaking that she will not in fact be the Minister for Children but the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. We fear that the Green Paper will be further delayed by the new Minister being sidelined and sidetracked by having to defend herself, now that the truth is coming out about her failure to protect vulnerable children in Islington.

The Laming report must be different. It must herald a radical shake-up of the system. As the former Secretary of State for Health promised:

"In future services for children must be centred not around the interests of any organisation, but around the interests of the child. Nothing—no existing organisation, no existing structure—should be allowed to stand in the way."—[Hansard, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 741.]

We agree wholeheartedly with that now, as we did then. But changing ministerial titles, giving feeble excuses for delay about prime ministerial interests and issuing checklists about how many interdepartmental committees need to meet do not save children at risk and are now standing in the way of protecting those children.

The real test for any new structures must be measured not by how many bulletins and meetings are generated, but by how many children are saved from cruelty and abuse. The Green Paper has been promised as a crucial element in that process, and must be produced and promoted without further delay. To repeat Lord Laming, the

"recommendations cannot be deferred to some bright tomorrow."