Protection of Vulnerable Children

– in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 3rd March 2004.

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Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health 4:09 pm, 3rd March 2004

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that the Government's proposed amendment to the motion that is to be immediately before us refers to the publication of the Children's Bill in the other place today. That seems to mean that although it is presented in another place, it will not be available to Members of the House until 7.30 am tomorrow. In the light of references in "Erskine May" at page 387 to the fact that when Ministers of the Crown read or quote from a dispatch or other state paper not before the House, that paper

"ought to be laid upon the Table of the House," is it not all the more important that when the House is going to vote on a motion that refers to a paper, that paper should equally be laid upon the Table of the House?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but Ministers are responsible for the wording of the Government amendment. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is a matter for debate. It is not a matter of order on which the occupant of the Chair can rule.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State announced that the Bill would be published on 4 March. Indeed, he has made that clear to the House. Yet Ministers refer in the amendment to a Bill that is published in another place. Surely, when the Secretary of State announces that a Bill will be published on a specific day, that is what the House should expect to happen.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I do not think that I can usefully add anything to what I have already said. Those are not matters for the occupant of the Chair.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I protest most vigorously that, if the Government amendment refers to a document that presumably will be debated—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I have already dealt with that point of order; I do not intend to do so again.

I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment that stands in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 4:26 pm, 3rd March 2004

I beg to move,

That this House
notes that it is now more than 13 months since Lord Laming's Report on Victoria Climbié
and that 25th February 2004 marked the fourth anniversary of her tragic death;
regrets that the Government has wasted too much time before bringing forward practical measures to make vulnerable children safer despite Laming's contention that 84 of his recommendations could be implemented within six months and even now social services departments are in limbo awaiting Government recommendations in the Children's Bill;
is alarmed at the Government's complete inability to clarify the position on data sharing between agencies, which is crucial to child protection measures;
condemns the Government's failure to address the crisis in recruitment of child protection social workers without whom the necessary improvements will not be achievable;
is gravely concerned at their response to the recent Appeal Court judgements involving children taken away from parents on questionable expert witness testimonies, which has failed to take account of potentially thousands of other miscarriages of justice in the family courts;
notes the additional pressures that this is adding on already overstretched social services departments;
further notes the continued failure of the Government to produce the long promised National Service Framework for Children;
condemns recent moves to cut already committed grants to important Children's Fund projects working with vulnerable children;
and calls upon the Government to give vulnerable children the priority they need and deserve.

This is an important subject. I make no apology for saying that—I do so every time that we debate this subject, and it has become no less important since we used Opposition Supply day debating time to discuss it in July 2003 and since various Conservative Members instigated debates in Westminster Hall. Yet, since the Laming report was published on 28 January 2003, no Government time has been given to debate children's issues in the Chamber. Since the appointment of the Minister for Children on 13 June 2003, which we welcomed, no debate in the Chamber on any part of her brief has been instigated in Government time, despite all that the Government have issued in the light of the Laming report, including the subsequent Green Paper consultation, despite recent high-profile cases involving the discrediting of expert witness evidence provided by Sir Roy Meadow and his disciples, and despite the great upheaval among all the children's departments, which are being brought within the Minister's remit. I need not say, of course, that the subject has never been mentioned in Liberal debating time either.

We have called this debate 13 months after Lord Laming produced his excellent report, with 108 recommendations. He said that 48 of them could be acted on in three months and a further 36 within six months. We have called this debate just over four years after the brutal death of Victor Climbié at the hands of her great aunt and her partner, which we all remember only too vividly.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of protecting vulnerable children. Will he explain why the Opposition completely failed to support amendments that would have protected children who come to this country from abroad and who are in danger of being made destitute under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not want to intrude on the private grief between the hon. Gentleman and the Government about their legislation. I shall come to that separate subject later. I want now to deal with several subjects that relate to the broad remit of what has happened since the Laming report and various events since then.

We all know the horrific figures for the number of children who die at the hands of their carers—an average of 80 each year, with a disgracefully low conviction rate for murder. For that reason, we particularly welcome the Government's moves to legislate to deal with the problem of the joint enterprise loophole, which has left too many murderers going free or being indicted on the lesser charge of child cruelty. However, too many children are still subjected to systematic abuse—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am not going to give way a second time.

There are too many such children whom we will not know about, despite the higher profile that has been given to the subject and the excellent work that is being done, especially by many voluntary bodies.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that over the months since the Laming report the Government have issued detailed guidance, especially to social services departments? That guidance is in place and is helping to protect the vulnerable children to whom he refers.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

If the hon. Lady is patient, she will find that I will refer specifically to the checklist and the booklet, which form the basis of the guidance issued since 28 January 2003.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

I was interested in the point made by Mrs. Humble about advice to social services departments. Will my hon. Friend find time to refer to the role of school nurses? School nurses have a key opportunity—certainly through preventive work—to care for vulnerable children. I am not sure whether the Minister for Children's remit makes it especially easy for her to involve the NHS and school nurses in the process, and she may obviously answer that point for herself. I would, however, be interested to hear my hon. Friend's views.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

My right hon. Friend makes an exceedingly good point. I have long been a great fan of what school nurses can do, but I am afraid that there are far too few of them. In all too many cases, school nurses are not doing preventative work because they are responding to cases and, often, performing the role of social workers by looking after children under protection who are not in their places. School nurses have an enormous role to play. I would like there to be many more school nurses who could spend more time on preventative work on health matters in schools and, at the same time, joining with social workers, teachers, the police and other agencies—the Government say that they want that to happen—to bring about the joined-up approach on child protection that we desperately need. My right hon. Friend's point is absolutely right.

A less publicised problem is the life chances of children for whom the state is the parent—the 60,000 or so looked-after children, on current figures. More than half of looked-after children will leave school with no qualifications, and between a quarter and a third of rough sleepers are people who come from the care system. A quarter of the prison population come from the care system. The incidence of mental health problems among such children is much higher than the already worryingly high rate of one in 10 for the rest of the child population, and more than 30 per cent. of children in care have had no immunisations. There is a much higher proportion of looked-after children among ethnic minority populations, and they experience another raft of problems disproportionately.

I welcome the ongoing BBC "Taking Care" season, which is doing an excellent job of bringing the plight of children in care into everyone's homes and reinforcing the message that these are ordinary children who have often been through extraordinary experiences through no fault of their own and simply need a second chance in a stable family home. I give the innovative monitoring scheme that the BBC is promoting every good wish.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentions the BBC's current season. Does he agree that its portrayal of children and young people provides a realistic picture? He used the word "plight", but many such young people succeed despite the events that they have gone through. We should applaud them and provide a balanced view of children in care—it is not all bad news.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have seen many of the programmes, I went to the season's launch and I had a meeting with the producers. The great thing is that the season portrays children in their everyday lives. It shows, with no holds barred, the great successes that many of them achieve and the great problems and challenges that many have to overcome. That is exactly the right way to portray things, and I think that the BBC is doing an excellent job with the season. It may be unfashionable to say it to the Government at this time, but I think that the season is broadcasting at its best.

The issues are important, and we are determined that the House should be given a proper opportunity to debate them. We need to address several questions: first, are children safer from abuse, and ultimately death, at the hands of their carers or abusers than Victoria Climbié was four years ago?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

With respect, I would really like to make some progress. I have given way several times and I have quite a lot to say.

The second question is: are social services departments and other agencies in a position to implement in a practical way the safeguards recommended by Lord Laming, and endorsed by the Government and the Opposition, and to bring about the sustainable improvements that we all want? The Government have so far failed to answer those questions, and the House is entitled to a full report, as are all parents who are concerned about the welfare of their children, and children who are looked after. Those questions require full answers about what practical action has been and is being taken, not just what boxes have been ticked or departmental memos sent out. I intend to focus on the practical action taken since Lord Laming's report was published; to consider the particular problems associated with information sharing, which is crucial to effective child protection; to examine the additional problems created by recent revelations from the Court of Appeal regarding the discrediting of expert witness testimony provided by proponents of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy; and, finally, to touch on the future of the Children's Fund.

On 7 January 2004, the Minister for Children produced her response to the Health Committee report on the Victoria Climbié report. It itemised the Government response to each of the 108 Laming recommendations and subsequent action taken. That seems all very well, until one looks in detail at what action is promised. Many of the important recommendations are met with this observation:

"In the Queen's Speech on November 26th 2003 the Queen announced that the Government would bring forward a Children Bill this Session to take forward some of the measures in the Green Paper."

We know that, and we have been waiting quite a long time for the Bill. Most of the other recommendations are met with the response:

"The Government will consider what mechanisms are needed to support the Minister for Children in discharging her responsibilities"; or:

"This is included in the checklist of good recommendations issued on publication of the report"; or:

"Advice is contained in the booklet 'What To Do If You're Worried A Child Is Being Abused' issued by the Minister in May 2003", followed by:

"progress so far—completed".

I think that that is wishful thinking.

The fact that the Government are considering something, or that they have issued a checklist or a booklet to local authorities apparently means that the problem has been sorted—the box can be ticked. Recommendation 35 is:

"Directors of social services must ensure that children who are the subject of allegations of deliberate harm are seen and spoken to within 24 hours of the allegation being" made. According to the booklet progress is completed; problem sorted. Recommendation 53 is:

"When allocating a case to a social worker, the manager must ensure that the social worker is clear as to what has been allocated, what action is required and how that action will be reviewed and supervised."

The action recorded is that it is in the checklist of good practice recommendations: progress completed; problem sorted. Recommendation 63 is:

"Hospital social workers must always respond promptly to any referral of suspected deliberate harm to a child."

That is in both the checklist and the booklet: progress completed; problem doubly sorted.

The problem is that things are not that simple. Such complicated problems are not solved simply by issuing memos and ticking boxes—the panacea so beloved by the Government. The Government amendment to the motion refers to the Minister as though everything has been achieved by the appointment of a new Minister for Children. We welcomed that, but it is only the start of the journey—and a shaky start it has been at that.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Earlier, I pointed out that the Government have issued guidance. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the Government should not have done that? The checklists consist of more than tick boxes; they place a requirement on managers to supervise properly the social workers who have the difficult task of making decisions and judgments and offering advice and guidance in respect of extremely vulnerable children. Surely the Government have done precisely what they should in issuing clear instructions to social services departments and managers and social workers at all levels.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Of course I am not saying that the Government should not have issued that guidance, and I shall discuss that later. However, that is not the important thing. The important question is: are the people there to put it into action? If they are not, the guidance is worthless.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I wish to make a little progress.

We are told that the Children's Bill, which is due to be published today in another place, but which we shall not see until tomorrow, will propose structural changes, such as appointing a children's commissioner, a director of children's services, which may or may not be a central model, and a new inspection hierarchy. Now that we have given the Minister an opportunity to address the House, perhaps she will provide some details of the Bill. We look at the details and offer constructive scrutiny, but all that will be meaningless and all the responses to Lord Laming's 108 recommendations will be fruitless unless there are sufficient skilled professional child protection officers in social services departments and other agencies, working on the ground, at the sharp end, detecting cases of child abuse, intervening and working to prevent abuse, with the resources necessary to make meaningful interventions available to them. It is highly unlikely that that can be achieved in the cost-neutral fantasy world suggested by the Minister.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I am saddened that the debate is becoming politically partisan, because the House is at its best when, as in the case of the Children Act 1989, we discuss the way forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who was not a Member of Parliament at that time, recognises that point and I say that the 1989 Act was a credit to the Conservative Government. I started work in child protection in 1971, and I am struck by the clear parallels between the Maria Colwell case in 1971 and the Victoria Climbié case and between Lord Laming's recommendations and the recommendations of the Maria Colwell report. I do not want to make a partisan point, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that Conservative Governments were in power for a total of 21 years after the Maria Colwell case and might have addressed one or two of the points that he raises today.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman's expertise on this subject. Lord Laming made the point that this report must be different and must make a difference. I have already applauded many of the steps that the Government have taken, including the appointment of the Minister for Children, for which I called for a long time. If joining up relevant individuals works properly, it is welcome and I applaud the guidance that has been issued, but the test of those actions will be the results that they produce.

People must be on the ground to put the guidance into effect, but I fear that they are not. In many cases, more people were on the ground when the hon. Gentleman was practising social work. One can have as many children's tsars as one can shake a stick at but their hegemony will be short lived if the workers are not there on the ground. Recent recruitment figures show that the number of whole-time equivalent field social workers in children's services has hardly changed over the past six years, despite the extra requirements placed on local authorities by, for example, the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which sets out requirements to provide adoption support services.

One local authority that I visited recently told me that it had been advertising for months to find someone to head up its adoption support services and that it had received zero applications. Despite all the requirements in the 2002 Act to promote adoption, the preparation work undertaken by local authorities to respond early to some of the problems highlighted by the Climbié case and the myriad schemes that have hit social services departments, the figures suggest that there are more than 5,000 social worker vacancies, around two thirds of which are in children's posts. Those figures cover services required now, ahead of the recent legislation, but there is still a heavy reliance on temporary agency workers, who simply cannot provide the necessary continuity, particularly in complex cases.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

The hon. Gentleman refers to social worker posts and the work required under the 2002 Act. Do his figures take account of the many voluntary agencies that do that work for local authorities?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Indeed, I have made that point on many previous occasions and shall probably make it later. There are many different schemes involving many different people, and the biggest problem is that they tread on each other's toes. There is an awful lot of poaching from one scheme to another, including the poaching of full-time social workers who work for social services departments.

I have not mentioned the increasing rush for early retirement by directors of social services, but 40 out of 150 social services directors in England took early retirement in the past year.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Further to the point made by Jonathan Shaw, is my hon. Friend aware that some voluntary bodies involved with social services such as the excellent Family Nurturing Network, which is based in my constituency, are concerned that the setting up of the new heads of children's services in every social services department might make it more difficult for them to continue to provide good services to vulnerable children and families? What should the Government do to address that particular point on behalf of important voluntary bodies such as the one that I mentioned?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and underlines the need for much greater local autonomy in the way that local authorities, working in concert with voluntary organisations, provide crucial services to vulnerable children. As I shall explain, the children's fund schemes were about to have the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Much good will and trust has been lost as a result of Government action, which might have undermined many schemes that offer extremely worthwhile activities.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

No, I will not, as I want to make progress; otherwise, there will be no opportunity for Back-Bench Members, among whom there is great enthusiasm and interest, to make speeches. In any case I do not want to deny the House another opportunity to hear the hon. Gentleman rubbish the previous Government, as he does whenever he makes a speech.

I have spoken to or visited many social services departments throughout the country in recent months, and nearly all of them point to a crisis in recruitment. As one London authority put it:

"The biggest issue is recruitment and retaining staff and maintaining a consistent direction, which is hard with so many initiatives being pushed our way. We have had Quality Protects, Sure Start, Connexions, Children's Trusts, the Climbié audit, the Hillingdon Judgement, the CPA, the SSI, and the Leaving Care Act—all of which impose different sets of 'Priorities' on a frequent basis . . . Resources which are already scarce are being redirected on a continuous basis by government intervention."

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

One moment, I have more.

One shire authority reported:

"The biggest problem is money, with a forecast overspending for children's services of £4.6 million or 18.9 per cent. for the year 2003/04. We have 563 children looked after compared with 521 in 2001, 440 new referrals in December 2003 and increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining foster carers. We currently have 226 registered foster carers compared with 265 in 2001."

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

What conversations has the hon. Gentleman had with Mr. Letwin? Is it not the case that in his announcement of a future Tory Government's spending plans the right hon. Gentleman made no mention of children's services, which would be frozen for two years? After that, there would be an increase of only 2 per cent., which would result in huge cuts in social services funding and huge problems for vulnerable children.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Yet again the hon. Gentleman has entirely misrepresented my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, and no doubt his Front-Bench colleagues will do so as well. He should remember that at the forefront of those proposals was continued spending on health and education.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

It was health and education, and there will be pooled budgets, which the Minister for Children is trying to pool in any case. Children's services would not be affected, so let us not hear any more nonsense—[Interruption.] Members on the Front Bench can scoff as much as they like it, but I am afraid that that expenditure is a plain fact that they chose to ignore.

One west country authority proposes to recruit qualified social work staff from Canada. There is also a great shortage of foster carers, which is posing a serious problem everywhere. The Fostering Network estimates that although there are 32,000 foster families in England, there is a shortage of more than 6,100 foster families. Just over two thirds of the 60,800 children in public care in England live with foster families, who offer the best refuge for vulnerable children, and their best chance of returning to a stable home environment. As we know, the state makes a bad parent, yet 60 per cent. of foster carers receive no more than a basic contribution towards costs. As no minimum level is set by the Government, allowances vary widely between local authorities.

Some authorities said:

"The amount spent on a few expensive placements for a small number of very difficult to place young people continues to escalate."

Residential placements for looked-after children out of area can cost as much as £4,000 a week, and can skew the spending of the whole budget. Can the Minister for Children tell us how successful or otherwise has been the recruitment campaign first launched in October 2001 by Mr. Milburn, then Secretary of State for Health? It appears to have taken a back seat by comparison with all the publicity devoted to the recruitment of doctors and nurses. In addition, many authorities report that social workers are moving away from the front line to safer jobs that do not include the monitoring and investigation of child protection.

Local authorities have been caused major frustration by the Government's delay in coming forward with firm proposals and legislation despite the urgency of the Climbié case, which arose more than four years ago. The Green Paper on child protection was first promised by the Prime Minister in October 2002. The response to Laming, which was promised in spring 2003, eventually arrived as a Green Paper in September last year. That was followed by a short consultation period, but no White Paper. Finally, we are promised the Bill tomorrow. No pre-legislative scrutiny period was allowed, which makes it all the more important to get it right.

Throughout that time, local authorities have been in limbo, keen to get on with the important business of overhauling their approach to child protection post- Climbié, but held back by not knowing what may be imposed on them by the Bill. Will a central model of a director of children's services combining education and children's social services be imposed on everybody? We have been getting mixed messages from the Minister's own departmental colleagues as to whether the director will have a managerial or a strategic responsibility. The position that is being created could be very important, controlling as much as 70 per cent. of a local authority's budget, so it is vital to get it right and to have proper lines of accountability. The Local Government Association says:

"we are concerned that the proposals for a single director, accountable for children's social services and education are unduly prescriptive. Managerial arrangements must be a matter for local discretion depending on local circumstances; the same arrangements will not work across the board. In many cases the degree of prescription will force authorities to unpick arrangements that are working well to introduce less effective arrangements."

Are children's trusts to become the norm in most authorities or in all? As Councillor Alison King, chairman of the LGA's social affairs and health executive, says,

"Councils and their partners are best placed to organise the management of services for children, according to local circumstances, not civil servants in Whitehall"— a point that she has made to her local MP, the Secretary of State, on many occasions.

There has been concern that central Government have been slow in integrating children's services in the way the Green Paper proposes local authorities and their local partners should. As one northern shire authority puts it,

"The Government seems to have forgotten to tell NHS colleagues that they are supposed to be involved, and have given the PCTs and other health trusts a set of priorities which don't include children and young people's services."

Overall, valuable time has been wasted—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Members on the Treasury Bench should not keep chattering while the hon. Gentleman is addressing the House—they would not expect the same if the situation were reversed.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

They can express their discomfort at the appropriate time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but they will have to listen to this.

Overall, valuable time has been wasted despite the very substantial efforts of local authorities, and social workers in particular, to respond positively and practically to Lord Laming's recommendations.

A key area that is essential in pushing forward the whole child protection agenda is that of information gathering and data sharing, yet it looks as though the Bill will avoid the whole issue and defer to reports from the identification, referral and tracking project trailblazers, which are not due for some time, and for which, as the Minister admits, funding has not yet been guaranteed. Laming identified information sharing as a key priority, and a weakness in the system that directly led to Victoria Climbié's death. As it stands, the police, social services, schools, health officials and other agencies are unclear about their legal position as regards how long they can retain their own information, let alone as to whether they can share it with another agency that may be able to add to the jigsaw to build a picture that reveals a strong possibility of child abuse.

There are separate problems to do with the position of GPs, whom the Minister has been unduly hasty in berating despite their professional confidentiality obligations. Hence the Soham loophole, which revealed different police forces interpreting the same parts of the Data Protection Act 1998 in completely different ways, thereby missing crucial pieces of the jigsaw that might have prevented the tragedy in Soham. That led to the setting up of the Bichard inquiry, which has only just started its work.

The Minister has left everyone involved in a state of complete confusion. We started off with what looked like a back-door ID card scheme that sought to establish files on all 11 million children in this country. Now the Government appear to be building a local intelligence hub that may address the problem of local information sharing through a central source, but offers no solution for dealing with, say, the seven-year-old with constant bruising noted by a GP in Newcastle, where police have been repeatedly called to the parents' address, but who then turns up on the other side of the country in Bristol; or the private foster carers in Manchester who are struck off the local authority's list for malpractice insufficient to lead to criminal proceedings or to place them on the Department of Health's blacklist, but who then turn up in Brighton eager for placements from a local authority that is chronically short of foster carers. It is arguably the transient cases who tend to be the most vulnerable, and we should concentrate on children in relation to whom the authorities have legitimate concerns rather than trying to put all 11 million children on a database that falls foul of all sorts of data protection regulations.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall give way for the last time, just to keep the hon. Gentleman happy.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

It is a serious point. Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge the practical difficulties of his suggestion? Possibly more important, does he recognise the problems of labelling children and young people at an early stage? Is it not essential to include everyone in the system to ensure that it works well for the most vulnerable?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

It is essential to have an information-sharing system so that all the agencies that form the vital jigsaw, which Herbert Laming so clearly identified, can do their job. There is no sign that the information-sharing protocols, let alone the required IT systems, have been established or are remotely on the horizon. Without them, there will be further delay. The hon. Gentleman should know that.

What input will the children have into the information that is held on them and the people to whom access is permitted? The information must be secure against paedophiles and potential paedophiles. Has the Minister for Children considered linking local information hubs to a national mutual reference database, as we would like, which would signpost worried professionals to agencies elsewhere in the country that hold information on a vulnerable child? That could be done without holding detailed files centrally, which would pose all sorts of data protection problems. Decisions about whether action should be taken would remain with the authority in which the child resides.

There are serious pressures on social services departments, which are keen to make changes but which are held back by Government delay. There is a serious shortage of key personnel, who are integral to effecting the necessary improvements, and complete confusion about what can be held on whom by whom, and who can tell what to whom. To add to the work load of all involved in child protection, they may have to tackle a hornet's nest in the light of the Canning verdict in the Appeal Court. Today, two high-profile civil court cases of removal of children from parents are being challenged on appeal for the first time.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

On my hon. Friend's point about who can know what and the information that can be disseminated, I ask him to consider a difficult constituency case in which two of my constituents, who are parents, had their two daughters taken away by court order for permanent adoption. They continue to protest that they have been badly treated. Despite my considerable efforts, I cannot get the information and I do not know whether the correct decisions have been made. Is it not essential to appoint a children's commissioner with proper powers to discover information, so that such cases can be referred and we can be sure that the correct action has been taken?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I take my hon. Friend's point. It is important that justice is done and is seen to be done, and that the proper procedures are followed. It remains to be seen whether a children's commissioner would have a role in that. We do not yet know the Government's proposals, but I want to consider where some of the procedures are going wrong.

The Solicitor-General has dealt swiftly with the 258 convictions in the past 10 years for the murder, manslaughter or infanticide of a child under two by its parents. Seventy-two apparently relate to persons who are still serving a custodial sentence, and we await further progress reports. Last week, the Minister for Children made an announcement about family court cases, which my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown mentioned, that will rightly prioritise families with sibling children who have been removed or are currently subject to care proceedings up to adoption.

However, in concentrating on cases that are subject to disputed medical evidence, the Minister has limited the investigation to only the low hundreds. The announcement therefore marked a significant rowing back from the many thousands of cases in which children have been removed from parents in the family courts, often on the expert witness evidence of Professor Sir Roy Meadow and other proponents of his now discredited theories, and poorly prepared parents with inadequate legal representation were often simply unable to challenge the expert witnesses. Despite all that, the Minister strangely prejudged the outcome of all the possible miscarriages of justice by stating that it would not be appropriate for children to be returned to their birth parents across the board if such miscarriage were found.

Many questions remain unanswered—not least why the Government did not act earlier, given the warnings from child experts which the Department for Education and Skills received and which are on record from as long ago as 2000. What new guidance has been issued to local authorities, given the shocking revelations of recent months? All the social services departments that I have visited claim that they received nothing from the Department. Does the guidance "Working Together to Safeguard Children", issued in 1999, and "Safeguarding Children in Whom Illness is Fabricated or Induced", issued in August 2002, still pertain, despite its heavy reliance on formal recognition, even though Munchausen's is the condition that dare not speak its name in Government speak?

What is being done to regulate the expert witness registration procedures? It seems that anyone—such as the Minister or I—can set themselves up as an expert witness by filling in a simple form, including credit card details, and handing that over with a cheque to get on the list. There is minimal checking and no obvious way of removing a person from the list if their expertise is subsequently challenged.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I might want to intervene again in a moment to comment on what the hon. Gentleman has just said, but I rose to comment on what he said a moment ago, which it has taken me a while to digest. Amazingly, he criticised the Minister for failing to say that anyone who had been involved in a case in which Professor Meadow had given evidence would automatically get their child back. The hon. Gentleman expected her to say that those children would automatically go back. Let me tell him that I appeared in a case in which Professor Meadow gave evidence, and in which there was powerful other evidence to the extent that he was almost unnecessary. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting, from the Opposition Front Bench, such gross irresponsibility?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am not sure whether the hon. and learned Lady misheard me, or whether I did not express myself properly, but that is entirely and utterly not what I said. What I said was that—as the Minister had led us to believe would happen—all those cases in which there had been expert witness testimony that was now being called into question should be available to be reviewed. If the result of any such review was that there had been a miscarriage of justice, it should then be available to the parents to apply, where suitable and appropriate, for the children to be placed back with them. That is all that I said.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall not give way again to the hon. Gentleman, but I shall happily give way to the hon. and learned Lady in a moment.

Of course, there will be a great many cases—I hope it will be most cases—in which the original judgment will be found not to be flawed. However, we do not know that now, so it is essential that we properly review all those cases. That is why it is curious that the Minister prejudged those cases by saying that, even if they were found in the parents' favour, those children should not be restored to those parents.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands totally how care orders and adoption orders are made. If Professor Meadow's evidence had been the sole testimony, and he had been quite wrong, it would not necessarily follow that in each and every case it would be in the child's best interest to be returned—it really would not. I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider very carefully what he is saying. He could raise false hopes in so many families; his behaviour here today is quite immoral.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am afraid that the hon. and learned Lady is going completely over the top, given what I have said. I particularly used the phrase "where suitable and appropriate". In some cases—I stress, in some cases—if there is found to be something unsound in the original case, and if a child has been through a series of foster placements or failed adoptions and not been placed in a settled family environment, it might be appropriate for that child to be returned. What is not appropriate is to make a broad-brush statement that it would not be appropriate for any children to be returned to their parents even if it were found that the original case was unsound.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I should like to make some progress, and the hon. and learned Lady may well want to make her own contribution later. I ask her, please, not to distort what I have said. I clearly did not say what she claims I did, and it clearly would have been irresponsible for me to do so. What is irresponsible is to say that even if there are found to be flaws, the children have no hope of being restored to their parents. That is unforgivable where the parents who have challenged these cases are concerned.

What does the Minister intend to do to make family courts fairer for all parties? At the moment, children must be represented by a specialist lawyer from the child care panel, but parents are often unable to secure such expert representation. Too often, the interests of parents and children are put in opposition to each other, instead of our following the continental practice, which more readily encourages local authority involvement to rehabilitate children back into their families, if that is possible and poses no danger.

As the editor of the excellent new publication Children Now has put it, there is

"an increasingly widespread view that family courts are in crisis. Add to that the chaos within the children's guardian service CAFCASS"— the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service

"where long delays in children being assigned guardians are resulting in cases being drawn out months longer than they would otherwise need to be . . . and the fact that the number of lawyers prepared to take on publicly funded cases is dwindling."

There is an increasing feeling that the Minister is being badly advised on these matters, not least as a result of people who are closely associated with the ancien régime promoting discredited procedures.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall wait until the hon. and learned Lady makes her own contribution later.

I shall briefly touch on the children's fund. We welcomed the Minister's U-turn last week, but the 149 partnerships put in place in very worthwhile schemes that have so far helped more than 300,000 children and families across the country should never have been put in this position in the first place. They are still worried about their funding for 2005–06. I saw a very effective scheme in Bury last week, which was tackling bullying in schools. It was funded by the children's fund, but, having taken on fixed overheads and commitments on a three-year time scale, its future had been seriously cast in doubt.

The Minister herself has said of the children's fund:

"It is one of the Government's exciting and successful innovations to invest in services for a group of children who often miss out: the five to 13-year old group."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 24 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 56WH.]

However, the head of the National Children's Bureau, Paul Ennals, has said:

"The episode has sent shock waves through the children's sector. Many voluntary agencies and local authorities have been scaling down projects and in some cases, laying off staff. And this shambles could have long term consequences and has undermined confidence in the Government's commitment to preventive work."

The editorial in Children Now observes that

"the attitude of some Whitehall officials who still believe that voluntary organisations are second-class subcontractors, more malleable than private companies, owed less obligation and more easily dumped when the going gets rough . . . threatening to destroy at a stroke all the good will and trust built up between the groups" and the Government.

There are many other problems that we could touch on in this debate, and I am sure that other hon. Members will do so. There has been a big increase in the number of children being trafficked into Britain for sexual exploitation, and there is a desperate need for new procedures for registering and following up children who arrive alone from abroad. There is a big question mark over the inspection of children's homes by the National Care Standards Commission, whose annual report reveals that 10 per cent. of announced inspections of children's homes were not carried out, and that 47 per cent. of unannounced inspections did not take place either. What will the Minister do about that, as the NCSC is about to be merged into the Commission for Social Care Inspection?

Why have the Government specifically excluded disabled children from full protection in the Green Paper? Experts warn that that will allow disability to disguise abuse. What is the Minister doing about the dramatic increase in child abductions? According to this week's Home Office report, white 10-year-old girls are most at risk in that regard. There were 846 abductions and attempted abductions in 2002–03, an increase of 45 per cent. on the 584 in the previous 12 months. Many of those cases involved looked-after children. The Children's Society has quite rightly highlighted the lack of suitable child protection measures for children in prison, whose numbers have doubled over the last 10 years, and for child asylum seekers. Furthermore, there is still no sign of a national service framework for children or an alcohol strategy.

We have had many warm words from the Government, and many "eye-catching initiatives". They have issued many memos, and many departmental boxes have been ticked. However, their record will be judged on how many children have been helped in the field. How many have been rescued from abuse? How many have been saved from cruel torture or death? How many abusers have been deterred from plying their evil trade in the first place? How many looked-after children have been given a genuine second chance to have the kind of normal, stable, conventional upbringing that we all take for granted, and to which they are just as entitled as anyone else?

The jury is still out on the quality and outcomes of what the Minister has achieved in the last nine months. In terms of the parliamentary time needed to allow input from all hon. Members in debating the necessary measures, there has not been a good start. The Conservatives strongly hope that the Bill to be published tomorrow—and a preparedness to listen to those most affected by its measures—will mark a genuine commitment to bringing about practical action and results, so that we shall never again be faced with the death of another Victoria Climbié as a result of what Lord Laming called "widespread organisational malaise".