Safeguarding Children

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:11 pm on 20th November 2008.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families 12:11 pm, 20th November 2008

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the actions that I have taken over the past week, since I received last Wednesday morning the serious case review of the tragic death of baby P.

As I said to the House on Monday, the whole nation has been deeply shocked, appalled and angered by the terrible suffering that this little boy endured. Since the jury reached its decision on 11 November, we have all read of the abuse that he suffered at the hands of adults that he lived with. That is something that I think we all struggle to comprehend.

The case has also raised serious questions of public concern about how such a thing could have happened again, despite numerous contacts with social workers, police and health professionals—and in Haringey, too, the same borough where Victoria Climbié died eight years ago. We need to know what actions are urgently needed in Haringey to ensure the safety of other vulnerable children in that borough and proper accountability for what went wrong, and what further steps are needed to ensure that all children are safe across the country.

It is our collective duty to do what we can to prevent such a tragedy happening again, and I am grateful to Michael Gove and to other Opposition Members for the support that they have given me over the past eight days for the actions that we have so far taken.

Let me start by setting out the background. Following the death of baby P on 3 August 2007, and consistent with the statutory requirements set out in "Working Together to Safeguard Children", a serious case review started immediately to discover what happened and why. Serious case reviews are carried out whenever a child dies and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to have been a factor. They are instigated by the local safeguarding children board, which is independent of Government.

The report should be independently authored. Local agencies should implement any interim lessons immediately, while the serious case review is still in progress, and working drafts of serious case reviews may be shared with Government officials. Since April last year, Ofsted has evaluated each serious case review to help to strengthen the system. However, in all cases, Ministers are not involved in any part of the process of undertaking and completing the serious case review and do not see draft reports. In this case, the executive summary of the serious case review was published on the afternoon of 11 November, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I received the full confidential report on the morning of 12 November.

Having studied it, we concluded that there was clear evidence that agencies had failed, singly and collectively, to adhere to the statutory procedures for the proper management of child protection cases. This raised serious concerns about the wider systems and management of services for safeguarding children in the borough.

Our immediate priority was to ensure the safety of children in Haringey, so, that afternoon, we arranged for the director of children's services in Hampshire, John Coughlan, to be immediately seconded to Haringey to help to ensure that proper procedures for safeguarding children were in place and being applied. He began that work the following morning.

At the same time, I decided that Ofsted, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection and the chief inspector of constabulary should carry out an urgent inspection in Haringey under section 20(1)(b) of the Children Act 2004. In particular, I asked the inspectors to look closely at the quality of practice and management of all services that contribute to the effective safeguarding of children in Haringey.

The work of the national inspectors is under way, and I will receive a first report by 1 December. As soon as I have studied their findings, I will publish their report and the actions that we will then take.

This tragic case also raises wider issues about child safety. It is now just over five years since we published Every Child Matters in response to the Victoria Climbié inquiry, chaired by Lord Laming. Both the joint chief inspectors earlier this year and Lord Laming himself have said that these reforms have significantly strengthened the framework for safeguarding children, and in local areas across the country there is much good work being done that is keeping children safe.

However, as the joint chief inspectors also said in their July report, there is still much work to do to ensure that the reforms are being implemented systematically by all local agencies, so that children in every part of the country receive the protection that they need—a view that was repeated and reinforced yesterday in Ofsted's annual report. That was why we began a stocktake of local safeguarding children boards last month, including their governance and accountability arrangements, the independence of local safeguarding children board chairs and whether the statutory guidance needs to be revised. At the same time, we also started work to establish what more can be done to improve the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews.

As I explained to the House on Monday, and immediately following the legal verdict on 11 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I asked Lord Laming to provide us with an urgent report of progress made across the country in implementing effective arrangements for keeping children safe. In parallel, we have also set out legislative proposals to improve children's trusts that will provide stronger area-wide accountability for the well-being and safety of children across all children's services.

I met Lord Laming on Monday to agree the scope of his report, which will be ready early in the new year. He will report on the key features of good safeguarding practice and whether they are being universally applied across the country, including the development of the professional work force, inter-agency working and effective systems of public accountability. He will also look at the key barriers, including in the legal process, that may be impeding children's professionals in their work and stopping good practice becoming common practice—including whether the right balance is being struck between the correct application of processes when taking a child into care and the needs of the child. Lord Laming will also look at what specific actions should be taken by national Government and local agencies to overcome those barriers and accelerate improvement across the country.

I have also decided to bring the work on local safeguarding children boards and the work on serious case reviews that we announced last month under Lord Laming's remit. I am pleased that he has today begun his work and that he has already written to experts and interested parties setting out how they can inform his findings. I have placed a copy of that letter in the Libraries of both Houses.

Professionals working with children in this country do a tough job, often in very difficult circumstances. They have a great responsibility and they make very difficult judgments every day, but where serious mistakes are made, there must be proper accountability. We must never forget that our first duty is to make sure that all children are safe and protected from harm. We will not rest until we have the very best possible child protection arrangements to safeguard our most vulnerable children.

The case of baby P is tragic and appalling. We have a responsibility now to take whatever action is needed to ensure that such a tragedy cannot happen again and that all children are able to grow up safe—in Haringey, and across the country.

I commend this statement to the House.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I thank the Secretary of State for prior notice of the statement, and for the co-operative approach that his office has taken in helping to resolve the delicate questions to which this tragic case has given rise.

The horrific circumstances of baby P's short, agonised life and terrible, pain-racked death are imprinted indelibly on all our minds. The ultimate moral responsibility for the child's suffering rests with the three adults found guilty of allowing his death. I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree with me that we must never shift our focus from preventing such evil from being inflicted on another innocent. That is why it is important that we ask serious questions now, to ensure that we give children the greatest possible level of protection.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State has been working hard to get answers, and the questions that I ask today imply no criticism of him personally. Indeed, I thank him for so speedily ordering an independent inquiry into Haringey council. But would he now acknowledge that the inspection regime that was supposed to monitor child protection in Haringey was flawed?

We know that when a former social worker rang the alarm bell six months before baby P died, her concerns were passed on, in accordance with the procedures in place, to the Commission for Social Care Inspection. The commission met representatives from Haringey in March 2007 and asked for improvements to be made. Two weeks later, responsibility for inspecting Haringey's children's services passed from the commission to Ofsted, and there is no evidence yet that Ofsted or anyone else pursued the demand that Haringey improve its child protection. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that that was wrong, and does he share my concern that other child protection cases may have slipped through the cracks in that handover?

We know that Ofsted inspected Haringey's children's services department in October 2007 and gave it a three-star rating, saying that it provided a good service for children. We also know that that report was based on desk research and was conducted by an inspector who had served as an official under Haringey's director of children's services. The inspector was, in fact, a former head of school standards in Haringey. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that that was wrong? Given the importance of getting child protection right in Haringey, should not a totally independent person have been appointed to conduct that inspection?

The Secretary of State has rightly insisted on urgency in the current inquiry into Haringey, and one of the principal issues in question is the threshold for taking a child at risk into care. We know that medical professionals believed in December 2006 that baby P had suffered non-accidental harm, and we know that in June 2007, medical professionals warned that baby P had probably been physically abused. The police were anxious that he should be removed from an abusive environment, but the council's lawyers refused to apply for a care order. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the legal advice given by Haringey's lawyers is published in full when the inquiry reports, so that we can all see just what went wrong?

I agree with the Secretary of State that it is crucial that we ensure that in future there is clarity on when and how children can be taken into care. Does he agree with me that there is an absolute need to ensure that the child's interests are paramount, and does he also agree that the increase in the costs of taking a child into care imposed by the Ministry of Justice this year now need to be reviewed?

Looking at current systems will be at the heart of Lord Laming's inquiry, which we welcome. The Secretary of State will be aware that when social workers deal with new child protection cases, current targets monitor how quickly they fill in the common assessment form; they do not monitor child protection outcomes in the same way. Will he specifically ask Lord Laming whether we should consider changing the system to ensure that it is child protection, not bureaucratic compliance, that the system prioritises?

The Secretary of State knows that the hon. Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and I have asked to see the serious case review of the handling of baby P's case. Regrettably, the Secretary of State's hands are tied, because the Information Commissioner has ruled that serious case reviews cannot be released to Opposition politicians because of the risk of identifying the professionals involved, and the fear that the professionals who made a mistake may not therefore co-operate with reviews. Does he not agree with me that it is quite wrong to put the interests of a bureaucracy that has failed ahead of proper scrutiny? Is it not wrong that the law as it stands prevents the constituency Member from finding out what happened in the case? Does he agree with me that the law needs to change?

Does the Secretary of State also agree with me that whatever legal or procedural changes follow, the most important change is a change of culture? The public are tired of hearing that the correct procedures have been followed, when a child died in agony. The public are astonished that a director of children's services can say, after the death of a child:

"In the light of the good performance, a full scrutiny review would not be beneficial or add value to the service."

The public are rightly insistent that we act swiftly and comprehensively to hold those responsible in this affair to account, and to make the changes necessary to improve child protection across the country, which is why we will give every support that we can to the Secretary of State in his work.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Let me start by saying that I appreciate that support and co-operation. It is important that, together, we do everything we can, where possible. It has been the case since Every Child Matters and Climbié that, where possible, we make such issues cross-party matters. That is certainly my commitment, too.

The hon. Gentleman will know, as I wrote to him and to Mr. Laws this morning, that yesterday I endeavoured to see whether I was able to release the full, confidential, serious case review to parliamentarians, but the clear professional advice given to me was that that would be the wrong thing to do, given the ruling of the Information Commissioner and the importance of making sure that in future, serious case reviews are done properly. I absolutely want them to be done better in future. However, I am happy to continue to reflect on that. What I can do is ensure that when I receive the inspectors' report on 1 December, both the Opposition spokesmen and the local MP get a chance to study it before I make it public, so there will be an opportunity, at least at that point, to make sure that everybody is properly and fully informed.

Michael Gove is quite right: in the end, it was the deception and the evil of the adults involved in the family that was to blame, and it was they who inflicted that cruelty on the child. That is very clear in the serious case review executive summary, which is public, and it is even clearer in the fuller report. At the same time, when these issues come to light and to the attention of professionals, there is a responsibility for us to act. Our judgment, having read the detail, is that actions were not taken when they should have been taken. It is that collective and singular failure that we are asking the inspectors to look at as a matter of urgency.

On the particular points that the hon. Gentleman raises, I do not think that the case of Ms Kemal suggests that the inspection regime is flawed. I agree with him entirely that this is not about procedures, but about making sure that proper investigations were carried out. There was a legal case between Haringey and that individual, which had been settled, and it was about cases that happened three years previously—there was no connection at all to the case that we are considering. When the letter came to the then Department for Education and Skills, it was not seen by Ministers in the Department. On the advice of experts in the Department, the complaint was referred to the inspectors who, in law, were the right people to carry out the investigation. I am reassured that they had a meeting with Haringey representatives and satisfied themselves, independently of Ministers, that the matter had been dealt with properly. Of course, that was in the minds of Ofsted inspectors when they completed their investigation in autumn last year, but that was not a full joint area review. They did not go in on the ground in the way that the inspectors whom I am now sending in will. I do not think that there was evidence that the inspection regime was flawed.

Nor do I think that there was evidence on the supposed relationship between the inspector who signed off the annual performance assessment last autumn and Mrs. Shoesmith. I have looked into the matter in detail. She signs off all those reviews, but the review was not done by her. I see no evidence that there was a conflict of interest in this case, and it is very important to me that the Ofsted inspectors now go and do their job in Haringey independently, thoroughly and in a very professional way, which is what they currently do. I hope that we can all support and have confidence in the integrity of the processes that they are following as we speak.

The legal advice will be examined by the inspectors as part of their work. At this stage, I do not know whether there was clear and definitive legal advice not to make an application, or whether more information was needed. The executive summary and the full report make it clear that it took far too long to get information from health experts. When the information was provided, it became clear that some of the consultations were not thorough. The paediatrician in the case has been suspended. It is true that clear signs of non-accidental injury were not acted on. Those matters will be examined, and we will get the report in a week or so.

I carefully considered the issue of legal costs at the end of last year. The Association of Directors of Children's Services has expressed the view that the fall in case numbers since April is due not to the increase in fees but to wider changes in the system. We provided £40 million for councils to make applications, and it would be appalling if any council were not to proceed with an application for a care order because of the financial cost of the legal process. I have asked Lord Laming in the terms of reference to examine that issue in particular. If that is happening, it is a gross error, and that issue is explicitly part of Lord Laming's work.

We will ensure that Lord Laming looks at all other barriers, too. If there are bureaucratic obstacles to social workers doing their jobs effectively, those barriers need to be looked at, but we must be careful. It is important that social workers ensure that information is properly recorded in every case and that they write down their judgments, which is the only way to obtain proper accountability after the fact and ensure that things are done properly. If those records did not exist, the inspectors who are trying to identify what went wrong would find nothing. When social workers have meetings and conversations, those judgments must be recorded.

The important point is that we are discussing judgments. In the end, whatever processes or procedures are followed, the question is whether social workers, with the police and health professionals, are making the right judgments. That is what social workers do every day. In my view, wrong judgments were made in this case. If the inspectors find that in their report, we will hold people to account and act to make sure that such mistakes cannot happen again.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

My right hon. Friend may know that the Children, Schools and Families Committee has been examining the issue of looked-after children for some time. We are extending our inquiry to cover the most vulnerable children—those on the at-risk register. When such a tragedy occurs, nobody wants, at one extreme, a whitewash or, at the other, a witch hunt. If we really care about vulnerable young children, we must do everything that we can to ensure that such things never happen again. However, will my right hon. Friend remember that to raise the expectation that vulnerable children will never be murdered again is to go against human experience? Today, we are discussing not only baby P but the 35 to 50 children who are murdered every year in our country. We must learn from not only this case, but all the other cases, and we should bear it in mind that the improvement in the past few years has been quite good.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

My hon. Friend is right. His expertise and that of his Committee will be important in advising us on how we can make sure that we learn the right lessons and take the right actions to prevent future tragedies. I am sure that his Committee will want to input into Lord Laming's work.

My hon. Friend is right to point to improvements. Over the past 15 years, there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in deaths of children under five and a fall in overall child deaths. However, thousands of children die every year, and too many of those deaths are preventable. Our job is to do everything that we can to prevent those deaths. Our society does not seem able to stop adults who conceal despicable acts perpetrated against children, which seems to happen in every society in every generation. Where such cases come to the attention of GPs or social workers, we should be able to ensure that those children are protected. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, we should see things from the child's perspective and always make sure that the child's needs are paramount. My fear is that that did not happen in this case, which is why it is important that we take the necessary action to ensure that we do better in future.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I start by thanking the Secretary of State for advance sight of today's statement and for his letter this morning on serious case reviews. I understand his problem with publishing serious case reviews, but does he accept that the current situation is deeply unsatisfactory? When he considers the published executive summary, which has been made available by the local safeguarding children board, does he agree that in the light of what we now know about the baby P case, the executive summary is an extremely bland and incomplete assessment of the case that is of little real value? When a child dies in such a way, are we not entitled to more accountability and openness? Will he re-examine that particular issue?

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the urgent joint area review, which he commissioned a week or so ago. Is that review really looking at what happened in the baby P case, or is it merely checking the effectiveness of existing child protection services in Haringey? My hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone has been informed by people within the council that some local managers in Haringey are selecting the staff to whom the investigators can talk. If that is true, it is a matter of great concern. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is true? If not, will he investigate as a matter of urgency? Given that he cannot publish the serious case review and that he has been left with a very short inquiry of a couple of weeks, which will not get to the bottom of the issue, particularly in relation to baby P, is it not now obvious that we need a full, independent public inquiry?

The Secretary of State has indicated that the nub of the case is not a lack of contact but a wrong judgment on taking the child into care. This week, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said:

"It is legitimate to question whether the 'safeguarding' agenda might be giving professionals a mandate to give parents the benefit of the doubt...and not focus on the needs and vulnerability of the child".

Clearly, that should not happen following the Children Act 1989, which placed the protection of the child at the centre of all those agencies' work. Will he give us his views on that issue and assure us that he will review the concerns of the agencies, which have great expertise?

I want to ask the Secretary of State about wider issues around child protection arising from this case and from yesterday's Ofsted report. A moment ago, Michael Gove mentioned thresholds. The Ofsted report states that

"thresholds are sometimes raised by local authorities...in response to workload pressures, staffing shortages and financial resources".

Ofsted first identified that concern three years ago. Will the Secretary of State tell us what has been done, because, given yesterday's report, it seems that not enough has been done? Will he tell us whether he is concerned that the number of children on the child protection register and its successors has fallen by about one third since the early 1990s?

Will the Secretary of State comment on Ofsted's criticism that one third of serious case reviews were inadequate? Will he also comment on why almost all the serious case reviews, including this one, were not completed within the four-month target? This one took well over a year.

The Secretary of State has already commented on the issue of higher court charges, which have increased significantly of late. I have heard his observations on the issue, but will he retain an open mind on it until Lord Laming has completed his inquiry?

Finally, back in 2003, Lord Laming described as breathtaking the unwillingness of those at the top to accept responsibility in relation to the case that he was then considering. This week, the Secretary of State said that, in this particular case, he was

"deeply disturbed...by the failings of practice and management"—[ Hansard, 17 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 15.]

That is a damning judgment. In the light of it, why is Haringey borough's director of children's services still in her post when she is directly accountable under the Children Act 2004? Is it not clear that the borough needs new management, and that we need a full public inquiry into the issue?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I will not repeat why I could not hand over the full serious case review, although, again, I looked very hard to see whether I was able to do so. Alongside the Information Commissioner's view, the clear advice that I received was that, if we were to set such a precedent, it would make it much harder in future to go through the full independent process. Although I accept that the executive summary is just that—a summary for public consumption of a much longer, more detailed and, I have to say, more harrowing account—the evidence of the problem and the failure to act are clear to see in it. Our concerns when we read the summary last Tuesday were confirmed by the full and more lengthy confidential report. I spoke to Christine Gilbert from Ofsted this morning to confirm that the inspectors are looking at safeguarding in Haringey, including management practices, and they will do so on the basis of an investigation of individual cases and their wider implications. The issues about the handling of the baby P case and the case file will be looked at by Ofsted, the Healthcare Commission and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, as they prepare the wider report. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some assurance.

I have written to Lynne Featherstone today, and I can also assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of local managers making the decisions about who the inspectors interview—there is no question of that at all. The Ofsted professionals, and those from the other inspectorates, are highly experienced and highly professional, and I hope that I have reassured him that the report will be thorough and based on the highest standards. It does not do any of us any good at this stage to pre-judge the quality and professionalism of the report, because we may have to make some very difficult decisions on the basis of it, and I want to do so on the basis of the best report.

Of course, the report would have been more thorough if I had asked the inspectors to spend three months preparing it, but I judged that three months was too long to wait, and that two weeks was the shortest period in which they could do the work and the longest period for which I was willing to wait before we made decisions. I could have decided to act in advance of the report and to allocate the blame to particular individuals in a particular way. That was not my responsibility. I judged that it would have been the wrong thing for me to do. The right thing for me to do is to send the inspectors in, to get the detail and then to make the decision, and that is how I have proceeded in this case.

As for the wider issue of public inquiries, when I read the Ofsted inspection reports, talk to Lord Laming and look throughout the country at the consensus that was created around the Every Child Matters report and the reforms that are being put in place, I note that, of course, we have more to do to ensure that the reforms are properly implemented. We may need to reform and change, and that is why Lord Laming is doing his work, but my judgment was that to have waited for a public inquiry before acting, which would have meant waiting many months, or to have thrown the whole system into pause while we waited for the inquiry, would have been the wrong thing to do. It would not have been the right way to ensure that children in Haringey and throughout the country were safe. I do not rule anything out, but people want action, and they want it in the fastest possible time. That is the action that I shall take.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and take very seriously the NSPCC's views, but I do not believe that there is any evidence to show that, since 2004, the regime has taken the focus off safeguarding children. In fact, the opposite is true, and July's joint chief inspectors' report, which is mentioned in yesterday's Ofsted annual report, states:

"The report shows that much has changed since 2005 and provides evidence of improvements in children's services and in outcomes for children and young people. In particular, there is a greater emphasis on safeguarding all children".

The evidence is that we have made progress, but we have not made sufficient progress, and that is why we need to do more.

On the issue of resources, the number of social workers working with children has increased by one third in the past 10 years, and we are now investing £73 million to improve our social work work force, because there are issues about recruitment and retention and they need to be addressed. However, importantly, many of those social workers do a brilliant job in very difficult personal circumstances. It is important that we do not tar them with a particular brush when many of them are highly professional.

I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question about the public inquiry and the director of children's services. I was deeply disturbed, and that is why I am determined to act.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government should focus not just on the specifics of this single appalling case and safeguarding? Lord Laming's inquiry, or a further one, should also be empowered to examine how we can break the inter-generational cycle of poor parenting and the poverty of social and emotional capabilities, which is the breeding ground for such abuse. The inquiry should be allowed the time to explore and propose early intervention policies that can command a social and political consensus and build out, over a generation, further dysfunction and abuse. Should not Government and Parliament now be clear about our strategic responsibilities, as well as those in this specific case? Without such clarity, the baby P case will just be the latest in a series of tragedies, no long-term cultural shifts will be made and baby P will have died in vain.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

It is important that we focus on the specifics of the baby P case and take the action that is needed, because it is a particular tragedy that should have been prevented. On the issue of safeguarding, it is also important that we look more widely throughout the country, and that is what we are doing through the work of Lord Laming more generally. On the specific case of baby P, it is clear that there was no sufficient early intervention to prevent that harm. I know that in Nottingham, my hon. Friend has campaigned, researched and led on these issues. Early intervention and prevention, and a culture that priorities early intervention and joint working between the police, GPs, social workers and schools, are at the heart of the cultural change that we have been driving locally, since the Every Child Matters report and nationally with our new Department; the children's plan was introduced a year ago. The reason why I announced this week our intention to legislate for children's trusts on a statutory basis, with all those agencies, including schools, properly signed up to the children and young person's plan, was so that we could entrench that long-term early intervention culture that is necessary to keep children safe and to ensure that every child can fulfil their potential and that every barrier to their happiness, well-being and learning is addressed early on. That is the cultural change that we are trying to lead, but this particular case is an example where early intervention should have worked more effectively.

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Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

Obviously, I shall focus on Haringey. I wonder whether the Secretary of State agrees with me that three things need to be done. First, the atmosphere and the morale of everyone in Haringey have been shot to pieces, but, for there to be a new start, there must be accountability; because if the same faces remain after the report, we will not have that fresh start. Secondly, when the report comes in, I believe that the Secretary of State will take action, but I very much hope that he will put Haringey into special measures to hold the department safe while action is taken. Finally, a public inquiry will be needed, because the Haringey case has raised many issues that are wider than the investigation can possibly examine. Therefore, for all our sakes in Haringey, we need to establish a forum for those people who want to provide information that the inspectors have been unable to collate so far.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The hon. Lady has experience of and expertise in these matters. For a long time, she has had detailed knowledge of some of the issues that have been raised. However, I hope that she will understand that it is right for me not to rush to a particular judgment and pre-empt the inspectors' report. I shall make decisions about what needs to be done on the basis of that report, and not before it comes out.

More generally, I understand that people want to know why and how. However, it is also important for the thousands of staff working on child protection in Haringey—and for the thousands of children whose safety is at issue—that we make sure that we move forward in Haringey as quickly as possible. I understand that this is a difficult time, but the sooner that we get things moving forward effectively for the future, the better.

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Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer), HM Treasury

It is absolutely imperative that the supervision of children on child protection registers who live at home is improved. The Government have made a significant investment in children's centres, which provide a range of services to parents, including parenting orders and good-quality care. However, it is often difficult to get families whose children are on child protection registers into children's centres. A lot of them hide from the authorities; they do not want the authorities to see what goes on in their homes. Will the Secretary of State consider how children's centres can be used better to provide early intervention, better monitoring, better supervision and better protection of children at risk? Will he consider the use of compulsory orders in forthcoming legislation to enable that to happen?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I appreciate my hon. Friend's suggestion, because she has great expertise not only as a Member of Parliament, but professionally, as a result of her previous career. I take seriously what she says. It is vital, in general, that children's centres play the role that we intend—ensuring that parents who need most help and the children at greatest risk come to the children's centres. I see many examples of that happening around the country, but it does not yet happen in every children's centre.

My hon. Friend has made an interesting proposal, which we will seriously consider. As she says, it is essential that at-risk and vulnerable children who are the subject of a child protection plan, and their parents, are regularly seen and that they are getting the support that they need. The children's centre is often the kind of place where such support can be provided. I take seriously what my hon. Friend has said; we will consider it carefully and may discuss it with her in further detail.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. A great many Members are interested in this statement. I make a plea for short questions and short answers, so that more can make a contribution.

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Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State is asking Lord Laming to consider three questions. I suggest that the most difficult of them is about how to strike the right balance in applying the process when children are taken into care. I am sure that the Secretary of State does not want to replace one inhumanity with another.

A few years ago, I had a heartbreaking case in which there was a forced adoption of a child who was at no physical risk. It happened because the social workers considered the child's parents to be stupid. I looked at the casework, which was riddled with inaccuracies and misinformation. It was clear to me that the principal motivation was to cover the social workers' backs in case something went wrong. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the balance is addressed precisely? Believe me, the admission a few years later that social workers might have overreacted in that case was no consolation.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The hon. Gentleman is right. A balance must be struck with care to meet a clear legal test about the safety of the child. We have to appreciate the great difficulty of social workers around the country. As the hon. Gentleman said, the public debate in the past year has often been much more about too many children being subject to care orders; at the moment, the public debate is asking whether not enough children are.

I have asked Lord Laming to consider whether the balance is being struck correctly and whether the processes are enabling the proper test to be applied—that is, what is in the best interests of the child and their safety. However, we are not asking Lord Laming to tilt the balance in one direction or the other. We want to make sure that the legal process is properly applied, so that children are safe.

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Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

My right hon. Friend has already referred to the growth in resources for this work, but will he look at that issue across the piece as he does his research and considers the report? I still talk to people working in children's services who say that the number of referrals is difficult to cope with. That adds to an already stressful job; we are seeing burn-out and people choosing to change career.

At the weekend, I spoke to a trainer of social workers who said that young social workers are increasingly wary of children's services as an area to move into. Can we consider resourcing, raising the esteem of the profession and ensuring that there is a new generation of health and social workers in children's services, to protect children not just now but in the future?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

My hon. Friend is right. We must do more to support the training and recruitment of social workers—particularly children's social workers, for whom the issues are often most acute and the publicity most intense. In my judgment, more cases will be coming through in the weeks to come because of the publicity that has rightly surrounded this tragedy. That will only add to the pressure.

We have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had. It is important that we ensure that we also have the best ever generation of social workers. That means ensuring that we bring that about through pay, support and training. We are considering the issue as part of the children's work force review. At the same time, as I said, when mistakes are made, there has to be proper accountability.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Secretary of State will know that people who commit serious acts of abuse against children do so without witnesses and are clever at covering up the evidence. Is it known in how many, if any, of the 60 reported visits to the home of baby P, social workers were unable to gain access or were fobbed off with excuses that the child was not available because he was asleep or ill? Was social workers' right of access an issue or a contributory factor? Does that need to be looked at?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The hon. Lady's wider point is absolutely right, but in this particular case the deception was based on co-operation; the mother, it seemed, co-operated fully with the authorities. There were many meetings, discussions and consultations. However, the evidence from those meetings was not seen or acted on. The deception was skilled in this case. More generally, it is important that our social workers follow through and make sure that meetings take place and are properly conducted.

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Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South

As part of the extensive range of actions that my right hon. Friend is rightly taking in this awful case, will he consider the issue of safe places for children and make sure that every local authority has emergency accommodation available? In that way, a child who needs one can definitely be taken to a place of safety—at a foster carer's, if one is available, or elsewhere.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

In this case, one of our concerns is that the "safe place to be" procedure—a temporary placement with a family friend—was not done appropriately. More generally, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Local authorities have an obligation to ensure that they have in place arrangements for emergency placements. I know that she is interested in the issue more widely and has led work on runaway children. However, in these particular cases, it is essential that arrangements are in place. As I said, we have concerns that in this case they were not effective and proper.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

The Secretary of State is right to stress the importance of political and managerial accountability. In the interests of ensuring that there are the clearest possible lines of accountability, will he assure the House that in all local authorities direct responsibility for front-line children's services is with the authority's director of children's services, rather than being shared in any other way with any other department?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

It is statutory under the Children Act 2004 that that responsibility is with the director of children's services, so I believe that I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Will the children's work force review ensure that everyone in contact with a vulnerable child—teacher, social worker or nursery worker—has really effective training in dealing with child abuse?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

That is one of the issues that was highlighted in the joint inspectors' report in July and again in the summary of that in the Ofsted report yesterday. It is essential that across the children's work force, including in schools, there is an understanding of how to spot the early signs and then how to act. We are not saying that teachers should become the social worker, any more than they should be the parent or the paediatrician, but it is important that there is proper training so that early signs are spotted and schools and other agencies know where to refer on their concerns. That is at the centre of the reforms to children's trusts that I announced earlier in the week. We must ensure that this is being thought about more generally right across the children's work force.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister (Science), Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State said:

"We must never forget that our first duty is to make sure that all children are safe and protected from harm."

He will be aware that there is an additional professional duty on paediatricians to put the child first. Given that an organised campaign is being waged against paediatricians who suspect parental abuse or factitious or induced illness, and who cannot answer back, will he look into what can be done through the Department of Health, and particularly the General Medical Council? Far too many of the GMC's judgments and sanctions are being overturned on appeal, and the damage to the morale of paediatricians and their willingness to engage in child protection work has already been done.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

In this particular case, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the GMC has taken action concerning the paediatrician involved because she did not spot a problem and no action was taken. More generally, there is concern that in this case health professionals spotted clear signs of non-accidental injury abuse, and then there was no action. It is important that we learn lessons from that, and Lord Laming will consider those issues.

On the hon. Gentleman's more general point, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I have been in discussion with the RCP over the past year, since the change of Department. We need to ensure that health professionals, including GPs, are very much at the centre of our thinking to ensure not only that children are safe but that their well-being is promoted. That is why primary care trusts are involved in the new children's trust arrangements and we will have a lead children's GP in every area.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. He referred to a stock-take of local safeguarding boards and serious case reviews, and Mr. Laws mentioned a partial stock-take that has already been undertaken. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that copies of all three reports—the two that are coming out and the one that is already done—are placed in the Library so that those of us who are concerned about this can see what the position is in our own local authority areas and take up any issues of concern with those authorities?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I will do that. In fact, I spoke to the director of Ofsted only this morning. In the next few weeks, Ofsted will publish a detailed evaluation of serious case reviews, which will be made public. It will also detail the areas where there were serious case reviews that were judged to be inadequate. That inadequacy was sometimes about timing, sometimes about independence and sometimes about an insufficient focus on where the failure occurred. The inadequacy of those reviews is unacceptable, which is why we started the work over a month ago to look into that. I hope that the fact that Lord Laming is now taking forward our review on how we strengthen the process for serious case reviews in future will give assurance to the whole House that we are taking this very seriously.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

One of the tasks that the Secretary of State has given Lord Laming is the development of a professional work force. Will he make it clear that Lord Laming will welcome representations from social workers on how they think they can be more effective? Is it not important that the message goes out that this House does not in any way want to scapegoat social workers, and that we are in fact trying to ensure that they have the support they need to carry out what is often one of the most incredibly difficult jobs that society has to do?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I understand that. It is important that we all make that point regularly from all parts of the House. This is a time when social workers around the country will be feeling very worried. As I said, many of them are doing very difficult jobs. We will ensure that Lord Laming considers that issue. Today he has made a call for evidence from experts, including those in the social work community. The children's work force plan that we have been drawing up for the past few months, which we will publish before the end of the year, has a particular focus on what we can do to strengthen support for social workers. It is important that we recognise the very difficult job they do and give them more support when there are problems.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Last week saw the publication of another very critical report on child protection services, focusing on the work being done at Aberdeen city council. That suggests that the problems we face reach across the whole country, even outwith my right hon. Friend's jurisdiction. The death of children obviously hits the headlines, but we know that hundreds, if not thousands, of children are living in very dysfunctional families that most of us would not survive in. The difficulty for social workers lies in making the judgment when they stop working with the family and leaving the child with them and when they take the child out of that family.

My question concerns the interpretation of the data protection legislation and whether that is acting as a hindrance to many people who raise concerns about a child but do not get any feedback from the authorities or statutory agencies because of data protection. That can also happen to MPs, who may find that they do not know whether their concern has been taken seriously or has disappeared into some kind of data protection black hole.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

How we properly follow up serious case reviews is important and urgent, and I have asked Lord Laming to investigate it. More generally, where concerns are expressed it is important that we as Members of Parliament know that they are being taken seriously case by case. I will ensure that as part of his work Lord Laming considers issues of data protection across the whole of the UK. If it is a barrier to proper progress on safety, we should look into it.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Children with severe learning difficulties are among the most vulnerable in our society. In the context of the wider inquiry into this matter, will the Secretary of State assure me that he will look to ensure that for teachers, who have child protection responsibilities, there are no barriers to immediate and rapid access to social workers and the police where they have suspicions of abuse?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

In my view, there should never be such barriers in any area, and if they are arising then action is urgently needed in order to ensure children's safety. There should never be barriers when a teacher has a concern for any child, and that is particularly true for a child with a severe physical or learning disability.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson PPS (Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State), Ministry of Defence

The Children, Schools and Families Committee is undertaking an investigation into looked-after children. As part of that, we visited Denmark, partly because double the number of children per capita are taken into care there than in this country. In addition, there is another layer of the profession—they are known as pedagogues—that we do not have. As part of the work force review, will the Secretary of State undertake to examine the Denmark model in detail and hope to invest in that new profession and in the work force in general?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

We are not only looking into that possibility but intending to act on it and trial it in some areas of the country to see if it can work. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's call for urgent action. I am pleased that the Select Committee is looking into the wider issue in Denmark, and we look forward to its report.

As I said, my starting point is not that there should be a presumption that we should tilt the balance of child protection away from keeping children in the home and towards taking them into care. That is not the appropriate judgment to make at this time, and it is not a signal that I want to send. I want to know that in every case where the child's safety needs to be protected we are acting and there are no barriers in the way. I do not think that a starting point of wanting to take more children into care and away from their families is the right place to be at this time. However, we will wait to see the Committee's report and the work of Lord Laming before reaching final judgments.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The Secretary of State will be aware that I have been concerned for some time that judgment in such cases has been wrong, and that the wrong children have been taken into care. In Haringey, at the important time for baby P, the authority was trying to reduce the number of children in care to a target figure of 365 by March 2007. That was a consequence of a revenue budget problem, which was why fewer care proceedings were initiated. I have identified a case in Haringey where two children were wrongly in care at the same time. The effect of having the wrong two children in care was that there was no space in care for baby P.

The Government, with all-party support, have improved accountability for process but done little about accountability for judgment, and it is that issue that has caused major problems. Will the Secretary of State, particularly in the light of Ofsted's report yesterday, which indicated that in the 17 months until August there were 282 serious case reviews—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should now bring his question to a conclusion.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

We have discussed that issue with the hon. Gentleman many times, and we see no evidence for what he says. It would be quite wrong to distort judgments made about child safety for revenue or financial reasons.

More generally, I find it quite hard to understand this concept of the "wrong" children being taken into care when other children should have been instead. As far as I am concerned, if a child's safety is at risk and the thresholds are passed, the child should go into care—but only in such cases. In this case, it is clear that the home environment was chaotic and the family concerned did not take its responsibilities seriously in any way, but the idea that that is the only kind of family in which children are at risk or subject to abuse is completely wrong. I am afraid that in every area, at every level of income and in every walk of life, children are, at times, abused and maltreated, sometimes without that abuse having come to the attention of the authorities. Where there is evidence of abuse, action should be taken, whether they are the right or wrong kind of child in the hon. Gentleman's view.

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Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed PPS (Rt Hon Tony McNulty, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I commend my right hon. Friend for the speed with which he instigated this investigation. It is the hope of everyone in this House that rapid action will follow just as quickly. Will he undertake to ensure that the lessons of the case are learned not only by chief executives of local authorities and directors of social services, but by councillors in charge of children's services, as well as chief constables and the chief executives of local health authorities throughout the country?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

It is my determination that we and they do so. I wrote to every director of children's services two days ago, saying that while Lord Laming is doing his work, they must satisfy themselves that they have the correct systems in place and that they are protecting children properly. The Ofsted report is coming up soon, and we will act on that. Through the children's trusts, we must ensure that every service—GPs, the police, schools and social workers—are doing what is necessary with parents to keep children safe. We must do so comprehensively in every part of the country, with every service properly involved, committed and accountable when things go wrong.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I want to take the Secretary of State back to the issue of increasing fees for public care proceedings. I heard his earlier answer, and I appreciate that at present it is not possible to gauge the impact, but will he ensure that there is the widest possible monitoring of the situation, including by people such as local law societies and others outside the local authority network? My local law society raised the issue with me, and I suspect the same is true for a number of other hon. Members. The £40 million that has been allocated to local authorities is not ring-fenced, and it may not go very far when there is increased and heightened interest in the matter. Will he assure me that monitoring will ensure that the increase in fees has not had the impact that lawyers and others connected with children might have feared? The House will be very grateful if he can do so.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I will do that. It is something that I, the Secretary of State for Justice and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government looked at in detail a year ago because we wanted to ensure that the wrong behavioural response did not occur. I am reassured by the words of the president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, who says that she knows of no evidence of children being placed at risk as a result of these changes.

At the same time, I am concerned by the comments from the legal profession, and by the numbers that have been published. I take the matter very seriously, and I am asking Lord Laming to look at it—it is in the terms of reference set out in the letter on Monday. If we have to change the system to ensure that children are safe, we will. However, if councils are not doing the right thing because of legal fees, especially when the money was there, that would be a gross dereliction of duty.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I am keen to allow everyone to make a contribution. Once again, I make a plea for short questions and answers because the main business is still to follow.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh PPS (Rt Hon Andy Burnham, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The whole House shares in the sorrow, anger and revulsion of the country at the murder of this innocent child. I ask my right hon. Friend to ask Lord Laming to give us the numbers of children at risk who have not been allocated a social worker. May I also ask him to liaise with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that no child ever leaves their 18-month development review with an undiagnosed broken spine?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

My hon. Friend is quite right, and I know that she has expertise in these matters. When such problems exist, they should be identified by the experts involved. She is right to make that point; it should be best practice, and common practice, everywhere. I will ask Lord Laming to ensure that as part of his wider work the facts are set out clearly in his report, and we will draw the right conclusions from those facts.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I thank the Secretary of State for the manner in which he made his statement, the way he has answered questions and for the action that he has taken. I am not clear on one point, however. The director of children's services from Hampshire has been put into Haringey. Is he in charge, or is he there to supplement what is going on?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

He is not in charge. He was seconded immediately at our instigation, with the agreement of Haringey, to work with the existing management of children's services to ensure that the proper procedures were in place and being applied case by case for children there. The accountability and responsibility of the management are as they have been, and the right thing for me to do is to wait for the inspector's report, which I will do. The reason for sending in Mr. Coughlan was to ensure that, in the mean time, we were assured that things were done properly.

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Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Does my right hon. Friend feel that enough is being done to encourage good people to offer themselves as adoptive or long-term foster parents? If more children went into that sort of care, it would reduce the possibility of social workers being pushed into the dreadful dilemma of having to choose between inappropriate natural parents or long-term care with a local authority.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Last week was national adoption week, when we focused on encouraging foster and adoptive parents to come forward, with a particular focus on black and minority ethnic foster or adoptive parents. We try to pursue the matter continually, but is enough being done? Almost certainly not—we should do more.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The House is rightly concerned about trying to ensure that similar tragedies do not occur in future, or that the risk is at least minimised. However, is the Secretary of State aware of whether the other cases dealt with by those involved in making the assessment in the tragic case of baby P are being reviewed? Given that their judgment was flawed in the case of baby P, is it possible that a similar judgment may have operated in other cases? That applies to the lawyers involved as well as the social workers.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I should have explained earlier that a serious case review in a case such as this is finalised and published only at the end of the criminal legal case. It therefore took longer in the case that we are considering because it was necessary for it not to be published until the criminal case was completed. Throughout that process, there is an obligation on local management to act to implement reforms as they arise as part of the work of the serious case review. A plan of action was already in place before the publication of the report, and action has been taken. Two social workers and a paediatrician were suspended. I hope that any past cases were re-examined. John Coughlan is there to ensure that the inspectors are making sure that such things have happened. I do not have an answer to the hon. Gentleman's question today because the right thing for me to do is ensure that the national inspectors do their job properly. However, I would have thought that "properly" means ensuring that past checks were made.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Is it not the case that there are significant variations in the proportion of children at risk who are taken into care not only between the UK and other European countries, where outcomes have generally been better for many years, but between English local authorities? If there has been a move in the UK towards being more reluctant to put children in care, could that be because, for many years, our care settings and support for foster carers have been less than adequate? Will my right hon. Friend look exceptionally carefully at the recommendations of the Select Committee's report on the matter?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I always look exceptionally carefully at any recommendations from the Select Committee. I have done so on other matters; a recent example is national testing.

Lord Laming's work will examine patterns throughout the country. We look forward to the Select Committee's work on the international comparisons and the lessons from Denmark, although we must be careful to compare like with like, given our different legal systems.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, as yesterday's Ofsted report on children's homes makes clear, the outcomes for looked-after children have not been good enough. That is why we have legislated, with cross-party support, through the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 to strengthen those arrangements substantially. However, as in the case of safeguarding, putting legislation in place is one thing, but the key thing to do next is ensure that it is comprehensively implemented in the best way in every part of the country. That is our challenge in the case of looked-after children, which we must tackle together.

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