My Lords, last week's Care Matters White Paper sets out an ambitious £305 million programme, in addition to what is already being spent by local authorities, for improving the lives of children in care. The programme will improve stability by, for example, training carers in effective parenting, improving social worker recruitment and retention, raising the quality of residential care and protecting children against frequent school moves, particularly before GCSE.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and I warmly welcome the White Paper. At the launch of the White Paper on Thursday, a care leaver said that she valued her five years in a children's home: she valued her manager, the house mother who was in place from the start of her stay and who remains there; she values the fact that she can return on any Sunday and be welcome for Sunday lunch; and she values the fact that the staff barely changed in her five years there. What does the White Paper do to raise the perceived low status of the care given by staff in this challenging and very needful environment?
My Lords, I very much appreciate the remarks of the noble Earl, in particular the praise that he offers for the outstanding work done by social workers in care homes, to whom we do not pay nearly enough tributes. Although there have been cases of neglect and abuse, they are in a tiny minority, and, as he rightly says, the great majority of work done is of a very high quality.
The Care Matters White Paper proposes a whole series of measures for improving the status of the social work profession, which is, of course, dear to the heart of the noble Earl, as well as the quality of residential placements, including new powers for Ofsted, which we hope to be able to introduce in the next parliamentary Session. Those measures also include a new qualified status for social workers, which will improve the quality of their training and put them much more on a par with teachers in the preparation and training that they undergo. This, too, will improve the quality of support offered, both in children's homes and in the care system more widely.
My Lords, the White Paper is significant and raises important issues that need thorough debate. While we welcome the initiative of business becoming more involved in the lives of some of our most vulnerable young people, can the Minister explain why the White Paper was launched at an event of business leaders at Canary Wharf before it was announced to Parliament?
My Lords, I believe that there was a full Written Statement announcing the White Paper. I was not aware of the exact order of events, but I do not believe that any discourtesy to the House was meant. I hope that we can discuss the substance of this proposal, which is a step change in the quality of provision for children in care and the professionals who deal with them, supported by £305 million of new investment over and above what local authorities currently spend. I hope that the noble Baroness will welcome that along with this side of the House.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the main educational success indicators is parental engagement with the school? Does he also agree that many children in foster care have special needs? In view of those two factors, what will the Government do to give additional training and support to foster parents, so that they can understand their children's special needs and work with and support the school in addressing those needs so that the child can make the required progress?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: the proportion of children with special needs is higher in care than in other settings. That is why we are introducing, as part of the package announced last week, parenting support for foster carers. There will be a substantial programme of support, with accredited national standards and increased access to specialist training and support, including a special needs element. It is also why we are so anxious to improve the stability of placements in school, so that children have the care and attention that they need. That particularly helps children with special needs, so that the assessment of, and provision for, their needs does not have to change every time they change school.
There is a new power, as your Lordships will know from our debates on the Education and Inspections Act last year, for local authorities to direct admissions to schools in respect of children in care. Children in care are now the first oversubscription criterion for all maintained schools. We intend to introduce in forthcoming legislation new support to ensure that children in care who are in years 10 or 11 of school—that is, of course, the run-up to GCSE—can be moved from that school only in the most exceptional circumstances. Those measures will particularly help children in care with special needs.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, does the Minister agree that there is evidence that this group of children with special educational needs are less likely to have their special education provision questioned when necessary than is the case for those with parents who are willing to go to the tribunal? One hopes that this will sort out that problem, too.
My Lords, I agree that parents going to the tribunal is a difficult and important issue. I did not catch the first part of the noble Baroness's question, but I will write to her.
My Lords, the teaching of life skills is important to children in all settings. That is why we have, as my noble friend will know, given a significant boost to PSHE in schools, which concentrates particularly on the sorts of life skills that I know are uppermost in my noble friend's mind.
My Lords, I welcome the package that the Minister described, which is additional to local authority provision. What will he do to liaise with local authorities where many social care services dealing with children are facing cuts? I was in Norfolk last week talking to the Courts Service with the local authorities and found that the one part of the workforce that was unable to play its part was the local authority simply because it was facing cuts in services. As the Minister knows, that has a severe effect on morale. What co-operation will there be with local authorities so that the package has most impact?
My Lords, there is close co-operation between central government and local authorities on social care issues. In respect of cuts, if the noble Baroness writes to me with the particular case in point, I will take it up. There has been a significant increase in spending in this area. For example, the number of social workers in employment was up from 38,700 in 1997 to 45,100 in 2003, which is the last year for which we have figures. If there are cuts, I would be surprised if they were in real-terms spending, given what has happened to budgets. I would be glad to look at the particular instances that the noble Baroness chooses to bring to my attention.
I am sorry, my Lords, but time is up for questions.