Child Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:27 pm on 24th October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Education and Children), Children, Schools and Families 5:27 pm, 24th October 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the effectiveness of their new arrangements for child protection.

My Lords, there has been a great deal of activity on the child protection front relating to legislation, regulation and practice. That is to the Government's credit. They have clearly demonstrated that they are not content to sit on their laurels but will continue to strive for improvement. I want to touch on six issues: first, the CRB checks, the new IBB and the implementation of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; secondly, ContactPoint; thirdly, the effect of the CAF; fourthly, the Section 58 review; fifthly, children's services and school inspections; and, sixthly, child protection proceedings, legal and police matters.

The CRB will continue, under the IBB, to carry out the checks on whether someone is suitable to work with children. The system is still far from perfect. People are unclear about who has to be checked, and how often. For example, a recent TES blog carried a question:

"Does anyone know whether CRB checks are required for observation/shadowing at primary schools, if so do they take long to arrange?"

The fact that the person asked the question indicates that there is not widespread understanding of the system. The answers were varied, indicating a complete lack of consistency among schools about the current requirements.

There is clear evidence that the time the checks are taking is getting in the way of sports coaching. In August football matches all over the north-east had to be cancelled because 200 referees had not been checked in time. The local FA secretary said that it was because,

"they don't see why they have to carry this out".

Clearly people do not understand the need for these checks, and, in many cases, feel insulted by them. There was evidence from the NCH at the start of volunteering week that 17 per cent of men would not volunteer because they would face a check; and 13 per cent would not volunteer because they would be perceived as a paedophile. How sad it is that the high profile of a very few terrible cases makes decent people feel like that. NACRO also expresses concerns about how the system deters ex-offenders from volunteering.

Finally on this topic, the guidance sent to schools last January says that existing teachers and others do not have to be fully vetted, despite claims by Ministers that the procedures would be tightened. The Government promised to close the loopholes, but Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education still says that schools are not required to run criminal checks on any staff already in post. New recruits are also exempt if they move directly from another school. When will this loophole be closed? If not, what evidence is there that this is safe?

We must all do what we can to protect children, but if the process of vetting is slow, costly and inconsistently or unfairly applied, the danger is that there will be a temptation to take short cuts.

I turn to the universal children's database ContactPoint. Can the Minister update the House following his letter of 31 August? How many authorities are now ready, and when will the system go live universally rather than just in trailblazer authorities? Will he ensure that ContactPoint training is rolled out beyond those providing children's services to include those who provide whole-family services, such as housing? Experience demonstrates that families seeking to keep under the radar will often not contact specialist services; so ensuring that generic services understand the importance of recording their involvement will be key to ensuring that the system works. Will he also ensure that training and information are provided to caseworkers who do not have access to the internet, as much of the training is on the internet?

Is the Minister aware that young people are very anxious about this database and believe that their privacy is being interfered with? I was at a meeting of young people yesterday; it is run by the all-party group and BT and is called Seen and Heard. One of the main issues raised was that, although those who know about the database are very concerned about it, many young people have no idea what it is all about. What are the Government going to do about that? One young person also told me that her boyfriend visited a school where the database was live and was shown it. She was concerned that security was very relaxed. It is vital that this system is available only to authorised users.

I move seamlessly to my third concern—the new electronic common assessment framework. It is extraordinary that throughout the whole debate on the regulations for ContactPoint, the Government did not once mention their intention to create a second, parallel, national electronic database containing sensitive assessments of children seeking services. All our concerns about the security of ContactPoint are amplified in relation to eCAF. It is simply not possible to keep such a large database secure. It will have thousands of users, quite conceivably as many as ContactPoint. While arguments about the potential insecurity of ContactPoint have been countered with assertions from the Government that it will contain only minimal information, the same cannot be said about eCAF. It will contain detailed personal information about children seeking services and clear indications of their vulnerability. The Government have insisted that eCAF is a consent-based process, but my informants, Action on Rights for Children, have been contacted by several practitioners involved in the pilots, who tell them that consent to share eCAFs is not being sought and that families are being told that they will not be able to access services unless they agree to an eCAF. That is disgraceful.

These practitioners have also expressed concerns about the potential effect of eCAFs on child protection. In borderline cases, where a teacher is unsure whether to make a Section 47 referral, they have been told to complete an eCAF. I have heard from a number of practitioners that this practice is reducing the number of referrals because of the extra workload. Some practitioners are not sure whether their concerns are serious enough to go straight to child protection and, if they are unsure, they are told to fill in an eCAF. This puts them off making any report at all. It is completely inappropriate to use an eCAF where there are child protection concerns. It risks inexperienced practitioners being drawn into what may be complex and manipulative relationships, and consequently missing vital signs of problems. Besides, many of them are not properly trained to do so. How are the Government monitoring the effect that the requirement to complete an eCAF is having on the number of referrals to children's social services? Child protection work is highly specialised, and this creeping confusion of children in need with children at risk of harm is very dangerous.

My next point is about the involvement of the police in child protection investigations. Is it a deliberate policy to reduce their role and, if so, what are the reasons? What statistics are being gathered about how often the police are involved? I have been asked by experienced social workers and police to bring a number of related matters to the Minister's attention, but I have not been given enough time, so I will write to him with the details. I must say that allowing only 10 minutes per speaker when we have a 90-minute debate slot is just stupid.

There is major concern among professionals about the abolition of the child protection register, which identified high-risk children and focused resources and alert systems where they were most needed. It was the most important tool that we had to protect children. There are concerns that the new arrangements will reduce thresholds and cause confusion, and I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the professionals' concerns that I have relayed to him today and will write to him about in my imminent letter.

A very recent development has been the consultation on Section 58 of the Children Act 2004; the issue of children being hit by their parents. There have been hundreds of responses from professionals and the voluntary sector working with children. Will the Minister confirm that the report of the consultation will be published as promised this autumn? Will he also confirm my understanding that the vast majority of the responses were critical of the current law allowing "reasonable punishment" as being unjust and unsafe? Will he also accept my comment that I think the questions were terribly distorted? For example, the very first question:

"To what extent has section 58 improved legal protection for children in cases of alleged assault by their parents", can only be regarded as a leading question and would probably have been challenged if put to a witness in a court of law. Nevertheless, will the Minister take very seriously the opinions expressed by all those who responded to this unusually short consultation?

Now I will say a word about inspections of schools and children's services. Ofsted is now a gargantuan organisation with responsibility for inspecting care services as well as education. Would the Minister care to tell us how this is going? Is he confident that those doing the inspections really have the skills and experience to do them? Do they understand the significance of what they are seeing and do they have adequate time to do it? In relation to the last point, I have serious concerns about the ability of inspectors doing short inspections of one or two days to give a view that can be relied on about the school's child protection policy and practice. Some inspectors who have left Ofsted have admitted that the short inspection process is not secure in relation to child protection issues. Even when Ofsted makes alarming comments in its report about the safeguarding arrangements, it does not seem to have much effect on the school's final report if its academic record is good. There have been two reviews of the shortened inspection regime and neither says anything about how Ofsted knows that the findings are as reliable as before with the longer inspection regime.

I also have serious concerns about the recent Ofsted annual report which says on page 38 that almost 40 per cent of independent schools inspected did not have sufficiently robust policies and procedures to safeguard children. Perhaps that is because the latest independent schools regulations just say what has changed since the last lot. That does not make them easy to follow. What do the Government intend to do about that? The regulations are very muddled between what is required and what is recommended as good practice. Independent schools must "comply with" the guidance for child protection but need only "have regard to" the guidance on health and safety. To make matters worse, some of the guidance is simply badly drafted.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is not able to be with us today, but she asked me to raise two more issues. She understands that future changes in local government arrangements will result in less external scrutiny of local authority social workers. Is that so and, if so, why are the Government confident that that is not needed? Secondly, she was told by the Minister in a recent debate that local authorities will be given extra funding to underpin their child protection services. Will the Minister say how much they have received and when?

I could go on, but I do not have time, so I look forward to the Minister's reply.