Child Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:51 pm on 24th October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Shadow Minister, Children, Schools and Families 5:51 pm, 24th October 2007

My Lords, what we lack in numbers today we certainly make up for in commitment. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for raising this important subject. It will always be timely because the welfare and protection of children is a serious and ongoing concern. Sometimes it is jostled from the top of the political agenda but that can never be said of your Lordships' House— from the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the excellent ensuing debate two years ago on the second Joint Chief Inspectors' report on arrangements to safeguard children, to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the UNICEF Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, not a policy on the welfare of children and their protection goes unscrutinised, and I pay tribute to that dedication.

Interestingly, the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, draws attention to the Government's "new" arrangements for child protection. The noble Baroness covered these comprehensively and with her customary authority and I shall be echoing much of what she said.

There has been a flurry of legislative activity in government on child protection over the past two years. I recall well the debate we had on the contact point regulations; the many debates on the Childcare Bill and the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill; and the discussion of the Care Matters White Paper of last year which will result in new legislation. Tragic events galvanised the Government into action and it is right that new measures for vetting and barring in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill were introduced. However, the protection of children needs to, and must, go far beyond legislation and regulation.

The challenges of child protection are incredibly far reaching and affect every aspect of a child's life, from home to school, in education and in care. Families in whatever shape and size are, of course, the star players in keeping children safe and well cared for. The report of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith has touched on this with passion and great detail. His proposal for a national relationship and parenting invitation scheme for couples and parents to improve access to support for vulnerable families is a wonderful example of the kind of initiative that could assist struggling families.

Yet the tragedy at the moment is that for so many children growing up in dysfunctional families the next step is leaving that unit and being taken into care. The every child matters website raises the plight of children in care, stating that,

"the majority of children who remain in care are there because they have suffered abuse or neglect".

In 2004, up to 13 per cent of the 78,500 children in care were moved to a new placement three times; 12 per cent were children under the age of two, when emotional attachment and stability are so important. That is as distressing a figure now as it was then. I recognise the Government's determination to address this, but without more foster carers and dedicated child social workers, the very people who will care and watch out for these children, it will be a difficult task to achieve. Can the Minister tell us how this is progressing?

This short debate presents a good opportunity to ask the Government for a brief health check on their legislative arsenal. The guidance of November last year issued under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act did not cover the requirements of the new vetting and barring scheme to be introduced under that Act. It is my understanding that they were due to have been phased in this year. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us when we might expect to see that guidance and whether he would welcome a debate on the implementation of the vetting and barring scheme.

There was great concern when the Bill was in your Lordships' House that the vetting and barring system was not perhaps as straightforward as the Bichard inquiry had envisaged. Clearly the theoretical idea and the practical implication are two very different things. However, one issue that stood out was the accepted need for a clear communication campaign to ensure that employers and employees knew what was required of them. Can the Minister update us on how wide-reaching their campaign has been and what has been the level of response? There has been a great deal of concern, too, as to how effectively the Independent Barring Board, now to be known as the Independent Safeguarding Authority, would process checks. There was deep uncertainty as to how many CRB checks would have to be processed year on year and whether the Independent Safeguarding Authority would be able to cope. There was, too, much discussion on the composition of ISA membership. At the time there was talk of creating a membership made up of civil servants, experienced charity workers, academics and so on. Will the Minister confirm whether there is a now a complete slate and what is the composition of the authority? I am sure that he will be able to give noble Lords chapter and verse on how he anticipates the ISA will work following a year of consideration. I look forward to what he has to say and hope that it will be reassuring.

We had an intricate debate on the establishment of Contact Point before the recess. Many questions were raised about that database and they were answered fully by the Minister, for which we were most grateful. However, Contact Point is just part of a web of other databases and directives. My honourable friend Tim Loughton MP was told in February that the evaluation of the study of the integrated children's system, presented by academics to the Government in August 2006, would be published for public reference imminently. It is worrying that there has been no sight of this because this analysis is key to the implementation of all the systems set up by Government to safeguard children. Given that the Government's safeguarding strategy relies heavily on the integration of these databases, it would pose serious problems if that integration was not working. Can the Minister say when it will be published?

I should also be grateful for any further explanation on the decision to implement a single national IT system to support the Enablement of the Common Assessment Framework, eCAF, as disclosed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Kevin Brennan, the day before the Summer Recess. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the eCAF system is not as benign as it may seem and I find it extremely concerning that such a dramatic change in its use was brought about by a Written Statement slipped in just before the Recess. The data fields included in eCAF go far beyond Contact Point, including all the information in that system as well as very sensitive personal profiling. The statement describes that personal information as,

"an assessment summary, appropriately captured by the practitioner using free text; and consent-based, planned actions, reviewing progress and a summary of the outcomes, all summarised appropriately by the practitioner using free text".

In schools, teachers are the professional protectors and defenders of our children. There are fantastic, dedicated people providing the best education and care that they can, so it is alarming that anecdotal evidence suggests that the heavy bureaucratic burden and the threat of information leaking has resulted in many schools refusing to make use of the service. eCAF is meant to provide a service for early intervention into child abuse, but as a result of its cumbersome and threatening format it is dissuading schools from its entire purpose.

There are many serious questions here. What constitutes an "appropriate summary"? Who will have access to this database? Given that it is now a national database, will it come under the aegis of our favourite operational directive, the 2000 e-Government Interoperability Framework, otherwise known as e-GIF, which makes it mandatory for all public sector databases to facilitate the sharing of data across systems? I am sure this was done with the best of intentions and yet I would be interested to know what consultation there was on this change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we hear that schools are finding it hard to cope with filling out eCAF forms and unless a child is at immediate risk and a case is a clear Section 47 referral under the Children Act 1989 they do not refer the child.

Child protection officers are highly skilled and appreciate the absolute importance of the sensitivity of the situation, the importance of gathering evidence forensically and the importance of a methodical and highly skilled approach, which is vital to securing real safety for children who are at risk of harm. Does the Minister appreciate that their work could be at risk from other officers working under the aegis of eCAF, whose approach will be, in the words of the statement,

"to provide a standardised approach for practitioners in the holistic assessment of a child's needs"?

We must be wary that an holistic approach does not compromise specialist skills.

Parties of all hues are united in desiring the very best for our children and giving them the best care and protection. There can be no doubt that an enormous amount of good will surrounds measures introduced that will achieve that aim. However, we must proceed with caution. Standards of care should be high but children's needs must not be standardised.

It is true that every child matters. What is also true is that every child is different and has different needs and vulnerabilities. Meeting those needs requires more than CRB checks, collating databases from the earliest years and surveillance. The recording of those small individuals' details alone will not protect them. The first step must be a change in culture. That change must constitute a departure from endless bureaucracy and a renewal of trust in the people who care for and work for children.

My honourable friend David Willetts has proposed in our childhood review a fantastic portfolio that would inject that much underestimated quality—risk—back into childhood so that for children and their carers acting responsibly does not diminish from a sense of responsibility, so that while a carer might protect children they do not stifle their growth and so that instead of subjecting our children to an over-extensive surveillance culture, we do not forget their most basic right—their right to a childhood.