Children: Looked-after Children — Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 1:56 pm on 25th October 2012.

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Moved By The Earl of Listowel

That this House takes note of the standards of service for looked-after children and, in particular, the Government's response to changes in residential childcare in the light of recent child protection failures.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 2:00 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I am most grateful to my Cross-Bench colleagues for allowing me a slot for this debate, to my noble friend Lord Laming, the Convenor, for prompting me to table this Motion and for his advice, and to the noble Lords who have decided to contribute this afternoon. I also pay tribute to Tim Loughton MP, for many years a consistent champion for looked-after children and the social workers who serve them and until recently Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families. As a Minister, he never tired of speaking to looked-after children and care leavers. It was good for the morale of the whole service that we knew we had a Minister who was listening to our concerns. I am reassured that his replacement as Minister also has a long track record of experience, most recently as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers and of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adoption and Fostering. Mr Timpson has also recently produced a report on the education of looked-after children which I commend to your Lordships and which is available on the website of the Who Cares? Trust, the charity that clerks one of the parliamentary groups.

Finally, I thank Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults. Her report on children missing from care, together with the work of campaigning journalists such as Andrew Norfolk of the Times, exposed the great variability of quality in residential care and gave rise to some very good work from the Government in response.

I declare my interest as a trustee of the child welfare charity the Michael Sieff Foundation. As vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers, I have listened for 10 or 12 years to young people from care, to their carers and their social workers, who come into Parliament to share their experience with us. I am very grateful for the trouble they have taken to warn us of their concerns.

It may be of assistance to begin with a brief description of the principles behind working with children who have experienced the kind of trauma experienced by many children taken into care. To the best of my understanding, the principles are as follows: early abuse, including neglect, of children by their principal carers can cause a significant impact on their development which may be enduring and difficult to reverse. The impact of parental abuse, including neglect, may be mitigated by many factors, the most important of which is the child's genetic inheritance. Children who have experienced trauma of this kind may find it difficult to trust carers, to permit intimacy and to allow themselves to be loved. They may seek to sabotage relationships or test them to the point of destruction. They may be overly self-critical and critical of others. They may have an unquenchable need for attention. They may find attention very uncomfortable. They are often very complicated and needy young people. If they do not receive adequate early support in recovering from their trauma their personalities may become less flexible with age and they may develop a persistent personality disorder.

Key to recovery from early trauma is finding a person who can stick with the child and whom the child cannot, as it were, destroy through his overt or veiled attacks. Most of us have experienced in our lives the sensation of a love that is not returned. There is a similarity between this and a child's experience. For a child, it may be as if the love of his life has spurned him and he can never love or trust another again. Learning to love again is the key to recovery from such trauma.

I would like to explore certain themes and questions with you. Most important is the development of the workforce: the child and family social workers, the residential childcare workers and the foster carers. Will the Minister undertake today to improve the qualifications of staff in residential childcare? Will he look very carefully at the call to move to a foundation degree level workforce in children's homes? On the subject of consultation, the practice of providing groups of staff, managers, foster carers and social workers with an appropriately qualified clinical professional to help them reflect on their relationships with their children and families on an ongoing basis is widely recognised as necessary but is far from universally practised. In particular, given the mental health needs of children in residential care, it is beyond belief that there is no consistent support for staff to help them manage the needs of these children. Will the Minister consider introducing regulations to require that children's homes receive ongoing clinical support from a professional from an accredited list?

Children's residential care needs an institutional base to ensure steady improvement over time. Will the Minister examine carefully the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care and the College of Social Work and see how the best of these models can be adopted for our own children's homes?

Finally, residential childcare needs a champion. Will the Minister look, for example, at the work of Louise Casey the former homelessness tsar, champion for victims and, most recently, lead on families with complex needs? Will he seek to appoint someone of the ilk of Moira Gibb, the Chief Executive of the London Borough of Camden, who led the work on social work reform or Professor Eileen Munro, author of a very important report on child protection services? Both have been effective champions for social work.

These are the key themes I would like to explore today. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Laming, who will look more closely at recent child protection concerns. He authored the report of the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié and has been a chief inspector of social services. I regret that there will not be time for me to speak about the health needs of looked-after children, concerns about their education, about transition from care or about the introduction of looked-after status for 16 and 17 year-olds on remand. On these matters I will say only that the mental health needs of these children must not continue to be overlooked. Their health assessments need to capture mental health needs. The dedicated looked-after child and adolescent mental health services need to be funded and protected in this difficult time. In particular, the mental health needs of pre-schoolers, the children under five who account for about 30% of those coming into care, need to be better identified.

On education, the looked-after children virtual school heads have been a very welcome introduction in recent years. The concern now is that they are being cut. Will the Minister ensure that this vital role is put on a statutory basis to make sure there is no deterioration in the educational attainment of looked-after children?

On leaving care, it is absolutely vital that the pilots allowing young people to stay with their foster carers past the age of 18 are rolled out across the country as soon as possible. Can the Minister give a timeframe for when this will happen? The Deputy Children's Commissioner has found that sexual exploitation of children in care-as concerning as that is-is but a drop in the ocean compared with the exploitation of young people as they leave care and move into often inappropriate accommodation.

The Government are moving to bring children on remand into looked-after status. This will significantly increase the burdens on local authorities at a time when they are most hard pressed. Local authorities may find themselves with responsibility for these young people to the age of 24. Can the Minister assure the House that local authorities will be resourced adequately to meet this new challenge?

Both this and the previous Government have made significant improvements to services for looked-after children. The previous Government introduced ring-fenced funding for looked-after children under Quality Protects, introduced a minimum qualification in children's homes of national vocational qualification level 3 and saw an increase in young people leaving care to go on to university from 2% to 8%. This Government have raised the bar for entry to social work, have implemented the newly qualified status for social workers introduced by the previous Government, and are implementing many of the important recommendations of Professor Eileen Munro's review. They have promised the appointment of a chief social worker. I ask the Minister when he expects that appointment to be made.

Nevertheless, increasing numbers of children entering care, the worst recession that we have known and particular concerns about the sexual exploitation of children in residential care indicate that forward momentum has to be sustained. I suggest that this can be done by taking the following steps-or at least steps that can contribute. I would encourage the Government to place the development of social workers, foster carers and residential childcare workers right at the top of their agenda. It was heartening to read this week of the winner of the annual teaching awards, a woman fast-tracked into teaching with an excellent academic record and strong interpersonal skills. This is just the kind of person needed in services for looked-after children. It is most encouraging to see the fast-tracking model being applied to social work. I praise here the work of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who regrets that he cannot be present, and others in doing this.

On the continent, we see far more teachers and social workers choosing to become foster carers. Please can the Government support teachers and social workers to make that choice? Please will the Minister consider a similar fast-track approach for residential childcare-a care first, which learns from the experience of placing pedagogues in children's homes and ensures that candidates need to be placed in supportive environments and not just parachuted into homes unsupported.

I invite noble Lords to remember the research by Professors Petrie and Cameron, and others at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, which compared homes in Denmark, Germany and England. Some 90% of staff in Danish homes had degree-level qualifications; the figure was 50% in Germany but only 30% in English homes. Yet in Germany and Denmark, half the children in care are in residential care, compared to 10% in this country. Homes in England are generally the last resort. Our children's needs are generally of a much higher level of complexity and urgency, yet our staff are far less well equipped than their continental peers.

I can recall visiting the manager of a children's home in Maida Vale, north London, five years ago. She had 30 years' experience as a manager, postgraduate qualifications and a couple of degrees behind her, but she deeply regretted that many of her staff were barely literate. My experience of working in and visiting children's homes has led me to admire many of the staff. I have met remarkable people making a difference to vulnerable children, often against great odds. These are extraordinary people. Some of the therapeutic communities in particular are remarkable and tremendous places to work, but the quality of staff is highly variable between and within homes. Our most vulnerable children need and deserve consistent expert care-staff who are confident about what they are doing; who understand the principles behind what they do; who can reflect and respect teachers, clinical psychologists and social workers and are respected by them; who have excellent interpersonal skills; who can engage children who may spit and hit; and sustain a relationship with such children over months and years. This work can be the most rewarding imaginable-working with a team and seeing the immense difference that one can make in a child's life. It has attracted people of the calibre of Paul Ennals, the former chief executive of the National Children's Bureau; Hilton Dawson MP, founder of the parliamentary group and now director of the British Association of Social Workers; and Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner. They all started their careers in children's homes. This work is among the best ways to learn about children. It can attract the best, as it does in Denmark and Germany, if staff feel supported and valued in what they do.

Paul Connolly, best-selling author and a graduate of an abusive children's home-now a father of two and an entrepreneur-spoke to me recently about why he succeeded while four of his contemporaries died before they reached the age of 30. He explained that he had always sought out adults to whom he could aspire. For him, he found them in the boxing gym neighbouring his home. He was befriended and became a boxer himself. What he wants most now for children in children's homes is that they, too, have adults to whom they aspire. The chief executive officer of the Mulberry Bush Organisation, John Diamond, has convened a group of academics to look at establishing a foundation degree for residential care. I very much encourage the noble Lord to consider this as the next step forward.

I must shortly conclude. I should like to remind your Lordships of the words of Sir William Utting in his report in the 1990s on children living away from home, People Like Us. He wrote, and I paraphrase, "The best safeguard for children is an environment of overall excellence". Confident, carefully recruited, well qualified and well supported staff are less likely to be awed by some celebrity or bully into silence or complicity. Confident staff are more likely to gain the trust of their children and minimise the child's risk of running away-or follow that child if he or she seeks to disappear. Effective staff are more likely to be trusted by their children and to learn of any abuse from guests, volunteers or staff.

The best gift that we can give these children is to surround them with professionals and carers of the very highest quality. If this Government continue to address the status of residential childcare workers, foster carers and social workers adequately, they will be leaving an inheritance of which they can be well proud.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 2:16 pm, 25th October 2012

I start by declaring an interest because my husband and I provided foster respite care for a brother and sister to whom, 11 years ago, we then became formal guardians. Their experience is very different to many of the experiences that I am sure that we will hear about, in that they came just to one placement-us.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for bringing forward this vital topic for debate in your Lordships' Chamber. We often say those words but here it is particularly pertinent. Looked-after children, especially those in residential childcare, are the responsibility of each and every one of us, but sadly the catalogue of child protection failures just continues, and we do not seem to learn the lessons from the individually tragic cases, whether they are Victoria Climbié or the young girls so horrifically abused-and ignored by social services and others involved in their care-in Rochdale.

This week is National Care Leavers' Week, and it is good that looked-after children can now get proper transitional support, rather than being dumped by the state at the age of 18. Transition to independence is vital, but it is shocking that less than 4% of care leavers stay on with their foster carers past the age of 18, with well over a third living on their own. Only a handful-8%, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel-go on to higher education, which is often, I am sorry to say from my experience working in the university sector, not supporting them appropriately and ill prepared to give them the support they need. This situation results in a much higher drop-out rate from among looked-after children than from the average student body.

I commend the Prince's Trust's From Care to Independence project, which will provide 1,000 care leavers with one-to-one support, and will form the basis of a much-needed long-term research study. We need to understand exactly what support these young people need. Advocacy is critical to successful transition. I ask the Minister if the Government will consider giving all children in care a statutory right to independent advocacy as a part of care reviews and placement planning, not just as part of the complaints process.

The incidence of children running away from either foster homes or residential care homes is shocking. In fact, it is three times more likely than for other children. These children are the most vulnerable in our society. Many have been through repeated placements that have not worked for a variety of reasons. Regardless, each placement breakdown further compounds the child's lack of sense of worth and esteem, and is more likely to bring further disruptive behaviour. These children are often scared and angry-a potent mix. It is estimated that 10,000 looked-after children go missing every year. These children are much more likely to be sexually or physically abused, involved in substance misuse or resort to stealing and begging to survive: a fast-track route into the criminal justice system or, worse, self-destruction.

I said that the number of children going missing was an estimate, because we have a serious failure of information-sharing at present. When Ofsted publishes reports of residential homes, it does not automatically send copies to either the local authority with direct responsibility for the child or the local authority where the home is based, and these days the number of out-of-borough placements are increasing. It is vital that this happens, not least because the receiving local authority may not be aware of all the out-of-borough children placed in its area and so cannot alert other important local services, such as education, health and particularly the police, to provide the appropriate support.

I ask the Minister whether that error can be rectified. It is a simple matter of adding one or two local authorities to the circulation list, rather than relying on the authorities to peruse the Ofsted website as reports on individual homes come out. It seems to me that this is part of the joined-up thinking that every inquiry into the failure of safeguarding cases talks about. Let us make it easier for them. Can the Minister also report on the DfE task and finish group looking at out-of-borough placements and say when the Government will publish its findings?

Another problem is that the Department for Education data on missing children is collected differently from the police data. ACPO's definitions make a distinction between missing and absent children and often do not trigger searches until a child has been away for more than 24 hours. Frankly, that is too long. I know that there is frustration with children who repeatedly go missing from residential homes but, as the Rochdale case showed us, 24 hours is too long away: the abuse can happen within a very short timescale. The child then returns to the residential home and may disappear again. The Children's Society's Still Running survey shows that 52% of looked-after children in the survey had run away overnight on at least one occasion.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency and UK Missing Persons Bureau report on children missing from care highlighted the problem of the difference in the way that data are collected. Can the Minister encourage the DfE, the Local Government Association and ACPO to agree on a standard definition, and please can it be collected consistently? We need to know the scale of the problem. The Still Running survey gives a much higher level of running away than the figures supplied by the police, and it is suspected that many of the police data are under-reported, whether by them or by local authorities.

I add my congratulations and thanks to those expressed by my noble friend Lord Listowel to the Minister, Tim Loughton, who has done an enormous amount of work in this area. He made a very positive statement in another place on 3 July about the skill set needed for staff in residential homes. It appears that in a number of places the professional relationship between the staff and the looked-after children in their care just has not worked. There have been reports of staff unable to prevent children running away and, with children moving from placement to placement, there is virtually no time for staff to get to know a child and their background before the first crisis hits. Knowledge of their background might prove helpful in knowing how to handle the crisis. That must change. We need professional qualifications for staff in residential homes, as has already been mentioned. These staff, after all, are looking after children with the most complex problems imaginable. With fewer and fewer local authority-run homes, what check is there on the qualifications of residential home staff in private homes? Can the Minister say whether there will be further requirements on privately run residential homes to demonstrate that their staff have qualifications and to undertake continuing professional development on a regular basis?

If noble Lords have ever talked to looked-after children in the care system, or met them later in their lives, they will know that it is obvious right from the start where the system has worked for them or failed. I want to end by talking about a young man whom I met 10 years ago when Cambridgeshire County Council reviewed its fostering arrangements, including a new and comprehensive guide for foster parents. I was one of the councillors on the panel. We were lucky enough to have as one of our expert members on the panel a young man who was just starting out at university and who had been in foster care since he was seven. I shall call him Tom. He had moved from placement to placement in the early years but had been with one family for the preceding six years, and that relationship had transformed his life. He said that without their love and care, including that of his foster siblings, he would probably not have managed to stay on at school until, let alone beyond, the age of 16. He was the first person in his family to go to university. Through the generosity of his foster parents-and at no inconsiderable cost to them-they had kept his room for him during the holidays, otherwise he would have been on his own at his university halls of residence in the holidays.

Tom knew exactly what we needed to do, including the need for support after the age of 18, which thankfully is now much more available. His sage advice then meant that Cambridgeshire was able to give its foster parents a really effective head start in their support for youngsters in their care. Do enough local authorities actually seek the advice of the young people in their charge?

Sadly, Tom's experience is not the norm. Local government talks about corporate parents, and rightly so, but I think that this term needs to extend beyond councillors and the professionals involved in the work with looked-after children. All of us in public life have a responsibility. That responsibility extends beyond learning the lessons from the dreadful incidents of the past-although we must do so-to ensuring that looked-after children get a consistent, supportive and reliable service that will give them the basis to rebuild their lives after their traumatic start.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Convenor of the Crossbench Peers 2:26 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Earl on securing this important debate. His commitment to this subject commands the respect of the whole House. It was a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who has already made such a helpful contribution to the debate.

I feel sure that on all sides of the House it is recognised that removing a child or young person from the care of their parents is a decision of immense significance. The state has to be careful about exercising such power. Clearly checks and balances must be in place so that the exercise of such authority is reasonable and demonstrably in the best interests of the child.

If the state makes the momentous decision to remove a child from parental care, then at the very least that brings with it the huge responsibility of ensuring that the state is a "good parent". Sadly, it is all too clear that often that may not be so, yet the state has not only a legal duty but a moral responsibility to ensure the safety, well-being and proper development of each child and young person for whom it becomes a substitute parent. It has a responsibility to ensure that that child or young person has the best opportunity to recover from what has happened in his or her early life and to develop into a fulfilled citizen in our community.

Sadly, the reality is that many of the children coming into the care of a local authority have been let down by the adults in their lives to whom they were entitled to look for care and protection. Instead, they will have experienced chaotic lifestyles, serious neglect or even deliberate harm. The duty of the state is, first, to ensure that these children and young people are provided with a safe place to live that provides a consistent, reliable framework offering a structure to their daily lives. It is from this foundation of that secure framework that it is possible to make an individual assessment of their needs and the beginnings of an individual care plan that will promote their recovery and development.

In the past, most children and young people coming into care had an initial experience in a specialist residential home. These homes generally had skilled and highly regarded staff. Of course, we all know that some establishments turned out to be absolutely ghastly, and appalling things were done to children who were easily exploited and even abused. The haste with which foster care has come to be relied on as the main and, generally, the only way of responding to the needs of children has led to residential care being neglected, downgraded and often regarded as a placement solely of last resort.

In my view, the rush into foster care was influenced, sadly, not by a belief that it was right for every child for most of their time in care but, regrettably, because it was seen as a much cheaper option. Of course, there can be no doubting that our society is deeply indebted to a large number of wonderful foster parents who should rightly be regarded as heroes of the state. That phrase in no way overstates their contribution to our society. They are heroes of the state. However, that is not a justification for the serious neglect of residential care. We need the widest range possible of facilities to meet the needs of these very damaged children and young people. The very best homes provide not only stability but also the staff who are able to begin the important therapeutic work which facilitates the healing process so that a young person can begin to trust adults again, to develop self-confidence and become optimistic about their future.

By 1998 it became evident that some local authorities, particularly inner-city local authorities, were closing all of their children's homes and moving the residents to distant places which offered-guess what?-the cheaper option. In exceptional circumstances, we all know that it may be right to send a child a long distance from their home area and their environment but, sadly, these decisions are seldom taken with the needs of the child or young person in mind, and are almost entirely dictated by the financial cost to the authority. When a placement is hundreds of miles away, who ensures the quality of care that is provided to that young person? Who provides continuing contact with the child? Who can the child or young person turn to when things go wrong in their lives?

My fear is that these placements are often characterised by nothing more than "out of sight, out of mind". Is it any wonder that many of these young people receive either seriously inadequate or no education? Is it a wonder that they run away? Given so little opportunity for them to develop their potential or to be helped to prepare for adulthood, is it any wonder that so many end up in penal establishments? One of the most chilling comments I have ever read came about when a senior officer concerned with the recent cases in Rochdale was asked how a 14 year-old girl in care was able to be out of the home so late at night being sexually abused. He is reported to have said that for this child, "This was a lifestyle choice". No vulnerable child in the care of the state should be given the option to be away from the protection of the services designed to promote their well-being.

I hesitate to burden the House with a personal experience, but I am encouraged to do so only because it is of no credit to me, yet the impact on me has endured. I hope it will have an impact on the Minister, who is very well respected in this House. For more than 20 years, I had been responsible in a large local authority for all of the social care services. The announcement that I was leaving the authority to take up another post attracted the attention of the local media. Before I left I attended a well publicised event, which was at a facility for adults with special needs. During the visit, the officer in charge of the day centre told me that there was a young man outside who wanted to meet me. She had invited him in to meet me and offered him tea but he refused. He would not come in so I had to go outside, which I was happy to do. I met a young man in the second half of his teenage years. He told me that he had been in the care of the local authority almost throughout his life; I had been the director of social services throughout his whole life. The few formal letters that he possessed had my name at the top, so before I left the local authority, he wanted to meet me so he could put a face to my name. That young man had spent his entire life in the care of the authority for which I was the chief officer responsible for his services, yet I did not even know that he existed. Nothing has been so powerful in making me realise the burden of responsibility that we have for the care, protection and development of these young people. I was then, and I remain, chastened by that experience because we must never allow these young people, who are our responsibility, to be lost in the system. It happens so easily.

I met a young woman who had been in care and who told me she had been sent to 19 different placements, and that with every placement there came a move to a different school. Is it any wonder that her education had been disrupted? We must take the needs of these young people more seriously than we have done in the past. We know the ingredients of good-quality residential care. We know how to ensure that children and young people in care can have the disruption in their lives minimised by our facilitating continued contact with their wider family, their grandparents, their friends and their school. I urge the Government to set up an independent, comprehensive and robust review of residential childcare services in this country. I believe that nothing less will do. In an earlier report, I ended by saying, "Just do it". Today, I end with a plea to the Minister, "Please do it".

Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Convenor of the Lords Spiritual 2:37 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, it is a privilege and somewhat humbling to follow the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who has made such an impassioned speech. I express my gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for tabling this important debate, for his eloquent and passionate introduction and for his clear explanation of what it takes to introduce a damaged young person to the idea of trust and love as a basis for adult life.

Given the recent cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Derby and Torbay that have been widely publicised and the clear failures in our child protection system, this is a timely debate. The stories from those places seem to have a number of features in common. First, children and young people end up in residential care after multiple placement breakdowns caused by their challenging behaviour, or rather caused by the inability of adults to support their needs and uncover what is behind such challenging behaviour. As one young person involved with the Children's Society put it recently, "No one thinks there is a problem with the placement; it is always the child".

Secondly, these incidents involve adolescents who have experienced serious abuse and neglect or have witnessed very traumatic events in their lives. Such children need high-quality support but, as others have said so persuasively, they often experience the very opposite. Thirdly, they have run away or have gone missing on numerous occasions, especially while in residential care and those episodes have not been adequately responded to. Fourthly, the most important common thread is that these children were often seen by professionals involved in their lives as troublemakers, unco-operative and beyond help, rather than as troubled young people, crying out for help.

It is important for us to grasp these things if we want to understand why, in many cases, residential care is not meeting the needs of children and young people. It would not be possible to erase a child's past experience but patience, empathy and perseverance, combined with knowledge and clear systems for multi-agency working and accountability, should help each child to be able to look, with hope, into the future.

It is not only the cases of child sexual exploitation that demonstrate some of the failures in our care system. Serious child case reviews show children in care taking their own lives or dying of drugs overdoses. One of the key indicators that a child is at risk is if they run away. Many of these children have had difficult starts to their lives and experienced neglect, abuse or trauma. As a consequence, these children are often extremely vulnerable, and when they go missing they are in great danger of being physically or sexually exploited.

The recent all-party parliamentary group inquiry into children who go missing from care highlighted, as others have said, the failure of the state to look for the most vulnerable children and laid bare the often appalling and shocking results. So my first major point is that running away should be seen as a sign that a child or young person needs help.

As has already been pointed out, it is estimated that around 10,000 children go missing from care every year, but many of these children go missing repeatedly, amounting to more than 40,000 incidents a year. The link between frequent episodes of running away and the risk of sexual exploitation is absolutely clear. The APPG inquiry into children who go missing from care found that perpetrators target children's homes specifically because of the high vulnerability of the children in them and how easily they can make contact with the children. I would like to raise with the Minister a point that has already been mentioned. When will the new definitions of "missing" and "absent" currently being piloted by ACPO be published? Will it include an assessment of the risks related to children categorised as absent?

My second point is that placement stability is one of the most important factors determining the success of care experiences, and has a significant impact on long-term outcomes for children in care. Of the 65,000 children looked after in England in 2011, 14,500 children, which is 22%, had two placements during the year, and 11% had three or more placements. Children in care need stability and to build trust with the people in their lives. How can they feel safe if they are moved so many times a year?

I know that the Government are also concerned about the number of cross-boundary placements. From April 2011, local authorities have a duty not only to ensure that there is enough provision in their local area to meet the needs of the children but that decisions about placements outside their local area are made only by request to a senior nominated officer in the authority. Justification has to be presented in each case to demonstrate the benefits of such placements to the young person.

Surely there is a need now to ensure that local authorities are complying with that duty and that children are placed outside of the authority only when it is clearly in their best interests. What are the Government's plans to ensure that local authorities comply with those duties?

Thirdly, when the Children's Society consulted with young people in care about the quality of care that they received, young people said that they wanted an opportunity to have regular chats about their lives with someone. Some suggested that it would be good to have informal meetings with their social worker every six weeks "because sometimes you do not understand the badness of the thing you are in". For young people placed away from their families and friends, "the care system is an isolated place and you do not want to isolate people further".

Although young people have a right to express their views when decisions are made about their care and participate in review meetings, and the local authority has a duty to ascertain their wishes and feelings, they often say how powerless they feel and that they are not in control of events that shape their lives. As a result, running away is one of the only ways that they can express that control.

Research demonstrates that where children are listened to, take part in decisions about their care and get explanations about the decisions made, they are more likely to be happy about their placements, more likely to achieve stability and share information if they do not feel safe. Advocacy is instrumental in ensuring that children are supported to participate in these decisions. What are the Government doing to ensure that children and young people have the support of an advocacy service when they need help with communicating their wishes and feelings to those who make decisions about their lives?

Finally, as others have said, the support and quality of the workforce in children's homes is critical to a young person's experience of care. The variable quality of staff in children's homes working with very vulnerable children is a concerning issue, with standards often unacceptably low, as others have clearly demonstrated. Workforce development and the academic standard of the residential care workforce in England is much lower than in other European countries. The poor levels of training for staff are also often exacerbated by the high changeover in children's homes due to low pay and an overreliance on agency workers. What are the Government doing to ensure that staff who work in children's care homes have the same high standards of qualification and training as in other European countries?

Above all, changes are needed in attitudes. As one young person put it to the Children's Society, "Basically, I used to go missing all the time ... and I mentioned to one of the workers, I went to a girl's house and there was like prostitution going on there. I went back and told one of my care workers about what had happened. They just saw it as prostitution, they thought 'she might be a prostitute' and that's all they wrote down. They never took time to listen to how I felt about it".

The phrase "they never took time to listen", is telling. That, above all, illustrates the need for cultural change in residential child care that we must seek in the years ahead.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 2:46 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for securing this important debate and congratulate him on his excellent speech. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the children's charity Barnardo's, which has extensive knowledge and experience of looked-after children in residential care. I speak today about the charity's concern.

There are currently more than 6,000 children in residential care homes. These are often the most vulnerable children with the highest levels of need. These children usually do worse on a whole range of measures, including educational achievement and social well-being, than other children in the care system-that is, those who are being fostered or who have been adopted. This is not to argue against the use of residential care. For some, it is the most appropriate, and sometimes the only, option. But we need to make sure that we get it right for these particularly vulnerable children.

I am particularly concerned about the vulnerability of young people in residential care to sexual exploitation. This issue has gathered much attention in the media recently, but Barnardo's has been working on it for several years. Barnardo's works with young people who have been exploited and staff hear how men wait outside care homes to befriend these unwitting children. They befriend them with gifts and pretend kindness, waiting for the child to fall in love with them before abusing them.

I want to be clear about what I am talking about. The term "sexual exploitation" is a euphemism. We are talking about young people being manipulated by predatory abusers who often use drink and drugs, and then being raped, often repeatedly. One 15 year-old girl whom Barnardo's worked with went missing from her residential care home. Eventually, she revealed what was happening to her. A man aged 33, more than twice her age, had been taking her away, abusing her and tying her up, then taking videos of her and posting them on the internet. Barnardo's hears of how other children return to their care homes with severe physical damage from the rape they experience time and time again. This all makes me weep, and I am sure it makes noble Lords weep too. It shames us as a society that we allow this horror to happen.

Organisations such as Barnardo's do a lot to repair the damage that is done to these young people, but where a child's home is provided by the state they should be able to feel safe there, especially as many of these vulnerable children have already been through abusive and traumatic experiences in their young lives. So what needs to be done? We need to look at who is charged with the responsibility of looking after these children. I find it greatly concerning that such a low qualification standard is required in order to work in residential care homes. Underqualified staff may have excellent experience, empathy and interpersonal skills, but specialist qualifications would, if administered correctly, only add to these skills. The national minimum training standards are welcome, but surprisingly they are not a requirement, and therefore we must ensure that best practice becomes common practice. To safeguard and protect these vulnerable children, all staff should be trained to recognise the signs of sexual exploitation such as, for example, prolonged or unexplained absences from the care home, or frequently having unexplained gifts or money. Most important is that they should know how to respond effectively.

Noble Lords may have seen the map of the location of children's homes published in the Times earlier this year. It shows a clustering of homes in certain areas of the country and demonstrates that the majority of care homes are located in those areas where property is the cheapest. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said in his speech, it cannot be right for the price and availability of property to be the key determining factor in where residential care is placed. We clearly should not be putting our most vulnerable young people into areas of high crime, drug use and established sex industries, areas where young children can easily be preyed upon. It does not have to be like this and it should not be like this because there is considerable scope for alternative forms of provision. For example, Barnardo's is piloting a project that involves using specialist, highly trained foster carers to care for children who are the most at risk of sexual exploitation. It is great that the Government have supported this time-limited pilot, but I urge them to consider how it can be continued and to look at other innovative approaches.

In the debate on the Queen's Speech, I mentioned that there is also a need for much more joined-up working, in particular between those concerned with child protection and looked-after children, who sadly do not always communicate well. We need to see a real focus from the Government on this issue. They have been paying a lot of attention to adoption and fostering, and this looks to be continued in the children and families Bill. That is most welcome, but we also need to look really carefully at residential care. I want to ask my noble friend if the Government will take this issue seriously and give it some consideration. I await with great interest the report due in December of the quality expert group. It has been looking at the quality of provision in children's homes, including the commissioning, location and ownership of the homes, as well as the qualifications and skills of the workforce.

Improving the experiences of young people in residential care is not a simple matter and there is certainly no magic bullet. But we have an absolute moral and social duty to do everything we can to care for children who have no one else to care for them. The Government have shown real leadership with their publication of an action plan on sexual exploitation. However, we are only at the beginning of a long road. I urge the Government to consider this matter very carefully, and to act decisively and with urgency to protect the most vulnerable children in society. They deserve it, and we must all make sure that this happens.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 2:55 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I begin by joining in the congratulations offered to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on obtaining this debate and pay tribute to his continuous championing not just of the causes of the children we are talking about, but particularly of the staff who have the responsibility of looking after them. I also thank Edward Scott in the Library for producing, as is so often the case, such a comprehensive briefing for us. I want to talk not so much about the particulars of this subject, but rather more generally around the service of looked-after children. Like other noble Lords, I shall quote some of my own experiences as justification for making suggestions.

When I took over as the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995, my first experience was that of inspecting Holloway prison, where I discovered that four 15 year-olds were somewhere in the establishment who the governor knew nothing about. When we found them, it turned out that all four had been in care. Immediately I went to see the then Chief Inspector of Social Services, my noble friend Lord Laming. We decided that we had to have some form of partnership so that whenever I went to inspect anywhere where children were incarcerated, I would have a social services inspector with me. My noble friend ensured that an inspector would be available. During the first inspection we carried out of an establishment holding children, the social services inspector and I found all sorts of horrors which should not have been happening, not least that the Prison Service was claiming Crown immunity from the Children Act 1989; in other words, the status of children was not being officially recognised. We fought against that, even threatening to take the Secretary of State to judicial review. Eventually it was overruled.

It was symptomatic of the way children were being treated. We were also shocked to find that 55% of young offenders had experience of care and, as others have said, many of them had been in care either for their whole lives or in excess of two years. Most disturbing of all was the frequency of change of location, foster parents and social workers. The result was that we agreed that it would be sensible for the different inspectorates to come together and produce a joint inspection to which we would all contribute since we were all dealing with a particular aspect of safeguarding children. The first joint inspectors' report was published in October 2002, and I shall quote two paragraphs from it. Paragraph 4.18 states that,

"some young people in care have reported in the past that they had had five or six social workers over the past year, and so had lost confidence in social workers and looked for continuity and consistency of planning to the chairperson of their reviews".

That is absolutely the wrong way of going about it. Further on in the report, paragraph 4.41 states:

"Staff from many agencies emphasised the importance of regular supervision. They saw it as a key element in maintaining quality and therefore safeguarding children. They reported that frequency and quality of supervision could vary. The quality of supervision was strongest within the probation service where it was backed up with regular appraisal".

Before taking part in the debate I checked to see whether that last sentence was still the case. Sadly, it is not, because of what has happened to the probation service in recent years. I would ask the Minister to take note of that, because next week we are to start work again on the Crime and Courts Bill, and we will focus on the importance of having a viable probation service, which makes a very important link to some of these looked-after children.

What are we doing about this? I will tell the House a little bit about where we are getting with an organisation called the Secure Foundation-formerly the Young Offenders Academy-which is an attempt to produce a different type of looking after children who come into the hands of the criminal justice system and the state. It is a combination of the Foyer Federation's accommodation for homeless children, custody for those who are the bottom end of the criminal spectrum, and looking after those serving community sentences, who are on the cusp between the two. The idea is to set up one site within a one-mile radius by public transport so that people are available, and give these children activities, education, work and substance abuse treatment, of course, but also other activities linked to the local area.

The key thing that came out of the advisory board that looked at all this, which included social workers, local government and other people, was that it is essential that there should be long-term contact with a responsible adult. That is why people should not be moved. This project is now called the Secure Foundation because the emphasis is on the security of young people, and it is currently being targeted in Haringey following the riots. Thankfully, the Mayor of London is co-operating with a number of organisations which have produced money for a pilot. It is interesting that this focusing also includes the problem of the children in care, who of course will qualify for attending such an academy, where they will have that long-term contact with people who can help them.

I am chairman of the All-Party Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, which has been conducting an inquiry into the link between social disadvantage and speech, language and communication needs. I pay tribute to the Minister because his interest in this subject is recognised and hugely appreciated by all those working in the area. We have come up with some very disturbing facts and figures that show that children with high IQs from poor backgrounds-I do not mean poor financially but in terms of care-are overtaken at the age of five and a half by children with low IQs from good backgrounds. This is not acceptable.

I am very encouraged that the Department of Health and the Department for Education are developing pathways for regular assessment of children linked to remedial treatment to enable them all to engage with education at the age of seven, and go on through the system. I am aware that there is a lot of work going on with those with special educational needs and disabilities, but we must not forget the ones with difficulties, and who do we find coming out as the most victimised in all the disadvantage that we see? It is children in care. As they are the state's responsibility, this should not be.

My final two points concern oversight and supervision. I was very sad when the office of Chief Inspector of Social Services was abolished in 2005, not because it was failing but as a budgetary measure. Thankfully, this House saved some of the other inspectorates but not that one. I think that the movement of young people to Ofsted and the elderly to the CQC has made social services the poor relation of both, and that there is a link between some of the troubles that have happened and the loss of that inspectorate. I ask the Minister very seriously to investigate bringing back the Social Services Inspectorate so that there really is a champion, as there used to be, to make certain that the consistency of delivery of services, particularly to children in care, can be restored.

Secondly, in the Queen's Speech it was said that the roles of the Children's Commissioner and the Children's Rights Director would be brought together. I understand that that is going to be discussed in the children and families Bill that is to come before this House next year. At the moment the Children's Rights Director has responsibility for children in care. It is very important that whoever takes over the joint post should have responsibility for all children in the care of the state, whether in care or custody or wherever. The key word that must be in all their care is consistency. The chances are that if someone is overseeing the result of the neglect that happens in care when children come into custody, they may be the champion to lead us out of this.

Finally, I cannot help citing an experience in 1812-I was not there myself-when my regiment was marching to inevitable disaster at Walcheren. The people whom my regiment was relieving called out, "Bad luck, boys-you, too, are being made the sport of theory". I hope to goodness that theory can end and fact can drive forward the treatment of these children.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 3:05 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. As usual, we have all learned a great deal from what he has said. I join other speakers in thanking my noble friend Lord Listowel for this debate and paying tribute to his undoubted expertise in and concern for high standards in the area of looked-after children.

This afternoon's debate is not dissimilar from the one that took place a few weeks ago on the importance of child development and well-being-except that this debate is focused not just on ensuring well-being for all UK children, vital though that is, but on effectively protecting the most vulnerable group of children from exploitation and sexual abuse. Of course, I mean children who, for one reason or another, have had to be placed in the care of their local authority.

I am not going to repeat the concerns I expressed in that debate about the potential for exploiting such vulnerable children through the rapid growth of complex modern media techniques-except perhaps to say that Jimmy Savile's horrifying and equally undetected volume of crimes has reminded us of yet another area of child abuse and exploitation that has remained hidden for far too long. That appalling discovery is on top of the Rochdale gang of nine men recently sent to prison who, as we know, had deliberately targeted, groomed and sexually abused looked-after children from local residential care homes.

We also know that the number of children trafficked into the UK has risen, with the official number of 234 children in 2011 believed in reality to be more than double that, with about half of these trafficked for sexual exploitation. Today, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I want to be reassured that some of the most glaring inadequacies in service standards are going to be addressed and tackled; above all, that there will be much better information-gathering and indeed agreement about what basic information is required as well as shared.

The Children's Society is surely right to be concerned that children who go missing repeatedly are not, apparently, always considered to be at risk. It is surely not sensible that Ofsted does not share the location of children's homes with local police, thus reducing their ability to safeguard effectively. I hope that the Minister will be able to report that a change in this practice is under way.

Another issue is that, in some parts of the country, looked-after children often experience multiple placements and are often located a long distance from family and friends, also involving quite often a change in school. Surely, as others have said, the only acceptable reason for moving a young person out of their home area is if it is clearly in their best interests. There is far too little emphasis as well on what each looked-after child wants and whether the local authority has genuinely listened and acted on their wishes. For them to have the right to an advocate to speak on their behalf on these issues is therefore essential. So it is disturbing to hear that, although theoretically available, one third of all local authorities do not report any spending on this service. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are considering giving all children in local authority care a statutory right to independent advocacy as part of placement planning.

It is surely interesting-in fact, I would say extraordinary-that nearly half the 5,000 children living in children's homes are apparently placed outside their local authority area despite the fact that local authorities have a duty to provide sufficient homes within their own area. It will be valuable to hear the Government's view on that.

As I have mentioned already, placements outside a child's home local authority often also include the need to change schools, which can have an unsettling effect on looked-after children's academic results. A 2011 study showed that only 53% of looked- after pupils achieved the expected level in English and only 52% in maths at key stage 2, compared to the average student's achievement of 82% in English and 80% in maths. Therefore, monitoring and supporting looked-after pupils' academic achievement is clearly important. School governors have some responsibility for admissions, and under certain circumstances, as we know, a looked-after child can be admitted even if the school is already full. That is in addition to the school's duty to prioritise looked-after children if the school is oversubscribed. All these are fairly recent changes, but we need to hear how they are working and that they are being followed. Again, I hope that the Minister will agree that all our schools should continue to give particular emphasis to ensuring that looked-after pupils achieve their potential.

The last issue that I want to address is the importance of the use of early intervention policies, particularly with families which have had problems for generations. So much money could be saved and the potential of young lives realised if this approach was prioritised. Certainly, the fact that many more midwives and health visitors are being recruited over the next few years will be an important step in the right direction, particularly if that is combined with more co-operation, training and information-sharing between all professionals involved. Voluntary organisations such as Home-Start already play an important role here. They need proper recognition and support, as do kinship carers and foster parents. Noble Lords have already mentioned the importance of additional support or funding for fostered children who need an additional period of placement from, for example, age 18 to 22. With all these schemes, as we all know, adequate resources are vital to seeing that results are achieved.

It is heartening to note that all directors of children's services across the country are clearly concerned about these inadequate standards. In their paper, What is Care For?, they ask for a total re-examination of the care system. Andrew Webb, vice-president of ADCS and one of the authors of the paper, has said:

"The care system serves some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society, and sometimes, frankly, it does not serve them as well as it could".

Let that be encouragement to the Minister and the Government to show what really important changes they can make.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 3:16 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for introducing this very timely debate and pay tribute to the work that he has done in this House. Ever since I have been in it, he has been a great champion for looked-after children and done a great deal to bring them to our attention and that of successive Governments, which is a substantial achievement.

Perhaps it is because I am an economist by training that I quite often like to start by trying to put a problem into perspective in terms of figures. Therefore, I found the House of Commons briefing, which came out in May this year and provides some of the statistics about children in care, very interesting. It told me-and a number of people have mentioned this already-that there are some 65,000 looked-after children in England, which is a very small proportion, about 0.6%, of the total number of children in this country. The figure has increased slightly during the past five years. In 2007, it was 59,000. Perhaps the influence of Baby P and the Haringey affair connected with it have meant that more children have been placed into care.

Most of these young people in care-58% of them-are aged from 10 to 18, while 36% are aged one to nine and 6% are under one. Boys account for 56% of them and girls 44%; 77% are white and 23% black, ethnic minority or of mixed race. I found this an interesting set of statistics: 62% are in care because of abuse or neglect at home, 12% because they come from dysfunctional families and 9% because of family stress. In other words, 83% of those in care are there because of problems with their families and 62% of them because there has been neglect or abuse at home. That is very significant. Only 14%, about 8,000, are in residential accommodation, putting children's homes, residential care homes and residential schools together. Although there has been a change in the law, approximately half of these are still outside the area where their family is located. In other words, they cannot easily meet up with their families, with all the consequences that a number of noble Lords have drawn attention to.

The cost to the state of those in residential care is about £1 billion a year. In other words, each one of those young people costs the state rather over £100,000. The cost of those in foster care-the large majority of them-is £2.5 billion, approximately £37,000 per child. When the noble Lord, Lord Laming, talked about the financial advantages of putting children into foster care, you can see the difference. I know that the local authority where I live, Surrey County Council, has been much influenced by the very substantial cost of putting children into residential care, partly because it managed to close most of its own residential homes and has had a very expensive time trying to cope with the number of young children.

As my noble friend Lady Brinton mentioned, it is not surprising that we see quite a number of children running away, particularly from residential care, yet there are no adequate statistics at the moment. Again, I echo noble Lords who have asked the Minister whether we are going to get some adequate statistics about those who are running away. In the light of all this, it is not really surprising that these vulnerable young people, many of whom have been abused to start with at home, should find themselves involved in the many cases there have been over the years including, recently, those in Rochdale and Derby, and perhaps not least the Jimmy Savile situation, which has been very much before us over the past few weeks.

I was interested in the quotation that was given in the briefing produced for us by the Library. I pay tribute to Edward Scott, because I thought it was an extremely useful briefing. It quoted the chief executive of Barnardo's, who said:

"Our services have heard countless stories of men waiting outside care homes to befriend these unwitting children, some as young as twelve, desperate for love", which picks up a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the need for these young people to feel, and to be, loved. The chief executive continued:

"Men attract them with flashy cars, gifts and feigned kindness, waiting for the child to fall in love with them before abusing them on a scale which is incomprehensible to most, but sadly very real".

I will quote two further bits that come from the same briefing. One is from the review from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre:

"Offenders often act together, establishing a relationship with a child or children before sexually exploiting them. Some victims of 'street grooming' may believe that the offender is in fact an older 'boyfriend'; these victims introduce their peers to the offender group who might then go on to be sexually exploited as well. Abuse may occur at a number of locations within a region and on several occasions. 'Localised grooming' was the term used by CEOP in the intelligence requests issued to police forces and other service agencies in order to define the data we wished to receive".

Given that situation, it is and was extremely disturbing that the internal review from Rochdale stated:

"However, for those children who came into contact with children's social care, it often appeared that 'no further action' would be taken. Case files state that the children were often considered to be 'making their own choices' and to be 'engaging in consensual sexual activity'".

That is extremely disturbing, but there is a real dilemma for those who run children's homes. They often contain some of the more difficult young people, 14, 15 and 16 year-olds who have proved to be difficult to put into or keep in foster care. Do you treat those young people reasonably as grown-ups, or do you lock them up? Locking them up just makes them more resentful. If you want them to grow into adults and take responsibility for their lives, the last thing that we want to do is for those homes to be seen as prisons.

The response one sees in Rochdale reminds one very much of the problem that arose in relation to Victoria Climbié and Baby P: a failure of joined-up working on the part of the local agencies, which, because of those failures, missed opportunities to take early and preventive action. I had cause to discuss issues of youth policy with Surrey Police not long ago, and one issue that came up on that occasion was its feeling that it wanted to work much more closely not just with local social services but with schools. As it pointed out, often, if the family is chaotic and dysfunctional, the schools see things happening before anybody else, because the children react at school. It said that it would be so useful if it knew when children were misbehaving in school sometimes, because that would make it aware of the fact that problems were rising in that family and then it, and social services, could take preventive action.

Many of us have asked: where should we go? I pick up on the basic recommendations of the Munro report. What should be done about this? One aspect is early intervention. Where there are dysfunctional or chaotic families or where abuse is known, the sooner one can put together teams that work with that family, the more probable it is that something can be done about it. We want early intervention wherever possible.

Eileen Munro's second recommendation is to give professionals the time and scope to do the job properly. The story that we have heard so frequently is of inconsistent care, of so many placements, so many social workers-due to the turnover, and so forth. We also know how hard pressed many social workers are, what huge caseloads they are often expected to bear and the fact that they are not given the time to do the job properly. It came up in the Munro report that too much time is spent on bureaucracy and that there are too many tick-boxes, and not enough time looking after the children-developing, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said, the therapeutic and healing processes necessary.

I have two final points: the need for more joined-up thinking; and the point that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and others made, the need for proper training, continued emphasis on training and the quality of people in the service.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench 3:28 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Listowel for securing this debate and for his important opening speech. I worked for many years as a child psychiatrist and a psychiatrist with children and adults with learning disabilities, and have had a research and clinical interest in the mental health and behavioural consequences of abuse.

My daughter is also a consultant psychiatrist working with troubled parents and their infants, so I will start my contribution by reflecting on the importance of secure attachments for all children. As my noble friend said so powerfully, children who have been rejected, neglected or abused have to learn to love and learn to trust-possibly for the first time. Early intervention is critical, and we know from American research that family health partnerships are effective in reducing the need for care away from the child's own family, and to have longer term intergenerational benefits. Do not forget that a large percentage of girls leaving care are pregnant within a year. The provision of peer mentors is a promising initiative that is being evaluated in a study at St George's, University of London by Gill Mezey and her team in the hope of easing the transition to adulthood for these vulnerable young women.

Some of the most vulnerable parents are those with learning disabilities. This is a group that I have worked with as a psychiatrist. It is almost standard practice for their children to be taken into care. I will say more about this shortly. I will also draw attention to the high number of children with learning disabilities placed in care. Commissioning the right mental health services is very important. Child and adolescent mental health services treat serious diagnosed disorders, but we need more preventive services too and we need more skilled practitioners who recognise the signs of abuse and its emotional and behavioural impact. This means better training of front-line staff, but also more integrated services and better awareness of the mental health needs of disabled looked-after children. In the light of recent child protection failures, the emotional well-being of looked-after children must be first and foremost. It is the key to the prevention of abuse and exploitation, and it is equally important in the healing process after abuse has occurred. What we see time and time again is how crucial early identification and intervention are for those entering the care system. Crucially, since the national child and adolescent mental health services review report in 2008, little seems to have changed according to both young people in care and professionals.

Children under five raised in institutions experience more psychiatric disorders, but those placed in stable foster homes have much better mental well-being and securer attachments. One review of data sources in England estimated that disabled children constitute between 10% and 25% of the looked-after population. Disabled children may be particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect, which is a common reason for entry into care. The NSPCC reports that children with disabilities are 3.8 times more likely to be neglected, 3.8 times more likely to be physically abused, more than three times more likely to be sexually abused and four times more likely to be emotionally abused than other children. Children with learning disabilities in care are even more likely to run away than other children.

Disabled children in England are a distinct subgroup who are less likely to achieve a permanent placement. Research suggests that disabled children are more likely to display a high level of behaviour that their carers find challenging. This is particularly relevant when we think about stability. Evidence suggests that emotional and behavioural problems have a strong association with placement breakdown. Research shows that the prevalence of mental disorders decreases with the length of time a child has spent in a stable placement. Half of those who have been in their current placement for less than a year have mental health problems compared to a third of children who have been in their current placement for at least five years. That is an improvement.

The findings show that, despite various changes in policies and provision of care, the prevalence of children with recognisable mental health disorders-around three-quarters-has not diminished. For those trying to access services, Sheffield City Council and NHS Sheffield found that in February more than 260 looked-after children had been waiting for child and adolescent mental health services for more than 18 weeks, with some facing waits of up to 44 weeks. This is not acceptable. Services are not flexible enough. Children are expected to go to them instead of the services being flexible and approachable, which these children need.

Difficulties that local authorities have in finding placements for disabled children result in inappropriate placements, including the use of 52-week-a-year boarding schools or, and I myself know of examples of this, disabled children being placed in respite provision, where every week different children will be sharing their corridor, their bathroom and their mealtimes. Permanent placements for disabled children in respite facilities are not acceptable. Disabled children might be placed in adult residential facilities rather than family placements. Local authorities have also documented an increased use of out-of-area placements for disabled children so they are likely to live further away from their families and communities, creating problems in monitoring and problems for their families in maintaining contact. This is especially the case for children with learning disabilities, who may sometimes require psychiatric in-patient admission as well. There are very few specialist units that would accept children with a learning disability who had mental health problems or challenging behaviour. One of the learning points from the Winterbourne View abuses was that abuse is more likely to happen when the person is placed far from home. The victims in that case were adults, of course, but we should have the same concerns for disabled children who are placed away from home.

Then there are the children with a mild or borderline learning disability. They are unlikely to attend youth groups of any sort and often have a background of abuse, making them more vulnerable to sophisticated grooming techniques. This form of exploitation, as we know and have heard today in several speeches, often begins with positive attention from adults, something that these children particularly crave. Flattery and gifts are a new experience for them and they welcome it. They may not have the insight into social behaviours and relationships to determine that while this is how things are beginning, it is most certainly not how they will end.

The education of front-line staff is necessary with regard to spotting the tell-tale signs of possible abuse: a new mobile phone, new clothes or an older man presenting as a boyfriend. Not only is education necessary but the empowerment of front-line staff and carers to communicate their concerns to relevant bodies is essential. Carers may not have the confidence that they have the skill set necessary to make a judgment call over a complex situation. They may feel that they are not expert enough to determine a young person's capacity to engage in a particular behaviour. These carers need support and training to help them with these difficult situations. Even for a professional it can be difficult to make a capacity assessment on a 17 year-old girl with a mild learning disability, a complex social background and mental health issues who is engaging in sexual behaviours.

Education is also needed before children reach care. Many parents try to use social services to assist them with the emotional and behavioural difficulties that they are experiencing with their children, but they often do not get past the duty desk. Those who do not meet the threshold criteria for a service but who often have a need for mental health services may not be recognised, and may not know where to turn for help. A survey of 440 childcare social workers found that 30% were unaware of local resources available to support the children and families of, for example, those with ADHD. Many inexperienced practitioners did not recognise the importance of psychiatric assessment.

Without appropriate support, training and confidence, how can we expect carers to know that they are the ones probably best placed to carry out such an assessment and, if required, intervention? Empowering those who care is the key to offering these children the protection that they deserve and the chance to enjoy the innocence of childhood.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:39 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for tabling this debate today and add my tribute to his tenacity and effectiveness in pursuing the interests of vulnerable and looked-after children. As it happens, regrettably, child protection issues have been highlighted in the media again recently, but the noble Earl's strength is that he has continued to champion these issues consistently, long after the media circus has moved on. I also thank all the other noble Lords who have contributed to this thoughtful and challenging debate.

Although we will have differences with the party opposite on some issues, this is not primarily a party-political debate. There is no monopoly of wisdom when it comes to managing the damaging fallout that can occur from family breakdown. There have been child protection failures under both Labour and Conservative Governments. While we remain proud of the progress that the previous Government made on child safeguarding, clearly more needs to be done.

Many of the issues raised in the debate today go to the heart of good parenting. Good parents struggle to balance their children's welfare with their freedoms. The rules and expectations change from generation to generation, complicated by the fact that new models of family unit are becoming more common. Meanwhile, we know that children are reaching puberty at an earlier age. The sexualisation of young girls through media and celebrity is heightening the pressures upon them. Personal, social and sexual education is being marginalised in the curriculum, leaving children without the tools to spot and avoid exploitation. For example, at its very simplest level, teenagers need help in differentiating between lust and love. They need to identify what is a real boyfriend, as a number of people have mentioned in the debate this afternoon.

For good, committed parents, guiding their children's growth and development in this minefield is a challenge. When the state has to step in as a substitute parent, the dilemmas quickly multiply. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, rightly emphasised that there is a moral duty on the state as well as a statutory responsibility to step up to the plate in the role of a good parent. He has talked about how challenging that can be.

I am not saying the care system cannot get things right. Of course it can. As we have heard, there are wonderful success stories of transformative fostering, adoption and residential home placements. We need to learn from these examples and celebrate them, but the reality is that they are still not getting it right in sufficient numbers enough of the time.

We are all too aware of harrowing stories of care system failures and we are rightly shocked and angry that this can be allowed to happen. However, regrettably, behind the headlines are everyday stories of parental neglect and abuse with which the care system is struggling to cope. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, gave a moving example of the potential personality disorders that can be faced by children who feel at a young age rejected and unable to be loved and respond to love. What is the fate of those children? We know, for example that the number of children in local authority care is rising, as in a number of statistics mentioned this afternoon. The research that I have uncovered talks about the number reaching over 67,000 last year. The prime cause of those children being taken into care is to protect them from neglect or abuse.

Unfortunately, however, we also know that the subsequent life chances for those young people are not good. For example, the gap between the educational achievements of looked-after children compared to their peers is actually growing, with just 13% of children in care achieving 5 GCSEs A to C grades last year, compared with 57% of all children. We also know that looked-after children are three times more likely to end up unemployed than their peers. These failings in the care system are not headline grabbing, but they still stand as a reminder of how we are failing these young people on a day-to-day basis.

What needs to be done? One of the things that became clear when I was researching material for this debate was the wealth of independent analysis and advice on child protection issues which has been commissioned in recent years, including Select Committee reports, all-party parliamentary group reports and the excellent reports from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and Professor Munro. All have provided wise and thoughtful counsel on this issue, and contain good, practical advice on assessing and managing the complex issues involved. I also pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on children who go missing in care, and that of the deputy children's commissioner into child sexual exploitation. Both reports contain far-reaching recommendations on the training of staff, the location of residential homes, the role of safety risk assessments, the need for better liaison with the police and the responsibilities of local authorities and Ofsted to drive up standards.

Their recommendations are urgent and compelling, and I join other noble Lords in hoping that the Minister will be able to update us this afternoon on the progress being made, for example, to improve the data on children missing from care; on clarifying the responsibility of Ofsted to share locations of children's homes with the police; and on the steps being taken to prevent the scandal of out-of-borough placements being made for economic reasons rather than in the interests of the child.

Beyond that, there are three more fundamental themes that I would like to highlight today. First, improving the quality of relationships between the child and those charged with protecting them is crucial. Children have to have adults in their lives who they absolutely trust. The adults have to understand the children's lives and have high expectations and aspirations for them. Continuity and the provision of long-term support from a caring and loving adult should be at the heart of our care provision. As we have heard, the more that placements break down, the less likely it is that a subsequent placement will be a success. It becomes a downward spiral. Even though we know that, more than 10% of children in care are being moved more than three times a year. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, quite rightly expressed it, they simply become lost in the system.

I agree with the previous Children's Minister, who argued that the possibility of a placement breakdown should be treated with as much concern as a child being removed from its birth family. Therefore, will the Minister update the House on the steps being taken by the Government to minimise these multiple placements? Decent relationships cannot be formed if front-line professionals do not have the time, resources and training they need to support the child. Social worker caseloads are on the increase, with one in six social workers having more than 40 cases and more than half believing that their caseload is unmanageable.

The sector continues to suffer a crisis in morale and there is a worrying lack of experienced social workers staying in the system, with many quoting burnout as a key reason for the high turnover. That is why we support initiatives to raise the professional standing of social work, including raising the status of the College of Social Work, the appointment of a chief social worker and a fast-track system similar to Teach First in education which would train top graduates and guarantee employment, provided they commit to a minimum of two years working with disadvantaged children. As we have heard today, we also need to address the particular skills gap and the undervaluing of the work of those in the residential care sector, as has been effectively highlighted by a number of noble Lords.

However, regrettably, the situation on the ground is destined to worsen as the huge cuts in the early intervention grant, youth services and local authority children's services feed through the system. The Children Act 2004, quite rightly, made it a statutory duty for the police, health and children's agencies to work together on child protection but the funding for all those sectors is under attack and they are retreating back to their core functions rather than prioritising co-operation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, both gave very moving examples of what can happen when you do not have joined-up working and, conversely, the advantages that can occur when this is addressed effectively.

Meanwhile, there are now more than twice as many staff employed in the education department's free school unit as there are in the safeguarding unit. So while we all understand that there is pressure on budgets, it does also come down to government priorities. Will the Minister agree to look again at what more can be done to ensure that agencies involved in child protection are obliged to work collaboratively with adequate, and ring-fenced, funding?

Finally, it is absolutely paramount that we continue to put the needs of children and young people before their parents or any other adults, and that they are given a strong voice in decisions that affect them. They have a right to be heard, and systems have to be in place to ensure this is a reality. As we have heard, running away from care or befriending potential exploiters is a graphic way of children asserting some control over their own lives, however misplaced that can be. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, rightly said, the solution cannot simply be to lock them up as a result of that. I echo the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others, in supporting the case for an independent advocate who can form a lasting, and I hope trusted, relationship as a vital first step in strengthening children's voices. I hope that the Minister can confirm that that will be actioned.

Sadly, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further child protection failures, but we already know many of the steps that are needed to minimise such tragedies in future, including those proposed by Professor Munro and the deputy children's commissioner. The very least that we can do is to ensure that their recommendations are implemented speedily and in full. I look forward to hearing that the Minister concurs with this view and that the Government are now ready to act.

Photo of Lord Hill of Oareford Lord Hill of Oareford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:51 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, we have heard, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said, a number of thoughtful, powerful and at times moving contributions to this afternoon. Like others, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for giving us this opportunity. It is a timely debate in a number of ways, because the issues that we have been discussing are very much in the news at the moment and because precisely the issues that have been raised by noble Lords are ones that my honourable friend Mr Timpson, the Children's Minister, and the Secretary of State are considering actively. We have set up various groups, looking precisely at those issues, to which I will come back in a moment. I will ensure that all the contributions that we have had this afternoon are fed into that process, and I know that Mr Timpson will be interested to see all of them.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for the way in which she approached the issues this afternoon. I agree this is not a party political issue. Governments of all complexions have tried hard, and often sadly come up short, to make progress. I would argue that early on this Government signalled their determination to improve the life chances of children in care, and have acted with urgency to bring about reform. My Secretary of State was himself adopted, and the new Children's Minister grew up with over 80 foster children. I say this, not to claim some virtue on their behalf, but because both of them know from their personal experience the transformational power of care when things go well and the terrible waste when they do not. I speak for both of them when I say that they certainly understand the urgency of action, which is a theme that all noble Lords this afternoon have picked up in different ways.

We certainly know that the life chances generally and the educational achievement of most looked-after children is far worse than for other children. We have heard some of the figures already about performance in GCSEs. We know that over one-third of care leavers are not in education, employment and training, compared with around 17% for other young people. But behind the headline figures that we have heard this afternoon, there is quite a lot of variation across the country. We know that in some local authority areas 26% of children who have been in care for 12 months will get their 5 GCSEs, including English and maths, while in others that figure is only 6%. The rates for care leavers who are not in education, employment or training range from 15% in some local authorities to 69% in others. This variation shows how far we have to travel, but also gives us grounds for hope, because if all areas could do as well as the best, we could make real progress. That is one of the reasons why last year the Prime Minister announced that we will publish performance tables which show how well local authorities are looking after children in care. That will help us share best practice.

We have talked this afternoon about a whole range of issues affecting looked-after children: adoption; the importance of the workforce, which was a recurring theme; fostering; and healthcare. I will come back to what we are doing in all these areas, but I think it is important to start by taking head on, and talking about, the most extreme cases of failure of the sort that were brought so horribly to our attention by the case in Rochdale, but also others about which we have heard this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, rightly asked me for an update.

On the day that the Rochdale court case ended, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State asked the deputy children's commissioner to produce an accelerated report of her child sexual exploitation inquiry focusing on the particular risks facing looked after-children in children's homes. The Government have also benefited from the excellent joint inquiry carried out by the two all-party groups, in which I know the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, had an important hand. Together, those highlighted three main areas for action, of which the first was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, but others alluded to it. The first main area for action concerns the need for better and more consistent data and for better information sharing. I agree with noble Lords that we cannot have a situation where the figures published by the Department for Education on the number of children missing from care are so different from those produced by the police. Neither should we have a situation where Ofsted cannot share the names and addresses of children's homes with the police, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, rightly pointed out.

The second area that was raised concerns out-of-area placements. While there can be reasons for children to be placed out of area, a figure of 45% seems on the face of it to be far too high. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, about the questions that that high figure gives rise to, some of which are economic, as he rightly pointed out.

The third area concerns the quality of the care and the provision offered. We announced at the beginning of July the immediate steps that we would take and I will quickly run through them. My noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford referred to data. We have written to all local authorities asking them to review their own data collections and to check their figures against those collected by local police forces. The department has been working over the summer with an expert group involving representatives from children's services, Ofsted, ACPO, The Children's Society and others to develop a proposal for a better data collection system. That group's work has largely concluded and my ministerial colleagues will consider the recommendations put to them. I hope that as a result of that we will be able to address these important issues that have been raised. The deputy children's commissioner's report and the joint inquiry both recommended that we should make it possible for Ofsted to share information about the location of children's homes with other relevant authorities, not just with the police, as appropriate. Work on that is already in hand and we will consult on amended regulations to make that possible later in the autumn.

Out-of-area placements were raised initially by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and, towards the end of the debate, by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. We announced in July that we would set up a group specifically to advise us on out-of-area placements. It has been looking at a range of issues, including the dependence of some local authorities on out-of-area children's homes, which are often situated a considerable distance away-indeed, many miles away. The group has been considering how to ensure that there is much better scrutiny, planning and assessment of needs and risks before decisions are taken to place a child at a distance. It has also been looking at whether further changes to the care planning framework are required to ensure that local authorities will always respond appropriately when difficulties emerge in children's placements and at the need for all children's homes to work collaboratively with their local police forces and other local safeguarding services. It has also been looking at the respective responsibilities of the placing authority and the host authority to make sure that there is no slip between those, and at their responsibilities for monitoring the quality of the care in homes and the steps they should take if they consider that a home is failing to offer children the supervision and support that they need. That group has been meeting frequently over the summer. It finished its work at the end of September and its proposals will shortly be made for Ministers' consideration.

I turn more generally to the quality of provision. A third group was set up and given a broad remit to look at the quality of provision, including the qualifications and skills of the workforce. It is looking at questions relating to models of ownership and location of homes, a point raised by my noble friend Lady Benjamin; how to improve commissioning practice; considering how homes can offer better environments to help children overcome their difficulties; what staff development is needed to manage children's behaviour; and considering the effectiveness of current arrangements to drive improvements across the sector. It is open to this group to consider the kind of issues raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, when he talked about the appointment of a champion. The group has been meeting monthly over the summer and is carrying on meeting. It is due to finish its work in December, following which Ministers will consider what further action is necessary in the light of its recommendations. I am not able to announce precisely what those next steps are but I hope I have been able to demonstrate that a large amount of work is being taken forward which looks precisely at the issues raised today. Over and above this, officials have been getting a better understanding of the issues by visiting 20 local authorities. In addition to visits to children's homes, they have spoken to practitioners, commissioners and, of course, children and young people themselves.

That is a quick update on where we are on residential childcare. If I may, I will summarise other steps we are taking to improve support for looked-after children across a broader front. We have been taking action to improve the progress of adoption, to increase the number and quality of foster parents, to raise the quality of the workforce, to raise educational achievement and, importantly, to improve support for care leavers.

On adoption, in March 2012 the Government published an action plan for adoption to speed up the process. We will introduce new primary legislation to prevent local authorities from delaying an adoption by searching for a perfect match, particularly around the child's ethnicity. We will make it easier for children to be fostered by approved prospective adopters while the courts consider the case for adoption so that they can stay in one home with the same parents and the chopping and changing that noble Lords have referred to can be minimised. If a match has not been found locally within three months of a child being recommended for adoption, they will be referred to a national adoption register so they can find a match in a wider pool of prospective adopters.

As far as fostering is concerned, we are working with the sector to strengthen long-term fostering arrangements, particularly for older children. We are trying to increase the numbers and range of people coming forward to foster and to increase placement quality and matching. We will develop training and support for foster carers and the social workers involved in fostering to improve knowledge sharing and support good practice. I would argue that fostering is consistent with a regular family setting and that children and young people can benefit from placements, but I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that for others a children's home may be a more appropriate offer. We should not think that that is a placement of last resort and that all children should automatically be placed in foster arrangements.

The quality of the workforce was an important theme discussed this afternoon. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked particularly about a workforce having the confidence to be able to work with these vulnerable children and stand up to a range of different people in the promotion of their interests. We are looking to receive proposals from the expert group looking at quality on how to raise the skills and competence of care workers and managers in children's homes.

The very first review set up by the Secretary of State after the Government came in in May 2010 asked Professor Eileen Munro to conduct a wide-ranging review of child protection. She noted concerns that social work had become over-regulated and that the profession needed to move towards greater professional control, which was a point made by my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford. The 15 recommendations made by Professor Munro in her final report will help to create a less bureaucratic system and an environment where social workers are better able to focus on the needs of children, young people and families. I completely agree with the points about the need to raise the level of skills and qualifications in the children's home workforce. That is why the expert working group is looking at whether the entry level of skills and qualifications needs to be raised. It will explore models used in other countries, the potential place of specialisms and the scope for professional registration.

I was asked specifically about progress on the appointment of a new chief social worker, which was one of the recommendations in Professor Munro's report. The Department for Education and the Department of Health carried out a recruitment exercise for the chief social worker over the summer but, first time around, that did not lead to a suitable candidate being identified. Ministers are looking at a revised specification and we expect to advertise shortly. I will be able to update the House on that soon. The Government are extremely supportive of the work led by the Social Work Reform Board and the College of Social Work to drive up standards in the social work profession. As to the specific point about learning from the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, DfE officials have had discussions with it and I agree that we should seek to learn from that experience, in particular in relation to the scope for professional regulation and improved qualification requirements.

Education was another theme. The Government have taken a number of steps to try to promote the interests of looked-after children. For example, they now attract the pupil premium. We have made sure that looked-after children have top priority in school admission arrangements, which is important. One piece of evidence that comes up repeatedly is that too many children in care end up in the poorest schools. Therefore, we should consider giving them priority in admissions arrangements for the best and most popular schools. Looked-after children are a priority group to receive the maximum amount for the 16 to 19 bursary. We have also made sure that they will be prioritised for a free early-years place for two year-olds.

We have encouraged local authorities to have a senior education officer, a virtual school head, to track the progress of every child in care so that they receive the support they need. I accept that practice varies, and we will therefore continue to explore what more can be done to bring greater consistency to the role of the virtual school head. Every school, including academies, also has a legal duty to have a designated teacher for looked-after children. That teacher works with the virtual school head to make sure that the child's personal education plan is being implemented.

The interests of the child are clearly not just educational-as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, reminded us; the emotional well-being and the broader well-being of the child are equally important. All local authorities have to ensure that looked-after children have a health plan, and the pathway plans for care leavers address health issues. They must have an annual health assessment that covers their mental and physical health. There is statutory guidance in place, binding on local authorities and the NHS, about their respective roles and responsibilities in meeting those needs. The headline message the guidance seeks to emphasise to local authorities and the NHS is that the health assessment for looked-after children should not be an isolated event but part of a continuous activity to ensure the provision of high-quality healthcare. The Government's mental health strategy places a new emphasis on early intervention and prevention to help tackle the underlying causes of mental ill health.

We have tried to maximise the incentives to care leavers to attend further and higher education courses. There is a personal adviser when they wish to resume education and training up to aged 25, and we are funding local authorities to give care leavers a higher education bursary of £2,000. We have supported the development of children-in-care councils to share best practice and argue for the best from their local authorities.

We will also be launching a care leavers' charter, as part of National Care Leavers' Week, which we are in the middle of. This charter will summarise young people's statutory entitlements as well as make clear the core expectations, values and intentions around good corporate parenting.

My noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, highlighted the importance of the staying-put arrangements. I agree with them that the best local authorities are using staying-put arrangements to ensure that care leavers can continue to live and get support from their foster carers. We know that those who are in staying-put arrangements are more than twice as likely to be in education as those who are not. The revised leaving-care guidance issued in April 2011 encourages local authorities to consider introducing staying-put provision as part of their range of options to provide care leavers with suitable supported accommodation.

The issue of multiple placements was raised. I certainly accept and agree entirely that it is disappointing, to say the least, that the number of children moving placements three times a year has not fallen. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester first brought this to our attention. We think that our programme to improve the quality of foster placements and children's homes will lead to greater stability for more young people. However, the quality of commissioning and placement planning are critical so that children are matched to the placements that best meet their needs. Therefore, we urge local authorities to consider how to strengthen their practice, including using evidence-based interventions such as keeping multidimensional treatment foster care and multisystemic therapy.

A recurring theme was the importance of children in care having an advocate. It is obviously right to put children at the centre of the care planning process. Each looked-after child has a social worker and an independent reviewing officer. They also have access to an advocate, as well as to an independent visitor. I was asked specifically about putting this on to a statutory basis. I am not able to provide an answer to that today but I can say that the Government are exploring how advocacy services can be strengthened further.

The noble Lord, Lord Laming, stressed the importance of urgency and called for an independent inquiry. I hope and believe that the extensive programme of work under the three working groups that I have spoken about will cover the ground and lead to an action plan for improvement. Because that is urgent, we want to press on with that work, but I hope and believe that by the end of the year, when the noble Lord, Lord Laming, sees the outcome of this work, he will feel reassured that the Government are gripping the matter in a way that I know he would want.

I do not pretend that the Government have all the answers but I hope I have shown that we are trying to address the issues in a range of ways. As my noble friend Lady Benjamin said, we are at the beginning of a long road and there is a way to go.

The debate this afternoon has highlighted many of the issues that we face. It has shown some of the good things that are happening, but it has given us a sobering reminder of some of the problems and has underlined the need for urgency. The Government share that sense of urgency. I know that my honourable friend Mr Timpson will consider anything that can improve the life chances of the vulnerable children who most need our support, and I will ensure that all the practical suggestions and advice that the Government have been given this afternoon are put before him, and he will reflect on them.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 4:12 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, I am very grateful for the care with which the Minister has replied. As I said, I was most grateful for the Government's response back in June, when these concerns were raised, and for the setting up of the working groups. All that is very welcome indeed. Recently the Minister invited me to meet the head teacher of Rugby School with regard to the setting up of the Springboard charity, which helps vulnerable people on the edge of care to get into some of our best boarding schools. I take my hat off to him for this endeavour.

I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. A number of important themes have been raised but I know that at this stage I should not go into any detail. I shall look very carefully at what the Minister has said. Many of the young people from care who have come before our parliamentary group over the years have voiced the anxiety that Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords may not be hearing their concerns. I shall ensure that this debate is circulated as widely as possible among them so that they know their concerns are being heard and acted upon.

Again, I thank noble Lords for taking part today.

Motion agreed.