Vulnerable Children - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:28 am on 6th July 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 11:28 am, 6th July 2017

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Children’s Commissioner’s Report on Vulnerability, published on 4 July, which estimates that 670,000 children in England are growing up in high risk families, what further action they are taking to support families.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I welcome the Children’s Commissioner’s report, which is a valuable contribution to the growing evidence on vulnerable children and families. Measuring the scale of the challenge is important; so too is action to improve children’s lives through building children’s resilience as well as addressing vulnerability. Across government, we are taking action, whether through reforming children’s social care, prioritising mental health, tackling child sexual exploitation or better protecting victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In the report, the category with the highest number of vulnerable children in it by a long way is children in non-intact families—some 3,043,000. The Early Intervention Foundation and others state that a national strategy is needed to address relationship breakdown in families. This would need to be cross-departmental. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to develop such a strategy?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The figure that my noble friend has given gives rise to concern, certainly. Influential evidence from the Early Intervention Foundation and the Centre for Social Justice, among others, has shown the importance of strong family relationships. The evidence is clear that, when conflict between parents is frequent, intense and poorly resolved, it leads to negative outcomes for children. The report builds on cross-party and cross-government recognition of the challenges that need to be addressed and are often entrenched. That is why the Government are developing a new national programme to reduce conflict between parents, led by the Department for Work and Pensions, working closely with the DCLG and the Department of Health.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, I welcome this very substantial report from an excellent Children’s Commissioner. Will the Minister reflect on the fact that one missing category from the report are the children of families where one of the parents has been sent to prison and where, after lengthy prison sentences, the impact on the children will have not just a concern for us morally but a societal impact down the line that we will need to take practical measures to overcome? Will that be considered in reflecting on the report?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord makes a good point. I have in front of me the four key categories highlighted by the Children’s Commissioner. Within those four categories are 32 cohorts. It is true that the issue of children linked to prisons is not in there, but there are some very interesting statistics under the heading of “Children with family-related vulnerabilities”.

Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat

My Lords, children are joining gangs and carrying knives for protection because they feel vulnerable. They are living in fear of being attacked, getting their guidance from glamorised violence and social media instead of absent fathers. Many are traumatised because they see their friends being murdered on the streets. What are the Government doing to educate children about the consequences and dangers of knife crime to stop this rising violent culture from spreading?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

There are certainly a good number of actions—and schools play their part in this. As a result of the work, particularly in this House, on the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which received Royal Assent in April, many actions are being taken reforming further children’s social care, focusing on childhood mental health, and addressing parental drug and alcohol abuse. I could name a lot more, but a lot of actions are being taken in that important area.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Chair, Accommodation Steering Group Committee, Chair, Services Committee, Chair, Services Committee

My Lords, I feel sure that the noble Viscount and the rest of the House will recognise that a high proportion of these children will be being supported day by day, week by week, by local authority social workers. This is very tough and demanding work, and we in this House ought to do all we can to support those social workers in their work, rather than concentrate on the occasional tragedy that happens, against which the profession is judged as if it happened day in and day out. Day in and day out, children are being supported by social workers—and is not it a pity that we have lost so many Sure Start schemes?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I acknowledge the point that the noble Lord has made. The figure that I have is that 580,000 children are supported or accommodated by the state, a figure that is clearly of great concern, but it provides an extremely good start on a very difficult, entrenched problem—that at last we have statistics that we can base actions on. This has not happened before, and we should applaud the work that the Children’s Commissioner has done. As she says herself, the figures are not particularly robust, but it is a start and part of her long-term review of the issue.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

Will my noble friend the Minister accept that, whatever the circumstances, the interests of the child should be paramount?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Yes, indeed. In this House, in a number of other Questions and debates, the issue of focusing on children from an early age, right through to the age of 18 and beyond, is very important. There is a whole range of things that we are looking at.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, would the Minister accept that the problems identified in the report and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, require additional public expenditure in England? Would he give a categorical undertaking that the same criteria that we use to measure the needs in Northern Ireland—which I do not denigrate in any way—will be used to assess the needs in England, which has fallen behind? When will the Government act urgently to meet those needs in England?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness would not expect me to commit to a guarantee on this—we need to go back to what the issues are. This report allows us to have some sort of initial base from which to work and to look forward to see what resources there are and where they should be directed in order to address the issue. The noble Baroness will know that we have made considerable progress on the troubled families programme, for example, which is just a small part of a big problem.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, there is another side to this coin, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, highlighted in response to my Question on Tuesday. There are many families who are put through absolute hell because they are accused of fabricated or induced illness in respect of children with ME. The social workers try very hard, and I realise that they are the lead when proceedings are started against these families. Can the Minister say what ability his department has to increase the strength of the social workers when they face teachers, paediatricians and police who are determined that these children will be put into care?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

This is a matter that my department would want to work on with the Department of Health. The category that the noble Countess has raised includes 2.3 million children who come under the heading of health-related vulnerabilities, and ME definitely comes into that. The question that she raised about carers is important; I shall certainly take that up with the Department of Health and see what more information I can give her.