The whole nation is distraught at Arthur’s tragic and horrific death. We, across this House and across this country, find it impossible to imagine how any adult could commit such evil acts against a child, in particular parents and carers, to whom children look for love and protection. And I know that colleagues and people outside this place are seriously troubled that Arthur was subjected to a campaign of appalling cruelty and murdered after concerns had been raised with local services.
I want to tell you and colleagues across the House, and I want to assure the public, I am as determined as everybody in this House to get to the truth, expose what went wrong and take any action necessary to protect children. To do so, serious questions need to be asked. I want to make it clear that police officers, teachers, social workers, health workers and others go to work each day to try to make things better—to do their best at what are very difficult jobs. Those already serving our country’s most vulnerable children deserve our thanks, and I want to be extremely clear that no safeguarding professional should be the victim of any abuse.
The targeting of individuals is wrong and helps nobody. But that does not mean that we should not seek to understand what went wrong and how we can stop it from happening again. The public deserve to know why, in this rare case, things went horrifyingly wrong, and what more could be done to prevent abuse such as this happening again in future.
Since the horrendous deaths of Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka and, sadly, others, the Government have established stronger multiagency working, putting a shared and equal duty on police, councils and health in local areas to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, alongside a role for schools.
I am sure that Members across the House will recognise that improvements have been made from previous reviews, but the question now is whether that is enough. In order to look at issues nationally as well as locally, we established the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in 2017 for cases like Arthur’s. That is why, given the enormity of this case, the range of agencies involved and the potential for its implications to be felt nationally, over the weekend I asked Annie Hudson, chair of the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, to work with leaders in Solihull to deliver a single, national, independent review of Arthur’s death to identify what must be learned from this terrible case. This will encompass local government, as well as those working in the police, health and education sectors.
Officials in my department are already in close contact with the Solihull safeguarding partnership, which is grateful for the support offered and agrees with this approach as the best way to deliver comprehensive national learning and identify whether there are any gaps that need to be addressed. Annie and her colleagues on the national panel who come from the police, health and children’s services, have dedicated their lives and decades-long careers to bettering the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society, and I have every faith that their review will be robust, vigorous and thorough.
I have already assured Annie, as I assure you now, that she will be given all the support she needs to do the job properly. This review will focus specifically on Arthur’s case, and identify where improvements need to be made. But I also want to make certain that we have looked at how all the relevant local agencies are working now, including how they are working together.
For that reason, I have also asked Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation to lead a joint targeted area inspection. I have asked that each of these inspectorates be involved because of the range of local services which had been involved in Arthur and his family’s life during the preceding months. These joint inspections are well established, but a new ambitious approach will be used, with a sharp focus on the entry point to the child protection system across all agencies. This will mean we can truly look at where improvements are needed by all the agencies tasked with protecting children in the Solihull area, so that we can be assured that we are doing everything in our power to protect other children and to prevent such evil crimes.
As part of this inspection, all the agencies tasked with protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect in Solihull will have their effectiveness considered and be instructed on where improvements must be made—both in Solihull, as well as where learnings can be applied in other areas around the country. These inspectorates have met today to plan this work, which will begin next week.
I, as well as officials in my department and across government, could not be taking this more seriously and have been working this weekend to bring everyone together to make sure this work can start immediately. Over the coming days, we will publish terms of reference and timelines for this national review and local inspection. Ahead of that, more widely, we are already investing heavily to help the legions of dedicated professionals on the front line deliver the care that we all know every child deserves.
Since the spending review in 2019, there have been year-on-year real-term increases for local government, as well as the unprecedented additional £6 billion funding provided directly to councils to support them with the immediate and longer-term impacts of Covid spending pressures, including children’s social care. Yet we have also known that the care system needed bold and wide-ranging reforms which is why we have the independent review of children’s social care happening now.
I know that Josh MacAlister, who leads the review, will make recommendations about what a decisive child protection response needs to look like, given that it sits at the core of the system he is reviewing. Importantly, I know that the review will be looking at how social workers—especially those with the most experience—can spend time with families and protecting children, because we all know that social workers do their best work with families, not behind a desk.
I look forward to the review’s recommendations in due course, because in any complex system it is important—imperative in my view—to investigate thoroughly to learn and improve the system. My mantra continues to be that sunlight is the best possible disinfectant because, if we are to improve services where they need improving, we must share data and evidence.
Finally, I thank the prosecuting barrister, Jonas Hankin QC, his team, and the jury, for their service in this troubling case. As the court heard, Arthur’s tragic death is a result of the cruelty of his father and his father’s partner. No Government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil, but we will take action wherever we can to stop this happening again because we must do more. To do more, I end my Statement with a plea to everyone in our country. Anyone who sees or suspects child abuse can report their concerns to local children’s services or by contacting the government-supported NSPCC helpline for adults or practitioners concerned about a child or a young person. So if you see or suspect child abuse, report it. If you are worried about a child you know, report it. If something appears off, or you have seen something that troubles you, report it. As we uncover what went wrong and what led to Arthur’s tragic death, we must also strengthen our resolve to make sure that we prevent these crimes as much as they can possibly be prevented. We must make sure that those who would do wicked acts to children face justice. We must do absolutely everything in our power to protect vulnerable young children from harrowing and evil abuse. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I do not doubt the sincerity of the commitments that it contains. This has to be one of the most harrowing and tragic deaths any of us can imagine. My heart goes out to everyone who knew and loved Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Talking to friends over the past few days, the first reaction they expressed was of course sorrow, but that was quickly followed by anger as to how such an awful fate could have been allowed to happen to little Arthur.
A serious case review is now under way and, while it is of course essential that it leaves no stone unturned in establishing what happened and what went wrong, it must also avoid simply repeating the recommendations of previous such reviews, such as those in respect of Victoria Climbié, Baby Peter, Daniel Pelka and too many others. Their serious case reviews reached conclusions that were depressingly familiar: warning signs were not picked up; the invisibility of children; poor early interventions and support for families; social workers’ high caseloads; and poor lines of communication between the various agencies. The main issue for Government this time is surely that these failures keep occurring. How can we avoid being here again in a year or two in similarly distressing circumstances?
Obviously, there are many questions to be asked in relation to what did or not happen locally, but I hope that the blame game that has already started will not point fingers at social workers, because it is well established that they are overworked and often lack the necessary experience to cope with distressing cases. In respect of the Statement, I welcome that it contains a clear defence of professionals in the various agencies.
Too many social workers on the front line who are recently qualified are sent into situations to deal with difficult households, often with manipulative parents such as Arthur’s. Social workers need to be supported by senior management, and by that I do not mean the directors of children’s services; I am talking about line managers and senior managers who themselves will have built up experience of troublesome families and should more often accompany inexperienced social workers, to provide the support that they need so that their teams can provide what is required by children in those difficult and often chaotic families.
If questions need to be asked about what happened at the local level, they also need to be asked in the national context. When the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in 2016, he committed his department to the target of all vulnerable children receiving the same high quality of care and support, with the best outcome for every child at the heart of every decision made. Three years later he returned to the committee and was obliged to admit that the target was delayed until 2022 because the DfE did not have a detailed plan in place to deliver the target. I do not like the blame game but, in the case of little Arthur, if it is going to begin then let it begin at the top, with a department that is inexplicably unable even to put in place a plan to protect the most vulnerable children in society. We are three weeks away from 2022 so does the Minister know whether her department yet has that plan ready? I do not expect her to be able to answer that question today, but we all deserve an answer and I hope she will write to me when she has it.
Let us not ignore the elephant in the room: the funding of local authorities and, by extension, their ability adequately to fund children’s services. Both have suffered substantial cuts through the austerity policies of Governments between 2010 and 2019—decisions, as I have said many times in your Lordships’ House, rooted in political ideology not necessity. The Minister mentioned the MacAlister review of children’s social care, which has already signalled that an increase in resources will be necessary to begin to bring children’s services up to an acceptable level. I look forward to that report when it appears next year, and I hope the Government will use it as an opportunity to reassess the importance that they attach to children’s social care and wider children’s services. We hear a lot about adult social care, and rightly so, but we definitely need to hear more about children’s social care. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to do—I hope I am quoting the Statement correctly—whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, to keep children safe.
Over the last few days my mind has consistently returned to an image of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes that appeared in many newspapers and on many websites. It showed a happy little boy in his Birmingham City football top, with a big smile, full of potential and with his whole life ahead of him until two evil monsters shamefully and horrifically cut his young life short. Let us try to remember that smile, not just the awful events that took it and his life away.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement, which I thought was very thorough. I agree with every word. It is a tragedy that Arthur lost his life in such a horrific way. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, talked about those photographs of a happy young child with his school bag on his shoulders. You just cannot believe how people can be so evil as to do that to a child, to poison and abuse him in the way that they did.
A single child abused, a single child suffering as poor Arthur did, is one life lost too many. Sadly though, as the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, both rightly said, we have been here before. Daniel Pelka, Keanu Williams and Keegan Downer are the names of only a few children murdered by their guardians. What lessons have we taken from those previous cases to empower social services with the mission of preventing child abuse?
Let us not forget that the serious case review published after Baby P’s death in 2007 said it could and should have been prevented. Every agency involved in his care, including health, the police and social services, had been well motivated and wanted to protect him, but their practice collectively and individually was completely inadequate and failed to properly challenge the explanations of maltreatment. More than 10 years on from that appalling crime, we see this tragic murder of young Arthur.
I think people struggle to understand why the photographs of his bruising and the complaints raised seemed not to satisfy those concerned. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that this should not be a blame game against social services. As a head teacher, I worked with social workers a great deal and I found caring, hard-working individuals. However, not through the fault of any individual, I also found that bureaucracy meant that it took time for issues to be dealt with.
I remember the case of a little girl who we felt was being abused. We contacted social services, but a case conference had to be arranged and we had to make sure that all the partners could be at the case conference. We would be told, “We can’t make this date or that date”, as the weeks went on. Eventually, the case conference was held and, I am glad to say, strong action was taken in that case; we were right to have raised the flag on that event. The point I am making, however, is that it is not the fault of individuals—individuals care. No social worker, teacher, police officer or health worker wants this to happen. What they want to see is speedy action but, sadly, that does not happen because of the system that we currently have. In this case, these were evil people who, sadly, would probably have circumvented any system, but that is not to say that we should not have tried.
I was interested to hear the comments of the Children’s Commissioner on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday. She made a number of important points and commented on the serious case review under way, saying that
“we need to see what that says but we must take decisive action and now.”
We cannot wait months, or whatever it may be, for this case review to happen; we need to know what we are going to do now. So I put it to the Minister: following the words of Dame Rachel de Souza, what does the Minister think we should directly do now?
It is essential that we protect vulnerable children and families. The national review needs to take into account the significance and scale of the circumstances of Arthur’s murder and allow findings to be disseminated around the country. We must identify the lessons that must be learned and ensure that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.
I thank both noble Lords for the tone of their remarks and their support for the Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I reiterate that we will leave no stone unturned in trying to understand and address what happened in this case, both in terms of its local implications and nationally.
I understand the focus of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on funding and the pressures that local government and children’s social care have been under, but I would say again that there really has been a shift; since 2019, there have been year-on-year real increases for local government. The latest spending review shows that the core spending power for local authorities is estimated to increase by an average of 3% in real terms each year until the next spending review. Importantly, that includes £200 million for family help, as part of a £500 million package to make sure that all children get the best start in life.
Both noble Lords asked what is happening on the ground, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised the issue of the performance of local children’s services teams around the country. He will be aware that we have moved from only 36% of children’s services teams being judged to be good in 2017 to, today, 50% being judged to be good or outstanding. Solihull’s children’s services team is currently rated as requiring improvement. We intervene decisively where local authorities are failing, and we continue to facilitate and fund sector-led improvement.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Storey, who said that we cannot wait; we need to do something now. Work had already started in Solihull. It is part of the strengthening families programme, which is very tailored support for local authority children’s services teams, where they follow a clear model. That work started in October this year. It is also getting support through the sector-led improvement partners, which is the more bespoke element, so the first takes well-understood and well-established improvement programmes and applies them in the local authority in question, and then the sector-led improvement partners allow for a more bespoke approach. Clearly, events such as this give a renewed urgency to the work that was already in train, and I will of course write to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, with more detail on the implementation plan.
Both noble Lords asked—possibly not in these words, but I hope I paraphrase accurately—how we avoid being here again. We have the two new reviews that we have just announced, and we will need to wait and see what they advise. We cannot pre-empt them. We also have the care review, which we hope will come forward with very practical, actionable recommendations focusing on empowering social workers to take those extremely difficult decisions to which both noble Lords referred.
I genuinely think that great progress has been made over the past 10 years in implementing almost all of the recommendations of Professor Eileen Munro’s review, and major investment is going into the workforce, with 10% more social workers today than in 2017. A great deal of work is going on. We are trying to ensure that that is sequenced and delivered in a way that is practical and effective on the ground.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the repeat of the Statement and I shall be very brief, but it is necessary to emphasise, yet again, that the awful suffering and death of this defenceless child at the hands of those to whom the child looked for love and protection must stay with us. It must be part of our thinking as we go forward.
The law makes it very clear, for all services dealing with child protection work, that the child must be at the centre and the focus of all their activities: the child is of paramount concern . It is very tough work being on the front line, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, was correct to say that each of those front-line workers deserves the support of more experienced staff around them who can take a more objective view and support them in what they are doing. As has been said, we must not fall into the trap of scapegoating the youngest, least experienced and most junior of people who go into this area of work.
The review is greatly to be welcomed, but I say to the Minister that it is right to say that since 2019 there has been an increase in local authority funding, but, boy, for the decade before 2019 there were cuts and cuts and cuts, year after year. That has meant that many of the support, preventive and family services that social workers could rely on to look at the relationship between the child and the family have disappeared.
I welcome the review, but it will take some time for it to complete its work, and I wish it well. But, to take some action now, would the Government be willing to write a strong letter to the senior people in each of these key services to remind them of their duties and responsibilities in law to protect children subject to the possibility of abuse or danger? It could be said these people already know this, but we have to be seen to react and we have to get across our concern and say, not just to the people of Solihull but to people nationwide who carry the responsibility for protecting children that now is the time for them to look at and support their front-line services to ensure that no child in their patch experiences this level of abuse and awful suffering. I hope the Government will consider doing that.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. His remark at the beginning that we should never forget the terrible suffering of Arthur reminds me of when I founded the domestic abuse charity SafeLives. As I was having lunch with the noble Lord, I thought I should read his report into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. As your Lordships can imagine, it was possibly the most terrible thing I have ever read. But reading it is obviously less awful than what these children have suffered, so I absolutely share his view that we need to keep that front of mind, and of course I will talk to colleagues in the department about his suggestion.
My Lords, I would like to add to the comments made. When I was a practising lawyer, I represented social workers in two child abuse inquiries and the two little girls, Kimberley Carlile and Jasmine Beckford, still have a place in my heart. They were brave little four year-olds who were murdered by their stepfather. In this case I think it was the stepmother who was the protagonist. At the time, I represented the social workers, but many other agencies were exposed to this child and were unable to recognise the symptoms of the abuse.
Nowadays, there is a greater awareness of the risk factors as far as children are concerned, and, perhaps, of the absence of proper parental care. But there are not sufficient funds to take the necessary protective actions, and for the necessary support to be given, maybe to parents who are struggling—which is not a popular position, but sometimes is a factor in child abuse cases.
We have to understand that this is a case of money, and of funding. Too many local authorities are struggling to provide basic services. There are many demands on their funds and there have been substantial cuts. I recognise that in recent times there has been some increase, but it is an increase on a very low base. There have been substantial cuts and a substantial shortage of services provided by the necessary agencies that need to be aware of and alert to these situations.
So I ask the Minister once again to raise these issues in the places where it can make a difference. We also need to recognise that we need to do some more research into why these parents behave in this way. It is too easy to describe them as monsters—they are, obviously; their behaviour is unforgivable, unimaginable and horrendous for the rest of us. However, in the two cases in which I was closely involved for many, many weeks, both the parents had themselves been victims of abuse. That does not in any way excuse their subsequent behaviour, but it is quite sensible to look at those situations as well.
The noble Baroness is right that of course we need to understand, even if that does not excuse behaviour. To her first point, I agree that there is greater awareness of the risk factors that children face across a wide range of different aspects, but we are still battling with some of the same issues about sharing information, understanding the significance of information and, critically, acting on it. Clearly there is more work to do.
Funding is of course extremely important, which is why we have made the commitments that I have already set out. Also, the noble Baroness would accept that there are other aspects that go along with funding to make sure that we unlock the maximum impact for children, including how services are organised, how practitioners are empowered and supported and how they are trained. Those are all areas that we are investing in to make sure that we get the best result for our children.
My Lords, this of course goes right back over very many years, and we have been here before—in my case, right back to Maria Colwell. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, has led this House and led the departments through these tragedies over many years. When people say that it will never happen again, I think that is a false line of thought—there will always be disturbed, distorted, evil parents. It goes against the grain—it is totally abhorrent—but we have to support those who are sceptical or cynical. It was said that social workers should be in the community and not at their desk; actually, they should be at their desk writing careful notes, liaising with others and making sure that we do everything in our power to diminish these appalling situations. It takes a village to bring up a child, as has often been well said. This is not only about the agencies; it is about the neighbours, the volunteers and the community as a whole.
I absolutely agree with much of what my noble friend said, but I think that she would also agree that there are children who, when things happen, are genuinely hidden from us—or substantially hidden—and there are others to whom terrible things happen in plain sight. We should at least make sure that the latter are addressed effectively.
My Lords, sadly, we are here again. To the point from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, which is about looking to the future, one of the terrible things about this particular death was that we saw and we heard the torture of this child and the terrible life they were enduring. I wonder whether there, there might be some hope for the future in the sense that technological surveillance of the victim, as in this case, or the suspects—the people who eventually murdered him—may give us more hope. Sadly, this poor child was alone with the people who tortured him and eventually murdered him.
The Government are already experimenting with tagging. People can be monitored for their alcohol and drug intake and, if someone has a mental health issue, it is now possible to see whether they are taking medication. We could have technological surveillance of both the potential victim—the child—and the people who might hurt him, as in this case. Who is in the home at the time, who is available as a witness, the condition of the child—it is now possible to technologically surveil all these things. Some people may argue that this is an intrusion too far and an intrusion into the privacy of the family. But the only reason this intrusion is being suggested is that, presumably as in all these cases, a child is already at risk. This is not an intrusion without cause; it is an intrusion with cause, where no one wants to disserve the family, but everybody wants to make sure that the child is kept safe in the future.
Therefore, in terms of an immediate response, I wonder whether research in that area—or perhaps this review—could quickly look into that and pilot it. Of all the pilots that happen, that might give us some hope for the future fairly quickly. I worry that all our investments and all our encouragements do not make people work better. We will always have human error and people on the front line will be worried to make the wrong intervention. Perhaps that is what happened in this case. I think technology can assist. It would not be foolproof in any way, but I wonder whether it is some hope for the future.
The noble Lord makes a really interesting point. I am not aware of whether that is an aspect that the reviews will be looking into, but I will take it back to the department and if there is evidence, I am very happy to share it with the noble Lord.
My Lords, someone I know with great experience in these matters tells me that in the years before the involvement of social services, in a case of suspected child cruelty the first knock on the door would be from a policeman or a policewoman. Occasionally that resulted in a bit of embarrassment, but I think perhaps children’s lives were better protected in those days. Perhaps we ought to give this matter a little more thought.
I understand the spirit of my noble friend’s remarks. With respect to him, the thing that first the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and then others have brought out is the fact that so often in these cases different organisations, whether it be the school, the GP, the police or children’s services, have different snippets of information about a child. Critically, and very often, we need to share those to get an accurate picture of that child’s life.
My Lords, I associate myself with comments from other noble Lords about the tone of today’s Statement, which I think is a major step forward. However, will the Minister ask the two reviews if they will specifically look at the issue of sharing information and data? I ask that for two reasons. First, those of us who have been involved in these sorts of cases—I am afraid over decades—too often have seen perceived problems in sharing data and information behind the tragic outcomes. Secondly, we will tomorrow be debating the Health and Social Care Bill which includes a specific provision to improve the sharing of data where adults are concerned but says nothing at all about children. That surely could be one of the immediate things that we could do. Even if it was not a major problem in this case, it is a major problem too often, and we could do something about that.
The noble Lord makes very important points. I am not trying to suggest that we have reached anywhere like where we need to get to, but he will be aware that we published new information-sharing guidance in June 2018 and have followed that up with rolling out the child protection information-sharing system so that health and local authorities can share information. It is now live in what are technically known as unscheduled health settings, so A&E, and more recently, it has been expanded to include school nurses and health visitors. It is an important tool, and we expect it to be in all healthcare settings by March 2022-23. In terms of the Health and Social Care Bill, I am sure that as a result of what has happened recently, we will be reviewing every option, including the one the noble Lord referred to.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former police officer. I welcome everything in the Government’s Statement. In the aftermath of this horrendous incident, there will be many people—safeguarding professionals, police, friends, family and community—who will be dealing with guilt and hopelessness. Can my noble friend the Minister assure me that every possible support will be made available to those who need it at this perilous time?
My noble friend is absolutely right, and I am pleased that I can reassure him. Obviously, there are children who will have been at school with Arthur and people who will have been involved in his life in many different ways, and we are making sure that all of them receive the support they need.
My Lords, can I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the review will look at the contribution of family breakdown? Evidence shows that children on the at-risk register are eight times more likely to be living with a natural parent and their current partner than the general population. Children living in households with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children living with two biological parents. Will the review consider the contribution that robust prevention and early intervention can make to safeguarding children?
My Lords, on my noble friend’s last point, I know that he is aware, and extremely supportive, of moves that this Government are making to focus more on early intervention and on the first thousand days of a child’s life. In terms of whether the review will look specifically at family breakdown, I am not aware of that although clearly that appears relevant in this case. If it is different to that, I will let my noble friend know.
My Lords, can the Minister let us know whether the review will look specifically at the effect of closing schools on this case? Many of us fear that although Arthur sadly lost his life, many other children have probably been abused because they have not been going to school and the schools have not been involved in monitoring and feeding back.
The issue of children being out of school is an important one. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that schools are an incredibly important protective factor for many children. That is why we are so keen as a Government, public health permitting, to keep our schools open with a real focus on attendance and working very closely with schools and children’s social care so that where children are not in school that is followed up and properly understood. In terms of the details of the review in relation to Arthur’s own attendance, as I said, the terms of reference are being set at the moment and I am not aware of the details.
My Lords, there are so many distressing factors involved in Arthur’s death, but perhaps one of the most upsetting is that he had family who loved him and who raised their concerns. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the Government will consider giving more focus to raising the awareness and status of kinship care, as recommended in The Case for Change?
I hope my noble friend will be pleased to know that in the Government’s independent review of social care we will be looking at how we can further support kinship families for all the reasons that my noble friend touched on. There are about 150,000 children in this country living in kinship care arrangements, so it is a really important element. In recent years, we have provided extra support to kinship carers who are looking after a child who was previously in care under a special guardianship order. Those carers can now access therapeutic services funded by the adoption support fund to help those children deal with the trauma that they have experienced. We have also recently changed the school admissions fair access protocol so that more children in kinship care will have access to schools that will support them with their kinship placement.