My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce this report to the House before the Recess. The report makes it clear that the UK faces a crisis in child vulnerability. In England alone, over a million children are growing up with reduced life chances, and children paid a very heavy price during the pandemic. The national lockdowns, while necessary, had a severe impact on their education and their mental health. However, things were bad long before the outbreak of Covid-19. The last decade has seen our most disadvantaged children and young people being let down. We have seen cuts to early years and early intervention support, despite the raft of research which shows how important it is to a child’s long-term educational success and life chances, with rising child poverty, criminal exploitation and gang violence, while the gap in attainment at school between the richest and poorest children has continued to grow. Our children deserve better.
Spending on early help for families, such as Sure Start and children’s centres, family support and youth services, was cut by 48% between 2010-11 and 2019-20. Our report found that this had a devastating impact on communities across the country. In 2019, before the pandemic, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England estimated that 1.6 million children were living in homes with serious parental mental illness, addiction, domestic violence or other concerns, but found that support for these children was either patchy or non-existent. It also found that 829,000 of these children were completely invisible to services. This got worse over lockdown. This decimation of family support services has not only damaged the life chances of disadvantaged children but makes very little economic sense. If children and families are unable to access the support that they need when they need it, small problems can escalate into full-blown crises such as joining a gang, being expelled from school or ending up in care. As a result, councils have been forced to spend almost £2 billion a year more since 2010 on crisis management services such as youth justice services, safeguarding and looking after children in the social care system. Ironically, the decision by successive Governments to slash family support services has therefore resulted in an unprecedented increase in the role of the state in family life. In 2015, 69,000 children in England were in care, but by March 2020 the figure was 80,080.
Josh MacAlister, who gave evidence to our inquiry, warned in his recent Independent Review of Children’s Social Care that a failure to radically reset services for vulnerable children and families would lead to record numbers of children going into care. Research commissioned by the County Councils Network found that the number of looked-after children in England is likely to reach almost 100,000 before 2025 unless action is taken.
This growing crisis demands bold action. Therefore, I confess to being rather disappointed to receive such an uninspiring government response to our report. In fairness, the response did point to the Department for Education’s family hub programme, and additional funding for the early years and Supporting Families programme. We agree that these are steps in the right direction. Our report found that family hubs are an effective model for providing early help and supporting parents to meet their children’s needs. In the small number of areas where they have already been established, we saw how family hubs played an important role in improving early intervention support, in facilitating integration and data sharing among public services, and enabling voluntary sector partnerships.
Also, while most Sure Start centres offered services for children up to the age of only five, family hubs help parents with children up to the age of 19. That is undoubtedly the right approach. However, the money announced for the early years and family hubs to date nowhere near compensates for the £1.7 billion cut from Sure Start and other support since 2010. There are currently only 150 family hubs in England, and this falls far short of the vision put forward by Andrea Leadsom, the author of the Government’s early years review, that all families should be able to access a local hub in their community from pregnancy.
Our children and our country simply cannot afford for the Government to continue to underinvest in family support. This failed approach has undermined families’ resilience and made them more reliant on late, very costly intervention by the state, which is bad for children and, ultimately, bad for the taxpayer. That is why we need a radical new approach to early intervention. We need it for vulnerable families, not only to boost outcomes for children but to support families to be independent and to reduce costs in the criminal justice and social care system. We also need support for the estimated one in six children with unaddressed mental health needs, to ease pressure on the NHS.
During our inquiry, we were presented with a wealth of evidence from the Early Intervention Foundation and other organisations, as well as academics and researchers, about the impressive real-world impact that existing early intervention programmes already have on the lives of children. The Incredible Years programme has an impressive track record in improving cognitive outcomes for children. The Preparing for Life programme was found to narrow the disadvantage gap in school readiness. The recent evaluation of the Family Nurse Partnership programme demonstrates a significant impact on children’s health and education outcomes.
If the Government are serious about levelling up, this is where they should start. A national rollout of some of these programmes, delivered through a comprehensive family hub network, would unlock the full economic potential of our country. For too long, vulnerable children in our most disadvantaged areas have not been given that fair start, and research carried out by Pro Bono Economics on behalf of the committee found that cuts to early intervention have fallen most heavily on our poorest areas. Spending on early intervention in areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty was cut by £766 million between 2010 and 2019. It does not need to be like that. The London School of Economics estimated that the economic cost in a single year of failing to invest in the early years is over £16 billion. We must get our priorities right.
However, funding alone will not solve the child vulnerability crisis. Every relevant part of local and national government, the public and the voluntary sector must be mobilised if we are to tackle this once-in-a-generation challenge. That is why our report called for a national strategy on vulnerable children, with family hubs at its heart. The Government did not agree. They said that things are best done locally and of course I agree. None the less, we heard from several young people where there had not been the collective co-ordinated action from across public services that tackled the family problems, and it left them very vulnerable.
We fear that, without a national vision to bring together the NHS, police, social care, schools and the voluntary sector, or milestones and targets to hold Ministers and local services to account, little progress will be made to improve things for some of the most vulnerable children. I hope that the incoming Prime Minister, whoever that might be, and their Cabinet will take a different approach and make a strategy on child vulnerability a priority.
Any national strategy must also address data sharing. I think other colleagues from the committee will address this a little more than I have time for, but the Government ignored the evidence in their response on the grounds that data sharing is “already supported”—referring to requirements for safeguarding. The problem is that too many children do not quite reach the threshold for safeguarding, but services need to work with them so that they are not all missing out and falling through the gaps. The Information Commissioner acknowledged that there is a problem with existing data-sharing guidance on children, with too much emphasis placed on the risks to a child of sharing information with third parties, which disincentivises well-meaning front-line workers from sharing data that could improve a child’s outcomes. A clear strategy from the centre to ensure that the NHS, social care, schools, the police and other local services do not view each other as third parties is critical.
It is time that I finished. I thank everyone on the committee, which I have been incredibly lucky to chair. It has some great people. We lost some members, and I am delighted that a couple will contribute to the debate none the less. I must say that at least two of our members are not here and had to remove their names because they have Covid. It is a real problem in this House because we cannot have hybrid sittings anymore. We have not had a meeting of the committee in the last two months where somebody has not been missing with Covid.
I also thank the staff. We had Tristan Stubbs and Mark Hudson working with us, and Claire, our admin assistant. Tristan and Mark moved on as we were finishing this inquiry. We have two new people working with us, Sam Kenny and Tom Burke. They have all been really supportive and helpful in getting us this far. We keep coming back to some of the issues that were raised.
I also pay particular tribute to all the parents, children and young people who bravely shared their experiences with us. Vulnerable families still recovering from the impact of Covid on their education, mental health and personal finances now find themselves in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in decades. All the pressures children face at home, as described in our report, such as witnessing parental domestic violence, addiction or mental ill-health, are likely to intensify in the coming months. If we do not act, the consequences for these children’s education, future employment prospects and life chances will be catastrophic. We cannot allow difficult times to distract us from this task at hand. If now is not the time to address the crisis facing vulnerable children, then when is it? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a privilege to be a member of the Public Services Committee, so ably chaired by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, and to speak in this debate, along with other colleagues and, indeed, former colleagues from the committee. Our inquiry was both illuminating and distressing, all the more so because many of us have worked in child protection for many years and found the same old problems of lack of recognition, lack of co-ordination, lack of a comprehensive strategy and lack of collaboration between agencies with which we have unfortunately been familiar for too many years. It was, to say the least, dispiriting.
To all these old problems was added the pandemic, with 1 million children growing up with reduced life chances, as my noble friend said, public services offering too little, too late, and local services undermined not only through lack of funding but through a lack of the information that would enable them to protect children, such as how many young people took up caring roles as support services were withdrawn as the pandemic progressed. We have no accurate figures about that.
In my brief remarks, I will concentrate on two areas where we found failings but which could, if addressed, provide some early wins and huge steps forward to protecting vulnerable children. The first is a lack of proper engagement with users—children and families—when services are designed. The evidence we received from users of services was the most powerful of all. Six focus groups and seven evidence sessions with parents and children really brought home to the committee the problems faced by families and shaped our recommendations. In short, services must be responsive to individual needs and must be co-produced.
I quote Emma in our report:
“I feel [that public services] just ignore children’s voices. When my mum was going through issues with her mental health, they asked her if she needed any services and she said we were fine. I felt like I needed help, but nobody listened to me. No one wanted to hear my voice.”
Emma had been a young carer for her mother for a very long time.
In our first inquiry, we argued that involving disadvantaged groups in the design of services makes public services more responsive to marginalised communities’ needs. But, like Emma, many of the children and families reported to us that statutory agencies too often deliver support without ever listening to the people who use their services. We heard that services for vulnerable children and their families need to be responsive to individual needs to be successful. Therefore, they must be co-produced—that is the word we heard very often.
We saw some interesting co-production and the Cabinet Office certainly issues quite strong guidance about how good it is to engage in co-production, but I am afraid that the experience of one of our witnesses was that the use of co-production in children’s social care is limited. She said that children in the care system regularly requested “kinship care”—when a child lives with a relative or family friend rather than with a foster family or in a care home—but they were often ignored. She called for children suffering from the consequences of family breakdown to have a greater say in their future. She said:
“The best way of doing that … is through coproduction and having young people, kinship carers and families working with the local authority to coproduce a kinship, family and friends care policy. Unfortunately, this does not happen.”
We heard too many depressing examples of where co-production does not happen, but we heard about some local authorities, such as Cheshire East Council, that envisioned an organisation to codesign the service with young people, their families and the community. They designed the programme and, lo and behold, they had some very good outcomes. They halved the rereferral rate into social care services from 23% to 12%, reduced the average social worker’s caseload by 30%, reduced reliance on agency staff, who, as we know, cost too much, and achieved 95% engagement from families.
I have often said in your Lordships’ House that if people work with the users they get some very pleasant surprises. When you really engage with users, they often ask for far less than you think they will want if you really address their needs, rather than have their needs addressed by somebody who does not really understand their situation.
That brings me to the second issue on which I want to concentrate: the inadequate engagement and collaboration with local voluntary and charitable agencies. Engaging users is nearly always best done through a local voluntary organisation; this was pointed out to us in our evidence sessions. I will never forget Maria from Birmingham, who said to us:
“The police dismissed what happened to us … They said, ‘It is just [your husband’s] behaviour’, and I was told to manage my fear and my children through counselling … but I needed [more] support with my daughter … she was easily triggered by the violence she had witnessed and would hurt herself. I couldn’t cope.”
Maria was fortunate to be referred to a small charity in Birmingham, WE:ARE, which forms long-term and meaningful relationships. She received group therapy from it, enabling her better to support her children. Now she says that her strength has been passed on to her children and that they are doing much better in school as a result.
Our report says:
“A common theme that emerged from our focus groups and evidence sessions with parents and children was that voluntary sector organisations were often better placed than statutory services to identify and respond to needs, and to co-design services more effectively. We heard that the voluntary sector was able to engage vulnerable families whom statutory services could not reach.”
I always remember that when I was working with young carers, a lot of them and their families were terrified of being referred to social services for fear that they would take the child into care instead of trying to resolve the situation in which the family found itself. It is hardly surprising that marginalised families are reluctant to request state support, because they fear that that involvement in family life will mean that kind of intervention, which is not what they want.
“Leah told us that her mother ‘did not want any help’ from statutory agencies with her addiction: ‘it was mainly because she was scared of social services taking me and my sister away.’ Fortunately, the family was supported by … an addiction charity.”
Leah said that the charity deals
“with those things more often, they have a better understanding … They know how to help and they have been doing it for a long time. They have seen loads of families come in with all sorts of problems. I feel like they could help on so many levels”.
We had some good examples such as those I have quoted, but there were too many where the ability of the voluntary sector to create and deliver innovative services was ignored because of a lack of trust and it being called in too late, once decisions had been made, not being treated as a proper partner and, of course, being deprived of funding.
Funding underlies so many of the problems we have identified, so it is very important that public services do not ignore but make the very best possible use of two of the most important resources available to them: the users themselves and the voluntary sector. If these are both treated as equal partners—co-producers—public services would do a better job of supporting vulnerable children than was evidenced to the committee in this inquiry.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. It was a genuine pleasure to serve on this committee during this inquiry, and I pay tribute to my very knowledgeable colleagues on the committee—in particular, our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, who carefully steered us through this—and to the clerks at that time, who, among other things, gave great guidance and worked extremely hard to ensure that we obtained the best evidence. An awful lot of it was available for this inquiry.
The report is wide-ranging and, as can be seen, covers some important aspects—far too many to mention. Two particular aspects of the inquiry triggered an interest with me: the use of data, and the enormous benefit of family hubs.
One of the more fundamental aspects of the inquiry, as detailed in the report’s introduction, demonstrated the lack of co-ordination by central government—no news there, you might say—and national regulators, which, we were told,
“undermined the ability of local services working with families to collaborate effectively, intervene early and share information to keep vulnerable children safe and improve their lives.”
Of course, this was not helped by the barriers to sharing data on vulnerable children. For example, we heard from various sources that
“if they wanted to access help they would have to go through avenues where their parents would be involved, which could discourage them to share information with services”.
We heard from the Cabinet Office, which said that public servants faced a complex dilemma about their duty of privacy and how they contrast that with doing the right thing. Witnesses also suggested that the necessity
“for parental consent before data could be shared, and uncertainty among frontline professionals about thresholds for sharing data on at-risk children, inhibited the sharing of vital information.”
The Family Hubs Network supported witnesses’ experiences. It
“described how children and families were often ‘bounced from one service to another and have to repeat their story again and again’.”
We heard evidence that
“poor data-sharing between Government departments and local agencies endangered vulnerable children and their families by undermining safeguarding arrangements and preventing referrals for early help.”
This is quite extraordinary and, frankly, such data barriers are unacceptable in a modern, compassionate society.
I move on to another highlight of the report, which really caught my attention and which I believe could almost become the panacea for ensuring both the safety of vulnerable children and a guiding hand for parents in need of help. I refer to family hubs, of course. Family hubs aim to strengthen families by providing help with the countless challenges that parents face, especially those that will hamper children’s social, emotional and physical development and their educational progress. They
“provide families with a central access point to integrated services.”
So what did we learn about family hubs in our inquiry? We heard from
“Jade from Doncaster, aged 23 and a mother of two, with a three-year-old son and a daughter of eight. Doncaster Borough Council told us that at first they were concerned about Jade’s ability to care for her children. Jade is now able to meet their needs: ‘[she] interacts more readily with professionals, other adults and families and, most importantly, her children, as a more confident parent.’ Doncaster is one of a small number of local authorities in England with an established Family Hub network.”
It is worth repeating what Jade told us:
“I have been attending the Family Hub for some time now. I was having problems when my son’s dad was being abusive to me and smoking skunk … in front of the kids. If it wasn’t for the Family Hub, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of this tough situation. The staff have always been friendly, helpful and reliable. I really enjoyed attending the sessions they directed me to at a local church”.
This is important, because Jade told us that she
“learnt stuff that made me a better mum—like how important it is for kids to eat breakfast, healthy snacks and meals. I also learnt how to read and play with my children.”
Family hubs can provide a base for communication and support for children in early years as they move through school. Beginning at primary schools, the centres can include early childhood development and parenting activities, home visitation, home-based satellites, and early problem identification and intervention. As family hubs say of themselves, they can also be a place to support parents to facilitate their child’s learning. This can be through the provision of learning and mentoring support to help families provide a positive learning environment, and role models and mentors to support young people’s progress in school.
However, we learned:
“The Government has spent a relatively small amount on Family Hubs, with a focus on trialling new Hubs.”
Yet the professionals in the field who gave evidence to us advocated a greater spend, comparing it with Sure Start, which
“accounted for £1.8 billion of public spending … in 2009/10” by today’s calculations.
“It is our vision that all families can expect to be welcomed to their local Family Hub from the moment their pregnancy is confirmed up until their child turns 19 … Family Hubs will be open-access and any parent or carer can ‘drop in’ to their local Hub when they need to. For this reason, we envisage Family Hubs as being baby-friendly, welcoming for families and located in accessible places.”
I hope that the Government pay serious attention to our committee’s report and that they
“commit to introducing a digital Red Book for children and young people aged 0–19”, as advocated by Dame Andrea Leadsom, and, referencing my earlier point regarding data:
“This health record should be made available to all statutory agencies and voluntary organisations working with vulnerable children and young people.”
If we fail to join up our thinking in relation to data sharing in this area, we will fail to help the most vulnerable in our society: our children.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in this debate. I am immensely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and all those who have produced this outstanding report. One of the most impressive things about it is that one hears the voices of those who are so often not heard.
I think that the move from Sure Start to family hubs is a model for how we respond. The challenge of looking at the poorest and most vulnerable in our society today is such an important focus for us. The model of the family hub is absolutely invaluable, because in lengthening the time over which a person might need encouragement and help beyond the formative years of nought to five, we remind ourselves that being human is not a problem that can be solved with a quick fix of investment. It is actually a long-term story of investment and hope, of failure and recovery. That perspective, looking at nought to 19, is a really important one. I was also very encouraged by seeing the recognition of the needs of 18 to 25 year-olds, as people move into young adulthood, which is still a very important area.
When I was first ordained as a bishop and working in the north-east, on Teesside, the Sure Start centre in Grangetown—one of the most deprived parts of Middlesbrough—was an incredible place to go to because it offered hope, in contrast to so much that was derelict in life and the environment around there. What I saw there was that this was about families; this was about giving hope not only to children who were vulnerable but to the parents of those children, who did not really know quite how to deal with this gift that they had. Seeing parents with very tiny children being given the skills to parent their child was incredibly moving, and fruitful, of course, in terms of hope for the future.
Another thing I came across in that instance was somebody who, as a child, had been a victim of all the vices that he might have encountered in that area of Middlesbrough. He had fallen foul of the law and had ended up literally in the gutter, where he was picked up by a Christian woman and put back on his feet over the course of time. He established a small charity called Father to the Fatherless—a quotation from Psalm 68. He talked to young male adults—late teenagers—about what he had been, how he had failed and how he had found life, hope and potential for the future.
One thing in the interstices of this report, which I would want to point to, is something that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has already mentioned: the role model. Where are the role models for those who are so often lost and most vulnerable as they grow through childhood into their teenage years and early adulthood?
I remember being very struck when I went to one of our schools—it was not a church school, but one that had very close working relationships with one of our parishes on the edge of Middlesbrough—and saw, in this large primary school, that all the teaching staff were female. The vicar of the parish, who had a marvellous role there, was also female—a very impressive female priest. I thought, “Everybody who is in a position of achievement, power and authority here is female.” The one person who was male was the person who was in charge of sport. It is positive in its way, but it did not say anything to the boys in that school about what their aspirations might be. Where do we find the role models? In particular, the challenge to us as nation, as wider society, as a wider issue than something we can legislate for, is to find role models for boys, in particular, to help them grow and become mature and responsible citizens.
I want to touch briefly on something that has already been explored by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley: the voluntary sector and its relationships with the statutory sector. When I was a curate, first ordained in Plymouth back in the 1980s, the probation service was in the lead in terms of partnership with the voluntary sector. It invested, from its own funding, in the voluntary sector that it worked with and set up voluntary charities. For example, it set up a garage where boys, again, who had a criminal record or were at risk of offending through stealing cars and motorbikes, could be taught mechanics and develop skills that might help them find employment. This extraordinary partnership between the voluntary and statutory sectors was modelled in a variety of other ways as well. Reading the report, one of the questions I had was the extent to which the initiative for forging those links rests with the voluntary or the statutory sector. It is not entirely clear where the responsibility might be, or just how far that relationship might go.
Relationships are at the heart of tackling deprivation and vulnerability for children. Looking at the voluntary sector, one area that is not touched on here is, once again, the question of the extended family. Certainly, on Teesside it was probably the most important relationship, between child and grandparent, as children grew through their teenage years. What we offer encompasses a wider community, and builds on relationships, as I think has already been rehearsed in this debate. This is very important.
On the business of information sharing and schools, it is certainly very important that information is shared, and schools are of enormous importance. I valued the reference to education in the report, but I want to speak up for what I have seen in some of our church schools, when I was in Yorkshire and on Teesside, but even in Sussex. There is pressure on teachers to take on responsibilities for which they have not necessarily been prepared, where information can be a burden and possibly a trauma, in terms of how they are then expected to respond. How do we prepare those who are working in education for this? What investment is made to support them? How do we ensure that this aspect of their work, which is increasing, I think, does not demoralise the profession, as we see a rapid departure from our teaching profession? These are important issues to be addressed in the application and implementation of some of the hopes in this report.
Finally, I touch on something that I mentioned earlier, in terms of the perspective of family hubs and the age range, and that is loneliness. The age range 18 to 25 as an area for support strikes me as being very important. It touches on what it means to be lonely. As many youngsters find themselves in a world where our society is atomised, where do they find reliable safe spaces and relationships? Psalm 68, used by the young man who was working with youngsters on Teesside, also has an interesting statement:
“God setteth the solitary in families.”
I think the loneliness of many of our young people begs us to answer how they find the family in which they will be valued, encouraged and given purpose for their lives.
My Lords, it has become customary to say it is a pleasure to follow the previous speaker, but it is a real pleasure and honour to follow the right reverend Prelate. There were so many interesting insights but also challenges to the committee, so I thank him for that. I need to draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, in particular my current interest as a non-exec at Ofsted; I recused myself where necessary during the inquiry.
I start by paying tribute to the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. I miss serving on her committee, as it was a natural move for me to go over to the committee on the review of the Children and Families Act 2014, so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield. I want to take a moment to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, chaired this inquiry with real verve and sensitivity. She and I disagreed from time to time, but she never got into political point-scoring, although some may say that she has now got plenty of opportunity. I have observed her throughout the pandemic and beyond; she is somebody who has continued to work tirelessly for vulnerable children and women in the most horrendous circumstances. I thank her wholeheartedly.
I hesitated but I feel that I need to say a few words about the wider context for tonight’s debate. I am very glad that my noble friend the Minister is the person to respond to it. I am not sure how she feels about it, but she too has dedicated a lot of her life to helping those in need. She certainly needs no lectures from me about how frustrating it is for many of us to debate this in the current circumstances, but we must plough on because we owe it to those people that we have heard about who gave evidence to the committee, sometimes in private and with exceptional bravery. We need to ensure that their voices are heard.
As we have heard, one of the most disturbing realisations highlighted by many of the witnesses was the fact that the pandemic silenced many of those most in need of attention. We have heard again about the number of vulnerable children who became invisible to services, which is why there was such a sense of urgency in the committee’s recommendations. I pay tribute to the millions of public servants and voluntary workers doing sterling work up and down the country. We were lucky to hear from many of them first hand, but we also heard of structural or systemic issues that mean services too often are piecemeal or almost impossible to navigate.
What really struck me and, I am sure, other members of the committee when we took evidence from people who had needed to access public services in times of crisis was the number of times that the system had broken down due to poor communication or data-sharing issues. I take all the challenges on funding and agreed with some of them but, interestingly for me, a lot of the witnesses did not come forward and say it was about funding. They said that something which seems very simple, such as changing GP practice, can then have a domino effect. We heard of one example that really stuck with me, in the treatment of postnatal depression, where something that should have been handled quite simply—and could have been avoided—then had ramifications not only for the mother but for the whole family, at the heart of which sits the child.
I lost count of the number of times on this inquiry, and during the one we did before on public services in Covid, when we heard from people who had faced awful situations. It was not people who had made mistakes or could have tried harder but because of situations that anyone in this Chamber would, I am sure, have found it incredibly difficult to deal with. They said, “I had to tell my story over and over again”, because the system was so disjointed. It was bad enough when you heard adults telling you this but when you hear young people and children say it, that is terrible. Despite the fact that we were hearing that, still the voices are not heard when the services are created, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and others have said.
I note that the Government “partially accepted” recommendation 10 of the report on co-production and co-design. There were some promising examples on parent and carer panels. Can the Minister set out how we are going to know whether these are effective? What metrics are in place for them and the other examples that the Government gave?
Others have talked about family hubs. I was going to go through them but have listened to every word, so I do not want to replicate. I will just give my observation: the Government are doing a lot of good work here and I thought there was a genuine acceptance that this was a good solution. I liked the fact that Minister Quince came with a great passion and said that he saw them as “Sure Start-plus-plus-plus”. All that was there. I accept the need for evidence-based policy-making, obviously, but I had a nagging feeling the whole way through that there was not quite enough urgency around implementation and delivery. The Government recognised that there were problems in rollout but did not say what steps were being taken to cut through the complexity, which is the job of governing. Again, I have cut short the points I was going to make, but I would be grateful if my noble friend could provide an update to the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, raised that point as well.
I want to talk briefly about mental health again, because I expressed my concerns during the committee—and years before that, actually, with many others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who have been talking about the fact that this has been a neglected area for so many years. Again, the Government have done some good work here and taken a thoughtful approach over the years. I have seen, first hand, some brilliant examples of mental health services delivered in schools by charities and I am a huge champion of early intervention, which was one of the core themes of the committee, but some children need further specialist support. Not everything is solved at that earlier stage, and I do not think we heard from anybody, and I do not know anybody, working with children in a professional capacity who is not hugely worried about the pressure on CAMHS. I probed this at the committee and did not think we got a particularly strong answer from Ministers, but maybe I am being unfair.
I want to talk briefly about the fact that I know some commentators feel we are in danger of medicalising what are normal anxious or low feelings. I agree that there is a balancing act in early years when you talk about emotions, mental health and mental well-being, but I am talking about young people who are self-harming or those who have eating disorders or suicidal thoughts. There are awful situations with thresholds, where their parents are told that they do not meet them. The system seems very painful and difficult to navigate in the worst circumstances. Can my noble friend kindly update the House on what assessment the Government have made, or whether she thinks I am overstating it, of the immediate requirements for CAMHS? What steps are being taken to address this in terms of both the crisis and immediate response, some of which can be blamed on the pandemic, and longer-term workforce planning?
To sum up, as we have heard, all children faced a huge burden during the pandemic. but many or most of them will be able to move on. They will recover without needing the support of public services beyond what anyone might expect. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said: for those who cannot, for whatever reason, we have one chance to help them urgently, so please do not let us miss it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, and to speak this evening on the committee’s report. I mention my non-executive directorship of the Cabinet Office so as to declare that interest.
I join everyone else, first, in saying how much I enjoyed the company of the people who I shared time with on the committee, as I learnt a great deal, and, secondly, in paying tribute to our leader. The noble Baroness did a great job in showing how to lead a group of very opinionated and strong characters, while showing all the skills she had as the Chief Whip for the Tony Blair Government. Her deft skills kept us all in control and guided us in the right way, while listening to everything that we had said. I say thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for that leadership.
I really want to talk about only two areas. The first is the Government’s rejection of the committee’s recommendation to have a national child vulnerability strategy. The second is the recommendation to have more data sharing for the benefit of the vulnerable child, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, remains a concern that we have both probably experienced in another sphere in our professional life. It continues to remain a problem even today.
On the Government saying that they do not want to produce a national strategy, their argument was, first, that they were already taking a strategic approach and, secondly, that a single strategy covering too broad an area of policy risks becoming unmanageable. I thought both arguments were really weak: if the Government have a strategic approach, surely they have recorded it somewhere; if not, I would argue that it will be applied inconsistently. But if it has been written down, surely it could be published. I did not think that was a very strong argument.
Surely the point of strategies is that they are needed in broad areas of complex policy issues, such as vulnerable children. This is crying out for a national approach, with consistency, and to make sure that the right priorities are addressed in the future.
My first positive reason for needing a strategy is that it could provide a definition of vulnerability. None of the Government’s witnesses that we heard from could produce such a definition. This means that there are different departments having different definitions and priorities. I understand that a definition can be a hostage to fortune: the difficulty is that if you exclude somebody from a definition, and then someone later says they are vulnerable, there will be a list that constantly gets increased. But the danger of not having a definition is that nobody is clear exactly what they are talking about, and the aggravating factors that make someone vulnerable. Therefore, I think it important that a definition should be provided, even if it means that you have to add things on to that definition over time.
The No. 2 point for me is surely that such a strategy should set out the evidence of what works in reducing vulnerability and improving outcomes for children who are vulnerable. At the moment, this evidence seems to be scattered between at least three departments—health, education and the Home Office—and I am sure it is across many others too. But there is a danger that what is working might be applied inconsistently across different departments for the same child and the same family, and that does not seem a very sensible way forward either.
Thirdly, a strategy would prioritise prevention. Our witnesses did not really explain clearly that prevention was at the forefront of everything that was being done. There were some good examples of preventive work, particularly for the very young, but it did not sound consistent across all the departments, applied in a similar way.
Fourthly, everyone acknowledges that child vulnerability is a fiendishly complex problem. Each child can suffer unique consequences of such vulnerability. Central and local government’s ability to respond is complicated by a complex delivery structure. In central government, we have different ministries: I mentioned health, the Home Office and education. Local provision is provided by different services. The compound effect of both working together is that it becomes even more complex. Surely such a strategy could simplify and prioritise resource allocation and delivery for those things that worked.
Finally, one obvious practical benefit of such a strategy could be the speedy rollout of family hubs throughout the country, as we have heard already this evening. Not one of our witnesses was able to say that the Government had a policy to make family hubs available for everyone. What we were told was that more bid money was available for more rollouts, but the question for the Minister I offer is: do the Government want family hubs for everyone? If they do, when do they estimate that this will be achieved? It may well have been Andrea Leadsom’s vision, but is it government policy? We did not hear that clearly, and such an important issue should be addressed.
Nearly every witness complained that privacy legislation, data protection and the Information Commissioner inhibited the sharing of data for the benefits of vulnerable children. To be fair, the Information Commissioner did not accept this, although I am afraid that she was the only witness to do so. We are in danger of saying, “Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?” because she had a very clear grasp of the law and understood the definitions. But what was clear is that if the practitioners continue to be concerned about the risk of sharing data, surely the system is not working very well.
The best piece of evidence I can offer is that the MASHs around the country are still in place. We have already talked about family hubs, but MASHs are multi-agency safeguarding hubs; just another acronym. The police use them—they are usually based in police stations—but other people play a part in them. They were created so that different agencies could share information gathered in each of them about the vulnerability of a child. It was the only way to overcome the problem about data sharing: someone from education said, “This child did not turn up at school yesterday”, someone from health said, “This child attended casualty last night”, and the police said, “That’s interesting, because we attended a domestic violence situation last night but we did not see a child or anybody who was injured.” But the only way to overcome the data-sharing problem was to sit everyone in the room with their computer and ask them to share it, once they had built up some trust. That cannot be the right way, surely, if we have to go to that extent. It is not only costly, but is not the most effective way of doing it. Those MASHs were created to overcome data-sharing problems, and they still exist. Why have people still got them if it is so easy to share the data, as the Information Commissioner says should be happening?
I really think that a time for action has come in this area. The whole point of data protection and privacy legislation is to stop the sharing of data. Is it not time to challenge that presumption, in this narrow area, at least?
Could the Minister please comment on my suggestion, which is that if a public servant is acting in good faith, intending to improve the health or safety of a child, they will have a defence in law to an act which otherwise would have been unlawful? I cannot see why that would challenge the proper sharing of data or make the child less safe, and I hope that it would reassure professionals that they were doing the right thing. They would have a defence—not an absolute defence, but something that they could properly claim if they found themselves challenged by a commissioner for the improper sharing of data. I am afraid that at the moment all the advice and the codes available do not seem to be getting through. Cultures can change not by a thousand pieces of legislation, but sometimes by significant acts. A legal defence may be one way of making a difference.
The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, clearly listed the volume or size of this task—it is massive, and at times it seems to be getting bigger. But surely we all agree that one group in particular is vulnerable—young people in care—and, if we can make real progress, it might be applied more widely. The outcomes for them at the moment are pretty awful: they go into the criminal sphere, lack employment and have poor health outcomes due to alcohol and drug problems, and, sadly, they create more broken families along the way. Surely we can get it right for them, but all the evidence at the moment shows that it is not going well. Finally, I reiterate my earlier point: if we had a national strategy, this would be a very clear priority within it.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap. As others have said, it was a real privilege and pleasure to be a member of the Public Services Committee, under the admirable leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, when this very important inquiry was undertaken. As we have heard, the report contains a number of very important recommendations, and I have been pleased to be able to pursue some of these issues relating to kinship care, mental health and other things in my new role as chair of the Select Committee conducting post-legislative scrutiny of the Children and Families Act 2014.
As we have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Hogan-Howe, the report contained some important recommendations on information and data sharing, and I wanted to add a small postscript. In the report, we highlighted the important issue of how legislative and practice barriers meant that vulnerable children were already falling through the gaps between local agencies, being invisible to social services, the NHS and the education system. We highlighted agencies feeling unable to share the data that they needed to determine which children needed their help.
I was pleased to be able to take forward some amendments to the recent Health and Care Act that were very much inspired by the work that we have done in this committee, particularly on highlighting the need for a consistent child identifier, or what is sometimes called a unique identifier. I am really pleased that, as a result of those discussions, the Act now commits the Government to laying a report before Parliament within a year, setting out their policy on information sharing, et cetera. I know that a review in a year might perhaps sound like a modest step forward, but it is important. Many parliamentarians and charities have been campaigning on this for many years, and I am very much looking forward to seeing that report next year. Can the Minister say anything about the progress and timing of it?
The report also set out a very powerful case for early intervention and preventive services for children and families in need, particularly to prevent poor education, health or social outcomes and, critically, as we have heard, to try to prevent more children from going into care. Of course, this whole thrust was strongly reinforced in the recent Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, led by Josh MacAlister. So I strongly support the notion of a national strategy on vulnerability to promote greater collaboration and co-ordination, and indeed multi-year funding allocations for early intervention; I was disappointed by the Government’s response in this area.
As others have said, the report contained some important recommendations on family hubs, which I support. I recognise that the Government committed investment to a further 75 in the Budget, and that is welcome, but we need a commitment to a national network of them as soon as possible to make sure that every community has somewhere that families can go to access universal family and parenting support as well as targeted support for families with the greatest need.
For me, a key test for the Government’s levelling-up agenda will be whether it improves outcomes for families and children, particularly vulnerable children. I hope that an incoming Prime Minister will give this issue the priority that it deserves.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, with many issues raised, questions asked and challenges given. I am sure that the Minister will be able to respond with her usual careful consideration.
This important report starts by reminding us that over 1 million children are growing up with reduced life chances. This stark reality has negative implications for us all, not just those children and their families. For the children concerned, it may lead to lower educational attainment, with a knock-on impact on their life chances in employment, for example. When policymakers focus on skill levels that are not meeting our current needs, as they often do, they should be required to consider the evidence in this ground-breaking report. It demonstrates that too many of our nation’s children are raised in family circumstances that restrict their development. The sad fact is that intervention by the state is too little and far too late for many of these children. Worse still, the evidence gathered by the report points to the colossal waste of public funding in the failure to intervene early in these children’s lives.
I record my thanks to the chair of the committee, on which I was lucky enough to serve, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, for her leadership and her persistence in following the evidence and then finally gathering us all together to agree—which was not always easy—in the production of this report, which I sincerely believe is invaluable.
I will focus my contribution this evening on funding issues. This is where I will disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, because I think funding, and the lack of it, is at the heart of this report. Lots of other issues are very important and have been raised, including data sharing.
I do not think I said that funding was not important. I said that some witnesses had pointed to problems that I thought were not necessarily directly related to funding; they were about communication issues and join-up. Indeed, at times I have called for extra funding for early years myself.
I thank the noble Baroness for putting that on the record and I withdraw any criticism that I have wrongly made.
The numbers of children likely to benefit from external support from local services are staggeringly high. We heard that 1.6 million children—that is an awful lot of children—were helped by local authority children’s services in the six years between 2012 and 2018. In addition, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner estimated that as many as 750,000 were known to social services but “received no support”. Further, as we have heard in other contributions this evening, an additional 800,000 children were deemed “completely ‘invisible’ to services”, although likely to “need help” because of the circumstances in which they were living.
The committee was mindful of the wise words of Martin Lennon of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, who said:
“Not all vulnerable children are poor, and not all poor children are vulnerable.”
However, he then went on to make clear that there was a definite “correlation between poverty” and children being, and becoming, “vulnerable”. Since the report was completed, families are now having to contend with the cost of living crisis. Those families who are just managing now will have very considerable additional costs for basic essentials. All commentators expect that there will be even more children living in poverty with the consequences enumerated by this report. The challenge for the Government is to determine the most effective and cost-efficient ways of supporting vulnerable children for their, and our, benefit.
The committee heard from many witnesses that the key to cost-effective support is to provide help “as early as possible” in a child’s life. Obviously, that means that funding for early intervention is critical. However, early intervention funding is not statutory. Admitting children into the care of the local authority is a statutory reaction in response to a family in crisis. This is done at very considerable cost to the public purse: for example, foster care rates are between £140 and £200 a week, depending on the age of the child. This is for local authority foster care; it is considerably higher for agency foster care.
As the report concludes: early intervention is a key to enabling better lives for vulnerable children. Unfortunately, local authorities saw a £1.7 billion yearly reduction in early intervention programmes since 2010. Those communities in highest need experienced the largest cuts to these services: councils with the highest levels of deprivation saw reductions of over 50% in real-terms spending—therefore, a per-child average of £141 where poverty is highest. From 2010 to 2019, those with the lowest levels of poverty had budget cuts of only £182 million per annum.
Early intervention is based on supporting a family in their own home; later interventions—such as foster or residential care, as I explained—are much more expensive. Yet the report found that, while there was a 48% reduction in early intervention services, there was a 34% increase to “higher-intensity” late interventions, which, as the evidence from Barnardo’s showed, despite being vastly more expensive, had worse outcomes for children.
One statistic clearly shows this failure of public policy. The number of children looked after in England has risen from 65,520 in 2011 to over 80,000 now. Andrea Leadsom’s review of child health inequalities quoted research by the LSE which showed that £16 billion of public money was spent in a single year on children and young people who have serious problems, all of which could be traced back to their early experiences. Her review said that
“you can certainly argue that you will save a good portion of that by investing earlier.”
The Government have made some welcome moves towards the provision of early intervention in the creation of family hubs, but much more needs to be done. As the report recommends at paragraph 60:
“To underpin a strategy on child vulnerability and its ambitions for ‘levelling up’, the Government should restore ringfenced funding for early intervention to its 2010 levels.”
Other noble Lords have highlighted the other key recommendations in the report such as listening to the voice of the user—what a powerful experience that was. It was a privilege, actually, to hear the voices of the users. How great their contribution could have been to improving the quality of the services they need and to the Government having an effective strategy. It is appalling that there is no strategy. It is apparent that there is no strategy for helping 1 million of our children and, from all the evidence that we have heard, saving lots of money at the same time. Why do we not get it done? Finally, there is the importance of the professionals working with the users and the voluntary sector to the benefit of children. I just hope that this excellent report has the impact on decision-makers that its quality deserves.
My Lords, I start, as others have, including the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and her committee for the work that has been done on this report.
I do not think it is ground-breaking, actually. Depressingly, it repeats things that we already knew—things that we have heard before. From reading her previous report on public services during Covid and what can be learned, we are just not learning these lessons. There is nobody in this Chamber who has not heard the arguments before about data sharing, information sharing, early intervention and prevention and the need to work across government. We have all heard that a hundred times, yet it seems so fiendishly difficult for the Government to implement. I share the disappointment at the Government’s response so far but there is obviously always hope.
The LSE estimates that failing to invest in early years costs £16 billion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said. This is just a social and economic failure, as we all know. It is good that we have this opportunity to have this discussion. As I am getting to know the Minister a bit better over various things that we are having to do, I am pretty confident that she would share many of the things said by noble Lords this evening.
I would also like to welcome the Minister this evening, as she has been remarkably stoic in recent days. She has had the filleting of the Schools Bill to deal with, and the resignation of fellow Ministers. She is still here and still smiling, and we are very pleased to see her. Regardless of the drama happening at the other end of the building, it is good to have this opportunity to discuss this report from the Public Services Committee.
Could the Minister let us know whether she has had a chance to discuss any of these issues yet with the new Health and Education Secretaries? I know that, with three Education Secretaries in the last three days, it is not exactly a normal week, and we are realistic about what focus they would have been able to give, but we cannot carry on like that. These issues are urgent, and we need to attend to them as quickly as we possibly can.
This report reminds us that the number of vulnerable children was increasing even before the pandemic. It calls on the Government to publish a national strategy on child vulnerability, alongside long-term, protected funding for early intervention and prevention. The central point that the committee makes is not a new one: there is too little co-ordination, insufficient sharing of information across government, inadequate planning and a lack of focus. As I have said already, we have all heard this before; it is depressingly familiar. These are not things that the Government have to avoid—there are things that they could be doing now to approach this far more effectively.
In their response to the report, the Government say:
“Providing the right support at the right time for children and families is a priority across Government ... This focus must and will continue.”
While these words are welcome, it is striking that the Government are not as forthcoming with the means that the committee suggests would make a difference. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said, there really should be a strategy. It is all too easy for the Government to say that they agree that early intervention is the best way to support vulnerable children, but if that is true, why did successive Tory Governments dismantle the support that was available in the form of Sure Start, early help and youth services?
The starkest paragraph in the report says:
“Spending on early intervention services in the areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty fell by £766 million between 2010 and 2019 … In areas of England with the lowest levels of child poverty, spending on early intervention services reduced by £182 million … Walsall, for example, has some of the highest levels of deprivation anywhere in England. Spending on early intervention services there fell by 81% … Surrey has much lower levels of deprivation, but overall spend on early intervention children’s services fell by 10%.”
As the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, says—although I know that she did caveat this—funding is not the only thing that matters. Absolutely, but it does matter; it really makes a difference.
It might interest the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester that early intervention spending in Middlesbrough, where he worked, reduced by 64% between 2010 and 2019. I know Middlesbrough very well, as my family is from South Bank. When you read statistics like that and you know that community, you have to wonder what on earth was going on that a decision such as that could have been made. We know why it happened—it is because there was no strategy. If there had been, decisions about local government spending would not have been divorced from decisions that were made about child poverty and the Department for Education. Those things just have not been joined up. When local government finances were squeezed from 2010, when local government was responsible for many of the early intervention services that we are discussing this evening, what did Ministers think would happen to support for the most vulnerable children, often provided by their local council?
In their response to the report, the LGA said that
“funding announced by the Government in the Spending Review to invest in children’s health and wellbeing and parenting support was helpful. However, with spiralling demand on children’s social services and future cost pressures in children’s social care set to increase by an estimated £600 million each year until 2024/25, councils still find themselves in the unsustainable position of having to overspend their budgets.”
This is not the best way to encourage child-centred, cross-government support.
This is important because support for vulnerable children is not just about the Department of Health and the Department for Education; it requires leadership from local government, the Home Office, the MoJ, DCMS, Defra, the DWP and probably others as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, co-ordination among regulators would also help. I do not know how we will get this without a strategy. Working across government, as we are witnessing and as the Government have proven, does not happen organically, especially at a time of cuts in public spending. It takes leadership from the centre, a clear vision, priorities and a plan. What we have are multiple and, to an extent, complementary initiatives, plans and programmes, but we lack the energising leadership that government intervention always needs if it is to be sustained and effective.
Vital too is the role of the private, voluntary and charity sectors. We heard from my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley that local statutory services should work closely with the voluntary sector to identify and understand need. I agree with her that that is important and I would be interested to know what the Minister, with the invaluable experience she brings to this role, can say about how the Government can make this happen. In my experience, voluntary and community organisations are particularly good at building relationships of trust with parents that can help encourage positive engagement in health and other services.
Will the Minister also comment on why it appears that the Government are not adopting the recommendation for a local authority duty to evaluate local early intervention programmes? We agree that it is essential to assess the effectiveness of locally provided services and that this is not always straightforward, especially in the case of early intervention, given the length of time sometimes needed to demonstrate impact, but does this not make it all the more valuable for practitioners to agree sensible ways to regularly assess and evaluate programmes? Better still, how about an approach that allows co-production, so that interventions have the best chance of success?
On family hubs, the Government say that they
“welcome the committee’s feedback and thoughts on family hubs, which we will consider carefully.”
That is not really saying anything much, so have the Government really thought about what the committee has had to say on family hubs? I do not accept that family hubs are a progression from Sure Start. Hubs followed the decimation of Sure Start. Sure Start focused on the very youngest because that is where the biggest impact is made. If the choice were hubs or Sure Start—I wish it were a choice for us—I would have Sure Start every time. Hub coverage is just not comparable, but if the Government could extend the reach of hubs to cover the 20% most deprived communities, that would be a very good move.
The committee praised the fact that family hubs support children up to the age of 19, and I agree that that is a really good thing to do. The committee went further, though, in proposing that each hub should include domestic violence and addiction services, mental health support and parenting classes. Those are sensible suggestions and I would be very grateful if the Minister could let us know whether she will take them away and think about them. Will she also let us know what plans the Government have to speed the roll out of hubs and to make sure that the most vulnerable children are able to benefit?
It is really difficult not to compare family hubs with the Sure Start centres that came before them. It has been devastating to see the closure of so many Sure Start centres. Sadly, most of them were not around long enough for their full benefit to be known. The range of services, the inclusive ethos, the breaking down of barriers between communities, the understanding that everyone struggles from time to time when you have a young child, the infectious enthusiasm and sense of mission of the staff, from health visitors to managers and volunteer storytellers, were all irresistible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, said, family hubs are supposed to be Sure Start-plus-plus-plus, but she is worried about a lack of urgency and so am I.
Not only does this report explain the inadequacies of the Government’s current approach but it highlights a way of doing government that is not joined up, where words are not followed by deeds, and individual plans are not supported by strategy. The Minister should use the opportunity of a new Secretary of State and his desire to make an impact in his first Cabinet role to explain this report to him so that he can reconsider the Government’s approach and commit to a national strategy. Will she do so?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions today, and I echo other speakers in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, for her leadership of the committee. As your Lordships have reflected, the real test of any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable within it, and I welcome the committee’s report for shining a light on some of the challenges that we face. On a personal note, I am extremely grateful for the generosity of the noble Baroness opposite, and for her kind words.
Before I turn to many of the individual points made, I want to start by saying that, as our response showed, the Government do not agree with every recommendation on how we should take things forward, but our direction of travel on what we should be trying to achieve is, we believe, strongly aligned. One of the elements of “how” has come up a lot in the House tonight; namely, co-production with vulnerable children and their families. That is something which perhaps we need to talk a bit more about because it is present in a number of the policies that the Government are pursuing. I thank the Children’s Commissioner for the work that she is leading in this area, and the example that she is setting.
I turn to the committee’s recommendation on having a single, cross-government strategy for vulnerable children. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, described, we have concerns about whether this would be a manageable approach and whether it would have sufficient focus to deliver. We also prefer to delegate authority in these matters to local areas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, pointed out. Since the inquiry reported, the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper, the schools White Paper and the independent care review have all set out an enormous agenda that touches on these areas, one which seeks to deliver a coherent education, health and care system that works in the interests of all children, but in particular for those who are especially vulnerable. We are working at pace to take those reviews forward and we have committed to setting up an implementation panel in relation to the care review which will report at the end of this year.
Whatever language we want to use to describe it, we are thinking strategically about a range of policies in this area. We are introducing as much independent scrutiny and challenge as possible, with the care review but also with the consultation on the Green Paper. That will build on strong governance across all departments and plans for particular aspects of vulnerability that affect children. To share a few examples of this, we have announced a new child protection ministerial group to make sure that safeguarding is championed at the very highest levels; we have cross-government strategies or plans in relation to serious violence, mental health and domestic abuse; and programmes such as Supporting Families and the family hubs show how we join up services locally, which I hope responds a little to the challenge from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman. We also have departmental outcome delivery plans. Our plan in the Department for Education includes a priority to:
“Support the most … vulnerable children … through high-quality local services so that no one is left behind”, so we are working very closely to deliver on that.
I turn to the calls in the report for ring-fenced funding for early interventions to return to 2010 levels. We absolutely accept that local government funding has faced pressure in recent years, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Pinnock, pointed out. This year, local authorities have access to £54 billion of core spending to deliver their services, which is an increase of £3.7 billion from 2021-22. I can say in response to the noble Baroness’s points that the most deprived areas of England will receive 14% more per dwelling than the least deprived, so we remain cautious about the concept of ring-fencing and prefer to leave discretion to local areas.
We have been encouraging more focus on vulnerable children and early intervention via a step change in funding levels at the spending review, with over £1 billion for government programmes to improve support, advice and early help services from birth through to adulthood, including, as your Lordships have referred to, family hubs and Start for Life services, but also the Supporting Families programme and the holiday activities and food programme. This funding will help to improve access, and we aim to put relationships at the heart of family support for all the reasons that your Lordships described so eloquently. Those who gave evidence to the committee articulated the anxiety that I think any of us might feel when seeking help.
On the issues about working with the voluntary sector, I absolutely support the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester about the important role that the sector plays. The Government work very actively with the voluntary sector across many areas, including addressing some of the causes of vulnerabilities, such as alcohol misuse and domestic abuse, and working with the sector to prevent children being drawn into crime. We have also renewed a £560 million commitment for youth services, and many of our partners in the holiday activities and food programme are also from the voluntary sector.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his reference to loneliness among young people. It was genuinely an incredible honour to be the Minister for Loneliness—a post that was set up in memory of the late Jo Cox—particularly during the pandemic, when loneliness was so prevalent and terrible. I talked to many young people about that in that role.
While talking about some of the underlying issues, my noble friend Lady Wyld asked for an update on our commitment to improving capacity in mental health services, particularly for young people. She will be aware that we have committed to increasing the investment in mental health services by £2.3 billion by 2023-24, and we believe that this will allow access to services for an additional 345,000 young people. We are also increasing the number of mental health support teams in schools and colleges to around 400, which will support approximately 3 million students in England by 2023.
Moving beyond the role of the voluntary sector to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on local and central government collaboration, I say that obviously the committee was keen to see a new duty on local authorities to collaborate to improve long-term outcomes. Local partners already have a duty to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and local authorities to promote co-operation to improve the well-being of children. Of course, as we have heard tonight, the challenge is to make these work in practice.
The reforms from the independent care review and the SEND Green Paper have an important role to play in driving collaboration. The care review has a real focus on improving multi-agency working, and the Green Paper proposes requiring local areas to develop a co-produced inclusion plan; I hope that is a helpful example of co-production in practice. This will build on existing mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of joint working; for example, the joint targeted area inspections of multi-agency safeguarding arrangements. We are strengthening these including via thematic deep dives, such as “The effectiveness of early intervention”.
On effective data-sharing, as your Lordships reflected, the sharing of information for safeguarding purposes is already supported by legislation, but the data reform Bill will change the law to make it even clearer that there is no barrier to sharing data where child safety is concerned. We will also report to Parliament on our plans for information sharing, including the feasibility of a common child identifier, which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, mentioned. I can reassure her that work has started on that; there was a launch event last week.
We also have an ambitious digital transformation agenda for health, with the rollout of electronic patient records and the development of digital red books, which my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower referred to. As regards the scale-up and development of this, we are keen to start with infants and early years—very young children—and will make sure that this works well before going any further.
The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, asked about why we still need MASHs. I lost many years of my life trying to set up multi-agency information-sharing arrangements around the country, so perhaps he and I need a cup of tea to discuss this in more detail. However, the serious point is that information sharing itself does not make children any safer; what makes them safer is people taking actions, having shared the information and understood the situation fully. Genuinely, that is why people still need to meet.
On family hubs, we absolutely share the committee’s interest in earlier intervention which is better joined up. As part of the £1 billion of government programmes which I have already referred to, we are investing £300 million to transform Start4Life and family support services in 75 local authorities across England. The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, asked when we would get to the 20%; our commitment in the first stage is half of all local authorities in England. We are making good progress too on delivery; we have announced the areas that will benefit, and obviously the focus there has been on areas with the greatest deprivation levels. We are expecting the programme guide to be finalised soon, and local authorities will sign up for the programme later this year, paving the way for family hubs to be up and running from next year.
My noble friend Lady Wyld asked about the evaluation of the programme. We have committed £2.5 million to the family hubs evaluation innovation fund, which is a three-year commitment, and that will also cover funding for the National Centre for Family Hubs. Our aim is to capture and learn iteratively through this process. The evaluations will focus on three areas: first, process, service implementation and performance; secondly, outcomes and impact; and, finally, an economic evaluation, which will look at value for money.
In closing, as I set out at the start of my speech, there is a lot of common ground in our aspiration for vulnerable children. We are ambitious in the reforms we want to implement, and making sure that our delivery is effective is a vital prerequisite to any future scaling. We thank all those who served on the committee and those who gave evidence. I know that those of your Lordships who were on the committee felt strongly that you wanted to make sure that the voices of those who gave evidence were heard in the House, and we can all reassure you that that was the case. I am deeply grateful to the committee for its contribution.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her responses. I was very relieved when I saw that she was to respond because I know, and have discussed with her, the work she did before she came to the House. I had an email today from SafeLives to make sure that I was aware of its points; I know that she will be too.
I thank everyone involved. I forgot to mention in my speech one person who helped us enormously through the report and the evidence taking. That was our specialist adviser, Anne Longfield, a previous Children’s Commissioner, so we had a lot of knowledge and a lot of challenge on how we were doing things, which was extremely useful. The House will recognise that I also had amazing people on the committee, and I was very confident that they would cover areas that I did not have time for in my speech. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, for emphasising the voluntary sector and the voice of the child and the family. Throughout our inquiries, we have become convinced, if we were not before, that listening to and involving people with lived experience is critical to both design and delivery of services across the board, and children’s services are very much part of that. I am pleased that the Minister recognised that too.
The other issue is mental health, and I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, for spending some time on it. We will never be able to train the number of psychologists and psychiatrists in time to deliver what we all want to be delivered. That means that we must use the voluntary sector, which works at an earlier, less intensive level, so that, for those for whom problems can be contained before they reach the crisis level that the noble Baroness discussed, we can do so with many more people. I know from other work I am doing at the moment that many young people are involved in what can only be called psychotic behaviour and need very specialist attention.
I was also grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his contribution—not as a member of the committee, but if he is interested; we are always interested in the Bishops’ Bench. He was able to talk about somewhere that my noble friend Lady Chapman and I both know very well: Grangetown. I visited that Sure Start centre myself. It was always so great to visit, because there was so much energy, commitment and determination to make things better. I thank him for his contribution.
There are so many issues here but there is unanimity around the House that this is a crisis and an issue that we have not got right—although there are examples of where we can get it right. This is not about saying, “We don’t know what to do”. The reality is that we know what to do. There are examples out there showing us that, with the right sort of support at the right time, things can be different in every community. I am sorry that my noble friend the Whip—the noble Baroness, Lady Blake—has left because she was the leader of Leeds City Council when, despite all the cutbacks, it managed to maintain its investment in Sure Start and children’s centres across the city. While everyone else was seeing the number of children going into care rise, Leeds saw a fall. We know what to do. The challenge for the Government is making sure that they pull together that knowledge and implement it. I thank everyone for a really interesting debate.
House adjourned at 9.06 pm.