My Lords, we find ourselves at a time described by the report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care as
“a once in a generation opportunity to reset” the delivery of children’s social care. With the first half of this year witnessing the publication of three major reports on the subject, that statement does not sound like hyperbole.
In March, the Competition and Markets Authority issued the findings of its market study, which declared that action was needed on what was described as the
“dysfunctional children’s social care market.”
Last year, the Government asked Annie Hudson, chair of the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, to conduct a national review into the shocking deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. Her recommendations were published in May, calling, inter alia, for the Government to ensure that systems, processes, leadership, culture, and wider services were enablers for our safeguarding professionals, and not barriers placed in front of them.
May also saw the publication of the independent review, led by Josh MacAlister. It involved a fundamental examination of the needs, experiences and outcomes of the children whom the system should support and, to quote again from the report:
“What we have currently is a system increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise.”
The review delivered an ambitious report which is forensic in its detail, containing more than 70 recommendations, many based on the evidence that emerged from the involvement of care-experienced young people. That in itself makes the report stand out, because care-experienced young people should have their voices heard in decisions made about them.
I welcome the thrust of the report and almost all its recommendations. To accentuate the role of families, there is a proposal for a “family network plan”, where a local authority can fund and support extended family members to care for a child. The report focuses on enhancing local integrated help for families, with social workers at the core of providing this help.
There is a clear distancing from the commercialisation and excessive profit-making from the care of children, including a call for a windfall tax on organisations doing so. The CMA report to which I referred also highlighted the high prices often paid by local authorities when placing children, and found that the cause of this was to some extent the fragmented system by which services are commissioned. It also pointed to the role, and financial fragility, of private providers of children’s homes, particularly those financed through private equity. I was pleased to hear the Minister say in your Lordships’ House on
“I have to say it sticks in my throat to have private equity investors who are responsible for considerable distortions in the children’s home market”.—[Official Report, 7/11/22; col. 449.]
I have to say it sticks in my throat that there is such a thing as a children’s homes market, but I suppose that is a debate for another day.
There are more children needing help from children’s social care than ever before and the numbers continue to rise. Figures published by the DfE show that in 2022 in England there are more than 404,000 children in need, more than 50,000 on child protection plans, and a total of 82,170 children looked after by their local authority. All those statistics show an increase on 2021. In 2022, 38% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 were not in education, employment or training, compared to around 11% of all young people in that age group.
The Government should implement an integrated, top-to-bottom reform programme, to improve the system at every level for vulnerable children and families. As outlined in the report, there needs to be a radical reform of family help, to ensure that the system is able to reach more families before they reach crisis point. It recommends a major investment to support local authorities to transform family help. I welcome that, together with the further recommendation that the Government should ring-fence funding to ensure that the rebalanced investment is sustained.
Appropriate recognition is given in the review that
“The greatest strength of the children’s social care system lies in its workforce.”
Children’s services social care is able to function due only to the long hours that social workers and their managers work, but this was under intolerable strain even before the pandemic. Almost 5,000 full-time equivalent children’s social workers left their roles in the year to September 2021. Levels of pay, working conditions, negative and hostile media coverage and poor public understanding of social work are critical issues. In some parts of the country, the level of abuse and threats directed toward social workers has been appalling, and this can only undermine the work needed to keep children safe and to support families. The Government have a central role in raising awareness and must consider how to improve public understanding of social work.
There is some concern about the proposed restructure of commissioning and the move to regional care co-operatives. This could be a costly—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way briefly. He mentioned the central role of social workers, and an important part of the report deals with training recommendations for social workers. Does he agree that it is also important that all those involved in social care provision be given training in trauma-informed practice? That would be of value when dealing with young people. In Northern Ireland, we are seven years in to the children’s services co-operation Act. There has been good co-operation at departmental levels, but that has not always permeated down to practitioners. It is important that any implementation of integrated services deal with not simply the strategic level but the grass-roots level, which deals with individual cases.
Absolutely. There is no substitute for formalised training, or on-the-job experience of situations in which children in need find themselves and how they got there.
I was talking about the proposed restructuring of commissioning and the move to regional care co-operatives. This could be a costly reorganisation that moves decision-making further away from children and young people and the people who know them best, without tackling the supply problems or the excessive levels of profit made by the largest private providers. Such disruption would cause harm to those currently needing in-care and leaving-care services, and there is no evidence of benefit. There seems to be a lack of appreciation that foster care, residential care and kinship care are all different and need different ways of facilitating their provision. This recommendation lumps them all together because they are seen in terms of commissioning and not rights-based quality services.
Professionals must have the key role in supporting and protecting children and young people, and the professional development of social workers as part of the new family help teams is central to this, but there are many grass-root charities, for example, those that form the Centre for Social Justice Alliance, which are well-equipped to assist in providing the services children in their community need.
As noble Lords will know from the many briefings received for this debate, there is widespread opposition, cross-party as well as professional, to the review’s proposal to end the independent review service. This would mean abolishing the independent review officer role, independent child protection chairs and the Regulation 44 independent person. A robust reviewing and regulatory system does not undermine good care; it supports it. Removing independent reviewing officers from all children in care is dangerous. It goes against the evidence base and against the wishes of children and young people. IROs are experienced social workers who scrutinise local authorities’ care and decision-making in respect of individual children and their families.
The National Youth Advocacy Service is concerned that ending Regulation 44 visits could risk the safety of children and young people living in residential care homes. The review proposes that strengthened advocacy in residential children’s homes could replace Regulation 44 visits. However, the two roles are significantly different, as advocates provide voices for children and young people, while Regulation 44 visitors must take a more holistic view of a home’s practices. I recall similar proposals being contained in the Children and Social Work Bill 2016. Labour and others in both Houses fought it off then, and it should be fought off again. Local authorities need to be held to account, but independent review officers do that effectively. This is a bad idea, and it should not be endorsed by the Government.
On the other hand, one issue that the review unfortunately does not confront should be acted on by government. Any society should be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable children who are in the care of the state. Latest official statistics on looked-after children, released last month, show that 37% of children aged 16 and 17 are living in unregulated accommodation where they do not receive any day-to-day care from staff. That is nearly 7,500 children. The figures show a 5% increase since last year, when Ministers ignored the arguments of noble Lords and prohibited the use of unregulated, non-care settings for children aged 15 and under but left those aged 16 and 17 unprotected.
Does the Minister believe that the best we can do for 16 and 17 year-olds who are in the care of the state is to put them in a bedsit on their own or pay for them to live in a property alongside adult strangers? How many of us here today would be content for our children and grandchildren to live in such accommodation as they complete their final years of compulsory education and training? These are children who have experienced tremendous loss and trauma, yet somehow the DfE has convinced itself that, unlike teenagers across the country being cared for by parents in the family home, they have no need for care where they live. It really is a scandal, and it should not be tolerated any longer.
It is a highlight of the report that it has made far-reaching recommendations on kinship care. The charity Kinship has found that 70% of kinship carers are not receiving the support they need to meet the needs of their children. I particularly welcome the recommendation in the report for a legal definition of kinship care. The review contains landmark recommendations for kinship care and recognises the need to improve support for families, particularly by introducing a financial allowance, kinship care leave and improved access to peer support and to training for kinship carers.
That said, the review could have made a stronger case for children in kinship care to be eligible for additional support like that provided to looked-after children, such as pupil premium plus, given their similar needs. It is to be hoped that that might be taken up by the Government in their response. That is one of the points highlighted by the charity Kinship in its Value Our Love campaign, of which noble Lords will be aware.
I note that, in its response to the report, the British Association of Social Workers welcomes the recognition that foster care can make a transformational difference to the lives of children and young people. However, the review uses the term “broken” to describe the current system, which the BASW points out is not helpful at all. Foster care is a very complex undertaking, and the current crisis of retention in foster care is not likely to be helped by that sort of language. To some extent, the same applies to foster carers and adoptive parents—not regarding the language, but the support given—both before and after they have taken on their role, to make sure they can do it most effectively.
The title of today’s debate also refers to the need for integrated care and support across all services. The report does not have a great deal to say about integrating services for children, although it helpfully suggests that the Secretary of State for Education should be responsible for holding other government departments to account and should report annually to Parliament on progress. I certainly agree with that.
I was told by an Association of Directors of Children’s Services officer recently that they deal with nine government departments, including Ofsted. There really needs to be more effective Whitehall integration in the delivery of children’s services, and indeed locally. Local authorities, adoption and fostering agencies, social workers, schools, GPs, the wider NHS and the police should all pool resources and pull together to ensure that there is as little duplication as possible and the chances of children falling through the cracks are minimised.
The new Children’s Minister, Claire Coutinho MP, said last month:
“We have also been working closely with other departments across government to rapidly agree on an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy”— that is, for this report—
“that will respond fully to all three reviews. Ministers from across government are engaged on emerging policies and will agree on the final implementation strategy in due course.”
That is good to hear because, quite simply, the network of support for vulnerable children should be cast as wide as possible.
Before drawing to a conclusion, I want to thank the many organisations that have sent me and other noble Lords their priorities for today’s debate. Having no staff, noble Lords depend on such briefings. They do not only emanate from what might be termed mainstream charities. For example, the review is also of concern to Hope instead of Handcuffs, which campaigns for young people living in or on the edge of care to have the right not to be restrained when being transferred between settings; and to Pause, which works with women who have experienced, or are at risk in future of experiencing, children being removed from their care. A vast array of organisations exists to support vulnerable children and young people, and we are indebted to all of them.
The first step by the Government must be to accept that the £2.6 billion referred to by the MacAlister review is a necessity. That may not be enough but, without secure and stable funding guaranteed to all local authorities, any moves to fund one part of the system will be stolen from other parts—and nowhere is funding currently adequate.
The Government established a national implementation board in July without first announcing what they intend to implement. The Children’s Minister in another place stated recently that she had chaired a meeting of the board last month. What was discussed? Will the board set out plans for public consultation through Green and White Papers? Can the Minister provide approximate timings for when their proposals for children’s social care will be put out to public consultation? Children’s organisations briefing noble Lords for this debate have mentioned the end of January. It is not really acceptable that they are better informed than parliamentarians. Have the review’s recommendations been discussed within Cabinet, and were they considered during preparation of the Autumn Statement? It seems not, as there was no ring-fenced funding for children’s social care in the Statement.
The review concluded that
“a radical reset is now unavoidable”.
Indeed. That reset of the system needs to enable it to act decisively in response to abuse, provide more help to families in crisis and ensure that those in care have lifelong loving relationships and homes. It is vital that reforms to the care system create greater stability for children in care, so that they can grow up in steady environments and maintain the connections that matter to them. The Government have a major responsibility now to make that happen.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for introducing and championing this important review, the design group for which I was a member of. I welcome the review’s stress on preventing, where possible, children coming into care in the first place and the care system acting as a conveyor belt into crime and other highly detrimental outcomes. Rightly, it prioritises children having the relationships they need to thrive during care and once they leave it. It is love and relationships which make life worth while.
Currently, relationships with members of birth families and the wider community are an undertapped resource. Sibling and other family relationships are still, too often, treated as disposable, despite tried and tested models such as Lifelong Links. This programme aims to ensure that children and young people in care have a positive support network around them to help them while in care and when they leave. An independent co-ordinator works with a child in care to find out who is important to them and who they would like to be in touch with, then searches for these people in a variety of ways. A family group conference brings them together to make a plan with and for the child, which the local authority supports, so these relationships continue to grow.
DfE’s innovation fund trialled Lifelong Links in 17 local authorities. Over 2,000 young people from 31 councils across the UK have benefited from it already, so this is not a new programme to the Government. Various effectiveness studies, including Oxford University’s evaluation of that DfE trial, found overall positive impacts on the lives of children in care: greater placement stability, an increased sense of belonging and, on average, a more than tripling of the number of their social connections. Perhaps most importantly, Lifelong Links changes the culture and practice of those authorities which use it, so that relationships are not broken in the first place.
It is a decade or more since Family Finding came to the UK, but this proven model is still not standard practice. The independent review calls for it to be part of the national children’s social care framework, and says:
“Because of the evidence around these and other family finding programmes, there should be no delay in local authorities developing these, and all local authorities should have skilled family finding support equivalent to, or exceeding, the work of Lifelong Links in place by 2024 at the very latest.”
I completely endorse this and would go further. Lifelong Links should be available to every young person in care and, as I said in my 2017 review for the Ministry of Justice, to care-experienced young people in a young offender institution or prison.
Healthy relationships are, statistically, the most protective factor against reoffending. Lifelong Links could make the difference between the revolving door of crime for care-experienced young people and custody being the turning point. That, after all, is central to the purpose of prison. Yet why has it taken another major review to state the case for Lifelong Links, when the evidence has already been so assiduously amassed? I ask the Minister: first, what is the department specifically doing to promote its own evidence? Secondly, more generally, how can the Government ensure successful programmes are scaled up and made available as standard in a timely manner?
There seems to be an intolerably long journey from innovation to evaluation to implementation, even when the Government get involved, as they did with Lifelong Links. The journey will often be so long that thousands of children never benefit from transformational innovation during their time in social care. The country is in desperate need, so we must shorten the dispiriting process where organisations do all they can to get evidence of effectiveness, which then appears to be ignored.
The second area I will touch on is the revolution in family help which the review indicates would need roughly £2 billion to build. Putting prevention at the heart of social care in this way would continue the revolution that the Children Act 1989 was intended to bring about, through its emphasis on prevention, keeping children with their families wherever possible and ensuring help is available for deeply struggling parents.
The troubled—now strengthening—families programme started a decade ago and brought another vital wave of change, the success of which must be integrated in children’s social care reform. How will the Minister ensure that this happens? As a director and controlling shareholder of the Family Hubs Network Ltd, which advocates for family hubs and advises local authorities on how to establish them, I welcome the review’s recognition of their role as a delivery site for family help.
Returning to the Children Act 1989, paragraph 9(1) of Schedule 2 states that local authorities
“shall provide such family centres as they consider appropriate in relation to children within their area.”
Forty years earlier Michael Young, one of the architects of the welfare state, called for child welfare centres to fulfil Beveridge’s principle of the preservation of parental responsibility and deal with the emotional cost to children of high post-war levels of family breakdown. Family hubs are unfinished business from the founding of the welfare state. The Government’s early investment in them lays an essential foundation for the implementation of this review. They build on Sure Start children’s centres, but crucially they help whole families with older children. That, respectfully, is where they are an improvement on what went before.
However, I agree there is a funding scale disparity between the two projects. Sure Start investment ran into billions. Family hubs, so far, are attracting around £130 million from central government. The revolution in family help outlined in the review will need a reversal in the lack of investment noted in The Case for Change. The review states:
“Spending on help has reduced significantly in recent years, and the system has become overwhelmingly focused on crisis management and more costly late stage intervention.”
While I wholly support delivering family help from family hubs, local and central government must protect the value and principle of access to all. If hubs are seen as spaces for problem families, going to them will be stigmatised. The review highlights the need for a front door any family can walk through without necessarily being referred, where they will find the appropriate level of help. Some of these voluntary walk-ins might lead to the intensive, preventative help a family would never have received without that universal access point. A mother who can approach a family hub with worries about her son’s possible drug use might get the early help which spares her a visit from the police months later.
I am also looking forward to the Government’s response to this review. In the meantime, can the Minister confirm that the review will be integrated with existing family hubs policy and not skew delivery away from universal access, which its authors would not support?
My Lords, I join others in thanking and congratulating my noble friend Lord Watson for bringing this debate to the House. It is a crucial area and one we should discuss more frequently about a group who so often do not have a voice of their own.
I congratulate Josh MacAlister and his team on the report. It is very thorough and challenging. I would not say I have read every dot and comma; I no doubt do not agree with every dot and comma. However, it really makes us think and gives us some very good pointers on what we should be doing. My biggest fear is that it will lie on the shelves like every other review of social care for children and somebody in five or 10 years will be talking about it again. I want to concentrate on why that is the case.
Very often in debates in this House, we do not agree to begin with; we come with different ideologies, viewpoints, hopes and aspirations. But on this, everybody agrees: these are important people; we owe it to them to get it right; and we are not doing well enough. I think we all agree that things are going wrong because there is a lack of a co-ordinated approach, the early intervention is too little and too late and we do not tackle underperformance quickly enough when we see it. We undervalue and undersupport the workforce and there is a lack of consistency and stability for children. All of that is not surprising because we also all bemoan the progression route and the attainment these young children have.
My noble friend Lord Watson pointed to the gap in the number of 19 and 20 year-olds not in education or employment, but that is not surprising when you see the attainment gap at key stage 2, which is 28% between the two groups and widens by the time they get to the key indicators at key stage 4. So it is not surprising that care leavers make up 24% of the prison population. So there you have it—we all agree that it is important and that something should be done, and we all say what is working well and know that the results are awful.
The challenge now is: why does policy fail in this area in a way that it does not in many others? We would worry if there were any other policy area in the Minister’s department—my former department—where, despite the money that we put in and what we hoped to achieve, it went backwards. It would be a topic of national conversation. If we spent all the money on phonics, literacy and numeracy, and it went backwards, we would do something. But one of the things that came out of this report for me is that we are not standing still but going backwards. If we do not change tack, 30,000 more children will be in care in 10 years’ time. So the problem is that we have a policy in a key area that we all say is important, but it is not working.
Another thing that struck me about the report is that the language is really strong. It talks about a “dramatic whole system reset” being needed, about a “fundamental shift” and about a “complete rebalancing of spending” and a “radically new offer”. My worry is that we are getting a bit more of the same, and I do not think that that is what the report is asking for or recommends. That is the big worry, and it is what we have got wrong in the past.
I spent some time looking through the Government’s response so far in Parliamentary Questions and debates in the House of Commons. I was surprised that they will develop a framework, that they have set up a pathfinder and that they have a national practice group and a new fund. There were four months in between the first and second meetings on their implementation plan—and, blow me down, Ministers are “engaged” and will agree the implementation strategy “in due course”. That is an absolutely standard set of government responses to any report that comes their way: get a small fund, get a committee together, make a few speeches, think about it and hope that, by then, people will have forgotten the urgency of what the report was saying in the first place. That is why we have a choice. My worry is that more of the same will not work, because it never has.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, who has a strong and long-lasting interest in this area, talked about pilot programmes that are successful but never get rolled out. That is an absolute mystery, but government does this all the time: we are not good at implementing best practice. I am not sure what the answers are; if I knew the government answers for all this, I probably would have done a bit of it when I was in the department—but that was 20 years ago.
One thing in the report that struck me and made me think was the powerful phrase about putting
“lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system”.
As a human being, that makes sense to me, but as a politician I do not think that it would ever have come my way. Government and politics are not good at putting “loving relationships” at the heart of a system—and, in truth, it is not their job. But part of the success of good schools is lifelong loving relationships with the children. If you look at a doctor’s practice or a hospital that works well, you will find that there is a loving relationship—some respect, kindness and understanding. Government cannot mandate that to happen, but it can put things in place to make it more, rather than less, possible. Therefore, the answer to this is in people, not structures—so I have just picked out some of the things that I would pick out if I were in the Minister’s position now.
The people who are most likely to give a lifelong loving relationship are actually the family—the parents, brothers and sisters—if you can make it work for them. That is the value of early intervention. If that does not work, other members of the extended family, which my noble friend will no doubt talk about later, are also good. And if that does not work, and it comes to the state, we have to think really hard about how we can make it possible for social workers to focus on lifelong loving relationships. If we ask them to deal with people only when the child has reached the end of the road, everyone has already let them down, they do not think that anyone cares and nothing has ever worked, we just make it too difficult for social workers to do much good. That is the job we are asking of them, and it is too tough a job to ask any sector of the workforce to do.
My last plea is that we really think about what we do to support the workforce and let them do what they want to do, which is to build relationships with children and families. They do not want to be always in crisis mode, yet if you ask them how they spend most of their time, they will say that it is in crisis mode. I know as a teacher that, if I had spent all my time in crisis mode, I would not have done well with the kids I did well with. You need a gap and a space to build things—that is what matters. I know that the Minister genuinely cares about this, and I hope that she can persuade her department really to make it a priority this time around.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Watson for securing this important debate at such a critical time for children’s services. Understandably in recent years, the ongoing debate on adult social care has dominated discussions in local government relating to structure and funding, but there is now no doubt that the existing and accelerating crisis in children’s social care, with potentially even more hazardous consequences, needs the same focus and attention.
I pay tribute to all those social workers out there who are dealing with this crisis on a daily basis. I declare an interest: my own mum was a children’s social worker, so I saw this at very close hand.
I congratulate the chairman of the review, Josh MacAlister, on a wide-ranging and thoughtful review, which genuinely challenges the Government to properly fund the children’s social care system, as well as setting out a great deal of innovation and initiatives for improvement and a change of focus to prevention, which is really key and also needs to be funded.
The detailed nature of the report means that it is not possible to cover all the ground that it details in a short intervention in this debate so, as I am still a serving county councillor and therefore a corporate parent to children looked after in Hertfordshire, I will confine my comments to those areas where I can best inform from my own front-line experience—that is to say, funding, the voice of young people, joined-up working, kinship care and ongoing support for young care leavers.
As with most of the local government issues that come before your Lordships’ House, the funding situation for children’s social care has gone from bad to worse with successive cuts to funding since 2011. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, reminded me of the decimation of the very valued Sure Start centres, when he talked about family hubs. Those centres were hugely valued, but they have been decimated by funding cuts. The LGA reported a budget gap of £1.6 billion in children’s social care, and that was before the £2.6 billion identified to deliver the outcomes set out in this independent review. This gap is increasing very rapidly: in 2020-21, the amount spent nationally on children’s social care was £10.5 billion, 25% more than the £8.5 billion spent in 2016-17. Councils are, as set out by the chair of the LGA Children and Young People Board, my friend Councillor Louise Gittins,
“buckling under significant funding pressures”.
I checked the current situation in my own county of Hertfordshire and, at the end of quarter 2 this year, the overspend on children’s services was almost £9 million. To some extent this funding crisis is being fuelled by the sheer struggle to find placements for the most complex cases, which means that costs for these are escalating and can reach around £12,000 a week for children with the most complex needs. I hope this is not as a result of profiteering by private sector providers, although I suspect that some of it is, but that is something that merits even closer examination. If the emphasis on co-operatives in this report was about replacing that expensive, privately provided care with co-operative provided care, I would certainly support that.
I congratulate the independent review on working with an experts-by-experience board of young people who have lived experience of the care system. I hope that the Government will take this best practice forward as a way of ensuring that it is those with lived experience who are engaged in ensuring that the outcomes detailed in this review achieve its aims. Just before the Covid pandemic, I worked with our CHICC—our Children in Care Council—in Hertfordshire on its own of the local care system. The voices of two of our witnesses have stayed with me; I will call them Justin and Nadine. They were very clear about the two issues that they wanted to highlight. On the first, consistency of care, they outlined that, over and again, when a placement broke down, they would find themselves sitting in a social worker’s office with all their possessions in black bin bags, waiting for their next move. They said that it would have helped them to feel more valued if they had even been given a suitcase.
Their second point related to access to mental health services. It was moving to hear them describe being told that they would have a six-month wait, which made the feelings of despair and isolation far worse. As they said, waiting six months when you are an adult may not feel like the end of the world but, for a young teen, it can seem like an eternity and as though no one really cares how bad you are feeling. The independent review recognises the need to join up the services provided for children in social care. I hope the Government will reflect on just how urgent this is and, particularly for child and adolescent mental health services, provide funding that enables target access times that are much faster than they are currently.
Joined-up services are a key focus of this review and highlighted in its powerful recommendations on kinship care. I was struck by the experience of one client at the food bank where I was volunteering, Dennis. Dennis was a gentleman in his late 50s coming to the end of his working life when, tragically, his daughter became unable to look after her four very young children as she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction as well as poor mental health. Dennis took the children into his home and cared for them, but unfortunately against a backdrop of bureaucracy and a minefield of barriers put in his way, particularly by the DWP, which had neither the systems nor the compassion to understand the situation he found himself in. It was this that meant he had to resort to using the food bank and his issues took almost 12 months to resolve. I hope that one outcome of this review is to smooth the path for those involved in kinship care, ensuring that they get the support they need, including a key worker whose job is to help join things up. It will also be necessary to ensure that all departments involved have absolutely clear systems and processes designed to meet the needs of kinship care and the will to work together in the interests of families.
I want to talk, lastly, about an area touched on in the review but which I believe needs a great deal more work—the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, called it lifelong links. More thought and discussion are needed, particularly with those who have lived experience of the care system, to ensure that care leavers do not fall off a cliff edge when they reach an age at which they are no longer formally supported by the system. Most parents and foster parents go on supporting young people they care for long after they reach adulthood at 18 but, sadly, some care leavers do not have that experience. There is so much more that could be done—for example, by exempting them from council tax payments, giving additional preference in social housing allocation, providing subsidised travel for access to work, college or training and continuing consideration of fast-track access to mental health support. No children should ever live in unregulated settings. The comments made about the loving relationships around those children also really struck home with me.
The Government need to act now to avoid a catastrophic situation in children’s social care. I know that the Local Government Association has serious concerns that the cost of living crisis will push more families into poverty and crisis, which means that more of our children will require support. None of the recommendations in the review will be achieved without significant increases in funding and guaranteeing that funding is sustainable, including in meeting the gap that already exists. The cost of not doing so is immense, as the ongoing harms and damage to life opportunities for those young people who are let down when the system does not work properly place immeasurable costs on their lives and the public services that will need to support them in the future.
My Lords, I say well done to my noble friend Lord Watson for securing this debate because the number of children in the care system in England is, as has been said, at an all-time high and rising. The independent review forecast that without reform it will rise to 100,000 and that the current £10 billion annual cost of the care system will rise to £15 billion. The evidence is now overwhelming that the state is failing children for whom it has taken responsibility and we really are in a crisis situation. We have a deep moral obligation to the number of vulnerable children being failed.
The backlog in children’s cases in the family courts is big. The CMA reported that UK has “sleepwalked” into a dysfunctional market for children’s social care, which fails to provide the right services in the right places, with children frequently placed miles from where they live, often separated from siblings and unable to access the care and therapies they need. Yesterday’s report from the cross-party Children and Families Act 2014 Committee concluded that
“a lack of joined up action at all levels, has contributed to children and their families feeling let down by the system”.
I want to focus in my few minutes on the near 200,000 children raised in kinship care families by grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and friends. The main reasons for a child being in kinship care are parents’ mental health and substance abuse, domestic abuse, parents being unable to cope and parents being in prison. There is a growing concern, even scepticism, I now hear, among that community that while the Government sound supportive, their response to the review will offer little of substance to provide the support they so badly need. I really urge the Government to act now and do three really urgent things.
First, as many have referred to already, they must invest urgently in early help and preventive support for families, to prevent more children facing crisis and becoming looked after in the care system. Kinship carers consistently report that they did not have access to the support and advice they needed at the beginning, and that they felt alone and did not know what their options were or how to navigate the justice system. The independent review called for
“a revolution in family help”,
so that families can access responsive, respectful and effective support. This would include, as has been said, family help teams based in community settings.
Family group conferences have been revolutionary in New Zealand, and some parts of the UK, bringing a child’s wider family together early on, when support for the parents might allow the child to remain at home or find relatives who could become kinship carers. The APPG on Kinship Care inquiry consistently heard about the importance of friends and relatives being able to access free and early advice when there are concerns about a child’s welfare, so that they are informed from the outset about their rights and options as potential kinship carers. More families could come forward as kinship carers and avert more children going into care if support was available earlier. We hear too often about missed opportunities and family options not explored.
The review called for a major injection of funding over the next five years, targeting 500,000 children. Investing in early help and family-led solutions will cost less in the long run and provide better outcomes for children. The social cost of each looked-after child across public services is about £70,900 per year: resources are better targeted earlier to prevent children even going into care or getting into crisis.
Secondly, the Government should extend legal aid to more kinship carers. The compelling evidence is that carers are left to navigate the family justice system without the legal aid and representation they need. Many incur significant debt from paying legal costs or find themselves sidelined in important decisions about the child, directly increasing the risk that more children will end up in care. The extension of legal aid to protect special guardians of children in private law cases is welcome but it is not matched in public law proceedings, where the majority of guardianship orders are pursued. Here, children are in a crisis situation.
There are two key areas in public law cases where legal aid provision urgently needs to be considered. At the formal pre-proceedings stage, prospective kinship carers have access to only limited advice. This is means tested and merits tested, and remunerated at such low rates that few solicitors will offer advice on taking on the care of a child. During care proceedings, prospective kinship carers are still entitled to only very limited advice. Only where the prospective carer is made a party to the court proceedings or where they make a private law application may they be entitled to legal aid. Many carers do not have the early advice even to know that becoming a party to proceedings is an option, or how to make a private law application.
That so many barriers are put in the way of kinship carers—I have heard them articulate this—who have the necessary strength of character it takes to give these children better life outcomes, at great savings to the state, is beyond dysfunctional. The very people who could help and protect these children face barrier after barrier to prevent them doing so.
Thirdly, the Government should give kinship carers a statutory right to a period of employment leave, akin to adoption leave, when they take on kinship children. The law recognises that those who give birth or adopt need a period of protected leave from employment to adjust. If you step up to care for children in crisis to whom you did not give birth, the law covers its eyes and turns away. That has to stop. It is simply wrong to leave these carers in that position. They have stepped up to the plate, often at high personal cost.
I listened to a young woman who gave up her legal training and her job—she gave up everything—to take on her sister’s two children. Her sense of moral duty and love for those children has come at a high price. There has been no support; she has had to use her own wit and wisdom to find a way through to get guardianship of those children. It was quite humbling to see her strength of character and listen to her articulate her story.
Over half of kinship carers have to give up work when the children come to live with them. Many are forced into a benefits system that is not necessarily sympathetic to their needs. We now face the highest fall in household incomes on record. We all know that that will create even more families in crisis and even more vulnerable children. Even more kinship carers will be needed to provide the support to get those children through the crisis. This is time-critical stuff; it is not just an interesting debate. Anybody who walks the streets outside highly affluent areas can see the crisis emerging from falling household incomes.
Rather than our just having a nice debate, can the Minister pledge that the Government will increase urgently the total funding available for early help and preventive support for families so that fewer children enter crisis and the care system? Can they extend legal aid in public law proceedings and give kinship carers, who would prefer to stay in work and are often making big sacrifices, a statutory right to employment leave so that they can have some margin to take on and manage these often traumatised children? Can we have some pledges, not just sympathetic commentary? People are becoming sceptical and anxious about the quality of the Government’s response to this review.
My Lords, I sincerely thank my noble friend Lord Watson for securing this timely debate and all noble Lords who made such incredibly well-informed contributions today. I also thank those responsible for the many briefings that we have all received. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA, and express my thanks and gratitude to all those working to protect vulnerable children and young people in such difficult circumstances across the country, and to the many carers who do such extraordinary work in all the different settings that exist.
My personal involvement in children’s services goes back a long way, particularly to 2010, when in Leeds, Labour formed a new administration after the local elections and we inherited an inadequate—a failing—children’s services department. I became the lead member, and as a whole council and city we embarked on a journey to become the first core city to achieve an outstanding rating across the board. I am proud to say that Leeds still maintains the outstanding rating today, despite the pressures, which remain immense.
I mention this to illustrate that major change is possible if the collective will of decision-makers is clear and determined, and focused on putting the needs of our most vulnerable children at the heart of everything we do. “Every child matters” was not an empty phrase; surely it should be the bedrock of any civilised society. In the same way, we took the view in Leeds that enhancing the life chances of children and young people is everyone’s business, involving all agencies and all departments, and reflected in all decisions made across the wider community.
To this end, we established Child Friendly Leeds 10 years ago, launched by Her Majesty the Queen and endorsed by King Charles last month in a visit to celebrate its 10-year milestone. A child-friendly city basically means developing a relentless focus on children and young people and taking hard decisions—for example, on targeting funding—that will benefit those vulnerable children whose lives can be blighted without the timely intervention of services to give them, their families and their carers support. One of our collective main priorities was to safely—and I emphasise “safely”—reduce the number of children and young people coming into our care, and to reinvest the significant savings into expanding preventive and early help services on a cross-agency basis.
I was the chair of the children and young people’s board at the LGA, and in that capacity I worked with Josh MacAlister and the review team—along with the noble Lord, Lord Farmer—on the design group, inputting in particular from a local government perspective and bringing Leeds’s experience into the process. I pay tribute to the review team and all the many people who contributed to the process, bringing their rich personal experiences to the discussions and exploring, as we have heard, the commitment to lifelong, loving relationships.
I am deeply disappointed to hear that the Government have delayed issuing their next steps following the publication of the review earlier this summer. We need action now. I am even more concerned that the review will become submerged into the spending review and be seen as a cost problem rather than as an enabler to improve services, achieve better outcomes for young people and their families, and lead to major savings in the wider societal areas that are impacted so heavily by failure in this space.
By way of example, research shows us that roughly 25% of the prison population has had some care experience. That is shocking. Of the young care-experienced people who enter prison, roughly 45% present a substance misuse problem and 61% have a record of being disengaged from education. Indeed, ONS figures released yesterday show that 52% of care-experienced children had been convicted of a criminal offence by the age of 24, and 92% of those who received a custodial sentence had previously been identified with special educational needs. Some 18% had been permanently excluded and 81% had been suspended during their time in education. How much more evidence do we need that action is urgent and that government needs to respond immediately to the recommendations in the review and take action?
The recent figures re skyrocketing incidence of mental health presentations and the worries concerning SEND provision following the scrapping of the education Bill further add to the enormous concern among practitioners. There are so many aspects of the review to highlight. Tackling the workloads and staffing issues in social care remain critical. We hear constantly about the pressures on adult social care budgets but, as said by my noble friend Lady Taylor, we need to shout about the pressures on children’s social care budgets: a 25% higher spend by councils over the last five years, with pressures of over £1 billion estimated for each year. This is simply unsustainable.
From my experience in Leeds, I welcome the focus on early intervention in the review—the right time and the right place being the key focus. I particularly welcome the proposals for strengthening support for kinship carers—we have heard a great deal about this today. Working with kinship carers has been one of the key components of our journey, recognising the huge significance of close family and friend relationships based on understanding and love. The estimate that 162,000 children are being raised by kinship carers across England and Wales is probably an underestimate. I am sure we have all seen the briefings that estimate that every 1,000 children raised in kinship extended families rather than the care system save the Government £40 million and increase the lifetime earnings of those children by £20 million.
In that context, surely the recommendations in the review are fairly modest: for example, non-means-tested financial allowances that match the minimum fostering allowance; the introduction of kinship leave on a par with adoption leave for all special guardians and kinship carers; and, importantly, a requirement for local authorities to use “family group decision-making” as a means to identify kinship arrangements earlier by introducing “family network plans” to offer flexibility, intensive support and funding to give an alternative pathway to children entering local authority care. The focus throughout these recommendations is that better outcomes for children and young people are paramount. I hope the Government will take note of good practice in the sector and learn from its example.
In conclusion, I specifically ask the Minister to assure us that the Government have the ambition and resolve to deliver reforms urgently. By that I mean legislative changes introduced now, and certainly in the next Session. Also, is the urgent need for expanding the number of foster carers being gripped, alongside the support for kinship carers, as I have outlined? We cannot ignore the cocktail of circumstances that are exerting pressure on our families, poverty being front and centre, as well as the mental health experience of parents and children, and domestic violence, to name but a few. Can the Minister assure us that she will use all her experience in this space to personally steer the Government’s response to focus on these issues?
My Lords, I was hoping not to intervene. I was quite lenient with the previous speaker but one, but I regret that we are now running a bit short of time. I therefore ask all the following speakers either to stick to eight minutes or to go slightly less than that. We do not want to eat into the Minister’s time.
My Lords, this is an excellent report. One of the more interesting things in it is the set of examples that it gives. It confirms what I have seen all my life, which is how complex families in crisis can be. There is no “this is a family in crisis” model. They are all different.
I am here to give your Lordships a bit of what was mentioned earlier: lived experience rather than professional knowledge. I declare that I am not a vice-president of the LGA; there are not many of us in this House who are not vice-presidents of the LGA, but I am one of them. However, I began a part of my life at the London School of Economics, looking at children’s services among other things. Children’s services as a distinct subsection of social policy really ran from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, from the Curtis report to the Seebohm report. The Curtis report grew out of the abuse of children who were sent to foster homes during the war, where they were often abused and in one or two cases died.
That led to the setting up of a committee and to the Children Act 1948, which positioned children’s services not in education or health but in the Home Office. One of the great advantages was that a children’s service grew up that was devoted to children. That may sound a bit odd, but at that time social services was very much welfare services. It was still the old workhouse. The children’s service was the one beacon. I remember early in my life meeting a remarkable woman, Baroness Lucy Faithfull, and her sidekick the children’s officer for Oxford, Barbara Kahan, who did a lot of pioneering work concerning children. I was struck by how all the problems were different and how local authority children’s services were, above everything else, conditioned by being flexible. The best of them could respond to the individual demands, which meant that the social workers and the heads of social services departments had to have a certain autonomy, while the local authorities had children’s departments and children’s committees.
I speak with some knowledge. I was a child “in care”, as they said. I was extraordinarily well looked after by Sheffield City Council. My first point for the Minister is that privatisation does not work. Children’s services and social services must be public services. You cannot put a profit motive in there and expect a humanitarian concern. There must be a very careful look, because many of the decisions that you are called on to take are not taken against a strict financial backdrop.
My second lesson is that you need devolution. Having been David Cameron’s envoy to the trade unions, I read very closely what the Labour Party is up to. I see that it is up to a bit of devolution at the moment. Devolution to local government is a jolly good thing, but it must be accompanied by financial devolution. It is no good saying to local authorities, “Get on and do the job”, unless you give them the money to do it. My lifetime in local government leads me to believe that there is no finer structure for local government than the old county borough arrangement, where you had the services under one authority without the conflicting authorities, and they were able to get on with the job. I say to the party opposite that you cannot just devolve power. You must devolve financial power, and local government has to be trusted. If you live in a democracy, you must trust people to raise the rates from the people and get themselves either elected or thrown out. This is quite crucial.
If we are to make children’s services work, they have to work—and be seen to work—at a local level. The fact of the matter is that when you build up a local service, you are actually building up dozens of individual services. I would not have been as well looked after in a for-profit organisation; I do not think the children of Sheffield would have been as well looked after in one. We were well looked after because we were professionally looked after and there were professional people looking after what we had.
I must say, I remember all the “loving relationship” stuff. It falls on stony ground a bit when you are 13 years old with, as someone just said, a bin bag in the children’s services department. You need the kindness of strangers but let us not delude ourselves that, somewhere out there, there are lots of people with their hearts brimming over. I saw evidence of some people seeing having a foster child as a way of supplementing their income, which was often not very high. It was a legitimate way but it needed a business-type relationship. It was not that they were overwhelming in their love and gratitude. They were in many ways overwhelming with wishing to help, but it was also a business relationship. We have to remember that.
The job of the professional in this sort of area was to hold the ring between kindness, compassion, obedience to the law and the best interests of the child. It is a very difficult ring to hold. I say this to the Minister: go back to the department and look at devolution. Look at letting people get on with the job and setting up what I would call a loose field of rules and regulations. Above everything else, look to the official guidance of strangers.
I also thank my noble friend Lord Watson for this debate and for giving us a chance to refocus our attention on one of the most vital reviews commissioned by any recent Government. It is the kind of report that, if you read it in one sitting, as I did, lives with you for a long time.
The review is vital for lots of reasons. First, it goes to the heart of the Gandhi test—maybe it should be called the Watson-Gandhi test, seeing as my noble friend also mentioned it—which states:
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
We have failed this test for tens of thousands of children for many years.
Secondly, the report reveals not just a catalogue of problems but a genuine systemic crisis from top to bottom, from the handling of individual cases to the strategic management of the system and from private care providers to consistency across local authorities.
Thirdly, the review is vital because we know that unless there is a restoration of the functioning of the system as a whole, this problem will get worse in the coming years, as my noble friend Lady Morris said. The report estimates a nearly 20% increase in the number of children entering the system in the next decade and a worsening of outcomes for those children. Crucially, it explains the false economies of thinking that sorting these problems out now is too expensive when, in fact, the current system is on course to cost more than £15 billion a year in a few years—a 50% increase on the current costs.
The review is full of detailed recommendations, but I want to focus attention on three genuinely systemic aspects that the MacAlister review discusses. I ask this directly: are the Government committed to implementing and endorsing those big but systemic aspects of change that are called for?
The first aspect is around a theme that recurs throughout the report: if the children’s care system is to shift away from expensive and ineffectual crisis intervention, there must be multiagency and multidisciplinary work throughout the service. This is the idea at the heart of the proposal, which has been discussed by many noble Lords, for a single category of family help for different kinds of cases to reduce fragmentation, reduce the number of handovers in the system and enable families to get early, integrated support.
A similar model of multidisciplinary team working is envisaged in the section on child protection, with the idea of a bespoke child protection safety plan. The review demands that when children emerge from the care system and face the challenge of establishing their own independence as adults, public services, employers and educational providers share a joint mission to act as what it calls “corporate parents” for looked-after children.
We all know from our experience in politics and government that among the hardest things to deliver is a reform that crosses departmental boundaries and binds in organisations with a common agenda that report to different Ministers, let alone requiring them to work together in a genuine way. Similarly, it is incredibly hard for Whitehall to countenance any reform that pools money, knowledge and professionals in local community institutions and genuinely allows them to make on-the-ground decisions tailored to the needs of individual children. That model of accountability is considered risky in a Whitehall system in which departments are directly called to account for their particular slice of a more complex outcome. Anyone who reads the review knows that this call for change is not an optional extra but absolutely at the heart of saving the system from further collapse. Beyond exhortation, what will the Government do practically to make this multiagency preventive focus a reality?
Secondly, aside from the heartbreaking stories of individual children failed by the system, I found the most moving sections—which have been referred to by noble friends and colleagues here—to be on the networks of informal care provided by grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters. The report brings out a shameful contrast between, on the one hand, the extraordinary caring role played by these extended family networks—often very informally, and provided by people who themselves face huge, complex challenges—and, on the other, a system of rules and funding that ignores these networks, makes decisions without them and often in spite of them, does not provide funding or other kinds of legal protection for them, and often forces them into decisions such as becoming foster carers to receive financial support from the local authority.
Again, the child-first rationale is easy to applaud, but we all know that it is very hard for Whitehall to genuinely prioritise this kind of approach, coming as it does with the risk of different solutions for different kinds of children, outcome variations, the requirement for significant financial flexibility, et cetera. But making the money follow the logic of supporting the most trusted networks of care is absolutely at the heart of the report. Will the Government take the risk across departments of introducing the measures that the MacAlister review recommends in this report?
Lastly, the review is unambiguous about reforming the overall governance of the system. For all the amazing work done by many individuals in the system, as a whole it is not one in which securing these loving relationships is the priority. It is a system in which many providers of care are making profits out of their services, and outcomes for children vary not because of local decisions made in the interests of children but because of sheer randomness in the application of existing duties and programmes across different areas. This lack of strategic coherence goes all the way up to national government. As MacAlister says:
“There is currently a lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care and national government involvement is uneven.”
That is a pretty damning sentence.
Addressing this problem of strategic grip and securing unambiguous strategic authority is a priority. This means taking seriously issues such as revising the funding formula for children’s social care so that resources go more effectively to where they are needed, changing the metrics used in inspections, and lots more besides. At the heart of this is the innovation that the MacAlister review talks about—these new regional care co-operatives—to make local authorities inescapably responsible for care provision, fostering and commissioning activities. This issue was also touched on by the CMA review, which has been discussed. Will these regional care co-operatives form part of the Government’s response?
I have one last very quick point. The report shows that there is a very big difference between saying that lots of things are failing in children’s social care and saying that the system of provision is in need of overhaul. That is quite a big difference, and I hope that the Government’s response does not become the former rather than the latter.
Are the Government going to provide a loud, bright signal of intent that they are serious about changing this system and having collaborative working across departments, and between levels of government, at the heart of a new system? It is the hardest thing of all for any Government to introduce, but it is the most vital thing if you have read this report and take its impetus seriously.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Watson for giving us the chance to have another look at this issue. I chair the Public Services Committee, which produced a report on vulnerable children earlier this year. It did not look at the care system in detail, because this review was going on. Josh MacAlister did give evidence to the committee before our report was published and again after it was published, in September. I congratulate him on the report before us. He was given the clear mandate to do this without talking about a lot more money. He made a proposal that would raise the money that is undoubtedly needed to change the system.
My committee and I felt that we need to face the fact that this crisis is getting worse. When we were doing the report, it was very clear that the pandemic was having a devastating effect on many children—not just those who were considered vulnerable at the outset of the pandemic. We know about the increased prevalence of mental health need among adolescents, and, now, about the number of missing children that services have simply lost. They do not know where they are. We know of children who have fallen further behind at school, and of those who have experienced increased domestic abuse in their families, during the pandemic. We also know that the number who are subject to grooming and county lines is estimated to have doubled in the last two years.
Critically, as colleagues have talked about, we had a real-terms reduction in funding for children’s and young people’s services after the 2010 election, whether that was in children’s or Sure Start centres. My committee paid tribute to Leeds City Council for resisting the pressure to close all its children’s centres, but youth work has virtually disappeared in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, addressed some of the evidence-based programmes. I introduced, I think, three evidence-based programmes when I was at the Cabinet Office, one of which was endorsed by every Prime Minister until Theresa May. They endorsed that programme, said it was working well and that it should be extended elsewhere, but then externalised it, so it has not disappeared totally, but almost has. We renamed that the Family Nurse Partnerships Programme. These were serious long-term programmes of prevention and early intervention, which would mean that children would not end up in crisis.
That is the issue and that is what this report demonstrates: local authorities, in too many cases, now have no money for early intervention and support, because the need for money for their statutory duties under the Children’s Act has diverted funding into that crisis work. This is most acute in the most deprived areas, and our report spells that out.
Following our second evidence session with Josh MacAlister, the committee wrote to the Minister on three issues. The first was to push the Government to establish long-term protected funding for early intervention. Unless we do that, what we have seen happen in the last decade will continue. Local authorities say they would like to do preventive work but, actually, have money to do only the crisis work. Unless we have protected funding for early intervention, we will fail family after family.
Secondly, we asked the Government to go ahead more quickly with the family hub proposal to embed early intervention and support for families in every community. I ask the Minister: how far have we got in meeting that commitment?
Thirdly, we must be more supportive of kinship care, because in the broken system we have, kinship care is in many senses a beacon of light with far better outcomes for children. I have a lot more to say about that, but it has been very well said, particularly by my noble friend Lady Drake; she and I have done quite a lot of work together on this.
The review makes it clear that the system is broken. I entered my professional career training as a family caseworker and was a family caseworker in Newcastle just after Seebohm, when we had the first social services department. The reality is that I left after about three years to divert into community work because, even then, it was not as easy as I think the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was telling everybody. I had a hundred cases, which meant that I was unable to give particular, definitive attention, but I worked out very quickly that early intervention was far more important than trying to pick up the pieces, as we were doing then. I went into community and youth work from that beginning.
So I have long believed that the system does not deliver for children in the way it needs to. It needs to be transformed in order to give children the necessary opportunities. This will take significant investment, but I absolutely believe that simply throwing money at the status quo is not the answer. Can the Minister therefore assure us that this is recognised, that some of the ways of funding a better system outlined in the review are being seriously considered, and that, in recognising the need for this significant shift, the Government will properly fund it? That is what children need, what families need, and what this House should hold the Government to account for.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on securing it. I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, and as chair of the Lords Select Committee conducting post-legislative scrutiny of the Children and Families Act 2014, which has already been referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake. The committee published its final report this Tuesday, with important findings on the state of children’s social care in relation to adoption, kinship care and families going through the family courts. I will return to that in a minute.
Back in 2017, the APPG for children published a report on the state of children’s social care in England and concluded that there was a significant lack of resource for and focus on preventive and early intervention services. It would seem that nothing has changed. In 2018, we published a follow-up report which shone a light on the extent to which children, young people and families were subjected to a postcode lottery of services, and to which rising thresholds for support were simply storing up trouble for later on.
Sadly, these predictions have now all come to pass, and we have seen a huge shift towards late and crisis intervention and record numbers of looked-after children, up from around 65,000 a decade ago to over 80,000 now. The average age of children in care has risen, with children entering care with more complex needs. The care system in places is in a parlous state; that is why reform is so badly needed.
I will give a few specifics which we have heard about this afternoon. First, in the last decade, the number and proportion of children in care who are placed miles from home or in unregulated accommodation has risen steadily, which is a huge cause for concern. The CMA report that we have heard about stated that this year, there were significant problems with the functioning of the care market, with some private providers making disproportionate profits from the care of children and young people.
A significant workforce shortage in children’s social care and high levels of churn mean that children and young people face a revolving door of professionals entering and leaving their lives. The number of social workers leaving children’s posts in English councils is at its highest point since comparable data collection began, resulting in unsustainably high caseloads for those remaining.
As we have heard today, the care system is currently costing £10 billion per year. Josh MacAlister’s very welcome review estimates that this will rise to more than £15 billion in the next 10 years without reform. The review’s final report argues that the current children’s social care system is,
“increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise.”
“For these reasons, a radical reset is now unavoidable.”
I totally agree.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group that I mentioned recently held an excellent event at which Josh MacAlister spoke, as well as the new Children’s Minister, the Children’s Commissioner and others. What was notable to me at that event was that the children’s sector, statutory services and parliamentarians were all calling for the same things: for progress on social care reform that prioritises early intervention and co-production with children and families and sufficient investment to restore the long-term erosion of support.
With the independent review of children’s social care and the other key reviews on child protection that we have heard about, we have momentum behind us, and I like to think that vulnerable children—at very long last—have a political profile that has not been the case for many years. It is vital that the Government’s response to the review, which we have heard this afternoon is now being pushed back until next year, maintains that momentum and that we all continue to press for action and hold the Government to account, a point made so compellingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.
However, before we get there, the overriding concern for families right now is the ability to put food on the table for their children and to heat their homes. The highest rates of inflation for 40 years will undoubtedly push more families into precarious situations and put more children at risk. Soaring inflation and energy prices are also putting huge pressure on local authority children’s services, and we face the very real prospect of further cuts to essential services.
We must act now to protect children and stabilise services. We need urgent government action to shield children from the brunt of the cost of living crisis and to shore up public sector finances after the impact of inflation and rising need. What assurances can the Minister give us on these points?
While we must not ignore the here and now, we must also hold on to the hope of a brighter future where children and families get the help they need. I welcome many of the proposals in the review, particularly those that seek fundamentally to rebalance children’s social care towards helping families earlier and the significant investment that is needed in the system.
There are three things I would like to see feature prominently in the Government’s implementation strategy. The first is working with families rather than doing things to them. Many of the parents who spoke to the independent review expressed distrust of children’s social care and felt they were blamed for circumstances beyond their control. Children’s social care will be sought out by families who need it only when they have been fully involved in the design of the approach and the offers the services can make.
The second is a focus on improving data and information sharing. In response to amendments in this Chamber during the passage of the Health and Care Act 2022, the Government acknowledged the serious challenges with sharing relevant information about children, particularly around safeguarding, and committed to a review of how to improve it. They also recognised the potential benefits of a single consistent identifier to bring together disparate records about an individual child. I expect to see significant reference to this review in the Government’s social care implementation strategy.
Finally, there is workforce, on which all else hangs. We know there are huge challenges in recruiting and retaining children’s social workers, along with other parts of the children’s workforce. We need to kick-start a longer-term project to rebuild the workforce.
I return to the Select Committee report on the Children and Families Act 2014, given its relevance to today’s debate. As well as containing a raft of important recommendations to improve support for adoption, kinship care and the family justice system and to help parents to balance work and family life, it identified some critical cross-cutting themes. One of those was the, frankly, dire state of children’s mental health services, with unacceptably long waits for referrals and treatments, including post-adoption trauma support. Our report highlighted the fact that children in care are four times more likely to experience mental health issues than their peers. Surely there should be some form of priority access for these exceptionally vulnerable children.
A second key theme was the importance of early intervention, which has been so well covered in today’s debate.
The third theme was the lack of coherence, both within government and between services. Indeed, throughout our inquiry we met children and families who said they felt let down by the systems that they had encountered, suffering long delays and needless bureaucracy. Calls for coherence of care extended to social care. Our witnesses raised concern that children and their families often do not receive continuity of care, undergoing numerous changes in their social workers.
Lastly, in the area of kinship care, which has been key to this debate and spoken to compellingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, we recommend greater support for kinship carers, including financial support, and that kinship carers with a special guardianship order be given the same right to paid leave as adopters.
All eyes are now on the Government’s implementation strategy. It was initially expected before Christmas, but we are now told that publication will be in the new year. In line with many other speakers today, I ask the Minister what assurance she can give us that the Government will not let this drift and will publish the strategy as early as possible in the new year.
I ask the Minister to respond on three specific points. First, what assessment has been made of the impact of the cost of living crisis on already stretched children’s social care budgets? Secondly, what plans do the Government have for stabilising the current children’s social care system, as local authorities and other public services grapple with rising inflation and increasing demand? Thirdly, will the Government commit to additional funding for the measures outlined in the forthcoming implementation plan in order to make these reforms a reality?
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. I liked what she said: this issue now has some momentum and political energy around it, and we all welcome that. It now falls to the Minister and her colleagues to make sure that we avoid the drift that the noble Baroness referred to. Sadly, too many of us have experienced that, and we fear it may follow.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Watson on securing this debate and introducing it so well. I will not repeat the startling statistics that he shared—they speak for themselves—but I echo the points that he made about social workers in particular and the valuable and arduous work that they do, which we all admire and respect so much. This is an important issue that I know many in this Chamber and those watching our proceedings care passionately about. There are armies of people, professionals and others, ready to step up and play their part in the reform of the system. They need resource, of course, but also clarity and stability of direction and leadership from the Government. I am reminded of many similar debates that we have had in the past that, sadly, have not so far resulted in the change that so many reports, including this one, have argued for.
I remember that we had an excellent debate earlier this year led by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who is an authority on these issues; listening to her today, I think we could hear why. She is an authority particularly on the issue of early intervention and prevention. Many of the points that were made in that debate earlier this year have been made today. Our worry is that we will continue to hear excellent speeches making strong arguments, as we have today, but that at the moment the Government lack the focus or the bandwidth to do what is necessary.
It was touching to hear the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, describe his experience. I also note his comments on the Brown report and devolution. We may return to these issues in future debates but, having looked through the list of contributors this afternoon, I knew that this sitting would be good because of the quality of those contributors and the experience and knowledge that they bring. I am all for an elected Chamber, as long as everyone on that list can be part of it.
I pay tribute, as others have done, to Josh MacAlister for his work in carrying out this review. I thank my noble friend Lady Blake for her speech, sharing her experience in Leeds, and for introducing me to Josh. Like my noble friends Lady Blake and Lady Taylor, I am also a former lead member for children’s services, and I particularly acknowledge the way that he went about his work. This was not just a dry academic exercise with lots of tables and data, although there is of course some rigorous work underpinning it. It was a task that he led alongside those who work with children in care and, most significantly, which involved closely those who themselves have experience of the looked-after system. That is the real power behind the report. It is exactly how this sort of work should be done and I could not commend him more on it.
As my noble friend Lady Taylor said in referring to her experience in Stevenage, the system is fighting hard but there is no doubt that, at the moment, it is becoming overwhelmed. An increase in referrals alongside a slashing of resources over the last 12 years has led to a crisis, too often, in the quality and timeliness of the support available. Its effectiveness is therefore compromised too. Everyone will agree that, for most children, being placed close to home or with a suitable family member is the right approach. Yet we find that in recent years the number of children being placed miles from home, or in unregulated accommodation, is going up and up. As I am sure the Minister will agree, that needs to stop. With high staff turnover, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, leading to even more instability, the odds are stacked higher and higher against children who have already been badly let down.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, made a strong speech in support of Lifelong Links. His point about the very long journey from innovation to implementation was very well made; if only we always completed that journey, however slowly. Twenty-one per cent of all children in care were placed more than 20 miles from home, while 31% experienced a mid-year school move in the last two years.
My noble friend Lord Wood got to the real heart of it when he explained the difficulties likely to be faced by Whitehall. As he said, are the Government going to take the risk of implementation? Maybe the right answer is that it is surely a bigger risk not to take that step. It is not difficult to see why outcomes for children with experience of the care system are so much less favourable than for other children but, without a collaborative approach across Whitehall, not enough will ever change.
We are all disappointed that the Government have not yet formally responded to Josh MacAlister’s report, when so much energy and hope has gone into it. But it is impossible to listen to the stark analysis of my noble friend Lady Drake and allow the hope that we all share to overcome our experience of false starts and a failure to see the job through. This cannot be another such occasion; the Government must have known that we needed a comprehensive overview of the problems within the system to have commissioned this report in the first place. On that, they are to be congratulated, but perhaps the Minister could help by letting us know how much longer she thinks we will have to wait. We understand that it is to be January; can she confirm that this is still the case, given all the changes that we have seen in recent months?
We look forward to a plan from the Government that is going to take on board the review’s key findings and recommendations so that local councils, charities, carers and others know what to expect and when. For example, is there going to be a specific strategy for kinship care? Will there be a legal definition? Will early legal advice become available? Why can they not have parental leave? The sector is ready for change. There is huge political will behind this on all sides of both Houses. There is not a political reason to resist change. This is not housing targets or onshore wind; we now have a unifying mission that we would join in a heartbeat.
There is serious concern, as some colleagues have mentioned, about profiteering among private sector providers. We share this concern and would be keen to know whether the Government have any appetite for addressing this. Do the Government share the analysis, if not the suggested remedy in the report? This is not really an ideological point, although I cannot pretend I do not have a value-based objection to what has been going on; I have. This is just about making sure that every single penny spent in this sector goes towards supporting vulnerable young people, because that is not happening at the moment.
Many of the recommendations of the review have been picked out by colleagues. Of particular importance is the reform of family help. We all know that the idea is that support is put in as early as possible to support families that are reaching the point at which removing a child is necessary. I have never heard anyone argue against that premise. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, this is not an issue where there is a division of opinion. We all know it is what needs to be done—not more of the same. I am mindful of what she said about the spotlight moving on; she put that really well. We must not let that happen. MacAlister recommends an investment of £2 billion up front to enable this process to start, with savings in future years because the intervention is happening at an earlier stage. Can the Minister give us some indication of the response she is getting to that recommendation? This is going to save money and heartache.
We welcome the comments of Ministers so far, that they are determined to come forward with an implementation plan. It is encouraging but many of us are nervous that the Government will produce a plan that is not sufficient, fails to meet the challenge or lacks the resources to deliver. Far too often people with experience of care have not been heard. This report has given them a voice and I look forward to returning to this Chamber in the new year for another debate, perhaps, but not one like this—one in which we are discussing the Government’s plan and supporting them in putting it into action.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this extremely important debate. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage. I do not think I have been in a debate with her before, so I welcome her to her place. I echo others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, on her part in the remarkable turnaround of Leeds children’s services in achieving an outstanding rating. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for her part in leading the post-legislative scrutiny committee and its work on the Children and Families Act 2014. With great respect to my noble friend Lord Balfe, I am grateful for his wisdom and insight relating to his own experience of the care system. Finally, I need to make the same declaration as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, as my mother was also a children’s social worker, so we understand that side of life.
We have had three very important reviews—from Josh MacAlister, the national panel, and the Competition and Markets Authority. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, those reviews and reports give us a burning platform for reform, and I agree that they have brought a renewed spotlight on vulnerable children, and rightly so. But they also show that, despite the extraordinary work of social workers past and present, children and families with experience of the system show that it is not delivering consistently enough for those who really need and deserve it. That is why reforming children’s social care is a priority for this Government, and integration will be at the heart of that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, anticipated that we are already starting to take action in response to those reviews. I felt that she was perhaps a bit dismissive of some of this and anxious that it would not be followed through. I reassure the House that my right honourable friend the Children’s Minister is absolutely committed to seeing this through with great effect.
We have established a national implementation board to drive reform, and we have set up a new child protection ministerial group to ensure that safeguarding is championed at the very highest levels across government to drive the kind of integrated policy that all of your Lordships have rightly called for and discussed today. We launched a data and digital solutions fund to help local authorities unlock progress for children and families through the better use of technology. Importantly, we are developing recruitment and retention campaigns to increase the number of foster care placements, working closely with local authorities.
We absolutely recognise that these actions are just the beginning. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care calls for “whole system” transformation, which is why we are developing an ambitious and comprehensive strategy for implementation that responds to those reviews, which will be published early in the new year. I know that your Lordships will understand that, as a new Minister who takes her role incredibly seriously, the Children’s Minister wants to understand and be completely confident in the actions that we are taking. I beg noble Lords’ patience on many of their questions on the detail of what we will do. It will not be long until that strategy is published, and it will include a number of the areas that your Lordships queried, including all of the options around kinship care that the noble Baroness opposite and others raised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blake, asked me to exert any previous experience that I have. I absolutely assure the House that, wherever I possibly can, I will of course bring that.
On our vision of the future, the care review contends that, with the right support, families are the best means of protecting and nurturing children, and the Government wholeheartedly agree with that. Our ambition for reform will reaffirm the central role of families in the care system and put love and stable relationships at the heart of what children’s social care does. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, highlighted this ambition—this is, as noble Lords know, an important and challenging ambition.
On families, children’s social care services play an important role in promoting safe, stable and resilient families, and they should be enabled to provide effective integrated support to help families overcome the multiple and complex problems that many face, before they escalate. Importantly, the shift in the balance from late-stage crisis intervention to preventive, earlier intervention makes moral, human and emotional sense, but it also makes economic sense, as we heard. The noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, asked whether multiagency work would be an important part of that—of course it will be.
A second priority for the Government is strengthening the child protection system. The awful murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson made us once again confront the terrible reality of child abuse. We owe it to every child to have strong and effective child protection arrangements that help keep them safe from abuse, neglect or exploitation, whether it is inside or outside their homes. We need a child protection system that intervenes quickly and decisively through a more expert, multiagency child protection response. Integration is critical to that, including that of local authorities, police, health, charitable organisations and others.
Thirdly, when children cannot be looked after safely by their parents, our first port of call should be to support the wider family network to step up wherever possible. At the moment, as your Lordships have set out, there are practical, financial and cultural barriers to this which need to be addressed. Finding care for a child within their family network gives them a much better chance to achieve the lifelong stability and network of loving relationships which sustain all of us. As your Lordships have articulated so eloquently, kinship care is a vital part of that.
All the recommendations in the MacAlister review around kinship care are being carefully considered. Just to be clear about what we have already committed to doing, the Ministry of Justice has made a public commitment to extend legal aid entitlements to special guardians in private court proceedings, which is a partial implementation of the care review’s recommendation in this area, and we are working with the MoJ to make that change as quickly as possible. We have also made early progress in investing in the current financial year and next year in a partnership with the charity Kinship to establish more than 100 peer support groups for kinship carers across England.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blake, asked about recruitment of foster carers. As I mentioned, we are working on a recruitment campaign with local authorities to recruit more carers. In relation to the care system itself, where family is not an option, the care system should provide stable and loving homes. We are committed to making sure that there are more places for children to live of the right kind, quality and location to meet our children’s needs. We are determined to set and deliver ambitious missions for children in care and care leavers, covering our aspirations for their loving relationships, health, education, employment and housing.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, asked about children living in independent and semi-independent provision. There are cases where high-quality supported accommodation can be the right option for some older children, but we also know that some of that provision is not currently good enough, which is why Ofsted will be regulating and inspecting all provision for looked-after children from next autumn.
We are also providing £99 million of funding to local authorities to increase the number of care leavers who stay living with their foster families in a family home up to the age of 21 through the Staying Put programme. We have provided £36 million to increase the number of young people who, when they leave residential care, receive practical help with move-on accommodation, including ongoing support from a keyworker through our Staying Close programme.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and other noble Lords raised the importance of the children’s social care workforce. I echo the appreciation and acknowledgement of other noble Lords of the extraordinary work that social workers and others in the children’s social care system do. But we also know that they need support to be empowered and freed up to do the job that is so critical for our children’s lives.
Over the current spending review period, we will invest more than £50 million every year to recruit, train and develop child and family social workers to make sure that the workforce has the capacity, skills and knowledge to support and protect vulnerable children.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor of Stevenage and Lady Tyler of Enfield, asked about funding for local authorities. I am sure other noble Lords also asked about this, so forgive me for those I did not note down. Your Lordships will be aware that the Government announced that approximately £6.5 billion will be made available to local government to deliver core services, including children’s services, in 2023-24 and in 2024-25, in addition to what was agreed for local government in the 2021 spending review.
Early intervention, focused on by many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, and my noble friend Lord Farmer, is of course critical. It is really helpful to have had the example of Leeds and how expenditure there was recalibrated to focus on early intervention. I appreciate that that is an easy thing to say and an incredibly difficult thing to execute, but it is helpful to have those examples to give confidence to the system that it can be done.
We have announced over £1 billion for programmes to improve family services, including for family hubs, the Supporting Families programme and the Start for Life programme. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, talked about being sceptical and anxious—I think they were her words—about these pledges. As I say, I have every confidence in my ministerial colleagues and their focus on this—apparently, I have only two more minutes, so I apologise: I will have to write to your Lordships.
My noble friend Lord Farmer asked about how the department was using its own evidence and how we can scale up successful programmes. I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the importance of this. We are committed to scaling up programmes that work. One example is the £84 million Strengthening Families programme, which is scaling up well-evidenced programmes across 17 local authorities.
In relation to excessive profits of independent providers, we are absolutely clear that we need to avoid profiteering from any provider, and the key to this is growing capacity in some areas. That is why we are supporting local authorities to expand their provision and reduce reliance on the private sector.
“this is a programme for a long-term, once in a generation reform. We will start by laying the foundations for a system that is built on love and the importance of family.”—[
In quoting that, I am reminded of sitting outside my mother’s office as a child after school. I would wait for her to finish work—which never seemed to happen—and look at the pictures that the children she worked with had drawn of their families. Those pictures will live with me for ever.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response, which I think was quite positive, and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It was a stimulating debate and the fact that there were not more speakers was actually a benefit, because people got to go into greater depth in their contributions, which were really powerful.
I shall mention just one. I hope other noble Lords will forgive me if I mention my noble friend Lady Taylor. I have not heard her speak before and I was very taken with her contribution. It will not be the last I shall hear from her and I very much hope that, before long, we will hear her speaking from rather further forward in the Chamber, where I am sure she will be a great asset to the Official Opposition. I thank everybody for the debate.