Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 15 December 2016.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I hope to get some clarity from the Minister regarding the industry’s and the Opposition’s concerns about the clause and the introduction of the child safeguarding practice review panel. I will give a more specific analysis when we debate amendments to clause 13, but I will put them into the context of clause 12.

The British Association of Social Workers is worried about the independence of the child safeguarding practice review panel and the possibility that the Secretary of State could use the panel to hammer on local authorities that she would like to take over. There is widespread alarm in the sector that the warnings in the National Audit Office report, which we discussed in Tuesday’s sitting, are being ignored by the Department. Within recent weeks we have seen yet another Labour-led council being told to transfer its statutory duties to an independent trust. I hope that when the Minister responds he will point me toward evidence that trusts do better and can achieve what local authorities could not have done without support.

The clauses also allow for the creation of a national child safeguarding review panel that can choose to identify and review complex or nationally important child safeguarding cases and make recommendations. I completely understand the rationale for overhauling the local serious case review process, as there have been widespread inconsistencies in the quality of such reports. However, while local learning can be patchy and distorted by local political and inter-agency dynamics, local-led investigations also keep local agencies engaged and involved and enable local knowledge to inform the process and the recommendations. I hope the Minister will be able to explain how the local aspect will not be lost.

There are a few examples of independent expert boards set up by recent Secretaries of State and the Department for Education. In 2014, they created the innovation fund to promote new practice within children’s social care, with a board to oversee operations and to set strategic direction. It appointed three people with financial services and investment banking experience, plus the chief social worker for children, who we know sees herself no longer as the independent voice of the profession, but as a senior civil servant, yet she is the only person on the board with practical experience in children’s social care.

When the Government sought to promote and publish more serious case reviews in the same year, we saw yet another expert panel. The four members of the panel were a journalist, a barrister, an air traffic accident investigator and a former career civil servant who had been the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund. No one on the panel had any front-line experience in child protection or its direct management. It appears that there is a worrying recurring tendency. I hope the Government will reflect, rethink and build relationships with those who know most about helping children. At the moment, it appears that the DFE sees little value in using the professional experience and expertise of those who work to assist and protect families. Can the Minister shed light on how many former or still registered social workers are in his Department? When the Government appoint experts to oversee and direct children’s services, they have consistently considered commercial and financial expertise more relevant than direct experience. That is why there is some wariness about the intention to set up expert panels to advise DFE.

It is also intended that the Department for Education will have control over who can be a social worker, whether they can continue to work, how they are educated and trained and who will provide this education. The current preference is for that to be provided outside universities by Frontline, a fast-track programme that is premised on moving practitioners as quickly as possible from practice into management and threatens the continuation of traditional university courses.

The other big part of the Bill, which was removed in the other place, will create a system of inconsistencies. Rather than innovative, that system might less generously be described as an increasingly threadbare safety net. Control of social work and social workers should be in the hands not of politicians but of the profession itself.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Clause 12 requires the Secretary of State to establish a child safeguarding practice review panel. The clause will add new section 16A to the Children Act 2004. The Government first announced their intention to centralise the serious case review process in December 2015. The background to their decision to legislate to introduce such a panel was set out in their response to Alan Wood’s review of the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards. I remind the Committee that Alan Wood is a former director of children’s services at Hackney. His review demonstrates that the Department is more than willing to ask people from the profession to advise and assist it in its decision making. The panel is being established in response to his recommendation that the Government should

“establish an independent body at national level to oversee a new national learning framework for inquiries into child deaths and cases where children have experienced serious harm.”

He suggested that the body that supported a centralised review process should be

“one that is independent of government and the key agencies, and operates in a transparent and objective fashion to ensure learning is the key element of all inquiries.”

The Government agree entirely with that recommendation.

I should add that we intend to establish the panel as an expert committee. I expect its chair’s appointment to be subject at least to a full, open Cabinet Office public appointments process. I envisage that panel members will come from various backgrounds, including social care, and have the relevant expertise and experience to fulfil the role. I expect the number of panel members to be sufficient to enable the panel’s effective operation, and the chair to be able to draw on the expertise that he or she considers necessary for effective decisions and recommendations to be made about cases.

The Secretary of State will be responsible for removing panel members if he or she is satisfied that they are no longer able to fulfil their duties, for example due to a long-term or serious health condition, or if they have behaved in a way that is incompatible with their role, such as by releasing confidential information that is provided to the panel or making use of such information for their own purposes. Those are usual conditions, and while such action is extremely unlikely to occur, it is right to make provision for the removal of panel members should the need arise.

The clause will also allow the Secretary of State to provide whatever assistance is required to enable the panel to carry out its functions, including staff and office facilities. The Secretary of State may pay remuneration or expenses to the chair and members of the panel, and make further arrangements to support the panel’s functioning, including, for example, the production of an annual report.

The establishment of a strong national panel is an essential component of the Government’s plans to develop better understanding of the factors leading up to serious cases, for the reasons that the hon. Member for South Shields set out, to inform policy and practice nationally, and to support local agencies in improving the quality of the services that they provide to vulnerable children and families. The new panel will be independent of the Government.

The hon. Lady quite rightly raised the need to ensure that local learning is not lost. To some extent, there are clear benefits in ensuring that we have a flexible approach, and I assure her that we will increase local flexibility at the same time as creating a national panel. Centralising review decisions will enable the new panel to identify national trends and issues that may benefit from a single national review. At the same time, the bulk of reviews will be local and will address cases that raise issues of local importance and relate to local safeguarding partnerships; that will increase local flexibility. We anticipate that the number of national reviews will be relatively small and the majority of reviews will take place locally. Most importantly, we must not just look at what happens when things go wrong but understand why and spread that understanding much better. I will go into more detail as we discuss clause 13 on how we will go about achieving that.

On that basis, I ask that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13