6. Statement by the Minister for Social Care: Transforming Children's Services

– in the Senedd at 5:11 pm on 4 June 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 5:11, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

The next statement will be from the Minister for Social Care on transforming children's services. The Minister to make that statement—Dawn Bowden.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. Just before recess, I had the very real privilege of introducing the Health and Social Care (Wales) Bill to this Senedd as one of my first acts as the Minister for Social Care. During the statement, there were many questions from Members about children’s services in general. I therefore welcome this opportunity to provide Members with a timely update about our progress in delivering the eight distinct programme for government commitments that will radically transform children’s social care in Wales. So, I hope that this will cover in more detail some of the areas that we discussed during the statement on the health and social care Bill. 

I want to start by saying that I am firmly committed to delivering this ambitious agenda by doing all that I can, and all that this Government can, to support families to successfully care for their children. I also want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Julie Morgan, who has made so much progress in this area. This is the biggest transformation of children’s services in our lifetime. We want to change the way that services are delivered so that we focus on keeping families together, a preventative agenda, with fewer children being taken into care and with children’s needs at the heart of everything that we do. 

Our care-experienced annual summits have provided a voice for care-experienced children and young people to share their experiences and to share their ideas with Ministers about the changes that they think need to be made. We're taking forward work to deliver the commitments made in the care-experienced summit declaration, which was the first of its kind in the UK. The First Minister and I are committed to achieving the ambition outlined by the young ambassadors, and we will both be signing the declaration with care-experienced young people later this month, emphasising our commitment to its delivery.   

Our transformation delivery group has been established for more than a year now, and care-experienced young people have a seat on this group, which has been charged with taking forward two areas of work. The first is focused on data and metrics, and the second on early help and prevention, recognising the need for intensive, wrap-around edge-of-care support for care-experienced parents to reduce the risk of their children being removed from their care. 

We're investing £1.6 million to bolster and scale up parental advocacy. These projects support parents to engage with social workers, third sector organisations, the family courts and other professionals to resolve issues that are negatively impacting their family. The funding will ensure that new services are established in each of the seven regions in Wales as part of a national roll-out of parental advocacy.

At the centre of the transform work is the development and the delivery of the national practice framework. This will be the first set of national standards for children’s services in Wales and will be designed to sit alongside other all-Wales procedures, such as all-Wales safeguarding procedures. We have developed and engaged on the first six standards, and we are now developing the full draft of the framework, which will be shared with professionals and practitioners over the summer. The full framework will be published by the end of the year.

(Translated)

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:15, 4 June 2024

The Health and Social Care (Wales) Bill with its core provision to eliminate private profit from children’s care will, if passed, meet another of our programme for government commitments to help transform children’s care. However, as I explained in my last statement to you, eliminating private profit is about much more than just the future model of ownership and profit. It's about building resilience into this fragile sector; it’s about how we best meet the care and support needs of children and young people; about how we keep them in their local communities and how we do all that we can to support them to be with their families. 

We launched the corporate parenting charter in September last year, and I’m pleased to report that, so far, 40 organisations have signed up, including the Welsh Government and Welsh Ministers. We are continuing to encourage all public bodies and private organisations and the third sector to become corporate parents, and I would urge you to do the same. We will be strengthening guidance for local authorities and health boards about corporate parenting with a dedicated chapter in the Part 6 code of practice under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. This will set out much more clearly their duties as corporate parents and drive a strengthened and cross-sector strategic approach to corporate parenting.

I want to turn now to how we are meeting the programme for government commitment to support children with complex needs. Between 2021 and 2023, we have made £3.5 million of regional accommodation funding available to deliver 15 projects across Wales. This has resulted in the creation of 26 new beds for children with complex needs and support for a further 62 children and young people. Since then, we have allocated a further £23 million and we continue to receive proposals through the housing with care fund. This will deliver an additional 96 beds and, of these, five homes are already operating, with 15 beds.

The health and social care regional integration fund also includes a significant investment of around £18 million a year to support families to stay together safely and to provide therapeutic support for care-experienced children. We have also continued to invest heavily in our national fostering scheme, Foster Wales, to improve the ability of local authority fostering services to recruit and retain foster carers. We are committed to ensuring that kinship foster carers receive the same support as mainstream foster carers, and through the Foster Wales national commitment we're working towards an agreed package of training, support and rewards being consistently available to all foster carers through all 22 local authority fostering services in Wales.

The final programme for government commitment commits us to continue to support and uphold the rights of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people and is very much in line with our nation of sanctuary approach. In Wales, we treat all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as looked-after children. We are proud to take a 'child first' approach, which upholds the best interests, rights and entitlements of providing care and support to all children in Wales. I am committed to working with all local authorities and third sector partners to ensure that all unaccompanied children have access to the care, services and support they need whilst under the care of local authorities in Wales. We will not demonise or politicise these very vulnerable children and young people. We will give them a warm welcome and the same opportunities as children and young people in Wales.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we want all children in Wales to have the best possible start in life and to reach their full potential. Transforming children’s services to put their needs first will deliver better outcomes for children, young people and their families. Diolch yn fawr. 

Photo of Altaf Hussain Altaf Hussain Conservative 5:20, 4 June 2024

Thank you for your statement, Minister. Transforming children's care is one of the most important tasks facing the Welsh Government. As the Minister rightly accepts, far too many children are entering the formal care system—higher than any other nation in the United Kingdom. We must do everything in our power to not only ensure the safety of children, but also ensure that they don't needlessly enter into the care system. I therefore welcome the commitment to a preventative agenda.

As I stated in our interaction during Foster Care Fortnight, the Step Up Step Down programme was delivering promising results. Minister, in your response to Julie Morgan, you stated that it was too early to evaluate the programme, but you'd hoped to visit the Northern Ireland pilot. Can you provide any further updates on that visit? I also welcome the development of a national practice framework. We need a national set of standards, and I would be grateful, Minister, if you could expand upon the timeline for the introduction of the full framework and how binding the standards will be upon public, private and third sector providers.

With regard to the corporate parenting charter, Minister, can you outline whether or not there are still local authorities that have not signed up to the charter? Sadly, there is still too much variation in numbers of looked-after children per 10,000 of the population by local authority area. Some local authorities have doubled the number of looked-after children when compared to other councils with similar demographics. Also, more alarmingly, we still have local authorities that have lost track of children in their care. Therefore, Minister, how do you plan to address this variance and do you believe that the charter will help address instances of children missing in care?

Finally, Minister, I want to reiterate my commitment to you to work with you to ensure the transforming of children's services, putting children first and helping to guarantee our children in Wales have the best possible start in life. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:22, 4 June 2024

Thank you, Altaf. Firstly, can I thank you very much for those comments? I welcome the opportunity to work with you. I think that there is largely consensus around what we're trying to achieve here. This is about trying to reduce the number of children who we find in care across Wales, and everything that we are doing through this transformation programme and our eight programme for government commitments that are seeking to deliver this is about achieving that aim. As we talked about previously, I introduced the Health and Social Care (Wales) Bill, which is about eliminating profit in children's care, but it's about much more than that; it is about having a complete rebalancing of the way in which we deliver care for children and, where we have to, how we deliver residential care. This whole programme is about reducing the demand for that type of residential care. Because what we all know is that the best place for a child to be, where that can be done safely, is to stay with their families in their communities. And that is very much what our preventative agenda is all about.

You talked about the national practice framework; we're aiming to have that in place by September, by the autumn, and it is going to be a mix of mandatory requirements and practice pointers. It's about key aspects of practice being consistent across Wales. I'll give you an example. We have 22 local authorities across Wales, and we see some local authorities taking more children into care than other local authorities. And that is not because those children are particularly different; it is because of different approaches that we see in different local authorities. Some social services and some social workers work very hard to maintain those children with their families. They are, if you like, slightly less risk averse, but being less risk averse is quite labour intensive, and you've got to work very hard with those families. We have to see a major cultural shift across all of our local authorities to do that. We hope very much that, with a national framework that develops those pointers and develops those practices, social workers in those areas will feel more confident about working in the way that we want them to work and keep as many children out of care as possible.

On corporate parenting, we're very pleased with the number of organisations so far that have signed up. Forty organisations—and the vast majority of local authorities—have signed up. Some have still not signed up, and it's not because of a lack of willingness to do so. I think for many organisations that have not yet signed up, it's about them not being fully clear about what the responsibility would be. That's why we're going to incorporate and strengthen the guidance, as I said in my statement, to ensure that we incorporate that into Part 6 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 so it will become much clearer. A number of organisations have said to us that they are willing to do this, but they want to make sure that they are prepared for it before they do it. They don't want to go into doing something and then find that they really can't deliver what we need of them. So, I think it is better for those organisations to work with us on identifying where the gaps are in their organisation that might prevent them from signing up, and then, when they are ready to do so, that we sign them up. It's an ongoing process that we have, but I'm very pleased that we do have 40 organisations now signed up.

The national framework, I think, will also help us to address the issue that you have raised around missing children in care. There are very few of them—statistically, that is a very, very small number—but any number is too many. Unfortunately, in some of the ones that we see with the highest level of children missing in care, it tends to be amongst unaccompanied asylum seekers. That is for a whole number of very complex reasons, not least of all that some of these children coming across here are trafficked and some are just unaccompanied, and they are moved into a new culture and a new environment. It is a frightening time for them, and we have seen one or two of those disappear. That does bother me, because I wonder where those children end up, particularly if they are children who have been trafficked. But I am very confident that the provisions within the national practice framework, when it's rolled out and when it's applied consistently across every local authority area, will help us to identify and ensure that that doesn't happen.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:28, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

May I start by declaring an interest, as my wonderful wife works for a charity in this sector? Building a nation that enables future generations to prosper, where no child is left behind because of personal circumstances that are beyond their control, is a cause that is at the core of the ethos and values of Plaid Cymru. Because of our unshakeable belief in this, we take pride in the fact that this programme for children's services includes the progressive act of eradicating profit from the children-in-care sector, which was part of the co-operation agreement that existed between ourselves and the Government.

Unlike the core beliefs of the Conservative Party, and, indeed, a large part of the UK Labour Party, including the shadow health Secretary, we totally reject the mantra that it is the market that knows best when it comes to providing for the health and well-being needs of our society, particularly so for vulnerable children. The Competition and Markets Authority made the point clearly in their report in 2022 by demonstrating how the market for children in care leans disproportionately in favour of private providers, with these providers being able to charge extremely high prices for their services, as the ability of local authorities to provide foster services themselves is seriously degraded because of 14 years of Conservative austerity. The result of this is a model of services for children in care that is broken, fundamentally, here in Wales, and that has entirely undermined those crucial elements of the continuity of care when it comes to providing services, and geographical areas.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:30, 4 June 2024

Reform in this area was long overdue, and we therefore welcome the Government's commitment to take forward the Plaid Cymru policy through the health and social care Bill. But much like the Cabinet Secretary for health's attempt to persuade voters that her party is at the forefront of modernising the NHS in Wales, the idea that Welsh Labour can be trusted with the transformation of children's services more broadly, after 25 years in power, has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. After all, a quarter of a century since the dawn of devolution, almost a third of children in Wales live in a state of poverty, with calls for the Welsh Government to develop child poverty strategies underpinned by robust and clear targets continuing to fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, recent statistics from Social Care Wales underline alarming gaps in the childcare workforce, with the number of vacancies in children's social care having increased in 2022 by 38.3 per cent, of which over 50 per cent were vacancies for qualified social workers.

We understand the inherent limitations of the Government's resources in this respect, which ultimately stems back to the unfairness of the Barnett formula that has left Wales short-changed year on year. But despite being the nation to which the Labour Party owes, arguably, the most, both in terms of its electoral success and its very existence, it is a damning indictment of how Wales is taken for granted by Keir Starmer that he refuses to commit to scrapping the unjust Barnett formula. This sense of complacency has been encapsulated by Labour's six general election campaign pledges for Wales, of which four have been the devolved responsibility of the Welsh Labour Government for years. Quite frankly, this is an insult to the intelligence of Welsh voters. But instead of calling out the apathy of the UK leader, and demanding better for Wales from the incoming Government, Welsh Ministers have seemingly been content to adopt a 'wait and hope for the best' approach, while our key public services, including children's services, continue to buckle from a lack of funding.

We can't wish for a brighter future for our children into being simply from goodwill alone, you need the practical resources to build it. So, my question, at the end of my contribution to the Minister is: will the Labour Party, UK-wide, commit to reforming the Barnett formula, and funding formula for Wales, in order to achieve what the Minister has set out to achieve here today?

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour

Diolch, Mabon. Thank you for those comments. We are clearly well and truly in the middle of a general election now, aren't we, so most of those comments were directed at UK Labour, rather than at Welsh Labour, in terms of what I as a Welsh Minister can do and am doing. So, I will concentrate on responding to the things that I'm responsible for, and then we will carry on and campaign for our respective parties outside of this Chamber. I hope that I will see Keir Starmer in No. 10 after 4 July, and I'm sure that we will be in a far better position than we are now.

Clearly, from our financial position at this moment in time, we know nothing about where we will be from March 2025. We have finances and budget settlements up to March 2025. A new incoming Government is going to have a very different approach to a whole range of things, so we can't really speak beyond that. But one of the things that I would say, to keep us on a positive footing, because I don't think there is a huge difference between us on what we are seeking to do here, is that we do have a joint aspiration on the transformation of children's services. And you're quite right, we worked very well together on the co-operation agreement, and I very much regret the ending of that agreement, particularly around areas of the elimination programme in particular. We've worked closely, we've worked collaboratively, and we had a joint agenda and we were on that path to delivering that joint agenda. We now have to deliver that alone, as a Welsh Government, but I hope that it will still continue to receive the support of Plaid Cymru, as it appears to have the general support of the Conservative benches as well.

There are challenges—of course there are challenges. We can't pretend that there are not. I am launching a new workforce strategy this week, which is addressing a number of the points that you have raised. We have done an awful lot in that area already, particularly around bringing in the real living wage into the social care workforce. But beyond pay, training and career development, professionalisation, the setting up of Social Care Wales and all of that—it's all helping towards moving us to a professionalised social care workforce, where we can grow our own as well, where we can have people that come in as social care workers but can develop within that role to become social workers, and eventually become our social services leaders in the future.

So, I’ve got a great ambition for that. This is something that I have championed since way before I came into this Senedd. As you will appreciate, I was a Unison official back in the day, so I have been championing this for an awful long time, and we have seen an amazing amount of success and progress in that area, but there's still a huge way to go. We are working in partnership with our trade unions, and we have the social care forum, and we are delivering now proposals for moving those kinds of pay conditions, progression policies, into the private sector as well as into the public and third sector. So, an awful lot more to do, but I think we are still on that road.

On elimination, I just want to re-emphasise, really, I suppose, the points that you were making, Mabon, that the removal of profit from the care of looked-after children is something that we are absolutely committed to do, and we are committed to do it because we know that it is what children themselves—the voices from care, the care-experienced children themselves—have said, that they are strongly opposed to organisations profiting from the experience of being in care, and we need to listen to them. We need to listen to the voices of care-experienced children. And we’re not talking about very young children—we’re talking about teenagers that have been through the system and are now at that age where they can articulate what they were probably feeling as very young children, but are now able to articulate, and we must listen to them.

The concept of profit being paid to shareholders on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our society is something that is anathema to me, and I am sure it is to you, and I want to see that money that is currently going in profit to shareholders being reinvested in the care of our children and young people.

So, yes, a very ambitious programme. Most of our programme is already costed. I’ve set out quite clearly some of the spending already, and I would look for that to be developed and increase as we go along.

I will be in committee on Thursday with you, where you will be scrutinising the Health and Social Care (Wales) Bill, and I am sure we will explore this a lot further then. But as I say, my position standing here today is that we are totally committed to not only delivering the health and social care Bill, but all elements of the transformation of children's services, which will contribute to the success of that Bill.

Photo of Joyce Watson Joyce Watson Labour 5:38, 4 June 2024

I want to focus on Parts 3 and 4, but I also want to make the point that I welcome working with Plaid Cymru on removing that profit element from the care sector. But due to time restrictions, I want to focus on 3 and 4. Part 3 is about sharing, through a good practice forum, the needs of children with complex needs who find themselves needing residential care. The money, the £25.4 million that has gone into that integrated care fund and housing care fund for accommodating those individuals, is critical. The reason I am then linking to Part 4, recognising the corporate parental role here, is pretty obvious, because I'm hoping, Minister—and this is my question, really—that that will be underpinned by an independent inspectorate that will report. In my view—. I will ask, request, that that's an annual report to local authorities and local health boards, so that that can be scrutinised, and those people in those areas, particularly local authorities, can be satisfied that the children that they are still responsible for as corporate parents, but may not reside within their jurisdiction—that they can satisfy themselves through those reports that those children have been looked after effectively, efficiently, but also being cared for rightly.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:40, 4 June 2024

Thank you, Joyce Watson, for those comments, and I think that's a very important point that you make. Inspection is absolutely critical to the development of these services. We have a very good inspectorate in Wales. We have Care Inspectorate Wales at the moment, which is independent of Government. We made sure that that inspectorate is fully funded so that they can continue with those inspections and their joint inspections of child protection arrangementsthe—the JICPAs, as they call them—which are really important where we have joint education, care and so on, police inspections, the whole gambit.

And we've got some really good examples of some of the projects that are delivering the new style or new types of care for children with complex needs. There are two in particular that I'd like to mention. There's an example called MyST in Gwent, and that provides specialist mental health services to children and people up to the age of 21 who are looked after, and involves children through social care and very complex mental health needs arising from early trauma. And that has been a really successful programme. So, again, these are models of centres that have been established with that fund that you referred to that I think could be an example of how we roll out in other areas.

There's another example called MAPS, and they provide up to 12 sessions of therapy to children and young people that are looked after by behaviour analysts, so they can work with young people to stablilise emotions and so on. And it will be absolutely critical that those services receive the proper inspection, that we get feedback on not only that they are delivering what we want them to deliver, but it's being done in an appropriate way in an appropriate setting, and we're getting the outcomes that we very clearly need. And, of course, that will also be covered in the health and social care Act, in the third Part of the Act around the regulations that need to be amended for other Acts to bring them in line with this.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you very much for your statement this afternoon, Minister, but I do take issue with eliminating the profits, unfortunately, but it's nothing new, you'll be pleased to know, because I've debated this for a long time with your predecessor, Julie Morgan, both in the Senedd and in the Health and Social Care Committee, because I had the social services brief for three years. So, I covered it quite extensively. 

The issue I do have is that, obviously, you make the comparison to shareholders in bigger companies, which is a more valid point, but I was approached when I did have the social services portfolio by small business owners who have invested a lot of money into those businesses, and personal investment into those for many years. And they actually contacted me to say that they haven't been consulted by the Welsh Government in that ensuing period from 2021 when the co-operation agreement was formed, and I was rather hoping that with a new First Minister and the end of the co-operation agreement it would stop, but that's not the case.

Could you update the Senedd this afternoon in terms of what consultation the Welsh Government have had with private childcare providers in that regard, because they do make up 80 per cent of the sector currently? It's an ambitious target, so I'm just wondering what consultation you've had with those sectors. Thanks. 

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:43, 4 June 2024

I think you are also on the health committee, Gareth, so we'll be exploring this—

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour

Oh, you're not anymore. Okay. So, you won't be exploring this with me on Thursday. Okay. Well, I won't go through the removing the profit aspects because, as you say, that is well rehearsed; we're not going to agree on that, but I do understand the points that you make. We have set out very clearly in the Bill the various models of not-for-profit organisations that we feel can operate in this area, so they are third sector, they are charities, it's local authority and so on.

Now, what we will be doing is giving an opportunity for many of the smaller organisations that you're talking about, many of whom—. I'm not suggesting for one moment that these organisations, these small businesses that are running children's homes are not doing so effectively and they're not doing it in the right way, but we just don't feel that the sector is currently resilient enough, because the private sector, in our view, does not provide that same level of resilience. And local authorities will be expected to produce a resilience plan, where they will have to identify that they have enough places for children in their local area, for their own children, so that we don't have so many children going out of county and so on. What I would say is that we are talking about a transition period; we are not talking about a cliff edge, where all of these private providers will suddenly stop operating in the market. Many of them will have long-term contracts with local authorities, they will have children in their care where, those children, that is their homes, and we're not intending to pull the rug from under those. And there will be very occasional circumstances where the most complex and unusual sets of circumstances may require us to place a child in a private provision, and the Bill does provide for that as well. What will happen is that, from April 2027, no new private providers will be authorised into the market.

But what I would say, in terms of the consultation, is that the third sector, private sector and local authority providers are all part of the eliminate programme board, along with the children's commissioner, along with Voices from Care Cymru, along with service commissioners, trade unions—they're all on that board and have all been feeding into the development of the provisions of the Bill, and we will continue talking to them. The Bill has a long way to go yet; we're still only at Stage 1. I suspect there will be a number of amendments that will come through at Stages 2 and 3, and quite rightly so, because this will need to be tinkered with as we go along. We need to get it right. We need to get it right; we want to make sure that this Bill does not deliver unintended consequences. So, all the people that you're talking about—the private sector, public sector, third sector—will continue to be involved in the discussions with us as we progress the Bill.