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Children of Drug Abusers

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:32 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 5:32 pm, 16th September 2004

I intended to come to that point and I fundamentally agree that we need to consider good practice and persuade others to share and engage in it.

I was trying to make the point that there will always be a problem, no matter how much we spend. However, we all need to be much more rigorous—whether that is at Executive level or as individual members of the Scottish Parliament who have influence in our communities and who work with councils and voluntary organisations—in asking questions about the money that is spent in communities. What is that money achieving? How can the situation be improved?

Yesterday, during a discussion about the problem and similar matters, I heard about good initiatives that are being developed in communities and schools, such as the initiatives at Forthview Primary School and Firrhill High School, which support children and parents who abuse substances. We need to encourage much more of that good practice.

We are spending significant amounts of money and we have issued policy guidance on a range of matters. In February 2003, we issued "Getting our priorities right: Good Practice Guidance for working with Children and Families affected by Substance Misuse", which sets out our expectations of organisations that work with families in which parents or carers misuse substances—alcohol as well as drugs. The document covers some of the key issues that Trish Godman identified, such as referrals and information sharing. David Davidson spoke about the problem of exchanging information and it is critical that we try to resolve those problems, which are caused sometimes by preciousness and sometimes by a desire to hide behind legal issues—I know that Paul Martin has mentioned that in other contexts. We need to get people to work together and share information.

Trish Godman posed fundamental questions. When should we intervene? We want children to stay with their families if possible and we want families to take responsibility for their children. We do not want a situation in which the state simply assumes all the responsibility. There is a critical point at which we need to intervene. If we intervene too early, we interfere inappropriately, but if we intervene too late, the damage might well have been done, as Trish Godman rightly pointed out.

Christine Grahame talked about young carers and the effects on children who are made to assume responsibilities that are way beyond their years. The Executive published "It's everyone's job to make sure I'm alright: Report of the Child Protection Audit and Review", which highlighted the impact of parental drug use on child protection work. The First Minister announced a five-point plan to deliver improvements to child protection services, including a three-year reform programme. We want to ensure that our approach is child focused rather than systems driven and we need to talk more to children themselves. Through our carer strategy, we support young carers and we have almost quadrupled the amount of money that we spend on young carers. I am sure that we could always do more. In the partnership agreement, we made a commitment to expand respite care.

In "A Framework for maternity services in Scotland", we made a commitment to improve practice in helping pregnant women who have drug and alcohol problems. We want to work on improving information management and sharing arrangements, to help to identify children who are at risk as a result of parental drug and alcohol misuse.

It is true that we have an idea of, but do not know exactly, the scale of the problem. We need to do much more to get behind the statistics, stop relying on anecdotal evidence and ascertain the scale of the problem so that we can target resources more accurately.

I mentioned two schools that have done excellent work. Schools can play a key role. As far back as 2000 we issued "Guidelines for the Management of Incidents of Drug Misuse in Schools", which made it clear that if a child is at risk as a result of parental drug use, child protection procedures should be followed. A working group is currently exploring how schools can help to build relationships with hard-to-reach parents, including drug misusers, because many parents who misuse drugs are suspicious of professionals.

We are spending more money than ever on early-years services. We have to begin early. We are providing facilities to offer pre-school services to three and four-year-olds. In communities in Glasgow and elsewhere, we have excellent integrated early-years services that address not only education but support for parents, health initiatives and so on. However, the tragedy is that some parents do not access those services. The worst problem is that those parents do not come because they do not want to be seen and do not want to engage. There is a hidden problem, because children are left at home during very important years of their development. Their development will be permanently impaired if we cannot reach out to them.

I assure the members who have participated in this excellent debate that we are spending more money than ever before. However, we have to think about how we spend that money. We are committed to doing even more but we have to identify the scale of the problem and we have to ask ourselves what we are achieving. We have to tell all the services involved that they cannot work in isolation. They need to co-operate and to integrate; they need to work across their boundaries. People have to stop being precious about what they do.

Trish Godman has left us with a series of questions that could not be answered easily tonight. She asked about sustainability, about focusing on the child, about grandparents, about the appropriateness and quantity of services, and—quite rightly—about the statistics. We have to use this occasion as a useful stage to allow us to move the debate forward. I assure members that we are committed to doing that. We will reflect on the "Hidden Harm" report and consider what needs to be done. However, as Kenny MacAskill suggested, we should not kid ourselves that this is easy, that money alone is enough, or that we can legislate the problem away. There is a big problem that we all have to address—across our party differences and across our community differences.

I hope that, after five years, we can come back to Trish Godman and say that, even though we might not have solved the problem for each and every child in a family with a drug misuser, we did make an effort and we did make progress. I hope that we will be able to show her examples of how we have changed the lives of people in our community for the better, because we will never be able to put a price on transforming the life of a child beyond all recognition through interventions.

I thank Trish Godman for stimulating this debate tonight. It has been a very good debate, but we all have much more to do.

Meeting closed at 17:43.