Child Protection Services (Aberdeen)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 4th December 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:15 pm, 4th December 2008

The next item of business is a statement by Adam Ingram on a report into child protection services in Aberdeen. The minister will take questions at the end of his 10-minute statement; therefore, there should be no interruptions or interventions during it.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 2:56 pm, 4th December 2008

I welcome the opportunity to set out how this Government is working with its partners to improve child protection services through inspection and collaborative work, to comment on the issue of legislation, and to update Parliament on the work that is under way to improve services in the Aberdeen City Council area following its recent inspection report.

The barbaric abuse that was suffered by Baby P reminds us exactly why we must ensure that effective support is in place for vulnerable children, so I am pleased to announce that I will launch a comprehensive review of our child protection guidance, drawing on the findings from the cycle of inspections that are under way, and reflecting the getting it right for every child change agenda for children's services. The review will build on the major three-year child protection reform programme that was launched by the previous Administration. It will take into account the aspirations that have been expressed by Scotland's child protection committees for embedding into consistent general use the best practice of Scotland's child protection practitioner community.

The findings of the recent Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education report on Aberdeen are deeply concerning. We were in touch with the council prior to the publication of the Social Work Inspection Agency's findings of 4 June about social work provision as a whole. When the oral findings from the HMIE inspection became clear in mid-June, Aberdeen—with our support—started tackling its problems immediately, rather than waiting for publication of the final report before taking decisive action. I reassure Parliament that I have sought and received assurances from the council and its child protection partners that the report's recommendations are being addressed urgently. Although considerable work remains to be done, a remedial action plan is already well under way, led by a temporary reforming programme director, who was appointed on 7 July. His remit is to improve service delivery by realigning social work and establishing clear financial direction and accountability for the service. Longer-term decisions will be for the incoming chief executive.

HMIE found organisational and operational barriers that obstructed front-line staff in Aberdeen in delivering effective child protection. In order to remove those barriers, the organisation of children's services is being redesigned to ensure that services are needs led, and that they mirror identified needs. Initial reviews of operational procedures have been completed and are being used to redesign services. The emphasis is on finding greater efficiencies and more effective social work interventions, so that the council will increasingly prevent, and divert individuals from, risk.

HMIE suggested that, at the time of its fieldwork in April and May, some children were being left in unacceptably risky situations. As a result, risk assessment of 900 existing cases is under way and will be completed this month in order to provide confidence that no child is in that situation, and 120 front-line staff have received, or are receiving, additional training. Also, lines of accountability have been shortened and strengthened significantly.

There have been no budget reductions in child protection services in Aberdeen. Elected members have increased capacity by funding additional social work posts, bringing the complement of children's services social workers to 90 full-time equivalents. Three posts were allocated to the social work team at Aberdeen maternity hospital and six new social worker posts will supplement the current children and families teams.

Those structural and practice changes are already delivering tangible benefits. The recent inspection by the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care into Aberdeen's fostering and adoption services recorded "significant progress", and added that improvements have taken place at every level of the service. The care commission imposed no requirements, which is encouraging, but there is still more to be done. HMIE will require a follow-up report in four months and I, too, will monitor progress.

Aberdeen's is the 24th inspection report to be published. The remaining reports are due by mid-2009. I announced my intention to instigate a review of our child protection guidance, drawing on the findings of those 24 reports and of the reports that are to be published in the coming months.

Joint inspection of services to protect children, which has been led by HMIE, is multi-agency—a first for Scotland—with inspectors seconded to HMIE from the Social Work Inspection Agency, the care commission, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary for Scotland and NHS Quality Improvement Scotland. The inspection team has the expertise to scrutinise all aspects of child protection provision and to understand how the different agencies need to work together.

The inspection process begins long before an inspector calls. The HMIE guide "How well are children and young people protected and their needs met?" helps services to examine themselves against 18 quality indicators, not just as preparation for inspection but as an exercise in self-scrutiny. The Crerar report emphasised the need for robust self-evaluation, which HMIE has championed for years. No organisation can improve without first taking a critical look at itself. That is now happening in Aberdeen.

Inspection is not just a one-off visit and even the best authorities could do better. Every report includes recommendations for improvement and every area is asked to prepare an action plan following inspection. Every authority can also expect a follow-up inspection within two years of the original visit. We encourage poorer-performing councils to work with other councils on improvements where that is appropriate.

I turn to the wider perspective. In cases in which children need multi-agency intervention, we need agencies to work effectively together, using the same language, sharing a common approach to assessing risks and needs and sharing information, with each agency playing its part but with clear lines of accountability and responsibility. The getting it right for every child policy is working to achieve that.

The previous Administration consulted on a draft children's services bill. When we came into Government, we listened to social workers, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and others and we learned that new legislation would be better deferred until practical experience suggests whether legislating will yield real benefits. Parliamentary debate in 2006, during the passage of the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill, revealed concerns that a statutory duty to share information might lead to greater bureaucracy and a culture of organisations watching their backs, which might distract from the necessary focus on nurturing confident and competent decision making by skilled professionals on the front line. It is our skilled professionals who provide the key.

It is easy to seek to blame when something awful happens, such as the cruel life and death of Baby P, but without the compassion, judgment and vigilant care that is exercised every day by Scotland's child protection practitioners, many more children would find themselves trapped in intolerably risky situations. I value profoundly the work that those front-line staff do, and I welcome the opportunity that they have to continue to receive the support that they need to do their jobs well, through developments such as the framework for continuous learning in social services, which I launched yesterday.

In summary, we are working with our partners to address the need for improved information sharing, improved risk assessment and improved multi-agency working on the ground.

We are beginning to see practical results from the getting it right for every child agenda, such as the national guidance that was launched in September. It is important that we continue to work through the pathfinders and with our partners to learn lessons. I am not ruling out legislation in the future, but our current path is clear. Our forthcoming framework on early years and early intervention will reinforce our policy.

I am heartened by the genuine consensus in the Parliament to continue listening and learning in the complex area of child protection. I am determined to offer leadership and to take action to protect our most vulnerable children.

A comprehensive review of our child protection guidance affords the opportunity to set out our vision for child protection for the next decade and to reflect the aspirations of Scotland's community of child protection practitioners to improve the delivery of services to our most vulnerable children. I am pleased to confirm that we will start that work in the new year with the full involvement of our child protection committee partners.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I thank the minister for the advance copy of the statement. However, I am disappointed, given the seriousness of the issue, that it was not the cabinet secretary who made the statement.

Social workers, teachers, health professionals, police and everyone who works to keep our children safe do a very challenging job. They make complex and difficult judgments and deserve our support. In most cases they do an exemplary job.

I welcome the minister's announcement of a review of child protection, but I do not believe that it is enough. When a similarly serious and critical report was released on child protection services in Midlothian Council in February 2007, both the council cabinet member and the senior official who were responsible for social work resigned from their posts and Hugh Henry, the Scottish Cabinet member responsible for children, met Midlothian Council as a matter of urgency to discuss the report.

Can the minister outline to Parliament the official meetings that the cabinet secretary or the ministers have had with Aberdeen City Council to discuss the issues highlighted in the report? The report identifies failings in practice and management as serious as those that were brought to the fore by the Baby P case in Haringey, although mercifully no child has died as a result of the failings in Aberdeen. In Haringey, the council leader and the cabinet member for children both recognised the seriousness of the situation and stepped down from their posts. Does the cabinet secretary or the minister share my concern that neither the full Aberdeen City Council nor any of its committees have met to discuss the report? Is not it regrettable that no Aberdeen councillor has considered his or her position? Does not the attitude of Aberdeen City Council's leadership display a reluctance to take responsibility for their administration's serious failings? If Aberdeen City Council will not take responsibility, will the cabinet secretary take responsibility for protection of children in the Aberdeen area?

Finally, will the minister undertake to come back to Parliament in June to update Parliament through another statement on progress in implementing much-needed improvements to child protection in Aberdeen?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I acknowledge the member's support for social workers.

I met elected members and senior officials of Aberdeen City Council back in June, shortly after the publication of the social work report. My colleagues the Minister for Public Health, Shona Robison, and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, also attended the meeting.

Over the summer, Aberdeen City Council has not only demonstrated its accountability, but has clearly assumed responsibility for improving the services that came in for such criticism both from the social work inspectorate and in the HMIE report that has subsequently been published.

I record my appreciation of the responsiveness of both the elected members and senior officials in Aberdeen City Council who have been brought in to sort out the problems in the social work department. They have done exceptionally well. As I mentioned in my statement, 900 child protection cases are being reviewed. They were immediately reviewed, and are now being gone through again as part of a risk assessment process. The training of social work staff is also on-going.

There have been significant improvements in the social work department of Aberdeen City Council. I would have thought that we should commend such actions rather than retrospectively hang blame on people. There have been significant changes in Aberdeen in the past six to nine months, and I put on record my appreciation of the work of Philip Cotterill, who is doing a first-class job in the circumstances that he inherited.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I welcome the ministerial statement, which commits the Government to a comprehensive review of child protection services and which details the progress that has been made in Aberdeen City Council. Let me restate the Conservatives' willingness to work with all parties to secure measures that will improve the protection of our vulnerable children.

The statement is timely, given the research that was published yesterday in The Lancet, which found that one in 10 children in the United Kingdom faces some form of physical, mental or emotional abuse and, just as worryingly, that teachers, general practitioners and paediatricians have concerns about some support services. The inspection report on Aberdeen highlighted the fact that the quality of child protection services was unsatisfactory in key areas, referring particularly to some instances of high risk.

I have two specific questions. First, what is being done to improve the risk and needs assessment processes and the information-sharing process? It would be reassuring to parents to know about that. Secondly, what specific measures will the Government urge Aberdeen City Council to pursue to increase the number of safe places for children who are at risk of significant harm—not only those who are facing significant harm but those who are at risk—so that there is earlier detection of potential problems?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Elizabeth Smith mentioned the article in The Lancet . There were three clear messages from that article: we need to identify children's risks and needs at the earliest opportunity; we need to recognise the serious consequences of maltreatment later in life; and more attention is needed for neglected children, the outcomes for whom are as bad as those for abused children.

The evidence is that the number of referrals to child protection services is rising year on year, which may mean that we are getting better at identifying children who are in need of care and support. The getting it right for every child approach recognises and tackles neglect, as it does abuse. Our early years and early intervention framework, which is aimed at preventing risk and at building parental capacity and child resilience, will be announced soon.

Elizabeth Smith asked about what we are doing on risk and needs assessments. I will meet child protection committee conveners next week to discuss what further support is required to strengthen risk assessment and management in child protection cases. We have been developing a risk assessment model or framework through GIRFEC pathfinders and are considering how to embed that in the localised risk assessment framework that individual local authorities might have.

Elizabeth Smith also asked about the number of places that are available. As we heard from the care commission, Aberdeen City Council has made significant improvements in fostering and adoption services over the past year. It is also making significant strides in reducing the number of out-of-area placements and it is seeking community-based places in Aberdeen for children who are at risk. Obviously, we will be able to give more feedback as matters progress in the next few months.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister for the copy of his statement and for his personal commitment.

I welcome the announcement of a review of child protection guidance. Our amendment in the recent debate, which the Government and Parliament supported, asked for an immediate review, so I welcome the fact that the Government has acted on that.

I echo the comments that other members have made about the debt that we owe to staff, and I welcome the news that Aberdeen City Council is addressing the issues that arose in the extremely worrying report, particularly on risk assessment for children who might still be at risk.

I will raise some issues that I raised in the recent debate. The first is early intervention. One of the worrying statements in the report was that, in many cases, action was taken only when crisis point had been reached or a situation had gone beyond that point. What practical steps is the council taking to improve early intervention and to ensure that it is child focused, not parent led?

Many of the children who were on the child protection register did not have allocated social workers, which is worrying. Will the minister reassure us that that matter was dealt with immediately? Will he also give us some idea of whether the problem is common in other local authorities?

We are not wedded to the idea of legislation on information sharing. However, given the central importance of communication and information sharing between professionals, we are wedded to ensuring that it will not go off the radar screen but will be kept continually under review so that information that becomes available as a result of the review that the minister announced, and the on-going reviews of other council services, can be brought to bear in judging whether legislation is the best way forward.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Early intervention is one of the key initiatives that we want to take forward—indeed, it runs through all our proposals for children's services. In Aberdeen, an initiative of which I think Margaret Smith would approve is the attachment of social workers and support workers to Aberdeen maternity hospital to identify babies who are at risk, largely from parental or maternal substance misuse. Support was put in place to ensure that those children would not go home to high-risk situations.

On allocated social workers, there has been a significant increase in the number of children's services social workers in Aberdeen. That is one of the investments that Aberdeen City Council has made. Six extra children's services social workers have been brought on board, and I understand that another four are due. Therefore, we are well on the way to ensuring that every child who is at risk has an allocated social worker. I cannot guarantee that that is the situation at the moment, but I will follow that up. When I meet officials from Aberdeen City Council next month, it will be high on my list of questions.

We are not closing off the possibility of legislation further down the line, but currently the pathfinders for the getting it right for every child programme are going on and we are considering the hard, practical steps that we can take to improve information sharing. We have not discovered legal barriers to information sharing; it is all about changing attitudes, behaviours and cultures and getting people to work together. If we identify barriers, or if we identify legal mechanisms that would help the process, we will bring proposals to Parliament in due course.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Before I call back benchers, I advise members that there are exactly five minutes left for this item of business. A considerable number of members want to be called, many of whom are local members. You will not all be called—I will not apologise for something that is not my fault. Make your questions very short, please. It would be helpful if the answers were short, too.

I call Brian Adam, who I hope can be followed by Karen Whitefield.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that the inspection report system is excellent and has picked up problems early, which did not happen in Haringey? Will he say more about the next steps on the review that he announced?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

It is important to acknowledge that the joint inspection regime that is led by HMIE is much more extensive and intensive than is the equivalent approach by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills—Ofsted—in England. In Scotland, inspectors review 60 to 80 case files in depth, and follow up their reviews through interviews with managers, front-line staff and service users including children. Notice is given of inspections in order to allow the gathering of detailed information, which is important for establishing context and providing robust recommendations. We are interested not merely in a snapshot of the standards that are being operated by a council at a given time but in how the service needs to develop.

Early in the new year I will take forward the review of child protection guidance, along with all our partners, in particular child protection committee conveners, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and national health service partners.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Is the minister concerned that Aberdeen City Council's social work budget for 2009-10 involves the axing of nine posts in children's services? I understand that two posts that support children and young people who are experiencing domestic violence are to be merged. Given that the HMIE report highlighted the council's failure to recruit and retain staff, will the minister assure members that there will be no future cuts to social work budgets for children's and child protection services?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I have said that child protection services have received significant investment and support from the Administration. The funding of services is a matter for the local authority. We know that Aberdeen has over the years appeared to have significant overspends in its social work and education budgets, and we know from Social Work Inspection Agency reports that there is no correlation between spending and quality of services. There is significant scope for efficiencies in Aberdeen City Council's social work services. Given the performance of the new management, I am confident that social work and children's services will be stabilised.

The interim social work manager has indicated that he wants to rejuvenate the partnership that Aberdeen City Council has had with third sector and voluntary organisations. As a result, I foresee significant improvements in services, such as advocacy services, which were the subject of a recent press release. I am confident that Aberdeen is on the right track.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I call Nicol Stephen. Be brief, please, Mr Stephen.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

The minister will be aware that significant new cuts are being proposed in education and children's social work services in Aberdeen. I particularly welcome the proposed early follow up by HMIE in four months, but it is staggeringly clear that young vulnerable children are still being failed in some parts of Scotland. That cannot be allowed to continue, and guidance alone will clearly not be enough. Will the minister confirm that the Scottish Government stands ready to provide additional support and resources to Aberdeen City Council to help it turn around the unsatisfactory situation, should that support be requested?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I think that Aberdeen City Council is getting significant support not only from the Scottish Government, but from friends within the local government community.

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but it is important that I pick up on Nicol Stephen's comment that child protection guidance will not be enough. Of course it will not. However, we are taking forward a series of initiatives on child protection. There is the getting it right for every child approach to risk assessment, which I emphasised; the forthcoming early years framework; the establishment of the multi-agency support service to advise and support partners in the handling of complex cases; the forthcoming vetting and barring scheme to exclude from the childcare workforce those who would harm children; the guidance, associated with the road to recovery strategy, on children who are affected by parental substance misuse; and our review of child protection guidance. The Government is taking forward a range of initiatives to ensure that our children are safe and protected.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

That ends the questions.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. When you invited back-bench questions, you indicated that you were looking for brief and focused questions and answers. Unfortunately, although I do not doubt the minister's sincerity on these matters, his answers were distinctly lacking in brevity. As a consequence, local members have not been able to raise many important issues, but instead have had only a lengthy description of the inspectorate system.

I seek your guidance on this matter, Presiding Officer, as it seems to me that the purpose of a statement is to allow members to ask questions in Parliament.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

As you probably know, Mr Macdonald, that was not a point of order. I accept what you are—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I am in the middle of saying something. Has somebody gone deaf?

Mr Macdonald, that was not a point of order. However, I hear what you are saying. I asked the minister and back benchers to be brief. After that, I am not responsible for how long they take. You should remember that. Perhaps you should refer back to the Parliamentary Bureau and consider the length of time that was allocated for this statement—perhaps it was not enough.

I take your point, and regret that I was not able to allow local members apart from Nicol Stephen to ask a question. However, it is not my fault.

Now, Mr Stephen—we are all listening to you.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

In the Business Bulletin , no time is given for the start of the Scottish Government debate on forced marriages. Is it therefore possible for discretion to be used with regard to the start of that debate, in order that local members might ask questions on the minister's statement? Alternatively, might a motion without notice be moved to lengthen the time that has been allocated for questions on the statement by an additional five minutes?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Under normal circumstances, it is possible to allow a bit of moving about of times. However, I point out that I am already in the position of having to write to two members who asked to speak in the next debate to inform them that I will not be able to call them.

Of course, all statements are important, but if members feel that a statement is particularly important, they might want to ask the Parliamentary Bureau to revisit the time that has been allocated to it.

I have timings in front of me. We have to vote at five o'clock. That is the rule—I am sorry, but I can say no more than that. However, I point out that, given the time that we have now spent on points of order, I will probably have to tell three members who wanted to speak in the following debate that I will not be able to call them.