Cookies: We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. By continuing to use the site you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more.

House of Commons Hansard

Looked-after Children/Social Work Reform

20 October 2016
Volume 615

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered the Fourth Report from the Education Committee of Session 2015-16, on Mental health and well-being of looked after children, HC 481, and the Government response, Cm 9284, and the Third Report from the Education Committee of Session 2016-17, on Social work reform, HC 201, and the Government response, HC 733.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to debate the Select Committee on Education’s work on children’s services and the mental health and wellbeing of looked-after children, and on social work reform. Our Committee has a large and growing set of responsibilities, so it is an extremely good use of time to debate two of our reports at once. I appreciate the House’s indulgence. I pay tribute to the specialist advice we have received from Dr Matt Woolgar; Professor David Berridge, our adviser on such matters; and Marion Davis, also one of our advisers. All three contributed massively to the value of our work, and that is much appreciated.

    During our inquiries, we heard from children in care, care leavers, foster carers, social workers and other front-line mental health workers. We visited the excellent services provided by Trafford Council, and we took evidence from a young woman in care and two carers with experience of mental health services. Our meetings with children and professionals in Trafford and Westminster were crucial to the recommendations we made. I thank all those who gave their time to speak to us; they spoke in a very helpful and frank manner.

    There are significant challenges to overcome in both looked-after children’s mental health and social work reform. The responses from the Government to our recommendations were, frankly, a little disappointing. We need urgent action to solve problems with mental health services for looked-after children, but the Government have not acknowledged the urgency, and have passed the ball to an expert working group, rather than making the immediate changes that the Committee pressed for. Indeed, many of the people contributing to that working group will be similar to, if not the same as, those who contributed to our findings. Our recommendations on social work reform have largely been ignored. During our inquiry, it was clear that there are things that need to change, but again, the Department has not really taken what we suggested on board.

    I shall start with the Select Committee’s inquiry on the mental health and wellbeing of looked-after children. Following a report on child and adolescent mental health services by the Health Committee and an update to the Government’s statutory guidance, we felt that it was a policy area that required scrutiny, so we launched our inquiry in September 2015. Almost half of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and they are significantly more likely to experience poor health and educational and social outcomes than their non-looked-after peers. Let us not forget that children in these situations are children of the state, because of their special circumstances. Our inquiry took evidence from experts including Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds; Professor Peter Fonagy from NHS England; and Natasha Devon, founder of the Self-Esteem Team.

    In April this year, we published our report. We found that provision for looked-after children with mental health concerns is poor in many areas throughout England. That variance should be of concern to us all. Some local authorities are providing integrated services, with a strong focus on multi-agency working and support for key workers such as foster carers and school staff; others are not. A significant number are failing to identify mental health issues when young children enter care, and services are turning away vulnerable young people for not meeting diagnostic thresholds, or for being without a stable placement. So there is good and there is bad, which is not acceptable. We found that methods of assessing children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing as they enter care are inconsistent, and too often fail to identify those in need of specialist care and support. For that reason, we recommended that all looked-after children have a full mental health assessment, carried out by a qualified mental health professional.

    Leaving the care system can be a time of significant upheaval and disruption, and the period is likely to be even more unsettling for care leavers with mental health concerns. In short, it is the cliff-edge problem. We found that support for young people leaving care is inadequate and based too heavily on inflexible age restrictions. We therefore recommended that care leavers be able to access CAMHS up to the age of 25, rather than the current age of 18, and that the initial assessments of those entering care be carried out more thoroughly and consistently.

    We received a huge amount of evidence on the capacity of CAMHS to respond and treat looked-after children and young people. We heard too many times that CAMHS refuse to treat young people who are without a permanent settled placement. The young woman we took evidence from, to whom I referred earlier, said that she had been waiting for CAMHS for more than two and a half years, but had been unable to access services because she had moved a staggering 13 times during that period. We recommended that CAMHS never refuse to see children or young people without a stable placement, or delay access to services until a placement becomes permanent. In recognition of the distinct challenges that looked-after children and young people face, we recommended that they have priority access to mental health assessments by specialist practitioners, and that subsequent treatment be based on clinical need.

    The Government’s response acknowledged the vulnerability of looked-after children and the need for timely and effective mental health diagnosis and treatment. We are pleased that the Government have set up an expert working group for looked-after children’s mental health and wellbeing; however, having conducted a lengthy and detailed inquiry on the issue, we are disappointed that so many of our recommendations have simply been referred to that group. We will monitor the working group’s progress, and look forward to receiving updates from its co-chairs in due course, because we are very interested in the subject.

    Let us move on to the second report. At the start of the year, we launched an inquiry on the Government’s plans for social work reform—and they do have plans. Although the Government had previously made it clear that improving the quality of child and family social workers and children’s services was a priority, the lack of clarity on how the aim would be achieved meant that we believed it was an important area for us to look at. During our inquiry, we heard from social workers, social work academics, local authority leaders, and many more experts in the field.

    Social workers deliver an incredibly important service to some of the most vulnerable children in the country, but evidence suggests that they are doing more work than ever before. Children’s social workers are managing increased case loads: we have the highest number of children in care for 30 years, and the number of children subject to a child protection plan has risen by 50% in the past five years alone. Just last month, Sir James Munby, the president of the family courts, issued a warning about what he terms a “clear and imminent crisis” facing care proceedings, because in the past 10 years the number of care applications going through the courts has doubled. Despite those increased workloads, it is important to remember what an important job social workers do. The number of children who die due to homicide or assault has fallen by 69% since 1985 and remains in long-term decline. That is thanks to the hard work of social workers, police and others. This is not a story of social workers not doing things; the question is how they are led and resourced.

    Although we can never be complacent when it comes to the safety of children, the Government need to ensure that in making reforms we do not forget about the good work that children’s social workers do across the country, which often goes unnoticed. On behalf of the Select Committee, I thank social workers for what they do, and I want that message to be amplified.

    We published our report in July. We found significant weaknesses in the planned reforms, and recommended important changes. Existing career pathways are confusing, and provision of continuing professional development is inadequate and inconsistent. A national career development framework is urgently required. Children’s social workers need much more assistance after qualifying to enable them to specialise. That became increasingly obvious as we carried out our work. During our inquiry, we regularly heard that it is vital that social workers receive a generic start, with specialisation to follow afterwards. In the current system, however, that is far too difficult to achieve.

    The Government’s reforms do not focus enough on tackling endemic retention problems. The average social worker’s career is only eight years long, compared with 16 years for a nurse or 25 years for a doctor. Almost a fifth of social work jobs are vacant, and they are mostly filled by agency workers. Poor working conditions, caused by high case loads, negative media coverage and the blame culture, are a threat to keeping good, experienced social workers in place. We need manageable case loads for those workers, and a national workforce planning system to forecast supply and demand. We also need to talk about social work in a positive way. I have done that already, but it is very important that we do so frequently. Without immediate action in these areas, experienced social workers will continue to feel under pressure and undervalued, and will therefore leave the profession.

    One of the biggest problems facing social workers is the lack of a professional body. The closure of the College of Social Work in 2015 has led to a significant absence of high-profile leadership for the profession. A new body would take the lead on a number of crucial functions and so drive improvement in the sector, for example by defining CPD and the post-qualifying framework; endorsing courses; promoting practice excellence; and shaping national and local policy. That really is the No.1 priority and could address so many of the retention issues. The Government should halt their regulatory reforms until they have figured out a way to help the sector to replace the College of Social Work.

    Finally, we could not ignore the wider context in which children’s social workers operate. While we welcome the attempt to introduce innovation, the Government’s proposals are untested. We do not believe that there should be any expansion of the independent trust model until there is clear evidence that it works. Unfortunately, despite the Government agreeing with us on so many issues in their response, that response seems to show that they are determined on their course of reform and unwilling to reconsider it.

  • I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

    Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that too often there appears to be an obsession with changing structures, titles and the nature of the vehicles delivering children’s social care, when what really makes a difference are some of the things that he has already mentioned, such as making sure that we do not have 20% vacancies for social workers in certain parts of the country—that is why there is such a huge variance in the number of children taken into care in different local authorities—and looking at the quality of the outcomes for these children? We should do that, rather than obsessing about the system, which is supposedly there to help these children. It is the people on the ground and to whom my hon. Friend quite rightly paid tribute—the too-often maligned social workers—who really help, but they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for making some really strong points. He is absolutely right about the obsession with structure, as opposed to the importance of the people operating within it. That is why I first of all pay tribute to social workers, and believe that their leadership and reputation need to be enhanced and protected through a professional body; that is something that the Government have to think about carefully.

    Although we are happy to hear that the Government plan to consult on many of their reforms, we still believe that there is a lack of detail on how to tackle some of the trickier issues, such as the retention of social workers. Moreover, there is a lack of detail on how some of the proposals are to be taken forward, and how extensive and binding the consultation exercises are likely to be.

    The Government said in their response to our report:

    “We agree that the development of a strong professional body for social work is important.”

    However, they also said that they thought such a body

    “would be one established by the…profession.”

    We are a bit disappointed about that, because we believe that the Government need to be much more proactive in their efforts to replace the College of Social Work. I hope that the Minister will address that point when he rises to his feet.

    The sector needs to be more heavily involved in this area, of course, but the Government have previously invested in the College of Social Work, and there is still a key role for them to play in the creation of a new professional body; it is not sufficient for them to say that the profession needs such a body while doing nothing to encourage its creation. The establishment instead of a Government-controlled regulator seems to suggest precisely the opposite: that the task of defining social work, and good social work practice, is being taken out of the hands of social workers. That is the opposite direction of travel to the one that we recommend. That is worrying, and we are concerned that the Government have not fully understood the significance of the move towards regulation, and away from supporting the creation of a professional body.

    Social workers face pressurised working conditions, and the Government response suggests that action on that issue is not being taken quickly enough. Our recommendation that social workers nationally have manageable case loads was rejected. That was despite Ofsted saying that the local authorities that were judged to be good had almost always set manageable limits for their social workers—something we picked up on in Trafford. A recent National Audit Office report that was very critical of the Government’s action on improving children’s services also raised the issue of social worker case loads. We are disappointed that no immediate action on this front is planned.

    In some cases, the Government’s response was to reject our recommendations without sufficient justification. For example, despite agreeing that the assessed and supported year in employment was important for newly qualified social workers, they rejected the recommendation to make it mandatory. We are unclear as to why they did that.

    Both our inquiries revealed the pressures that children’s services are under. Our inquiry on the mental health of looked-after children found that CAMHS are overwhelmed, and that many specialist teams that offered targeted support for looked-after children have been abolished due to financial pressures. In some areas, children’s social workers face having unmanageable case loads, which is leading to low morale and poor working conditions, as was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).

    Experienced social workers are exiting the profession in record numbers. As I have said, Ofsted has found that the local authorities that are judged to be good tend to be the ones that give their social workers manageable case loads; the Government must take account of that.

    We also found that services were inconsistent across the country. I have already said this, but it is important to note that initial mental health assessments are highly variable. Many local authorities are not meeting their statutory requirement to ensure that all children are properly assessed on entering care. I would have thought that was of fundamental importance. While there are some good authorities—we cannot deny that, and we should always support those that are good—that support their children’s social workers with good leadership, access to continuing professional development and manageable case loads, far too many are still not in that category, or even in the vicinity of it. There are regions with significant retention problems, and it is clear from Ofsted reports that plugging the gap with agency workers does not bring about a satisfactory solution.

    Both inquiries found that training and development for professionals in children’s services are poor. Children’s social workers lack a professional body, and their access to CPD is inconsistent and inadequate. Put simply, it is not good enough. A new professional body for social work, created with help from the Government, could define professional standards for qualifying and post-qualifying practice, and be given a mandate to define the CPD and post-qualifying pathways for the children’s social work profession. This debate is about a profession and the people within it, and we believe that they should have an appropriate body.

    Training and support for foster and residential carers is highly variable, and many local authorities fail to equip carers with the knowledge and skills needed to support looked-after children with mental health difficulties. Foster and residential carers are professionals who need comprehensive and regular training in how properly to support children and young people in their care. We have recently launched a further inquiry on fostering, and we will look in more detail at the issues in the coming months.

    Despite the Government agreeing with much of our thinking, the responses to both reports lacked the determined aim to implement change in an urgent fashion. It is hugely disappointing that the Government referred so many of the recommendations to an expert working group. On such an important and pressing issue, delaying action and effectively passing the buck is not helpful.

  • I share my hon. Friend’s frustration, but the frustration is worse than that: some of the recommendations in his Committee’s excellent reports relate to recommendations made in the Munro review, which reported in 2011. Since then, very little progress has been made on those recommendations, which have been looked at, researched and looked at again, and they remain unimplemented.

  • I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. He underlines points that I have made, but he is absolutely right about the lack of progress since 2011.

    I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about these issues in the Chamber, because both reports are emblematic of our interest in the whole question of children’s services. I thank all the Members who have come to participate. Two of my colleagues on the Education Committee have done so, and I am grateful to them. We have a huge chance to make an important difference in both these critical areas. It is clear that we all share the objective of improving outcomes for children in care, and I do not doubt that the Minister is as keen as we are to see improvement. I am grateful for all that he has done in the past to demonstrate that commitment. We need a response to my questions, and an approach to our two reports that suggests a sense of urgency and a commitment to ensuring that we can deliver a better future for children in need of support and help. I commend those thoughts to the House, and I hope that the Minister will answer my questions in due course.

  • I thank the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), for setting the scene so well. As many in the Chamber will know, I have a particular interest in the mental health and wellbeing of children, which the report looks into in some detail. I want to provide some comment on the report, while being ever mindful of the way that the hon. Gentleman has clearly set out the issues, where the needs are, and perhaps where they have not been met but we hope that they will.

    The issue of foster children is of particular interest to me. I know that it is of interest to many others, inside the Chamber and outside it. I commend the members of the Education Committee on the report and the hard work and effort they have clearly put into it. They should be praised for that, and I put that on record.

    The welfare of children is one of the most important issues that this House can deal with. Decisions made in this place have the ability to help or hinder a child in their progress towards becoming a contributing member of society. We only get one chance to have a great childhood. We do not get a chance to relive it, just as we do not get a chance to relive later stages of our lives. I was blessed to have a great stable home life, with parents who loved and supported us no matter what the issues were. I have attempted to give my sons a great childhood, and I do what I can in my granddaughters’ lives to see them happy and contented.

    The thrust and the theme of the report, I suggest, is how we can look after children at the earliest stage. My home is not perfect. As a father I have done things that I probably should not have done. I have made mistakes, and were my boys here they would laughingly list some of my not-so-finest moments—I am sure there are many—but there is love in our home, and that is important. The report gives us a chance to understand the issues in fostering and the need for foster parents.

    It breaks my heart that 2,212 children were living with foster families in Northern Ireland as of 31 March. It is a devolved matter, and I understand that. That figure is nearly nine-tenths—88%—of the 2,500 children in care looked after away from home in Northern Ireland. There are approximately 2,095 foster families in Northern Ireland, and the Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 170 foster families in the next 12 months.

    I have spoken about the issues before in the House, and they are real in my constituency. I have a particular interest in fostering, and I meet people every week in my office who are affected by it. It breaks my heart when I meet women who have given their children up because, although they love them, they cannot give them the life they deserve and need or, sometimes, the care they need. Sometimes love just is not enough. Help and support should be available for those brave families who make sacrifices to give their child a good start in life. The issues are real, and the report’s important recommendations would ensure that children who have to be looked after away from home are helped in the best way possible and the strategy in place is the best available.

    In particular, I echo the recommendation that the Government amend the statutory guidance to make it clear that a strengths and difficulties questionnaire should be completed as a starting point for every child entering care. I commend the Committee on that helpful recommendation. Children who are put into care feel that loss the most keenly. They feel abandoned, unwanted and unloved, and those feelings can lead to emotional wounds that may never heal if they do not receive the care and attention that is needed. Putting that recommendation in the report goes a long way to addressing the issues that I perceive in the system. The mental health assessment is one step in ensuring that children get the care and support they need for healing to take place, for them to be integrated into society and to make them feel part of society.

    I was surprised to learn that the CAMHS team does not help those who are not in a long-term home. While I can understand the rationale—a stable environment helps the process—I have also seen at first hand the tremendous job that the team can do. That is not just in my constituency, but across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My office has helped many people who would swear by the difference that our local CAMHS team in Newtownards is able to make with children. The team does marvellous work, and I would like to see a wee bit more focus on that. I agree with the Committee report that the CAMHS team must be available to foster children who are put into foster homes for any length of time, and I hope that that is done as a matter of urgency. I commend the Committee for that recommendation, which is a step in the right direction.

    The Minister is assiduous and responds to our queries on every occasion, in every position that he holds. I look forward to his response. I congratulate the Committee on its hard work and commend Committee Members who have made a significant contribution on this emotive and essential topic. I look forward to seeing how the system for looked-after children will improve when the recommendations come into action, and how we in Northern Ireland can follow suit.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, in a debate on this very important issue. The voices of children in care are seldom heard and too often their needs are forgotten. When society does take an interest in the needs of children in care, the focus is far more often on their physical needs than on their mental health and emotional needs, which mirrors the way that mental health is generally treated in society, so I am delighted that the Education Committee pursued this inquiry, involved highly respected experts and professionals and brought forward this report and its recommendations.

    As the Children and Social Work Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, this is a real opportunity to make substantial change to the lives of the most vulnerable, and I do not want the opportunity to pass us by. I will come on to the Government’s response to the inquiry later, but if the report had not been carried out, I would be more enthusiastic about the setting up of a Government expert working group on the mental health of looked-after children. I gently remind the Minister that the Education Committee has taken evidence from expert witnesses, all of whom are cited in the excellent report. It took a year to get the report to this stage. To start that process all over again by setting up an expert working group, which may well come to similar conclusions, would feel like a reluctance to take meaningful and prompt action.

    The mental health and emotional needs of a child in care must be considered as at least as important as any other need that a child in care may face, because, whatever the reason for being in care, these children have suffered the trauma of losing parents, siblings and all that is familiar to them—friends, schools, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity—and may carry with them a stigma or sense of being unwanted or unloved, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted. During their time in care, they may have experienced multiple placement breakdowns, which will only intensify the feelings of loss, rejection and instability. There can be no doubt that children in care will need help and emotional support to overcome that trauma and move forward with their lives. They will need tools to overcome the challenges and build resilience to cope with whatever has come their way.

    As has already been mentioned, children coming into care receive statutory health assessments, but mental health is not always addressed and certainly not on an equal footing, as the Committee heard in evidence to the inquiry. Sometimes the difficulties that children in care face are put down to challenging behaviour, rather than being defined and addressed as mental health needs.

    I used to sit on fostering and adoption panels and often we would sit around discussing and worrying about smoke alarms and stair gates and the physical needs of children being taken into care. There was always a glaring omission. We would ask foster carers about how much exercise they took or how many cigarettes they smoked, but we did not ask them how they would deal with the emotional needs of a child who had experienced trauma and loss. We did not even attempt to discuss a child’s mental health needs or the help and support foster carers would need in order to address those concerns. That happens because mental health needs are less visible, and for that reason, we must not ignore them. There must be recognition that children in care will have a higher risk of developing mental health problems.

    Members will know from surgeries that it is hard enough to access CAMHS when there is a devoted parent to fight a child’s corner. If the child is in care, moving around from placement to placement, they are not entitled to access to CAMHS until they have a stable placement. Priority access is therefore even more important. A child cannot get access if they are 16 to 18-years old and not in school, and yet a child in care is less likely to be in school at that age. Children in care and care leavers will seldom have someone to fight their corner. It is the state that has taken the decision to take the child from their family and, having done so, it is for the state to make adequate provision for their needs.

    It is not enough just to say that the help is out there. There are difficulties with the availability of mental health provision for all children, including with accessing and navigating the system. Accessing mental health care, asking for help and overcoming stigma is hard enough for any young person, even with a strong, supportive family, and we have to acknowledge that.

    The Minister has done much to support young people in care and care leavers, and I am sure that he will have carefully read the report and its recommendations. He will be more familiar than most with the outcomes for care leavers, and I will not rehearse them here, but it is arguable that those poor outcomes are directly connected to the neglected emotional health and wellbeing needs of young people in care, which is why this inquiry is so important.

    Young people in care need help to build resilience to overcome the difficulties that they face, rather than being left to develop their own coping mechanisms, which may so often fail them. A key part of our inquiry was listening to the experience of children in care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) said, we took evidence from care leavers and foster carers, both in Committee and informally. We met young people in residential care settings and heard about their experiences of mental health provision. Their views informed the report, which is why I urge the Minister to take the recommendations seriously. I hope that the findings of the inquiry will generate greater awareness of the mental health needs of young people in care and the development of a stronger cross-departmental approach, with greater accessibility to mental health care provision for our most vulnerable children.

    I have read the Government response. I know that the Minister has long been a passionate advocate for children in care and care leavers. In that context, it was a disappointing response, knowing as I do how much he cares about these young people. I say to the Minister: please do not put the report on a shelf and let it be forgotten. I was concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) say that the Munro report had made similar recommendations, which appear to have been put on the shelf and forgotten. The Children and Social Work Bill is a real opportunity to focus on the mental health and emotional needs of children in care. It cannot be an opportunity that we miss. Children in care need every single opportunity to overcome the challenges that they face. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that prompt action is taken and the report is not just put aside and left to another day.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for his sterling good work steering forward these two reports, as chair of the Education Committee, of which I am a member. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his well-informed speech and his passion and commitment to foster children and to bringing up children in the best way possible. I make special mention of the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). As part of the Education Committee, I have seen her strong passion for children in care and especially for their mental health.

    I find serving on the Education Committee difficult and strange, because I am used to different circumstances. I do not want what I am about to say to be taken as saying that we always do everything better and well in Scotland, but there are significant differences, which it is my job to bring forward to the Minister for consideration.

    Improving the lives of vulnerable families and children should be a key priority for any Government, so it is concerning that the Government have failed to take a robust cross-departmental approach to this matter. We are rightly proud of the way we do things in Scotland, but we continue to review the legislation. The First Minister recently announced a major root-and-branch, independent review of how Scotland treats its looked-after children. We welcome the UK Government’s desire to ensure that children in care have the support they need as they move into adult life.

    In Scotland, we implement something called “Getting it right for every child”, which is at the heart of everything we do that affects children. It is child-focused, it is based on an understanding of the wellbeing of the child and on tackling early needs, and it requires joined-up working, which is not necessarily happening in England. The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 absolutely embody the framework of “Getting it right for every child”.

    I was at the recent Scottish National party conference when our First Minister made an emotional and heartfelt declaration about what she wants to do for Scottish children, but so much has already been done. There is also demand for children and adult mental health services in Scotland, and there are far too many children who are unseen and whose needs are unmet. Our Minister for Mental Health has taken on board the First Minister’s desire to push forward the needs of children—especially looked-after children—and ensure that their mental health needs are dealt with. For example, in the next five years, the Scottish Government will invest £150 million in mental health innovation. Some of that money will be used to cut waiting lists, but £50 million is specifically earmarked to support better access to child and adult mental health services.

    The Scottish Government have also doubled the number of psychologists in the services. The Minister needs to look at that, because it is all very well having services, but if they are not accessible or if people—especially children—have to wait too long, further problems will be created that will have to be addressed using Government funds from other places further down the line. It is vital that we support our children across the UK, especially those for whom we are responsible as legislators. When I was a local councillor, I was a corporate parent, so I know about the responsibilities that many people have. It is vital that we properly look after children early in their lives so they do not develop greater issues.

    Many children who grow up in care go on to live useful, helpful lives. The staff who work with looked-after children deserve our support and commendation, because many of them do sterling work and improve children’s lives. However, we know that nearly half of children in care suffer mental health issues, half the adult prison population were in care as children and, worst of all, a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than a young person who has not. Those facts all reflect on the mental health of children in care.

    Much more needs to be done to improve outcomes for those in care. The Scottish Government’s review will look at the underpinning legislation, practice, culture and ethos, but that is on top of what they are already doing. They have already pledged to listen to 1,000 young people’s care experiences. That is happening at all levels. It is only by fully engaging with looked-after children, care leavers and those who deliver services on the front line that we will create a care and social work system that gives vulnerable children the very best start in life and the love and care that all children deserve.

    The chief executive officer of Who Cares? Scotland supported the First Minister’s pledge to review what is happening for looked-after children, saying:

    “This review has the mandate to literally save lives. It is a line in the sand. The appreciative nature of this review, with care experience at its core, makes it a global first. Care experienced people will now be integral in the design of a system that will give them a much better chance to not just survive, but thrive.”

    As I said earlier, I do not want this to be a “We’re doing better in Scotland” speech. I want vulnerable looked-after children everywhere to be given the help they need. However, I encourage the Government to look to Scotland and emulate the drive and good practice there.

    Social work was reformed in Scotland quite a while ago—in fact, I cannot remember the exact date. However, I find it difficult to understand why social work in England falls within the remit of a number of Departments. It incorporates education, health, employment, social security and potentially other areas. Education and health are almost in silos and compete with each other to help families and young children, who are at the core of what they do. It is important that the UK Government have a truly cross-departmental approach to social work reform, because that will ensure that disadvantaged families do not fall off the radar, if for example they are referred by officials in one sector and require support from another.

    Although it is encouraging that the Government have undertaken a number of reforms to social work in the light of shocking high-profile failings, such as the baby P case, it is disappointing that the evidence shows that the reforms have not been given sufficient time to be implemented and to mature. That point was made strongly, as I have already said, by the expert witnesses who gave evidence to the Education Committee’s inquiry.

    There is a real risk that resources will be exhausted on trying to put into practice new structures, rather than improving existing outcomes. For example, the Committee said in its recommendations that it is not convinced of the need to establish a new regulator, as the Government have already spent too much time changing regulatory bodies. Another change would require a further injection of significant public funds and place an unfair financial burden on individual social workers.

    If the structure of the social work sector is badly and hastily implemented, it could have an utterly devastating impact on the lives of real people. I think we all agree with that. We could see catastrophic, and potentially deadly, failings in the system, and risk leaving hard-working social workers to bear the brunt of attacks for failings, as they have in the past. It is all too easy, across the United Kingdom, for social workers to take the blame for systemic failures. Nobody enters social work to do things badly; they do it because they want to help. We must help them to help the people who require help.

    In Scotland, when social work is reformed, the Government take a holistic approach and meet all the bodies concerned. For example, when the Scottish Government implemented “Social Services in Scotland: a shared vision and strategy 2015-2020”, it was just that: a shared vision. The strategy was developed by the Social Work Services Strategic Forum, chaired by the Minister for Children and Young People. Social Work Scotland and the social work regulatory body in Scotland were involved, as were local authorities and the care inspectorate. I could go on. There were many public bodies involved. The strategy represents a strong commitment to working in partnership across organisations and with Government to deliver that vision for high-quality and effective social work. I am sorry to say that, as a member of the Education Committee, I sometimes do not find that shared vision, so I again urge the Minister to work across existing bodies to push forward social work reform to the benefit of the users of those services.

    In Scotland, we have had a joined-up way of working for many years and some of the Select Committee’s expert witnesses actually said that, so I urge the Minister please to look at what we do in Scotland. I am not saying we are a world-beater or that we have the best, but we definitely have a focus and a vision, and we are years ahead in regulation and in working together across all Departments. We want to get it right for every child, which I am sure is also the Minister’s sole objective.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for opening this important debate, and his colleagues on the Education Committee for their excellent work on the two reports that we are discussing. I of course acknowledge the Minister’s commitment in this area, and I know that he and everyone in the Chamber are dedicated to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children. That is why it is all the more disappointing to read the Government responses to the reports.

    The Committee based its recommendations on an extensive body of evidence from experts in the industry—evidence that clearly showed why more action and less talk are needed. In the “Mental health and well-being of looked-after children” report, the Committee rightly recommended that a dedicated mental health assessment by a qualified mental health professional be completed for all looked-after children, so that healthcare professionals and local authorities have a solid and consistent foundation on which to plan the best care for a child.

    The report further recommended that all children who need access to child and adolescent mental health services get it in a timely fashion. That makes total sense when we consider that almost every looked-after child has endured some form of trauma, from those who have suffered the most unimaginable brutality to those whose parents, for whatever reason, cannot care for them or protect them from harm. In fact, as the hon. Member for Stroud said, at least 45% of children entering care have a diagnosable mental health condition, and 75% of children in care have some kind of emotional or behavioural difficulty. It is therefore astonishing that the recommendation was not accepted.

    The Government’s record overall on CAMHS is dire, with children waiting years for specialist help. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us what the ratio of CAMHS workers to looked-after children in England is, and whether he think that the number of CAMHS workers is high enough? Will he also tell us what impact he thinks his Government’s cuts have had on CAMHS overall?

    I was similarly disappointed that the Committee’s recommendation that CAMHS be made available to all care leavers up to the age of 25 was rejected. The Government believe that the configuration of local mental health services is a matter for commissioners to decide, on the basis of local need. Even the statutory guidance, however, is clear: decisions on the transition between services should be based on the needs, wishes and feelings of the young person concerned, not the cost considerations of local commissioners. Once a young person turns 18, they are referred to adult mental health services, and we all know that the Government’s record on adult mental health is even more concerning, and that budgets for mental health trusts continue to be slashed.

    The Government response does not specifically answer the question of how CAMHS provision will be improved, or how they will tackle the huge waiting lists, which lead to unnecessary suffering. From my own experience, I know that there is nothing worse than working with a child or young person who is desperately crying out for professional help that is simply not available. The social workers and carers who have to deal with these situations day in, day out, have to watch the young person in their care suffer while they feel completely helpless. That is why the Government’s rejection of the Committee’s recommendation that foster carer and residential carer training be supplemented with mental health and emotional wellbeing modules is disappointing. If carers are not fully equipped to do their job, their ability to sustain care for a child can be reduced. That could have a devastating impact on a child, who is left to forge—sometimes many—new relationships with different carers.

    I noticed that the Government responses deflected many answers on to the new expert working group on the mental health of looked-after children. I make no criticism of the experts appointed to the group, but further consultation is wholly unnecessary, as the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) said, especially since both the co-chairs have already submitted evidence to the Committee. Consultation will simply cause further delays, and delay means that more children will suffer unnecessarily. Will the Minister tell us how many children he thinks will be left suffering on waiting lists while that review drags on? Does he accept that the condition of many of them will deteriorate as they wait for services? I have seen that myself in children waiting for long-term fostering or for adoption. A child’s pool of potential carers will decrease as their condition worsens, and as the years go by and he or she gets older, the pool decreases even more. For far too many children, that means never getting to feel the security and stability that long-term fostering or adoption can bring—all because of unnecessary delay.

    Heartbreaking as that is, there are far worse scenarios for children in the system, which is why social work reform is so important. The Committee’s report on social work reform makes a number of common-sense suggestions. I appreciate that the Minister has a difficult job. Getting things right for children and families is not an easy task; it is difficult and complex terrain. Successive Governments have battled with how to provide the best and safest social care system for children, but now there is an abundance of official and other expert advice to draw on, so we should see some action and results—but we do not.

    I imagine that the Minister in his response will tell us about the Munro report, the Step Up to Social Work programme, Frontline, the Innovation programme, What Works centres, partners in practice, the intervention regime and “Putting children first”, the Government’s vision for excellent social care by 2020. What the Minister might not speak about is the recent National Audit Office report, “Children in need of help or protection”, because it finds that actions taken by the Department for Education over the past six years to improve the quality of help and protection services delivered by local authorities for children have not yet resulted in services being of a good enough quality, suggesting systemic rather than only local failure.

    In fact, the demand for help and protection is rising. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 124% increase in serious cases—ones in which a local authority believes that a child may be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. Furthermore, the varied spending on social work has been found to be not related to quality. Will the Minister explain why he thinks that all the Government’s initiatives and changes over the past six years are not yielding results? Many of the NAO’s findings certainly echo the Committee’s analysis that there are significant weaknesses in the Government’s agenda, and that the reforms focus on

    “changing structures potentially to the detriment of the people delivering this key public service.”

    What is needed in the social work profession is continuity, stability and confidence, and a Government who can hold their nerve on how best to help children and families by putting in place and embedding good policies. The Government are failing to get the basics right. Those basics are: reducing social worker case loads; preventing experienced professionals from quitting the profession; training social workers in a holistic way; not fast-tracking them, and forcing them to specialise before they have even been trained in the basics; and amending IT and the bureaucratic process across the board to achieve the goal of getting social workers where they want to be—out from behind their desks and seeing the families with whom they work.

    It is an absolute must that we start looking after social workers. A new professional body could go some way to assist us in that. It is simply no good demanding excellent social workers and excellent practice if social workers are not appropriately supported, including with safe working environments. Social work is a dangerous profession, with unmanageable case loads, impenetrable bureaucratic structures and poor pay. It makes me angry that social workers are not afforded the same protection and status as other professionals. We all need to remember that for every social worker who becomes unwell and cannot do their job, there are sometimes up to 40 children who lose the help and support of that social worker, who, for many of them, is the only constant in their life. Such a working environment would not be tolerated in Parliament; Parliament should not tolerate it for our social workers. Why will the Minister not implement the Select Committee’s recommendation about the wellbeing of the workforce?

    A common feature of the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s recommendations on social work reform was deflection to future initiatives and reports, and future analysis of initiatives that are already in place. All I know about the future is that our children’s futures are at risk under this Government. The overall fact remains that the Government’s response does not tackle the crisis in social work because it does not address how to deal with the significant increase in the sheer number of people accessing the service. To do so, the Minister would need to admit what we all know: that the Government’s closure of Sure Start units and removal of early years help and family support, and their cuts, punitive welfare policies and austerity measures, are impacting everywhere, and nowhere more starkly than in the children and family social work arena, which by its very nature is interlinked with wider societal and economic issues. The Minister does not need to take my word for it; he could listen to the chair of one of the Government’s expert panels, who has said that

    “investment is welcome, but we have to recognise that is against a backdrop of other financial pressures…and a history of disinvestment across the system for quite a number of years.”

    The Opposition welcome the Select Committee’s work, but not so much the Government’s response, or their inability to accept the overall consequences of their policy making, and the drastic impact that those policies are having on everyone, but most importantly, vulnerable children and families.

  • It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I welcome this debate and the interest that the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), has shown in prioritising these issues for inquiry by that Committee.

    There is a lot of ground to cover. It is always encouraging to get a ringing endorsement of everything that the Government are doing, but there are clearly still some elements of concern that I need to address. In so doing, I recognise, as others have, that hon. Members who are present share my commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable children. That is our joint mission and the underlying motivation for everything that we do in our privileged roles.

    The Government have participated in and responded to the Select Committee’s inquiries, but I want to take the opportunity to provide some further detail and, I hope, reassurance that we have a comprehensive, considered and compassionate plan to help to bring about the improvements that we all want to see to vulnerable children’s lives. I remind hon. Members that in July this year we published our “Putting children first” strategy. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for reminding everyone of that important document, which I believe represents the most thorough and ambitious reform agenda in this area for some considerable time. I am not complacent, and neither is that report, but it is a serious attempt to try to get children’s social care to where it needs to be.

    The strategy sets out fundamental reforms across each of the three pillars on which the social care system stands or falls. The first and foremost of those is people and leadership. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that our system stands or falls on the quality and commitment of the people driving it. The second pillar is practice and the environment that we create for that practice to be able to improve, which we must do in a way that does not stifle practice through over-regulation and process-driven activity. Again, I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields that we do not want social workers sitting behind computers; we want them to work face-to-face with families to try to improve their lives, and we want to avoid risk-averse behaviours, of which process-driven activity is often a part.

    The third and final pillar is governance and accountability. We need to be sure that what we are doing is effective and actually works. We must develop innovative new models for the pursuit of practice excellence, which has to be at the heart of this work, and remain firmly focused on improving outcomes for children. Only by taking action across those three fundamental pillars will we bring about the kind of transformational change that is needed in children’s social care.

    As other Members have acknowledged, children’s social workers can have a genuinely life-changing impact on our most vulnerable children. Our vision is of a social work profession made up of fully confident and highly capable social workers who have been trained in the right way and have the right knowledge and skills, and access to the right supervision and support.

  • The Minister may be coming to this, but I am curious: how will the Government measure the success of “Putting children first”?

  • I will come to how we will ensure that we are making progress. Several milestones are set out in “Putting children first”, which is a programme of work through to 2020. We will be able to measure progress by whether inspections of children’s services and our outcome measures for children in care improve, and we will have a whole suite of indicators that will give us a strong understanding of whether the work we have done and the measures we have put in place are having a positive influence.

    Over the last six years, we have begun to lay solid foundations for achieving that vision. We have appointed a chief social worker, who has introduced the first definitive statements of child and family social work knowledge and skills. Working across Government with the Department of Health, we have developed the first four teaching partnerships, whereby employers and universities work together to ensure that university courses provide students with the right on-the-job skills. One of the problems in the past—I have seen this for myself—has been that too many social workers have come into practice without any first-hand experience of what it is like to be in a child protection situation. We need to change that.

    We have invested almost £50 million since 2010 in Frontline and Step Up, which I make no apologies for mentioning. Those programmes have brought more than 770 high-calibre recruits into social work. We have expanded our assessed and supported year in employment programme to support newly qualified social workers entering the profession. To help the Chairman of the Select Committee on whether ASYE should be mandatory, I can tell him that 151 of the 152 local authorities take part in that course. We want to review that and see whether that level is maintained, because we think ASYE is an important part of social workers’ early experience of gaining professional knowledge.

    We are under no illusions about the remaining challenges; there is still much more to do. The recent National Audit Office report on child protection performance was a timely reminder that the performance of children’s social care services is still far too variable across the country. We must acknowledge that although many local authorities provide a consistently effective core social work practice, the majority still struggle to do so.

    The reviews by Professor Eileen Munro, Sir Martin Narey and David Croisdale-Appleby, among others, have given us a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by children’s social care. They describe a system in which initial social worker training is not universally preparing students for the challenges of the job, as I alluded to, and those already doing it often lack the time, specialist skills and supervision needed to achieve real change for children and families. The reviews also describe a system that focuses too much on management and is governed by prescribed approaches rather than excellent practice, and conclude that services have not always been designed around vulnerable children and that innovation has not been given enough space to thrive.

    We are determined to address those challenges, as outlined in our “Putting children first” strategy. Going further and faster on our plan to drive up the skills and status of the children’s social work profession is central to that endeavour. To that end, I am working in partnership with my colleagues in the Department of Health to establish a new, bespoke independent regulator for social work that will set higher standards for social work both in what is expected of professionals in order to practise and in what is expected from universities and others providing initial social work education. It will also create a more rigorous approach to continuing professional development in social work—an area the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly raised—ensuring that social workers continue to develop throughout their careers, as called for in the report. In the past there has been too little recognition of the role this area has to play.

    I am also bringing forward a new system of post-qualifying assessment and accreditation for child and family social workers. That is a key plank of our reforms, because it will provide, for the first time, a consistent way of ensuring that child and family social workers have the right knowledge and skills to do their jobs well. The new assessment will incentivise employers to invest properly in the development and support of their staff, as well as ensuring a mechanism for recognising the specialist skills that child and family social workers possess. Again, that work aligns with the recommendations of the Select Committee’s report. The consultation, which hon. Members are keen to see, is planned for publication before the end of the year, and I am sure they will want to contribute.

    The assessment and accreditation system will also, for the first time, establish a consistent, clearly structured and well supported career pathway for child and family social workers, which will allow them to deepen their skills as they take on additional responsibility and, crucially, keep them in touch with practice. One of the problems we can all recognise is that in the past too many good social workers, as they gained experience, rather than remaining close to families and working their own cases, moved into management and behind desks. We therefore lose that expertise and the new crop of social workers coming through do not get the support they could have gained from those experienced social workers if they are no longer working with them.

    Practice skill and expertise will be the most highly prized and rewarded asset across the whole career, from newly qualified social workers all the way through to practice leaders. Together, the reforms provide an opportunity and a solid platform from which to raise the status of child and family social work in the way the profession needs and deserves. They create the conditions for a strong, confident social work profession where practitioners are properly supported to thrive in very challenging front-line posts. The profession, and the children and families it serves, should expect no less.

    I want to address the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee about a professional body. It is right to say that over three years the Department for Education, with support from the Department of Health, spent more than £8 million of public money trying to set up the college of social work, but despite that significant investment the college was unable to secure the sufficient membership required to make it sustainable. However, I re-emphasise, as I did in evidence to the Select Committee, that it is important that there is a strong professional body for social work. It has to be sustainable, but also have a sense of ownership by the profession. It cannot be top-down; it has to be a bottom-up organisation. We want to continue to work with the British Association of Social Workers, other representatives of the workforce and the Department of Health to see how we can start to nurture and craft a professional body in that mould so that we have something that truly represents social workers and can go into bat for them when they need that.

    It is also important to recognise that giving social workers the right knowledge and skills and setting high standards for practice will not on its own bring about the step change we need. Excellent social workers need to work within supportive and permissive organisations where they are given the flexibility to use their expertise in ways that have the greatest impact on children and families. As Eileen Munro identified, good social work is not about following processes and procedures, but too often that is what we have turned it into. We need a dynamic practice system where testing and evaluating new ways of working and learning from the best is the norm. We see that in other parts of public service, so why not in children’s social care?

    It is our children’s social care innovation programme that is starting to foster that way of working. We have already funded over 50 projects and announced £200 million more for the future. We are also developing the first ever What Works centre for children’s social care. That is an important development, because for the first time there will be a repository of good practice for social workers to use and have confidence in for the work they do. We are also overhauling the serious case review process to better extract national learning when things go wrong.

    We want to go further. The Children and Social Work Bill, which is currently before Parliament, includes a new power to innovate. Through that power, we are looking to say that, ultimately, excellent front-line social work practice should be defined not by the Government or Parliament but by local practice leaders, with more freedom to operate within a clear, safe statutory framework. Our “partners in practice” local authorities—eight of the highest-performing authorities—see the power as an important and potentially transformative opportunity.

    The power has been criticised by some in the Lords. It is right that we debate that and that the quality of debate in Parliament is strong, but let us have a debate based on facts, not on unfounded propositions. Let me be clear: we do not want to privatise child protection services and we will not privatise child protection services. Indeed, there are already clear legislative restrictions on the outsourcing of children’s social care functions. It was never the intention to use the power to innovate to revisit those. However, to put it beyond doubt, we are amending the Children and Social Work Bill to rule out any use of the power in that way.

    We will not remove fundamental rights or protections from children either. Our aim is to strengthen, not weaken protections. We want to let the best local authorities, led by leading-edge practice leaders, work in ways with more potential to make an actual difference for children instead of watching and waiting, hamstrung by excessive prescription.

    I will quote from Eileen Munro, because we still value her views on how we are performing and the work we are doing:

    “I welcome the introduction of the power to innovate set out in the Children and Social Work Bill. This is a critical part of the journey set out in my Independent Review of Child Protection towards a child welfare system that reflects the complexity and diversity of children’s needs. Trusting professionals to use their judgment rather than be forced to follow unnecessary legal rules will help ensure children get the help they need, when they need it.”

    She is not a lone voice: the Children’s Commissioner, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Catch22, Achieving for Children and the children’s social worker all hold similar views.

  • The concern about the Children and Social Work Bill seems to be that the Government have been completely unable to say exactly which functions local authorities will be able to opt out of. Bearing in mind that a lot of the functions they have around children protect them from harm and keep them safe, is it not understandable that there is huge concern out there about where the Government are going with that?

  • Perhaps I can give the hon. Lady some examples of primary legislation where local authorities have asked that they be able to use the power to innovate where that is currently restricted in law. Under section 25 of the Children Act 1989, independent reviewing officers must be appointed for every looked-after child and they have to have regular reviews. We know that children often say that they do not like that. There are children who are in very stable placements for whom that can be disruptive and they ask for that not to happen, whereas other children need more intense oversight from an independent reviewing officer. That is one example of where local authorities want to have that flexibility.

    There are also some anomalies that I am not sure many people appreciate. For instance, under section 66 of the 1989 Act, any child who is not cared for by a family or a guardian for 28 days counts as privately fostered and as such receives the same duties as other looked-after children, with visits and so on. That ends up capturing children coming over to language schools, which the local authority have to go and visit, to check on their welfare, despite those children being on a foreign exchange trip. Those are just some examples of measures where the local authorities that have shown an interest—we have to remember that this is a permissive power—would want some flexibility, in a safe and controlled environment, to test to see whether there is a different way of providing services that is absolutely focused on improving children’s outcomes more than anything else.

  • Will the Minister give way?

  • Briefly, because I want to make sure I finish my speech. I have not got on to mental health yet.

  • Just one quick point for clarity: am I right to assume that the Minister is saying that anything is open as long as the local authority applies to the Secretary of State, or will it be just the two examples he has given? I am struggling to see what exactly is in the mix. This seems to be open to anything.

  • There are restrictions to the legislation that local authorities can apply to be disapplied. A local authority has to make the application itself and it has to consult with the local area. It then has to submit that application to an expert group, which will consider it and publish its findings. Even then, there has to be an affirmative resolution in both Houses before that local authority can test out that new way of working. I met the hon. Lady yesterday to talk a little bit about this and other areas of shared interest. I am happy to provide her with more details and I also suggest that we agree to meet again, so we can make sure that all of the information is provided.

    The chairman of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, raised the issue of trusts, which I will touch on briefly. I in no way think that creating children’s social care trusts is a panacea for all ills. In most cases, when a local authority fails it will be able to improve its services with the right support, as is happening in Cumbria, Surrey and Buckinghamshire at the moment. However, where failure is persistent or systemic, it is right that we look carefully at whether the capacity for improvement exists in the local authority. We now have commissioners who go in and undertake a three-month review before reaching their conclusions and recommendations on the way forward.

    Leaving services within council control is sometimes found to be the best approach to securing improvement, as in Bromley and Dudley, for example. In other cases, local authorities themselves agree that an independent trust model will create extra improvement capacity and help to turn things around, as is the case in Birmingham and Sunderland. Sometimes, where failure is deep-rooted and an authority does not have the capacity to improve itself, service control must be removed by my Department. I will not apologise for doing that. We cannot simply sit back and watch authorities fail over and over again, year after year, without trying new ways to bring about improvement. There is a growing bank of evidence following recent Ofsted inspections in Doncaster and Slough of services improving following the move to a trust after years of failure. Ofsted has particularly highlighted the strengthening of leadership and management in those trusts, which are critical components of any successful organisation.

    To give the Chairman of the Committee an opportunity to respond and conclude the debate, let me now turn to my hon. Friend’s interest in the mental health and wellbeing of looked-after children and care leavers. I thank members of the Education Committee for their insightful report and commend them for their ongoing interest in this important area. I know all too well, from my personal experience, the nature of the challenges that children in care often face and the impact that can have on their mental health and the health of those who care for them. That is why my Department is taking strong action to improve support for children in care and care leavers, including the introduction of the staying put duty, so that all young people leaving foster care can continue living with their foster families after the age of 18. More than 50% of 18 year-olds in foster care have taken up that opportunity.

    We are also undertaking a national stocktake of foster care to better understand current provision and how needs are matched with skills. I look forward to working with the Education Committee in looking at the evidence it gathers for its own report in this area. We are piloting the staying close programme, which enables young people leaving children’s homes to maintain links with those homes, as recommended by Sir Martin Narey’s review of children’s residential care. We published a new, cross-Government care leavers strategy, “Keep On Caring”, which sets out what we will do right across Government to ensure that care leavers get the support they need and also outlines our ambitions for trialling new and innovative ways of working. We are also taking legislation through Parliament that will, for the first time, define what it means to be a good corporate parent for children in care and care leavers.

    When the state decides a child’s needs are such that we must take on parental responsibility, it has an overwhelming duty and responsibility to be the very best corporate parent it can be. It is right that, like all good parents, that responsibility continues when young people reach early adulthood. The new corporate parenting principles ensure that responsibility is given the weight and significance it deserves across the whole country. I hope hon. Members will support it.

    Central to delivering our responsibilities as corporate parents is the promotion and support of the mental health and wellbeing of children in care and care leavers. That is an issue we take very seriously and on which we want to make timely and sustainable progress that tackles the shift in mindset needed around mental health and brings improvements to practice. Only this week, my noble Friend Lord Nash introduced an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that will explicitly capture the role of local authorities in promoting the mental health of looked-after children as a core part of the definition of a good corporate parent, which is significant.

    I share the concerns of the hon. Member for South Shields about child and adolescent mental health services. They have been undervalued and underfunded for far too long, and we need to do far more to tackle that. The Government are investing £1.4 billion over the life of this Parliament to drive improvements in mental health services for children and young people. In addition, we are making a specific investment of more than £10 million to support the mental health of young people in secure children’s homes, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

    In order to get mental health support for children in care right, the Department of Health and the Department for Education have, as hon. Members have said, established an expert group to ensure that the emotional and mental health needs of children and young people in care and adopted from care and of care leavers are better met. It is a collaboration between social care, education and health colleagues, parents and carers and care leavers themselves. It is a comprehensive piece of work to map out the care pathway for a looked-after child in need of mental health support; it is not just looking at the point of entry into the care system.

    The principle of having a mental health assessment for all children being brought into care is instinctively attractive, but I know—and I know others who share this view—that we have to look at each child individually. There will be some children who, at the point they come into care, are still suffering great trauma from an event that has led to them going into care. That is not the right moment for them to have such an assessment. There are other children, such as newborn babies and others, for whom it would also not be appropriate.

    The expert group is gathering pace and gathering that evidence. As my noble Friend Lord Nash said on Report, we will take seriously its recommendations. Those may come during the duration of the group’s work and may also include potential changes to legislation. That is a commitment we have made, and we want to make progress and make sure we do not lose this opportunity.

    The reports discussed today pose a range of challenges to the Government. I welcome the healthy debate they have generated, because they help to keep the issue at the top of the agenda and maintain the momentum, not just for me and my Department but right across Government. I share the ambition of other hon. Members, and we are united in our commitment to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that I recognise and accept that there remain deep-seated issues we need to resolve, but I and the Government are more determined than ever to show the resolve and commitment needed to rise to those challenges with our clear and ambitious plan for fundamentally reforming the system. Our vulnerable children deserve no less.

  • It is a great pleasure to wind up the debate. I thank the Minister for his commitment to the issues we have raised and for the answers he has given to many of our questions. I have no doubt that he is determined to improve the lot of our children in care and of our social work profession as a whole. I am pleased that he referenced Eileen Munro’s focus on judgment and I look forward to seeing that developed further. It is encouraging that he is going to help to nurture and craft a professional body. That is important for social work. We certainly found in Trafford that effective leadership, good training, good continuing professional development and a combination of levels of leadership amounting to a delivery that was unified, transparent and open was extraordinarily beneficial. We want to see that across the whole country to deal with the variance in local authorities that the Minister acknowledged.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) referred to our forthcoming inquiry into fostering. We look forward to hearing from the Minister about the Department’s fostering stocktake. We have written seeking information about that in readiness for our inquiry.

    The Minister can be absolutely sure that we will not rest until we see improvement. The work we have done, the fact we have charged the debate, as the Minister acknowledged—we are grateful for that—and also the changes taking place in the Bill currently going through the House, not least Lord Nash’s amendment, are all good signs. I leave the debate with the sure knowledge that the Education Committee believes these matters are important and urgent.

    Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).