Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the findings of the Care Crisis Review and outlines the Government’s commitment to improving decision making for children and their families and to ensure that all reforms place the child at the heart of the process and deliver stability.
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. I know she is concerned about the number of children being taken into care and that she is a firm believer in early intervention and family support services as a vehicle for lowering care demand.
I acknowledge the increase in the number of care order applications and the number of children being taken into care in recent years. The Government are acutely aware of the impact that that has had and is having on local authorities and the courts. We are also very conscious of the implications for children and families. I am immensely grateful to all those who have worked in child protection and the family justice system, whether they are social workers, court staff, CAFCASS guardians, judges or those in other roles. We want every child to be in a loving, stable home that is right for them. In most cases, children are best looked after by their families. Children are only removed as a last resort, which is why my Department is continuing to deliver a comprehensive reform programme for children’s social care across England. I will say more about our reforms later.
I recognise the sector’s care crisis review and acknowledge the work that the Family Rights Group and others involved invested in it. The review is an important contribution to the work being done across the family justice system to address the pressures caused by rising public law volumes for local authorities and the family courts. I am pleased to say that tomorrow the Minister for family justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who also has an interest in the report, and I are meeting members of the review team—Nigel Richardson, who chaired the review, and Cathy Ashley, who helped drive it—to discuss its findings.
In advance of that meeting, I can tell Members that officials in both our Departments have been carefully considering the options for change set out in the report, and we have taken action. The sector’s report sets out two specific options for change in relation to our “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance. First, it states that the guidance should be
“reviewed and amended so that the principles underpinning the legislation, including partnership and co-production with families, are clearly expressed and the processes for managing individual cases reflect the messages from research on the effectiveness of relationship-based practice.”
Secondly, it argued that the same guidance should be
“amended to place greater emphasis on the role to be played by key partner agencies, in addition to that played by children’s social care, in assessing and meeting the accommodation, health and educational needs of children and their families.”
I am pleased to say that we have addressed both those issues in the latest version of the statutory guidance, which we published in July. I hope Members and those who took part in the review welcome that. It is particularly important to recognise that the sector’s review stated that
“there are many overlapping factors contributing to the rise in care proceedings and the number of children in care. This complex picture means that there is no single solution.
That is in keeping with the Government’s own analysis and is why, in addition to the many reforms we are seeking to deliver, including those I will talk about shortly, we are working across Government to consider what more we can do. It includes the work that officials from my Department and the Ministry of Justice are doing with members of national and local family justice boards across England, through which we are seeking to understand the challenges in the family justice system better and consider with sector representatives what can be done to address them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford has an interest in early intervention. I assure her that, across Government, we are addressing the root causes of children’s needs early—be it by supporting children with alcohol-dependent parents or in families affected by domestic abuse, preventing young people from being drawn into serious violence, or investing in early years and children’s and young people’s mental health. Our “Working Together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidance is clear that local areas should have a comprehensive range of effective evidence-based services in place to address assessed needs early. The Government have also committed £920 million to the troubled families programme, which aims to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple high-cost problems by 2020.
On the point that my hon. Friend on funding for preventive support services, it is for local authorities to determine how to spend their non-ring-fenced income on the services they provide, including services for preventive support measures.
The Minister mentioned the troubled families programme, which has been a huge success in west Sussex. There is concern that the funding will not be renewed after 2020. Will he give a commitment now that that successful programme will be continued?
My hon. Friend is one of my excellent predecessors—hon. Members mentioned Edward Timpson, but the work that my hon. Friend did in the Department has been a high bar for me to attempt to meet. I have seen first hand the effectiveness of the troubled families programme, and when it comes to the spending review, I will be a champion in ensuring that we continue to commit. In many of the cases that were highlighted to me by social workers in Islington and other parts of the country, a whole support system is required to help those families deliver stability for the family and the child.
Since 2016, we have been working to implement the reforms set out by my predecessor, Edward Timpson, in the “Putting children first” strategy. They centre on three key areas: people and leadership, practice and systems, and governance and accountability. I fully support the strategy and am committed to implementing it. “Putting children first” set out a five-year reform programme for children’s social care in Europe, which includes developing the social work profession, supporting innovation and improvement and establishing a new What Works centre. I will say something about them and the impact that our reforms will have.
On the social work profession, our successful Step Up to Social Work and Frontline programmes have brought new people into the profession and promoted social work as a desirable graduate career. Recently, I was pleased to be able to announce a further £25 million for Step Up to Social Work to bring in a further 700 talented future social workers into children’s services. Through investment in professional development at key stages throughout their career, and the new national accreditation and assessment system, which the shadow Minister effectively dissed—[Interruption.] Not at all. The very good social workers who have been through it show very high satisfaction ratings. Hon. Members will hear more of that in the future. We are really helping to ensure that the quality of practice is consistently excellent.
Innovation and improvements are at the heart of the Government’s vision for children’s social care. The £200 million Children’s Social Care Innovation programme has deepened evidence about what good social works looks like and about the potential for innovation. It has generated a portfolio of promising successful innovations, which we are rolling out more widely to understand the potential wider impact. I am also pleased to note that the sector-led report points out that many of projects are doing effective and innovative work with families who are at risk of breakdown, including helping to reduce the numbers of children being taken into care. Information from the programme will form the wider bank of evidence going into the new What Works centre, which is currently in a testing and development phase, to improve outcomes for young people and learning for the sector. The What Works centre is pressing ahead with its research programme, including examining what works on reducing the need for children to enter care. We hope it will support the uptake of quality evidence in frontline practice in children’s social care.
I am conscious that the Minister is about to wrap up, and I am concerned that he has failed to mention anything about the links between deprivation and rising care numbers, which all the research says is a massive issue. I am interested to find out from him what exactly local authorities have done through innovation money that they would not have been able to do if they were funded properly. Would it not have been better if they were all funded properly so they could all innovate, instead of it being piecemeal?
Local authorities are spending a record £9.2 billion on children’s services. The hon. Lady raises an important point and I do not want to politicise this. Yes, budgets are tight, but where I have seen good children’s services being delivered, it is very much dependent on the quality of leadership and support offered to frontline social workers.
Will the Minister acknowledge the role of kinship carers in respect to the moneys they save the state? Will he commit to looking at that subject and trying to resolve their issues as part of examining the wider picture?
I was going to mention the point made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on kinship carers. I acknowledge the work that they do. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, we should remember to turn the statistics into real children and real families. The work that kinship carers do is incredibly important in delivering stability for those children.
We have developed an improvement strategy to identify local authorities at risk of failing and put in place targeted support to help them improve, so that the services families and vulnerable children receive get better faster. We have done that by working in partnership with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the LGA to test the new regional improvement alliances. We believe that that will complement the new Ofsted framework, enabling a new phase of continuous sector-led improvement.
In March I announced that more than £15 million will go to eight new partners in practice, expanding our local authority peer support programme to improve children’s services. We know that some of our partners in practice are looking at what can be done to address the increased number of children entering care—this addresses the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields—and are working with them to understand what might work and how it might be used by other local authorities.
We are confident that this comprehensive reform programme will lead to better qualified and developed skilled social workers who are able to make difficult decisions, more confident local authorities and social workers that manage cases themselves including associated risks, and a children’s social care system that learns what works from evidence and applies it in practice. Ultimately, that should all lead to the right decisions being made for children and their families.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, my Department is working with the Ministry of Justice, with which we share responsibility for public family law. We are committed to ensuring that local authorities and the courts have the resources that they need. For example, the MOJ has overseen a campaign to recruit more family court judges and to provide more court sitting days.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford for securing today’s important debate and express my gratitude for her ongoing interest. I want to address some of the points made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talked about social worker caseloads. Social workers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and I am determined to do all I can to support them. We continue to attract high-quality recruits and we invest in fast-track and the frontline programmes. We are also establishing Social Work England as a new specialist regulator, which will set professional education training standards and provide assurances that those registered meet the standards.
The hon. Member for Coventry South made the point that the reforms came without additional funding. However, when new duties have been introduced, we have provided additional funding. For example, when the new “staying put” duty came into force in May 2014, we committed £40 million to help local authorities implement it.
It is important to address some of the questions asked by probably the most experienced Member of Parliament in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He asked about early help being deprioritised after the Munro review in 2011 recommended an early help duty and the Government decided that such a duty was not necessary. Instead, as I am sure he knows, we strengthened the “Working together to safeguard children” requirement for early help assessment, as I mentioned. We made it clear that early help services should form part of a continuum of help in local areas.
My hon. Friend made a very good point about the postcode lottery. The Government are committed to making the reforms to improve decision making for children and their families throughout England. Alongside that, part of the joint work that my Department is undertaking with the Ministry of Justice is to understand better the basis of decision making in different areas so that we can consider what Government are able to do. For example, can we learn anything from how different local authorities use the space that precedes care proceedings and share that among all local authorities?
I shall end there, other than to say that, ultimately, in my book, everything we do and all the reforms that we deliver need to do two things: place the child at the heart of the process and deliver stability.