Speeches sourced from the Labour party’s online archive More…

Speech by Stephen Twigg in today's Opposition Day Debate on 'Statutory Guidance to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children'

Stephen Twigg MP, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, in the Opposition Day Debate today, said:

[Check against delivery]

Yesterday, the Government published updated statutory guidance to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

I am sure that all sides of the House will welcome the opportunity to consider the Government’s proposals. Our motion today has been tabled to provide for such a debate and sets out five areas of concern.

Modern society places huge pressures on children and young people. While the influences of adult life on children are not new, it is clear that the advent of social media, new pressures on parents, and the increasing availability of sexual content are accelerating this process.

The term ‘child protection’ covers a wide spectrum of issues, and crosses several Government Departments. From online grooming, child neglect, and forced labour to the trafficking of minors, the challenge of ensuring children get a safe and happy start in life has a moral imperative that, of course, is shared on all sides of this House.

But this is not just a moral necessity. The long term impact of child abuse, to take one example, has been well documented. So it is critical that we invest in early intervention – not just with young children, but older children as well to reduce the long term risks and costs.

It is one of the foremost duties of any civilised society to protect its most vulnerable members. It is clear that this duty was breached in the most horrific way in the recent case in Rochdale, and in the tragedies that befell Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter Connelly.

I think the Government was right to establish the Munro review to provide a thoughtful, calm analysis of the challenges affecting the child protection system.

I want to focus in my remarks on the five areas that we have identified as being of particular importance, though I make no claims to them being comprehensive.

The first is to ensure that we have a child-centred system, that the needs of the child are the first consideration of the many professionals who are involved in child protection and safeguarding.

This was at the heart of the 2004 Children’s Act and other reforms brought in by the previous Labour Government. The establishment of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and the focus on five clear outcomes through ‘Every Child Matters’ helped deliver some of our most successful policies such as the reduction in child poverty. Yesterday’s report from the Child Poverty Action Group reminded us of this achievement, and the real dangers that this progress will be reversed by the present Government.

I want to set on record our support for the work of Professor Eileen Munro who has done a service to the Government and the country in promoting a child-centred approach.

She is absolutely right to focus on the journey of the child through the system. Any shift from a process that is excessively focussed on compliance to one that better values the expertise of professionals is one that we support.

However, there is a balance to be struck between allowing professionals the flexibility to make a judgement on a child’s needs and the need for clear rules and principles.
There is a danger in reducing the amount of guidance that you go from one undesirable state to another.
The NSPCC has warned that, and I quote “the government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children.”

The Royal College for Paediatrics and Child Health support the slim-lining of guidance but are worried that the downsizing has gone too far and that vital information is no longer included, such as on training, lessons from research and safeguarding groups that may be particularly vulnerable (such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation or victims of trafficking).

In her report, Professor Munro makes clear that the Government should not cherry pick her recommendations. For instance, she says “reducing prescription without creating a learning system will not secure the desired improvements in the system.”

We should remember that only 1 of Munro’s 15 recommendations is about reducing bureaucracy, the bulk of the report is about improving training and leadership in the system.

As the Government move away from prescription, it is important that they are far clearer in how they intend to ensure robust checks and balances in the system as well as rigorous training and supervision of staff.

I note that, in her evidence to the Education Select Committee last month, Munro said:
“there is so much change related directly both to child protection but also to the health and police reforms...we cannot be quite sure how they pan out in reality and whether we end up with some unintended clashes so there are gaps in the way services are being provided.”

If the Government’s own appointed adviser is warning that the changes can have unintended consequences, it is critical that ministers heed this advice.

A good example of this is today’s announcement by the Government on shared parenting. While the principle of parental balance is of course important, it is vital that the change does not create more confusion and delays in the courts.

That is not in the interest of children, families or indeed taxpayers.

Professor Norgrove, in the Family Justice Review, cautioned against such a move.

As my Honourable Friend, the Member for Wigan has said, “Children's best interests should be the paramount consideration in decisions affecting them. That principle has been clear in law for over two decades. Ministers should think very carefully before they decide to weaken it."

Professor Norgrove recommended that “children and young people should be given age-appropriate information to explain what is happening when they are involved in cases.”

They should be offered a menu of options, to lay out the ways in which they could – if they wish – do this.

Clearly, the court process is very important, but I do think there also needs to be greater clarity from the Government as to how we ensure the views of children are taken on board in the rest of the care system, including by social workers.

As part of Labour’s Policy Review, we have considered this issue, and I am grateful to my Honourable Friend, the Member for Newcastle North, for her work on this. Children often stress the importance of social workers monitoring placements and of children being able to talk to their social worker alone. Often a social worker can be a source of constancy - a rock for a child who is moving between different foster carers or residential homes.

The second element of our motion today is to ensure that appropriate information and guidance is provided to children and young people so they understand the risks of abuse and sexual exploitation.

Our concern is that in too many cases, young people may not be clear about how to report instances of abuse or exploitation, and that some young people may not understand that the acts that they or their friends are involved in consist of sexual abuse.

We have all been shocked I am sure by the Channel 4 News investigation into the Habbo Hotel. This is a very popular website, used by children as young as 10, and with 250 million users globally. There is extremely disturbing evidence that children are being sexually propositioned on the website, and encouraged to engage in inappropriate activities. I understand that Channel 4’s evidence has been passed to the Government, and I would welcome an update from the minister on what further action will be taken.

Voluntary organisations have a significant role to play in providing information, advice and guidance. Organisations such as Beatbullying, the NSPCC and many others have done and will continue to play an important role.

There are also ways in which the media can be used to raise the profile of abuse and how it can be reported. The overwhelming majority of young people are confident in accessing online material, so we need to ensure that the material available is accurate and age-appropriate.

There are clearly ways that TV resources can be used, soap storylines can be effective in this regard. I am not suggesting that ministers issue instructions regarding the plotlines of EastEnders or Hollyoaks, but there are smart and subtle ways we can raise awareness amongst young people.

Schools have a very important role to play. I am concerned that the Secretary of State is squeezing wellbeing out of the school environment. Ofsted is no longer required to measure it and the Secretary of State has described it as peripheral, or a distraction, from academic education, when of course wellbeing can be an important founding stone for academic success.

The third element is to ensure that all local authorities and decision makers are upholding the highest standards.

There is huge variety within the system - some places pressing ahead with reform, while others are struggling with their caseloads and are either unable or unwilling to make the necessary changes.

There is a widely held view that the top-down reorganisation of the health service will mean that – and I quote from Professor Munro – “child protection will get lost by people who do not directly deal with it and so do not fully understand its significance.”

The Government does need to clarify exactly where child safeguarding sits within the new NHS structures.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has said that we need a detailed safeguarding accountability framework from the Department of Health which encapsulates all of the issues about safeguarding and sets out the roles and responsibilities of each of the new commissioner and provider organisations.

There has been real innovation in a number of local authorities to ensure that there is an integrated team for when children enter child protection or the care system. The model piloted by Hackney has been well evaluated, and a number of other London boroughs – more than in other parts of the country – have established “Multi Agency Safeguarding Hubs” – MASH teams, or similar, to bring together the key services in one place.

Trustworthy and supportive relationships are clearly key to ensuring a focus on the needs of the child.
Whether it is the relationship between a health visitor and the parent, the child and a guardian, or between a GP and a social worker, it is important that there is an atmosphere of mutual respect.

These relationships should of course be challenging– a number of local authorities, such as Hackney have developed approaches where mistakes can be openly acknowledged and addressed in the future without the fear of reprisals. Such a culture helps to ensure systematic learning.

The role of Local Safeguarding Children Boards in this process has been invaluable. Originally established by the Children’s Act 2004, they brought together the key partners in one place to focus on safeguarding. Of course, there has been substantial variation in the quality and effectiveness of these boards.

The work that is happening to ensure lessons are learned between these boards, through, for instance, networks of board chairs, I hope will go someway to address this, but at a time when they are reducing regulation, the Government must remain vigilant.

As well as integrated services, I must emphasise the importance of leadership.

Again Professor Munro has said that local authorities should protect the roles of the Director of Children’s Services and the Lead Member for Children’s Services.

There is already evidence of these roles being combined with adult social care responsibilities. Munro opposes this. And I urge the Minister to respond to her concerns.

If the Government is to meet its aim of improving professional expertise and flexibility, there is a need to improve the status of the social work profession.

The British Association of Social Workers has warned that the proposals don’t sufficiently address the concerns of social workers around “unmanageable caseloads, stress, plummeting morale and cuts to administrative support staff.”

We also need to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility and professional expertise in how neglect is dealt with.

With such extreme and high profile cases being well publicised, there is on occasion a tendency for the system to if you like neglect neglect. Professor Munro has said that the processes are “better designed to deal with an urgent concern about an incident of physical or sexual abuse, so neglect, which is about a chronic pattern of parenting, does not come up as a serious case.”

It is absolutely important that young people and adults understand how to access the system, and that they feel able to have a conversation with a social worker or another relevant professional if they are concerned.

Services like ChildLine have done an immense job to identify problems facing children and young people.

However, the increasing workload that their staff have, and the fact that the processes for dealing with referrals are often bureaucratic, is something that the Government should address.

Fourth, on early intervention. Labour supports the Munro recommendation that a statutory duty should be introduced on local authorities and relevant agencies to secure the provision of early help.
Early intervention is vital in the prevention and detection of abuse. These services need to be expanded, but are under pressure from local authority cuts.

Can I place on record my thanks for the work of my Right Honourable Friend for Birkenhead and my Honourable Friend for Nottingham North.

They have outlined the importance of early work in identifying challenges, but also managing to tackle them at an appropriate stage.

There are some positive signs that the system has been improving.

Three years on from the Baby Peter case, a review by Cafcass into care applications, found that local authorities are intervening much more quickly and in a much more timely way.

However, we are concerned that many early intervention services are already being cut.

One of the important innovations has been the Family Drug and Alcohol Court which provides intensive support to parents, alongside a series of carrots and sticks to help them make progress. The close relationship between the court and families can improve the speed of decisions and provide therapeutic help at an early stage.

It is important to work with parents to improve parenting skills. Parental support is something that was a key element of Labour’s Sure Start Programme. The National Evaluation of Sure Start found greatly improved outcomes for children in Sure Start areas with more consistent discipline from parents and less chaos at home; parents making more use of local services; and fewer children having accidents.

There is a wealth of evidence, which the Minister in his appearance at the Select Committee yesterday acknowledged, of the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse.

However, there has been a 31% cut in funding for refuges and specialist advice which is surely undermining action to deal with domestic violence.

On the subject of unintended consequences, there is a real concern that in some cases, and I would be grateful for the minister to outline any figures he has on this, that the legitimate desire to protect a child from domestic violence can lead to them being taken away from the non-violent parent, usually the mother.

Finally, the importance of clarifying who is responsible within Government for implementing the measures included in the new guidance.

Professor Munro has talked about feeling on occasion that momentum is not being maintained, and I do think that one year after Munro recommended appointing a Chief Social Worker, and three years after Labour recommended it, the Government does need to move swiftly to appoint someone to this important post.

At the end of her one year progress report, Professor Munro says that there should be continuing oversight of the whole system so that progress is maintained.

The Government need to make clear who will be responsible for this oversight – and I note that Professor Munro said that should not be her, but rather a ‘fresh person’.

We also need to safeguard the safeguarding system. Studies have shown that the vast majority of care proceedings are appropriate, and are taken in the best interests of the child. But we need to ensure that there is a suitable mechanism for the occasions when this doesn’t happen. The Minister said yesterday that he was considering a form of ‘appeals process’ to enable this, and I’m sure the House would be grateful if he could elaborate further as to his thinking on this.

I said at the beginning of this speech that child protection and safeguarding covered a wide range of issues and departments.

In addition to the warnings I have made around unintended consequences and child wellbeing, I am concerned that the Government’s approach seems somewhat incoherent.

On the one hand, ministers like to lambast local authorities, and yet they are removing regulation and placing more power in the hands of local authority social work staff.

On the one hand, they say they want to reduce bureaucracy and red tape, but they are introducing adoption scorecards for every local authority.

And on the one hand, they say that early intervention is important, and yet they have not taken forward the recommendation from Professor Munro for a statutory duty to do ‘early work’ on child protection.

The British Association of Social Workers has raised a series of concerns about the state of the profession, particularly in regard to caseload and pressures on administration.

Over 80 per cent of directors of children’s services responding to a Labour frontbench survey said that cuts to other service would affect their ability to safeguard children, while 90 per cent of social workers in a BASW survey expressed concern that lives ‘could be at risk’ as a consequence of cuts to services.

The Government must explain how it will address these challenges.

In addition, there does need to be a robust framework for training and continuing professional development, not only for social workers but for all the staff in the relevant agencies to have such training. This is particularly important in the health sector.

And, it is crucial that there is robust supervision of social work practice by experienced senior staff and consultants who are accountable for the exercise of professional judgement. The lack of good supervision was of course a significant issue in the Baby Peter case.

Let me conclude today by saying something about the Government’s broader policy approach to children and families.

When the Secretary of State took over, he renamed the Department - removing the words “Children and Families”.

I am a passionate advocate of rigour, innovation and high standards in our schools and colleges. There is no contradiction between high standards and promoting the well-being of children. The two can – indeed they should – go hand in hand.

That was the core ethos of Every Child Matters. Yet this Government has moved away from that. An internal DfE memo in 2010 said that reference to the five Every Child Matters outcomes was forbidden, and that the rather nebulous concept ‘help children achieve more’ was to replace it.

Achievement is important. But so too is the broader well-being of children and young people.

I urge the Government to think again. The principles of Every Child Matters are as relevant and powerful in 2012 as they were in 2004.

Indeed, they are the principles which lie at the heart of the very important debate we are having here today.

A debate which enables this House to consider the Government’s proposals.

An opportunity for members on all sides to raise questions and concerns on behalf of our constituents.

And – above all – a debate that should send out a clear cross-party message. That Parliament is determined to do all that we can to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children.

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech