I hope to do justice to this tremendous debate and set out some of the government’s vision.
I want to thank the honourable members for York Central for moving and passionate speech and member for East Worthing and Shoreham, for securing time for this important debate and for all members’ contributions.
I look around the chamber and see former Ministers, care workers, councillors and newly elected Education Select Committee chair all of whom have a huge amount of experience and compassion – I think really it was the best of this House today.
I look forward to working with all of you and I’m absolutely overjoyed to see wealth of enthusiasm for the changes we’re looking at.
I would like to thank all those who have led and contributed to these vital reviews – including Josh McAlister, Annie Hudson and the rest of the National Panel, and the Competition and Markets Authority, and their teams – as well as the children and young people in care and their families.
My particular thanks go to Josh McAlister, who has continued to work closely with the Government and my officials since the publication of his review, encouraging the depth and breadth of our ambition.
There is lots that is good about children’s social care. As all of the reports have set out this year, and indeed over decades, as members have shown today, the dedication of social workers, family support workers, Directors of Children’s Services, foster carers, kinship carers and others up and down the country who work determinedly to improve children’s lives deserve our fulsome praise. Many children who have been supported by children’s social care go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives – this is a testament to their resilience but also often to the quality of the help and support they have received when they have needed it.
But the message from these reports and from the many excellent contributions made today is clear: the system is not delivering well enough, or consistently, for children and families it supports.
Less than one month ago, I was given what I believe is the most important job in Government and it’s excellent to hear that former people who have held this job agree. There is no other role that provides such a huge opportunity to change children’s lives for the better.
That is why, when my honourable friend the member for Colchester (the then Minister for Children and Families) came to this house six months ago, this Government committed to taking action from Day One. I am pleased to update the House with some of our progress today.
We have already established a National Implementation Board. I chaired a meeting of the Board last week. Hearing the experiences of the people who are care experienced on it as well as the wealth of experience from Josh [MacAlister], our Children’s Commissioner and others has given me huge confidence in its ability to help us achieve the full extent of our ambitions for children.
Within Government, we have set up a new Child Protection Ministerial Group, we have launched a Data and Digital Solutions Fund – I know many members talked of the importance of sharing data to encourage that joined up working, we’re working to increase the number of foster care placements as the Member for Eddisbury who has excellent real world experience in this area is pushing us to be ambitious on this, that’s what we are getting on with already.
But many members of this House have pressed me today on the contents of the implementation strategy. I want to assure them this is the thing that is keeping us up at night, it is a huge priority, I am committed to publishing our Implementation Strategy early in the new year and look forward to returning to this House to set out our plans in full, and I’m sure I will see many of these members to return to scrutinise them.
Today, I can share with you what our vision and ambitions are for the future system.
Madam Deputy Speaker, the Government believes in the power of opportunity. It was why levelling up was at the core of our manifesto in 2019. And it is our belief that the roots of opportunity start with the power and importance of family. With the right support, families are the best means of protecting, nurturing, and promoting the interests of children, now and forever.
As the Care Review said, “we all have a part to play and it starts with love”. Our ambitions for reform will reaffirm the central role of families in the care system and put love and stable relationships at the heart of what children’s social care does.
Children should grow-up in loving, safe and stable families. That is where they can achieve their best. Where that is not possible, it is right that the care system should take swift and decisive action to protect them. But care itself should also provide the same foundation of love, stability and safety – this is what all children indeed all of us need to thrive.
Let me start by talking about our own vision. Firstly, our ambition for families. Families are at the heart of what makes us all happy. So when families are struggling, we should provide rapid and intensive multidisciplinary support at the right time to help fix the issues.
Lots of members talked about early intervention and I completely agree that is the core issue here.
From our programmes to improve early help services from birth to adulthood, we want to build a strong evidence base on what works to support families to turn around difficult situations. I’d like to thank the Children’s Commissioner for Part One of her recent review into family life.
On the comment from the honourable lady opposite on a lack of ambition, I would gently point her to our ambitious reforms on domestic abuse, on drug and alcohol, on reducing parental conflict. When we talk about prevention to make sure that people aren’t suffering from the kind of trauma the honourable lady from Bath talks about – I do think these reforms are the way to start.
Our second ambition is child protection. The murders of Arthur [Labijo-Hughes] and Star [Hobson] sickened us all. The recommendations from the National Panel look to ensure such terrible incidents are as rare as possible and when children are at risk of harm, we must intervene quickly and decisively through a more expert and multi-agency child protection response.
The honourable member for Bath had a question on developing our understanding of sibling sexual abuse – I don’t think anything in this area should be taboo and we are all looking at the evidence base. I’m happy to discuss these things further.
Local Authorities, Police and Health services are under statutory duties to work together to safeguard children. We will use the recommendations of all the reviews to support them.
Thirdly, foster care and kinship care – I also agree the ad from John Lewis was both touching and an exciting time to talk about this area.
Where children cannot be looked after safely by their parents, we should properly support wider family networks to step up, in a family-like environment.
At the moment, there are practical, financial and cultural barriers to this, especially some of the ethnic disparities that have been talked about today. Moving in with a relative or people from your community provides a strong chance of achieving the kind of lifelong stability children need. We need to encourage the system to always look to wider family before care outside the family and to help equip families to do this well where that is in children’s best interests. Multiple members have mentioned adoption – we have set out a strategy last year and that will be an important part of our solution here as well.
Our fourth ambition is for the care system. Where family isn’t an option, the care system should provide stable and loving homes.
But the care review found that all those supporting children in the care system need to be more focused on outcomes – that has been widely discussed today and I think that’s absolutely right. We must focus on the outcomes but I also pay tribute to John from Plan B who sounds like a thoroughly brilliant man for all the work he’s doing in this regard.
It was mentioned the number of times children in care move homes. I’ve spoken to young people in the last couple of weeks who talk about moving 21 times – that is not the kind of experience you need to set up the relationships that are so important for people.
We’ve also been working in close partnership with departments across government and with Ofsted. What is clear is that continuing with the status quo is not an option. Would gently say that the trajectory has been positive, with lots of work from very dedicated teams to get the Good or Outstanding level up from 36% to 55% and reducing the number of LAs judged to be inadequate. I pay tribute to their work. Of course we cannot accept any failure in this area, but I think they have done exceptional work so far.
Our fifth ambition is to equip the children’s social care system with the people and tools that it needs to do a good job of supporting all those that need its help. That means a skilled and empowered workforce, better data and transparency, and clear system direction.
We have committed to a National Framework for Children’s Social Care. We are working to publish a draft of this alongside the Implementation Strategy.
We will continue to work closely with Ofsted who play an important role in the intervention and improvement programme.
Finally, by far the most important factor for achieving success will be the people delivering our vision. I’m sure this house will join me in paying tribute to every social worker and all those who are supporting children such as those in children’s homes and foster carers, who are there tirelessly day in and day out providing support to children and their families. We will bring forward proposals to support the workforce, and foster carers, to ensure they have the right skills and strong leadership.
Finally in conclusion I am proud to be responsible for a system that has been shown to help children recover from traumatic experiences, and often to succeed against the odds. But the children’s social care system cannot do it all. A young person’s success is driven by so many different factors and actors. I want the other parts of the local council, the school system, the health service and many others within and outside Government to do all they can to give our children the best possible start in life.
Children’s social care can’t do it alone, and we can’t do everything at once. This is a programme for long term, once-in-a-generation reform. We will start by laying the foundations for a system that is built on love and the importance of family.