After Baby P, Ed Balls announces new child protection measures

May 6, 2009 at 1:54 pm 2 comments

by Tony Grew

New legislation on child protection was introduced during the debate on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill yesterday.

There were clashes, described by the Deputy Speaker as “fractious,” between the frontbenches over the proposals.

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill contains a range of measures to meet the education needs of 0 – 19 year-olds and “significant reforms” to post-16 education and training to improve the delivery to young people and adults.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families moved new clauses relating to child protection.

Ed Balls told MPs that in the light of the Baby P case, where a two-year-old boy known to social services was tortured to death despite repeated visits from social workers, “we have tabled three new clauses that will help us to go further towards implementing Lord Laming’s recommendations in this Bill.

“They will introduce new statutory targets for safeguarding and child protection and require local safeguarding children boards to appoint two members drawn from the local community and to publish an annual report on their effectiveness.”

Mr Balls told MPs that these measures could only go some way to protecting children.

“In the end, however, the issue is about ensuring that we have proper leadership, resourcing and scrutiny, both locally, in every one of the 158 areas where safeguarding is co-ordinated, and across a range of different agencies. Our challenge is to make best practice universal, across all parts of the country.

“As I have said, we will revise our new guidance on safeguarding to each area to reflect not only the changes in the law, but the wider recommendations in Lord Laming’s report.

“It is vital that we have clear direction from the centre, but far more important will be the quality and commitment of leadership at local level, and that is where we must ensure that we have proper and effective scrutiny.”

Tim Loughton, Shadow Minister for Children, responded that “every right-thinking person in this country will have been absolutely horrified at the further revelations that have come out of the Baby P affair.

“That makes it even more urgent to acknowledge that the measures that we all bring in—not just the Government, but all the other agencies involved—are very necessary.

“We can always clamp down, but we can never eliminate altogether those people who are intent on doing evil things to children.

“However, the duty of all of us is to make that as difficult as possible for them by eliminating as many opportunities as possible, and to keep a strong watching eye on the people who are minded to do these horrendous things to children.”

Mr Loughton said social services needed “fewer case loads heaped on to individual social workers, we need more permanent social workers—as opposed to agency or short-term social workers—and we need to free up more of social workers’ time, so that they can get on with their job of protecting children and vulnerable families and meeting them face to face rather than being shackled to their computers and assessment forms.

“That is what Laming, Unison and all other dispassionate observers say is now happening.

“Some surveys estimate that social workers and child protection workers spend up to 80 per cent. of their time in front of computers and doing paperwork for assessment.”

Mr Loughton was not fully supportive of the government’s plans.

“An awful lot of what is being proposed amounts to further bureaucracy rather than the achievement of qualitative outcomes,” he said.

“One example is the establishment of a national safeguarding delivery unit.

“The national safeguarding delivery unit will report to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Families, Children and Young People.

“Earlier, the Secretary of State exalted the merits of greater transparency and public involvement. The problem is that the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Families, Children and Young People is shrouded in secrecy.

“We do not know what that Sub-Committee actually does, nor how it will respond to the proceedings of the national safeguarding delivery unit.

“It therefore seems to be an extra bit of bureaucracy, whose merits in achieving qualitative outcomes are questionable—but in any case we cannot question it, because it meets in secret and its minutes are not published.

“That is a good example of the lack of transparency that some of these proposals will create.”

Mr Balls accused the opposition of not supporting Lord Laming.

“Lord Laming makes it absolutely clear in his report that he sees the national delivery unit as central to ensuring that children are safe.

“He sees its reporting to the Sub-Committee as central to keeping children safe, too.

“He also sees the serious case review full report being kept confidential, and the establishment of ContactPoint and new statutory targets, as central to keeping children safe.

“On each of these recommendations, we have heard from the hon. Gentleman that he and his party do not support what Lord Laming says are necessary actions to keep children safe.

“On this basis, it is clear that the Conservative party does not support the body of recommendations to keep children safe that are in Lord Laming’s report.

“There is no point in coming along with warm words. Lord Laming has produced a report. We are implementing his recommendations.

“The Conservative party does not support all the key central recommendations of the Laming report, and it is essential for public scrutiny that that point is laid clearly before us.”

Mr Loughton accused the government of “playing politics” with the issue.

“The Government will have—as they always have had—the full support of the Opposition when they can make the case that their proposals will make children safer and add to child protection effectiveness,” he said.

“Those are the simple questions that I am asking the Secretary of State.

“If we are to be asked to give him wide-ranging additional powers to set targets—which social workers at the sharp end tell us prevent them from doing their job, distort their job priorities and make them spend more time with their computers and paperwork than with the vulnerable families and children that they went into the profession to help—it is reasonable for us to ask those questions at this stage.

“The Secretary of State has been unable to give us any details of a single target that is likely to be introduced under the new clause that he is asking the House to accept today, and that is very worrying.

“He has completely misunderstood some of the advice that has been given by Lord Laming and he is unable to give us any indication of the targets he would like to see, notwithstanding the consultation that he says we will have.”

For the Lib Dems, Annette Brooke said that appointing lay members to safeguarding children boards, “is perfectly sensible, although I have some concerns about the training that would have to be given to those members, and about their exact role and status. At this stage, we do not know about that.”

Tory MP Edward Timpson raised the issue of targets for social workers.

“Unless we have some idea of what they may be, it is difficult, particularly for Conservative Members, to fall in step with the new clause.

“Although my instinct is that targets will not necessarily solve the problem, we can see that some would be beneficial to the child protection system—for instance, on the quality and consistency of social work care, the timeliness of protective measures for vulnerable children and, most importantly, the outcomes for children who have some contact with the child protection system.

“If we are to have targets, those are the sort that I would have expected the Secretary of State to mention in response to my hon. Friend.

“Another difficulty is to do with the training, recruitment and retention of social workers. In some local authorities, almost 50 per cent. of front-line child protection staff have less than two years’ experience in their job.

“I have seen that for myself in the work that I have done in the family courts representing local authorities, children and their parents.

“On far too regular a basis, a social worker, or even a team manager, working for the local authority has made the application to take a child into care but their experience is woefully short for the extreme complexity of the case that is facing them.

“That is not their fault: it is the fault of all of us in failing to ensure that measures to improve the status of social workers, to invest in the social work profession and to better train social workers have come to fruition.”

Mr Balls said he was keen to move forward “consultatively and consensually, as far as possible.”

“We shall not bring forward any detailed proposals on new statutory targets or which indicators should change until we have had much greater and lengthier consultation with local authorities, social workers and the social work taskforce.

“I am happy to consult Members of all parties as part of those discussions.”

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