I would like to thank the hon. members of York Central for their moving and impassioned speeches and the member for East Worthing and Shoreham for setting aside time for this important debate and for the contributions of all members.
I look around and see former ministers, care givers, advisers and the newly elected chairman of the education select committee, all of whom have enormous experience and compassion – I really think that was the best of this House today.
I look forward to working with all of you and am absolutely thrilled to see the wealth of enthusiasm for the changes we envision.
I would like to thank everyone who led and contributed to these essential 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 special 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 are many good things about the social care of children. As every report has established this year, and indeed over the decades, as members have shown today, the dedication of social workers, family support workers, directors of children’s services , foster families, caregivers and others across the country who work with determination to improve the lives of children deserve all our praise. Many children who have been supported by child welfare go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives – this is a testament to their resilience but also often to the quality of help and support they received when they needed it.
But the message from these reports and the many excellent contributions made today is clear: the system is not working well enough, or consistently, for the children and families it supports.
Less than a month ago I was given what I consider to be the most important job in government and it’s great to hear that the alumni who have held this position agree. There is no other role that offers such an opportunity to change children’s lives for the better.
That is why, when my hon. friend the member for Colchester (then Minister for Children and Families) came here six months ago, this government made a commitment to act from day one. I am pleased to update the House on some of our progress today.
We have already established a National Implementation Council. I chaired a board meeting last week. Hearing the experiences of people who are experienced there as well as the wealth of Josh’s experience [MacAlister]our children’s commissioner and others has given me great confidence in his ability to help us fully realize our ambitions for children.
Within government we have set up a new cabinet group for child protection, we have launched a data and digital solutions fund – I know many members have spoken about the importance of sharing data to encourage this joint work we are working to increase the number of foster care placements as the Member of Parliament for Eddisbury who has excellent real world experience in this area pushes us to be ambitious about this this is what what we are already doing.
But many members of this House have pressed me today on the content of the implementation strategy. I want to assure them this is the thing that keeps us up at night it’s a huge priority I am committed to releasing our implementation strategy early in the new year and I can’t wait to get back here to lay out our plans in full, and I’m sure I’ll see many of those members come back to review them.
Today, I can share with you our vision and our ambitions for the future system.
Madam Vice-President, the government believes in the power of opportunity. That’s why upgrading was at the heart of our manifesto in 2019. And we believe that the roots of opportunity begin with the power and importance of family. With the right support, families are the best way to protect, nurture and promote 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 reform ambitions will reaffirm the central role of families in the care system and put love and stable relationships at the heart of what child welfare does.
Children should grow up in loving, secure and stable families. This is where they can do their best. When this is not possible, it is right for the healthcare system to take swift and decisive action to protect them. But the care itself must also provide the same foundation of love, stability and security – this is what all children indeed need to thrive.
Let me start by talking about our own vision. First, our ambition for families. Families are at the heart of what makes us all happy. So when families are in trouble, we need to provide fast and intensive multidisciplinary support at the right time to help resolve the issues.
A lot of members have talked about early intervention and I totally agree that’s the central issue here.
From our programs to improve early support services from birth to adulthood, we want to build a solid base of evidence on what works to help families resolve difficult situations. I would like to thank the Children’s Commissioner for the first part of her recent review of family life.
With regard to the comment of the honorable lady opposite on the lack of ambition, I would kindly point out to her our ambitious reforms on domestic violence, on drugs and alcohol, on the reduction of parental conflict. When we talk about prevention to make sure people don’t suffer the kind of trauma the honorable lady from Bath is talking about, I think these reforms are the right place to start.
Our second ambition is child protection. Arthur’s Murders [Labijo-Hughes] and star [Hobson] made us all sick. The recommendations of the National Panel aim to ensure that 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-faceted child protection response. -agencies.
The hon. member for Bath had a question about the development of 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. I am happy to discuss these things further.
Local authorities, police and health services are required by law to work together to protect children. We will use recommendations from all reviews to support them.
Third, foster care and kinship care – I also agree that John Lewis’ announcement was both touching and exciting to talk about in this area.
When children cannot be safely cared for by their parents, we need to appropriately support broader family networks to scale up, in a family-like environment.
Right now, there are practical, financial, and cultural barriers to that, particularly some of the ethnic disparities that have been talked about today. Moving in with a parent or people in your community offers a strong chance of achieving the kind of stability that children need throughout life. We need to encourage the system to always look to the extended family before non-family care and help equip families to do this well where it is in the best interests of the children. Several members mentioned adoption – we defined a strategy last year and it will also be an important part of our solution here.
Our fourth ambition concerns the healthcare system. Where family is not an option, the care system should provide stable and loving homes.
But the Care Review found that everyone supporting children in the care system needs to focus more on results – this has been widely discussed today and I think it is very true. We have to focus on results, but I also give credit to John from Plan B who seems to be quite a brilliant man for all the work he does in this regard.
Mention was made of the number of times children in care move. I’ve spoken to young people over the past two weeks who have talked about moving 21 times – that’s not the kind of experience you need to build the relationships that are so important to people.
We have also worked closely with government departments and with Ofsted. What is clear is that continuing with the status quo is not an option. Let’s say nicely that the trajectory has been positive, with a lot of work from very dedicated teams to increase the Good or Exceptional level from 36% to 55% and reduce the number of LAs deemed insufficient. I pay tribute to their work. Of course, we cannot accept any failures in this area, but I think they have done an exceptional job so far.
Our fifth ambition is to equip the child welfare system with the people and tools it needs to effectively support all those who need its help. This means a skilled and empowered workforce, better data and better transparency and clear system direction.
We are committed to putting in place a national framework for the social protection of children. 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 success will be the people who bring our vision to life. I’m sure this house will join me in honoring every social worker and all those who support children, such as those in children’s homes and foster families, who are there tirelessly, day in and day out, to support children and their families. We will present proposals to support the workforce and host families, 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 succeed through thick and thin. But the child welfare system cannot do everything. A young person’s success depends on so many different factors and actors. I want other parts of the local council, the school system, the health service and many others in and outside government to do all they can to give our children the best possible start in life.
Child Welfare cannot do it alone, and we cannot do it all at once. This is a unique long-term reform program. We will start by laying the foundations of a system based on love and the importance of family.