Opposition Day Debate on Safeguarding Children – Lisa Nandy, Shadow Children’s Minister
Labour’s Opposition Day Motion on safeguarding children was wound up by Lisa Nandy MP in her new role as Shadow Children’s Minister with the following speech:
This debate could not be more important, because it concerns those children who most need and deserve our support. Many of them are children for whom parental care has failed, and in some cases the state has also failed them. These children have no choice but to rely on us to protect them, which is one of the heaviest responsibilities placed on the Government. There is an urgency to the situation that marks it out further still. For a young child, just two months represents 1% of their childhood. If we get this wrong, that is time that they will never get back. Every moment counts.
Whether we succeed or fail for those children will depend almost entirely on the quality of relationships that they have with the people who are charged with protecting them. That is the central point that must be recognised and not get lost in the welcome reforms that the Government are pursuing.
We have heard about the pressure on front-line professionals, but while the spotlight in the Department often falls on education, authoritative voices such as the former Children’s Commissioner for England and the chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have warned that the wider framework of support for children is being dismantled, with dangerous consequences for some of the children who can least afford to bear them.
Increasing overall resources is not an option, so Ministers must look carefully at their priorities. There are now more than twice as many staff employed in the Department’s free schools unit as in the safeguarding unit. Youth services, which were a lifeline for the most at-risk young people, are disappearing, while a national citizen service is being developed. That is an admirable scheme, but it is no replacement for ongoing support for the young people who need it most. For some of them, their youth worker is the consistent adult in their life, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) outlined so compellingly. They really matter to children among their other priorities.
I had the opportunity to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), before I came to this place, and I have scrutinised his work over the past two years as a member of the Education Committee. I am absolutely certain that he is passionate about his job and the need to listen to children, and he is right that we need to move away from a defensive culture in social work practice, trust professionals to use their instincts and encourage and enable them to be more proactive. However, I would fail in my duty to children if I did not address the real concerns that exist about the strain on the relationships that lie at the heart of effective child protection.
The professionals who make a vital difference to children at risk—their social workers, who do an impossible job day in, day out—are now dealing with unmanageable case loads, as the Minister’s own adviser, Professor Eileen Munro, has warned. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about the difficulties inherent in the task of social work, and he was absolutely right to do so, but do Ministers know that polling suggests that one in six social workers now have more than 40 cases? Speaking as someone who spent nearly a decade working with some of the most vulnerable children in contact with the child protection system, that figure is of real concern to me, as it is to many other people.
More than half of social workers believe that their case loads are unmanageable, and the children’s rights director tells me that children themselves are now starting to voice their concerns about social work case loads. Will the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), tell us urgently what she will do about that? if social work is the fourth emergency service, as the Under-Secretary said, greater flexibility on its own is not enough in the face of unprecedented demand.
The establishment of the social work college should help. It is based on the landmark recognition that relationships are everything in child protection, and that professional skills and judgment are worth their weight in gold and demand the same professional status in society as we accord doctors and other professionals. What progress has been made to resolve the disputes that have beset the foundation of the college?
Will the Minister of State respond to the concern that, one year on, there is still no chief social worker in post to stand up for the profession? I was grateful to the Under-Secretary for updating us on the fact that recruitment is currently under way, but can the Minister of State provide us with more details about how exactly the post will work and when somebody will begin the job?
I expect the Minister of State recognises why there has been such concern about delays in implementing the Munro review, and especially about the confusion over the impact that health reforms will have. There is a real danger that we will end up with more piecemeal reform, which is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Real strides forward were made in persuading agencies to work together to keep children safe after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié 12 years ago. This must not be the moment when it is allowed to unravel. Progress in child safeguarding is the last Government’s legacy, and many Labour Members can rightly be proud of it, but it can and should also be the current Government’s legacy. We will do everything we can to ensure that that is the case.
There is evidence that agencies are retreating into their core functions. I repeat the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) that in cutting out prescription, Ministers must be careful not to send front-line professionals whose daily work brings them into contact with children but is not restricted to them a dangerous signal that keeping children safe is not their responsibility.
Professionals need clarity, and it is our responsibility to provide it, so I invite the Minister to consider the impact of the shift of focus in the Department, which was formerly called the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The change of name that was not just symbolic; it was an important shift that provided results for children, which I have seen for myself. Its abandonment has left some children falling between Departments and teams, which too often focus on services rather than children. Ministers could never have intended this situation, which arose recently, but the Education Secretary learned from the Education Committee that another Department had started a trial that exposed children to ionising radiation against the wishes of the four Children’s Commissioners and the medical profession. He was not even aware of that, much less consulted.
There is a real risk that we will have such a debate in a decade’s time in a context in which some children have fallen further behind and others are still at risk. A unique opportunity to reform the system will have been wasted. We can and must do better. In a decade, I would like to stand here—or preferably at the Government Dispatch Box—when no child is constrained by their background; when no child is left in abusive or neglected homes; when no child is ignored when they raise serious concerns; when no child believes that they cannot do better; and when no child is passed around from pillar to post around the care system, forced to recount their harrowing experiences to a succession of anonymous adults. In short, in 10 years’ time, no child’s life chances should be determined before they are born.
Members on both sides of the House share that vision, so I want to extend an offer to the Minister to build a shared consensus on children above politics, and to work together to create a comprehensive strategy to keep children safe—one that involves the care and child protection systems as a whole; one that gives front-line professionals the tools, clarity and skills they need, and the freedom to exercise them; and one that, above all, recognises that we are operating in a new reality, in which agencies are under pressure. If we are not careful, the sense of shared responsibility that has been built up over the previous decade will be lost when children need it most.
Perhaps uniquely in this area, the quality of relationships is sometimes more important than the system. It is the job of professionals to do the best they can for children—many of them up and down the country do so on a daily basis, often against the odds—but it is our job to create a system that values and recognises their work, to support those relationships, and to support children through them. This is more than just a debate; it is an opportunity to break a cycle that, despite efforts by hon. Members on both sides of the House, still condemns far too many children to a life that falls well short of what they deserve.