Mario Creatura: The failure of social workers to protect vulnerable children is grim. But must not be ignored.

24 Feb

Cllr Mario Creatura is a councillor in Croydon and was the Conservative candidate for Croydon Central.

On Monday it was revealed that vulnerable children living in Solihull have to wait far too long for help. A probe of Solihull Council uncovered a ‘significant’ number of children who remain in ‘unknown risk’ due to assessment delays. It’s where six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was tortured and killed in June 2020.

A week ago, a report revealed that Bradford Council was struggling to recruit and retain social workers. 124 vacancies are being filled by 173 agency staff. It’s where 16-month-old Star Hobson was murdered in 2020. That meant the Council was stripped of control of its children’s services department.

On the south coast, vulnerable children in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are being put at risk of harm by failing social services, with Ofsted last week rating the care as ‘inadequate’. The watchdog said “the fundamental building blocks required for children to get the right help at the right time were missing, almost in entirety”.

The same is true in Buckinghamshire. They were deemed inadequate in 2014 but the latest Ofsted review said improvements had been impeded by “acute and persistent” problems with recruitment and retention of social workers and managers, and poor social work practice. As a result, the help some children received was “fragmented and episodic” because they did not see the same social worker.

These are just a few of the well-publicised cases in the last fortnight. If you take the time to search, there are far too many examples of failures in children’s services up and down the country – yet it’s still relatively hidden, far too easily lost in the unrelenting noise of the news.

On 1st February, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) released a damning report exposing that police and Local Authorities are failing to properly identify and investigate child grooming gangs. They were looking at abuse in St Helens, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Durham, Bristol, and Warwickshire, and found “extensive failures” in how Local Authorities tackled child exploitation, with police often unable to provide evidence on the extent of the problem. The inquiry said that the ‘child victims were often blamed by authorities’ – in just one example a charity revealed that child protection professionals were still describing abused children as “promiscuous” and “putting themselves at risk”.

Professor Alexis Jay, who led the investigation into child abuse in Rotherham, has said that child abuse and systemic neglect had become “even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated” – she’s right, and it’s partly our fault.

These cases are all utterly heart-breaking, and the last thing that any of us want to contemplate happening in our communities, yet it’s clear that no part of the country is immune from the unimaginable terror of child abuse.

When heading into the office, do you really want to listen to stories of exploitation and neglect on the radio? Do you switch the station or just mentally tune it out? When reading the paper, do you scan past reports of child cruelty and torture? It’s understandable that you’d want to, I’m as guilty as the next man, but if we are to have any hope of helping these children then we must all redouble our efforts to accept how serious and widespread these tragedies are.

Only by adequately and comprehensively shining a light on institutional failures do we stand a chance of reforming the system and eradicating these horrors once and for all – that’s where Nadhim Zahawi comes in.

There is a Government review into the whole system currently under way, and based on previous statements it’s clear that our Education Secretary has the bit firmly between his teeth. It’s due to be published this Spring, and as well as tackling recruitment and retention, I hope it celebrates those Local Authorities and incredible social workers that have managed to turn things around. Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Barnet and others have all proven that poor children’s services can be revived. Every team that improves means more children being protected that previously may not have been. That’s worth unending enthusiastic praise.

With the Government working with authorities to improve national systems, and with all of us paying more attention and asking the right questions locally, we can collectively turn this around. It can be all too easy to leave the politics to the politicians, but if communities organise and rally to tackle injustices such as these then we can bolster top-down reforms with bottom-up scrutiny. We need that on this topic more than ever.

The IICSA report said that in some cases Local Authorities might be potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about the negative publicity, that they “don’t want to be labelled another Rochdale or Rotherham” – we cannot allow that to happen anywhere.

So read about it. Get angry about it. Discuss it with your friends and family. Demand that your local services get better, and do everything you can to push our Local Authorities and law enforcement to do more and do much much better.

Do that, and together we can start the painfully slow process of improving the lives of vulnerable children.

 

Judy Terry: Unlike some local authorities, Suffolk County Council is focused on balancing the books

11 Feb

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Evidence that up to 100,000 children have not returned to school since the pandemic, is a ‘red flag’, according to the Children’s Commissioner, who has launched an inquiry with local authorities and the government to identify what has happened to them. Have they moved house; are they being homeschooled; are they sick or playing truant? Could they be caught up in gang culture, or even parental abuse?

Every day seems to bring more bad news, with London hitting a record for teenage stabbings.

Recent tragedies, when parents were allegedly complicit in the murder of their own young children, as well as two sets of twins killed by a fire when left at home alone, has highlighted the importance of effective social services, investigating and monitoring reported incidents and outcomes.

Sadly, this means that more children end up in care for their own safety; nationally, the figure is expected to hit 100,000 by 2025.

There is a general assumption that children’s suffering is confined to areas of deprivation, but that is far from the truth. Youngsters – across all levels of society – can be vulnerable to homelessness and abuse, both physical and emotional. These problems are exacerbated by international conflicts, as currently experienced in parts of the Middle East, where children are – literally – starving and suffering terrible injuries, whilst others are caught up in illegal Channel crossings.

For example, although fewer local children are going into care in Suffolk, in the last five years, there has been an overall 13 per cent increase, rising to 919 in 2020/21. This is partly due to the number of unaccompanied Asylum-seeking children being accommodated, and staying longer without permanent solutions, as part of the Home Office’s national transfer scheme.

The situation is further exacerbated by a shortage of foster carers, and the Suffolk Fostering Service is appealing for people to come forward if they are able to offer a safe and loving home, whether full or part time.

Cllr. Stephen Burroughes, who has responsibility for Fostering and Adoption, explains the vital role foster carers play in the lives of such vulnerable young people, “helping them grow into successful confident and resilient young adults. It is very rewarding.” Rated Outstanding by Ofsted, the service offers 24-hour support, competitive fees and 21 days paid leave each year, with details available here. Giving vulnerable children security, and getting them into education, so they can develop their talents, enjoying their lives, is vital to communities and wider society.

As demand continues to increase, children’s services are at the heart of Suffolk County Council’s new 2022/23 budget plans, with extra resources from the proposed 2.99 per cent council tax rise taking the budget from £598.2m to £625.4m, equating to an additional 80p per week for Band D properties and 62p for Band B, which are most common across Suffolk.

Other priorities include adult care, Highways, flood prevention and footpath improvements, as well as decarbonising council-owned buildings.

Cllr. Richard Rout, Cabinet Member for Finance & Environment says:

“We don’t take these decisions lightly, especially with the cost of living rising too, but responses to our public consultation acknowledged the additional pressures we face, and the importance of funding essential care for children and adults.

“We are proud of our careful financial management in delivering key services, but if anyone has concerns about paying their council tax, they may be eligible for the Council Tax Reduction scheme, managed by our borough and district councils, helping those on a low income.”

The final budget will be debated at a Full Council meeting on 17th February.

Meanwhile, following a nine-month procurement process, the council has announced a property development alliance with Lovell Partnerships to build 2,800 low carbon homes, with new schools, employment land, and public spaces. Five locations on council-owned land have been identified in Lowestoft, Mildenhall, Bramford, West Row, and Newmarket.

The 50-50 partnership is intended to deliver around £700m of gross development value over the 15-year agreement, with the option to extend by five years. Contracts are expected to be concluded in the spring, with the joint venture established in the summer.

In addition to providing much needed social housing and new community facilities, the partnership will generate significant funds for the council over the long term for strategic expenditure and investment.

Lovell’s Regional Managing Director, Simon Medler, is delighted:

“Opportunities of this scale, bringing so much local opportunity and benefit, are rare. We have been based in the East Anglia region for nearly 20 years, delivering thousands of new homes, employing many local staff and partnering with established local supply chains.”

Unlike some local authorities which are facing bankruptcy, Suffolk County Council is focused on balancing the books, working with the private sector and local communities, to deliver on its promises.

The Levelling Up White Paper shows that Gove has lost his radical cutting edge

8 Feb

There were two noteworthy publications from Her Majesty’s Government last week. The Sue Gray report (or “update” as it was designated) was very short. The Levelling Up White Paper was very long. But there was a similar mindset.

Sue Gray noted that “the number of staff working in No 10 Downing Street has steadily increased in recent years.” Indeed so. Though it reflects a general trend. The ONS reports there are now 505,000 civil servants – up by 42,000 from a year ago. Having hundreds of people crammed into Downing Street was starting to get unmanageable. Spilling out in the garden, plotting against each other, smuggling in bottles of wine in a suitcase, micro-managing Government Departments and gumming up the decision-making process.

So the answer is to slim back down on the numbers, right? No! It is to set up a Prime Minister’s Department – extra HR, more line managers, guidance on whistleblowing, monitoring of “excessive alcohol”. A Permanent Secretary instead of – or perhaps as well as – the Cabinet Secretary.

Turning to the “left behind” parts of the country, it is obvious that there are towns and cities where decades of municipal socialism has left a hostile environment for free enterprise. So the Government has concluded that the answer is another layer of administration, under the direction of more socialist politicians, to create an extra barrier to anyone foolhardy enough to contemplate investing in such territory.

In an episode of Yes Minister, there was dismay from Jim Hacker that the Department of Administrative Affairs employed “23,000 people just to administer other administrators.” He declared:

“We will have to do one of those time and motion studies and see how many we can do without.”

Sir Humphrey replied:

“We did one of those last year, Minister. We found we needed about another 500 people.”

The White Paper promises that a £2.6 billion Shared Prosperity Fund is to be established. But for some of us, the route to shared prosperity is through less Government – not billions more on gimmicks and bureaucracy.

There is a contradiction for a Conservative Government to be pursuing a socialist agenda and this is simply the latest example. The kindest thing one can say is that there is little of substance in the white paper. Lots of distant targets which, if they happen to be met, will be no thanks to anything proposed in this document. Plenty of detail about what had already been announced. With nothing much to say, it goes on for 332 pages – an old Whitehall ruse.

Yet the flawed thinking is still a source of dismay. Levelling up should only mean making the poor richer – not in any way holding back the rich. Yet we have continual references to “closing the gap”. In the “missions” it sets itself for 2030, the white paper does include the aim that all areas make some upward progress, but the emphasis is on greater equality. By that measure, if the rich areas made only derisory progress, while the poor areas did very slightly better, the Government will have succeeded (in the unlikely event that anyone in 2030 remembers to check).

Yet if the poor areas have made huge progress, but the rich areas greater progress, then the Government will have failed. The targets include a reduction in crime, increased living standards, longer life expectancy, and increased “well being” – the last rather vague measure to rely on opinion polling by the Office of National Statistics.

A further absurdity of these crude measures is the focus on geography generalisations rather than human reality. So if someone rich in Liverpool gets a pay rise and someone poor in Surrey gets a drop in income that would help the Government meet its equality targets.

The economist, Peter Bauer, said that foreign aid is a mechanism by which “poor people in rich countries are taxed to support the lifestyles of rich people in poor countries”. That approach would seem to encapsulate the Government’s “levelling up” agenda.

Most dubious of all is the claim in the White Paper to champion the cause of the young (and not so young) who are priced out of home ownership. It says:

“By 2030, renters will have a secure path to ownership with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas.”

It notes:

“House prices in England and Wales are now almost 7.7 times higher than incomes, up from 3.6 in 1997, putting homeownership out of reach for far too many young people. This is not just a problem in London – affordability has significantly worsened in all regions over the last two decades.”

But how does it propose sorting out the problem?

“The UK Government will continue working towards our ambition of delivering 300,000 new homes per year in England by the mid-2020s.”

Leave aside the notion from the Soviet era that the Government should decide how many homes are needed, anymore than set a five-year plan for tractor production. If planning restrictions were lifted there would be a huge increase in supply – far more than the miserable 300,000 quota. That would allow prices to fall significantly. If the number of new homes is kept down to 300,000 a year, then house prices will continue to rise ahead of incomes and the Government should be honest enough to admit that this is their policy objective.

The White Paper says nothing about the growing number of children in care. Yet that is the group most disadvantaged in terms of life chances. A determination to increase adoption rates and reduce the number stuck in the care system would be a genuine priority to level up opportunity. It is a personal issue for Gove that he has spoken eloquently about. So why isn’t it in the “missions”?

What’s most dismaying about all this is that Gove should be the author. After his championing of transformational school reforms when Education Secretary, and his brave decision to back Brexit in the EU referendum, he now seeks to ingratiate himself with bien-pensants of the Leftist establishment – who will never forgive him anyway.

Gove once attacked the education blob as:

“The new Enemies Of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.”

Yet when you look behind the curtain of jargon and gimmickry, this White Paper is a missed opportunity. It misses the Conservative values – wealth creation, home ownership, a stable family to grow up in – which are essential for any tangible advance. The terrible irony is this has left Gove as the biggest enemy of promise, of them all.

Alex Dale: The cost of institutional placements for children in care has grown beyond belief

13 Dec

Cllr Alex Dale is the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services on Derbyshire County Council.

“£2.3million!”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“No I’m really serious. £2.3million!”

These are the words of my Director of Children’s Services during a recent conversation describing… wait for it… a recent quote she had received for the annual cost of a single residential care placement for a single young person – the highest she had ever received, but entirely indicative of an environment where these costs are continuing to rise. (You’ll be pleased to know we didn’t accept the quote and found an alternative).

As eye wateringly high as that figure is, (a National-Lottery-jackpot-esque amount that I suspect most families could live comfortably on for decades), it probably won’t come as a great surprise to any readers who’ve been following the emerging national crisis within the children’s care placement market.

Indeed, 2020 reports from the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Childcare suggest that the average weekly cost of placements at private and voluntary sector settings has risen by 40 per cent since 2013. Since then, Covid has only served to heighten the problem, with even more pressure on Councils to find placements.

Why is this happening I hear you ask? The factors bringing about this distortion in the market are wide-ranging and tantamount to a perfect storm. Rising numbers of admissions to care outstripping discharges has meant that virtually all local authorities across the country have seen a significant rise in the number of children they look after (in Derbyshire, since 2017, we’ve seen a rise from around 600 to over 900).

The generation of in-house foster and residential placements by Councils has not kept pace at all, meaning there is increased competition between local authorities to find placements and a greater need for non-planned “spot purchasing” which comes at a higher premium.

It’s not surprising that the Children’s Commissioner for England has reported that private residential and fostering placements have accounted for 73 per cent of the growth in the number of children in care between 2011 and 2019.

In addition, we’re seeing the complexity of need rising in terms of mental health, special educational needs, disabilities, and other vulnerabilities, all adding to the cost of the provision. Secure mental health placements for young people who demonstrate the most serious concerns are rarer than gold dust to local authorities, with a waiting list of around 50 at any given time.

What impact is this having on Councils? Well, as an illustrative example, in Derbyshire we’ve increased the budget for Children’s Services by about £30 million since we took control in 2017 (from a very low base that we inherited), but that hasn’t stopped us overspending by several million pounds in each of the past four years.

But, as the Local Government Association reports, our experience is far from unique: “despite increasing their budgets for children’s services by diverting funds from other areas, councils are still overspending due to soaring demand for support which is likely to increase further as the long-term impacts of the pandemic become clearer”. They predict that future cost pressures in children’s social care for Councils will increase by around £600million each year until 2024/25.

Now pounds, shillings and pence will always matter to local Councils, but far more important is the experience of children in care themselves. And with the increased costs of private placements, there’s very little evidence of better levels of support or care. There will, of course, always be a need for higher cost residential care for those with more complex needs or increased vulnerabilities, but for most young people, the ideal placement is in the loving family home of an experienced foster carer, where they will thrive. But due to the perfect storm described above, more children who could easily and be far better placed in foster care are ending up in residential.

As Conservatives, we believe in the undeniable power of free markets with fair competition as a force for progress in the world. But as Conservatives, we also recognise that markets do sometimes fail, to the detriment of fair competition. In these circumstances, it is the duty of the state to intervene and regulate.

A recent interim report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found that because of the time pressures councils face, “their position in the market is inherently weak”. Indeed, their Chief Executive has said that “we are concerned this is a failing system, with children not being placed in the right homes while providers are being allowed to charge high prices and make big profits.”

The LGA has also reported on the profit issue, stating that the six largest independent providers of placements made a profit of £219 million last year and that some providers are achieving more than 20 per cent on their income.

And who’s paying for it? Well, all of us. Through our taxes. This is in essence a monopsony, where the state (aka the taxpayer), via Councils, is the only buyer.

It is welcome that the Government has taken some steps to try to understand this issue, including the commencement of a national Care Review, which then instigated the investigation currently ongoing by the CMA.

But we cannot afford to wait for reporting findings. We need action now.

What then is the answer? I can’t profess to know all of the solutions and I’m sure far greater minds than my own could tackle this problem. But for me, there are a few key principles and factors that must guide any response:

  • This requires reform of the market, not just more money throwing at the problem – because putting more cash against it is what Councils have been doing for the past few years and it’s not solving the problem.
  • We have to be bold and courageous when finding solutions – all options need to be on the table and it’s likely to need a combination of solutions. There will always be a place for private providers in the marketplace and I’d never seek to question that. But as anti-Conservative as it may sound, some consideration of a profit or charges cap on private providers must form part of the discussion.
  • A national drive on foster carer recruitment is essential. Foster carers are utterly amazing, but we need more of them. Lots. And we need the whole state working together to recruit them, rather than Councils fighting it out between them and against the private sector too.

Like many others, I welcomed the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as our new Education Secretary. We need him now to grab this bull by the horns with a reforming zeal not seen for some time in that Department. Before it’s too late!

Local elections in depth: Oldham voters punish Labour for “wokeness”

17 Nov

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Oldham

Control: Labour.

Numbers: Labour 40, Conservatives 8, Lib Dems 3, Failsworth Independent Party 3, Independents 2.

Change since last local elections:  Labour -6, Conservatives +4, Failsworth Independent Party +2

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Oldham Council was formed in 1974 and has been a unitary authority since 1985. Labour has dominated but the Conservatives were in control from 1978-1980 and the Lib Dems from 2000-2002. A large Lancastrian town, Oldham prospered with textile production during the industrial revolution – apart from a difficult period when supplies of raw cotton from the United States were cut off, as part of protectionist tactics during the American civil war. Former MPs for Oldham include Winston Churchill – who won the seat for the Conservatives in 1900 and held it until 1906. He defected to the Liberal Party in 1904. An earlier MP was William Cobbett, a Radical and author of Rural Rides.

In more recent times, the Oldham West constituency was held by Michael Meacher for Labour for many years. After boundary changes, we currently have Oldham West and Royton, which was held for Labour at the last election by Jim McMahon, the Shadow Transport Secretary, with a majority of 11,000. But the result in Oldham East and Saddleworth was much closer – with Labour holding the seat by 1,503. (Further proposed boundary changes create some uncertainty.) The Ashton-under-Lyne constituency, represented by Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, also includes a couple of wards from Oldham.

Results: The local elections were controversial due to claims of failings by the Council involving child sexual exploitation – included cover ups and corruption. There have been claims of electoral fraud and counter claims of smears and extremism. Oldham Council already awaits an independent review into “historical safeguarding practice.” An earlier review covering Greater Manchester more widely has already been held. It said:

 “There was clear evidence that professionals at the time were aware the young people were being sexually exploited and that this was perpetrated by a group of older Asian men. There was significant information known at the time about these men’s names, their locations and telephone numbers, but the available evidence was not used to pursue offenders.”

Public anger has been prompted by the sense that this was not a matter of inefficiency or mismanagement – at least not entirely. There was a political dimension. What used to be called “political correctness” but is now usually termed being “woke” – a mentality that is increasingly prevalent among social workers, the police, and the legal system. That meant that rather than rigorously upholding the law without fear or favour there was regard shown to “cultural sensitivities”. No doubt there will have been some white racists keen to accuse the Asian community of collective guilt. But is it not obvious that ignoring the problem makes this far worse? Also that acting against crime and misconduct should not be subject to such arbitrary distortions? It is important to note that many Asians are completely exasperated at the feeble approach of Guardianista officialdom.

In any event, many traditional Labour voters have ditched their old Party as too “woke” and thus unreliable on such matters. Others have felt their loyalty severely strained. Labour in other parts of Greater Manchester performed rather better. Their Mayor, Andy Burnham, is clearly popular. But the Oldham results show the limits of the electorate’s indulgence towards wokeness.

Conservative councillors in Oldham are not woke. They recently proposed the following motion at a Council meeting:

“The Council notes that.

 • Saying that you are proud to be British should not be a source of shame and there is nothing wrong with Patriotism or flying our national flag. It is one of many things that binds our society together.

• That the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is in fact a unique bastion of freedom and that we should be proud of the outstanding role it has played across the world in education, art, culture, science, engineering and in exporting democracy and the rule of law.

 • We all have heroes in our communities – whether they are historical or present day, and we should properly celebrate these individuals, and their contribution to our country.

This Council resolves that:

 • The Chief Executive of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council write to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Secretary of State for Education asking them to support Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council by providing support for schools to teach the national anthem, fly the Union Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, display a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II and teach our islands’ history.

• Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council reaffirms its support for the sovereignty of the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Crown dependencies and United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

• The relevant cabinet member will request all schools in the Oldham Metropolitan Borough to: – Teach their children to sing the national anthem. – Fly the Union Flag all year round. – Display a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II in a prominent place in schools.

• Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council display a proper and fitting portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II (and any future sovereign) in a prominent place within the Council chamber and at the reception of Oldham Council along with our Union Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

• This Council rejects the phenomena known as ‘Cancel Culture’ and that it holds these truths to be self-evident, that of freedom of speech and democracy. Truths which must be cherished and defended.”

Some may feel this unapologetic patriotism is – ironically enough – rather un-British given our traditional reserve. But when our values are under attack it is necessary to be rather more assertive. Surely the former Oldham MP, Winston Churchill would have agreed.

John Bald: I hope that the reshuffle will help to reverse the disastrous increase in the number of children in care

26 Sep

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

Alex Burghart, the new Children and Families Minister at the Department for Education, is an expert in the field. His Policy Exchange report, A Better Start in Life, is the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the problems facing the care system that we have ever had, with an excellent range of practical approaches, including very early intervention through family hubs, improved organisation of social services teams, and support for young people leaving care, a third of whom are not in employment or training at 19.

Burghart found that the position of the care sector was “beyond breaking point”, and it has got worse. The number of children in care is now 80,000 (from 65,000 in 2012), while the number of secure units, for those at most serious risk of harming themselves and others, has fallen to  thirteen with none in London or the West Midlands. Ofsted judges the quality of secure homes to be generally good, and one, Barton Moss, has been judged outstanding for ten years in succession. On any one day, though, around 25 children are waiting for a secure home place, and any of them could quickly escalate into a tragedy and a national scandal.

One of Burkhart’s key recommendations is greater flexibility in provision, with increased use of boarding schools and smaller, specialised children’s homes that can offer a greater chance of stability. Instability is the starting point for entry to the care system, and the large number of moves experienced by many children makes it worse.

Prison costs an average of £44,600 per person, and one-third of prisoners have been in care. The education of children in care was one of the very few areas in which the last Labour government did good work, requiring each local authority to set up specialist teams to support children in schools. These were just beginning to develop their expertise when they were sharply cut under the coalition, a decision I still see as a big mistake. Most prisoners have problems with literacy, and I was pleased to hear this week that Jackie Hewitt-Main OBE, a pioneer in literacy services to prisoners, has joined the Conservative Party. Her Channel 4 programme with Sandy Toksvig is well worth watching, and Burghart would do well to meet her.

The Big Answer, Dame Rachel de Souza’s summary of responses to The Big Ask, her national survey of children, provides a broader context. 80 per cent of the 557,000 who responded were “happy or OK” about their schools, family and mental health, and some of the responses to schools are particularly positive.

“This generation likes school. Pupils clearly love their teachers, and the vast majority find schools nurturing and supportive,” we are told, and pupils are happy to be challenged rather than spoonfed. Removing the “OK” from the 8027 per cent gives a different picture, though, with just over half “happy” in most categories, and some showing cause for urgent concern, not least 25 per cent of girls worried about their mental health. The Commissioner wants more money for catch up, greater variety in the school curriculum to meet the needs of all pupils, and further extensions to family hubs.

Unlike the former “Tsar”, Sir Kevin Collins she wants to build on what has already been achieved and to target funds carefully to points of need, supported by evaluation. This is emerging as the Conservative approach to moving out of the pandemic, and it is correct. The Big Answer should inform policy across the political spectrum, and is well worth reading in full.

Dave Evans: We need a Department for Social Care to give the issue the focus it needs

13 Aug

Cllr Dave Evans is the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People and Lead Member for Children’s Services on Stoke-on-Trent Council.

Social care in England must sit as one of the longest running soars of any issue for any government. Governments of every colour have proclaimed that fixing social care is their top priority, only to find that other more politically sensitive areas such as education and health care have usurped this laudable statement. Although understandable, given their importance, it is this inherent failure to understand the impact the social care system, be it for adults or children, can have on these wider issues.

It is a sad fact, replicated across every city in the country, that when adult social care runs into difficulty; when practice is not robust; or when capacity in the system is unable to meet demand, pressure inevitably builds. Hospitals back up and are unable to discharge patients back to their home in a safe, sustainable way or into another safe setting. General practitioners are pulled from pillar to post dealing with minor ailments which should be done by other professionals.

Similarly, we know that poor social care for children impacts on other areas. Children with a poor home life are unable to utilise the education provided, irrespective of the quality of the school, its OFSTED rating or indeed the teaching. Nationally, 52 per cent of young people who are care leavers are not in education, employment or training. This must speak volumes about the essential role social care departments across the nation have on the economic success of our country.

Further, we know that poor quality social care and early intervention services completely change the life chances of many young people. The over prevalence of young people in care within the criminal justice system and the increased likelihood they will receive a custodial sentence – all indicators of the need to drive change in social care both for adults and children.

We have seen challenges in Stoke-on-Trent, both in terms of adults and children services. Both have received damning judgements by their regulators in recent years after decades of poor performance. Both judgements have stirred action. In the case of adult social care, previously we had one of the highest rates of delayed transfer of care (people unable to leave hospital after they were declared medically fit). After intensive work, this has been turned around making us one of the best performing areas. In the same vein, we received a challenging OFSTED rating for our children social care in 2019, pushing us onto an improvement journey which will not only improve our services, but reshape the way we prioritise them across our council and our city.

It is this experience that has led me to the view that for us to really pursue the levelling up agenda which the Prime Minister rightly speaks of, we need to give that equality of opportunity to all our residents regardless of background or circumstance. Social care needs more than just words, it needs to leapfrog up the political agenda and be truly recognised as the enabler of better public services and life chances. I believe that by creating a separate department within government, bringing together both children and adult services, would be the way to deliver this change. It needs to have its own budget; its own team working with local government to drive change in social care practice.

A separate department with its own machinery of state can bring this much needed focus, it will put social care where it needs to be, as an equal partner to health and education. By bringing the focus to adult care, working with providers, commissioners and local authorities, we can create better care arrangements, really get to grips with the home-first models adopted in places like Stoke-on-Trent and create a fit for purpose service which is both financial sustainable and able to provide the care we would want and need for our own loved ones, of which they deserve.

For young people the change can be even more significant. Giving the focus to a sector which has the potential to radically change the lives and prospects of young people by giving them a future, and in places like Stoke-on-Trent the economic and talent potential that can really drive forward our left behind communities. It is a reality that being a child in care becomes a life-defining event. In many cases, these young people are not given the support they need and aren’t prioritised in the way they need to be. Anna Longfield, the previous Children’s Commissioner said that the government ‘seemingly doesn’t know what to do with children in care’. A dedicated department would put a firm line in the sand to say we want more for our young people, they matter to us and we will be relentless in securing the best for them. We would truly be the one nation government I believe in.

Our party, the Conservative party, has always been, and will always be the party of opportunity. That opportunity must extend to everyone. We need to act now, and I’d urge the government to look at this seriously to make a significant change for those in our society that need it most.

 

Roger Gough: The number of asylum seeking children in Kent has forced us to threaten the Government with legal action

21 Jun

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Asylum seekers arriving on Kent’s shores. A council unable to meet its statutory duties. The same, Conservative council reportedly considering legal action against the government.

What is going on?

It starts with geography. As the closest and most direct link to the continent, Kent has consistently experienced large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers since around the turn of the millennium. In the last eighteen months, truck and train routes – which often meant asylum seekers making their claims elsewhere in the country – have been closed off or much reduced. It is small boat crossings through the short straits between France and the Kent coast, much more rarely seen before 2020, which have become the predominant route into the UK.

Most of those who arrive on Kent’s shores are dispersed across the country, but unaccompanied under 18s – Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) – come into the care of Kent County Council (KCC) under the Children Act.

In 2015, 2020, and now again in 2021, UASC have arrived in especially large numbers. The Government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS – of which more later) Protocol stipulates that no council should have more UASC in its care than 0.07 per cent of its child population. For Kent, that equates to 231 UASC. The current number in KCC’s care is 429. So far this year, over 300 have arrived and come into our care, up substantially on the same time last year.

Whatever the arguments about immigration in its various forms, KCC has no role in decision-making about it. Our role is to discharge our duties to those who come into our care, something that we have sought to do humanely and efficiently over many years, and we take pride in that record.

What starts as an immigration issue, rapidly becomes caught up in children’s services legislation. In 2018, for example, councils’ obligations to Care Leavers (young people over the age of 18 who have been in council care) were extended from the age of 21 to 25. This was a policy clearly not designed with UASC in mind but in Kent we have almost 1,100 Care Leavers of UASC background – a majority of those who use that service.

Last year’s increase in Government funding rates addressed the immediate burden on the Kent Council Taxpayer; however, this is not now an argument about money.

What this is about is the delivery of safe and effective services, not only to those of asylum-seeking backgrounds, but to all the young people in our care. With large-scale UASC arrivals, social worker caseloads rise to critical levels and placements have increasingly to be made outside the county, with safeguarding and supervision inevitably more challenging as social workers try to cover an ever more geographically disparate group of young people.

To put it another way, forget for a moment that the 115 young people who came into KCC’s care in May were asylum seekers. What council could take over 100 adolescents into its care each month for months on end without its services being affected?

And to what degree should any council, even one of the biggest in the country, shoulder the effects of what is a national and international issue?

That principle was recognised after the first of our recent crises in 2015. The Immigration Act 2016 established the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) with the aim of ensuring that councils across the country shared in responsibility for UASC. After the experience of Kent in 2015, the mood among policymakers, both national and local, was: never again.

Except that, by 2020, here we were again. Despite the Immigration Act giving the Home Secretary power to require, if necessary, local authorities to take UASC (‘mandation’), the Government disregarded Kent’s objections for a voluntary scheme. Within two years, placements under the voluntary NTS had first slowed and then stopped altogether.

Then, in a few short months in the spring and summer of 2020, hundreds of UASC arrived in Kent. By mid-August, its services overwhelmed, KCC reluctantly had to suspend its statutory duties and cease taking UASC into our care. This continued until, with numbers reduced, it was possible to resume in early December.

After this, the Home Office, working with us and with other local authorities, successfully placed hundreds of UASC across the country. Around half of the children’s services authorities in the country have accepted at least some UASC from Kent. However, half have not and by the early months of this year, the numbers being placed were once more slowing – and were rapidly overtaken by the big upswing in arrivals from the spring. And so, last Monday, for the second time in just under a year, Kent County Council once more suspended taking UASC into its care. Here we are again. Again.

The Government conducted a review and consultation on the NTS last autumn and revealed its proposals earlier this month. It proposes a regional rota system and has added to financial support to encourage local authorities to take part. But it is – still – a voluntary scheme.

The issue of these dangerous cross-channel journeys must itself be addressed, and that is rightly a government priority. But in any case I believe that we will only break this cycle of crises when there is a robust NTS sustainable over the long term. There is nothing in the experience of the last five years that suggests that a voluntary scheme can deliver this. KCC has twice had to suspend delivery of its legal responsibilities because its service was overwhelmed.

In our view, this could have been prevented by the use of provisions already on the statute book that have not been put into effect, and are still not set to do so. That is the basis of our differences with government, and of the Letter Before Claim that we presented to the Home Office earlier this month.

We have worked closely with the Government over the last year, and in some areas we have made progress. I appreciate the serious engagement of Ministers – especially Chris Philp, the Immigration Compliance Minister – in this. But in Kent, as in other areas with ports of entry, we need a resolution that will stick and that will last. We don’t yet have it.

Rehman Chisti: A staggering 180,000 people go missing each year, and the recovery must help them

25 May

Rehman Chishti MP is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham and Chair of the APPG on Missing Children and Adults, as well as a former Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee (2017-2019).

As we look to build back better following Covid-19, our focus must shift and widen to cover issues that have until now not been properly addressed.

Before the pandemic, a staggering 180,000 people went missing from their families and friends every year – many of them repeatedly.

With the pandemic increasing the number of people dealing with issues around mental health, facing serious financial challenges, or suffering from domestic abuse, the scale of the issue is likely to increase still further in the coming months and years.

I was personally absolutely astounded by this figure when I was preparing to ask the Secretary of State for Health a Question on the Government’s missing people and mental health strategy following the case of one of my constituents going missing in August 2020.

The national definition of a missing person is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or risk of harm to themselves or another”. As the Chair of the APPG on Missing People I welcomed the Government’s announcements in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures on mental health, the commitment to ensure children have the best possible start in life, and the promise to do more to address sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls.

However, I believe these measures must only be the first step on the road to a joined-up strategy to tackle the issue of missing people, which affects all 650 constituencies from around the United Kingdom.

Challenge 1: Many people go missing more than once

For too many people, going missing is not a one-time occurrence: the 180,000 people who are reported missing every year actually make up more than 350,000 separate missing incidents. This means that thousands of children and adults are going missing more than once, some many more times.

People going missing repeatedly means that we are not effectively safeguarding them. Going missing is a warning sign that something is wrong in a person’s life. They may be being exploited, escaping harm, experiencing mental health crisis, or facing other significant risks. Some will be seriously harmed while away.

Every time someone goes missing there is an opportunity for intervention. We should be providing help to address underlying issues and opportunities for escalated support when necessary.

Challenge 2: Looked after children are more at risk

One group is at risk of going missing more than almost any other. One in ten children looked after in the care system will go missing, compared to one in 200 generally. In 2019-20 over 12,000 looked after children were reported missing. They are also more likely to go missing repeatedly, on average each child will go missing more than six times.

Evidence suggests that looked after children can be at increased risk of many of the harms known to be linked with going missing.

We must do better for these young people. Providing safe and supportive homes, with appropriate care in place to meet the needs of their individual circumstances. All agencies involved – carers, residential homes, social workers, police officers, schools and many others – should be focussed on building positive relationships and preventing harm.

Challenge 3: Adults with mental health issues are disproportionately likely to go missing

Amongst adults, too, there are certain factors that make it far more likely that someone will go missing: up to 80 per cent of missing adults will be experiencing severe mental health issues when they go missing. Yet the issue is often overlooked in national and local policies and action plans regarding mental health.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having a further severe negative impact on the nation’s mental health, with increased isolation and decreased access to support, this is likely to become a still more urgent problem in the coming months and years.

Challenge 4: Missing children are at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation

Children going missing can be a serious warning sign that they are being groomed, or exploited, including by criminal groups. With thousands of children across the UK being victimised in this way, this is a problem that needs to be recognised and faced urgently.

We now know that a shocking number of children are being exploited criminally by criminal groups to deliver drugs across the country in ‘County Lines’. With many children less visible to services dedicated to identifying and helping them during the Covid-19 pandemic, these problems have not diminished.

Instead, exploitation has often only temporarily shifted from travel (county lines) to taking place locally or over the internet.

Challenge 5: Long-term missing people

The last challenge comes from perhaps the most heart-rending fact of all: not all missing people come back. The data shows that over 5,000 people are currently considered to be ‘long-term missing’ in the UK, meaning they have been missing for over a year. Over 5,000 families are left in limbo, waiting to hear what may have happened to their missing loved one.

This is an unimaginable situation that no one would wish to be left in. Every missing episode should be a priority for all of us, from day one and for as long as it takes until they are found.

What can be done to tackle these challenges? There are three distinct opportunities for change that the Government, I believe, should look into at the earliest possible opportunity.

Recommendation 1: New Missing Children and Adults Strategy

First and foremost, what is needed is an overarching plan across Government, spanning across departments, to address the issue of missing children and adults.

The reasons why people go missing are complex, the harm that they may experience while away is varied and the support that people will need is unique to their individual circumstances. Missing people truly is an intersecting issue and requires a multi-agency response.

There are excellent examples of multi-agency working across the country, but the Government must take a strong national lead. In 2011 the Home Office published the ‘Missing Children and Adults Strategy’. Ten years later this needs to be reviewed, updated and strengthened with Cross-Government commitments to prioritising the response to missing within all the relevant agencies.

Recommendation 2: Out of area placements/care review

The second issue that must be looked at is children’s care, particularly with regards to out of area placements. With the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care having just been launched, we must not let this opportunity pass to seriously address the issue of provision and sufficiency of placements where children need them, as well as to review how decisions are made about children being placed out of area.

With 12,000 looked after children currently going missing every year, tackling this issue would go a long way towards reducing the number of children going missing and all the harm that follows from that.

Recommendation 3: The issue of missing people being built into mental health priorities

The renewed focus on mental health announced in the Queen’s Speech is very welcome, especially as I have previously strongly campaigned on this issue, including by introducing two private members’ bills to Parliament in the past. I believe that this focus must include detailed consideration of the issue of missing people.

Currently there is almost no guidance or legislation that outlines the support that should be in place for people who go missing in mental health crisis, or for those who go missing directly from mental health care settings.

By building consideration of missing people into mental health policies and practice we would be supporting early intervention in cases where going missing is an early sign of worsening mental health; right through to preventing deaths, amongst those missing people who have gone missing with the intention of taking their own life.

The issue of children and adults going missing deeply affects hundreds of thousands of people a year, across every constituency, every local authority, every city and town in the country: it devastates families, confounds communities, and causes serious harm to those who go missing themselves. The Government must do everything it can to stem this tragic phenomenon.

Danny Kruger: Charities must be allowed to carry out their work. Our most vulnerable children need them.

29 Apr

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Commission on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Care.

The number of children in care has never been greater. Over 68,000 children were living apart from their families in June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year.

Already before the pandemic, the care system that should support these children was under pressure. In 2018 Ofsted judged 58 per cent of local authorities to be ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires improvement to be good’ with regard to their children’s services.

But the pandemic has made things much worse. In the first six months of the pandemic, incidents involving death or serious harm to under-one year olds because of suspected negligence or abuse increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. Among one to five year olds, it increased by 50 per cent.

Directors of Children’s Services reported that, as a result of Covid-19, families face less support, more investigations and more removals of children in response to their difficulties.

But the pandemic has also tapped an extraordinary voluntary movement in this country. Small local charities have worked in innovative ways to help feed, educate and advise families. Charities provide ideas, energy, and cost-effective interventions.

By relying on these under-used grassroots voluntary organisations, service professionals can reach deep into the community, engaging with the most disengaged. Using informal networks – including youth organisations, church groups, local volunteers – complement statutory services to support the most vulnerable. Free of bureaucracy, place-based and highly flexible, this community-level support can transform outcomes for children at the risk of going into care.

Vulnerable families like volunteers because they are local, less intimidating, and often unpaid. They also invest the kind of time that social workers, overwhelmed by caseloads, cannot afford to dedicate.

One model is the wrap-around service offered by the charity Safe Families for Children. A church-based volunteer organisation, Safe Families for Children delivers temporary foster care to support families in crisis.  The charity offers a befriending service whereby a volunteer will act as a mentor/befriender for the family in crisis and offer financial support for the family in terms of goods or skills. They host the family, and will support them for months on end, developing a strong relationship with family members.

The programme has reduced the flow of children into care by between nine to 16 per cent, and is now working with more than 30 local authorities. It numbers 4,500 volunteers from over 1,000 churches and community groups, and 100 professional staff.

The West London Zone for Children and Young People, a charity I set up in one of the most unequal areas in the country, is another example. WLZ covers an area with 60,000 school-age children and young people, among whom one in five is at risk of leaving school without the proper skills to thrive. Twenty-nine schools across four councils refer children to the charity because of needs such as low grades, poor attendance, wellbeing concerns, low levels of parental involvement. All children referred are below the threshold for additional statutory support.

Service professionals should welcome such collaborations, as they offer a way to scale programmes in a cost-efficient way. But, all too often, grassroot organisations report a defensive, “territorial” mindset among statutory partners. A survey of the 400 plus Centre for Social Justice Alliance’s charities found that members felt undermined by statutory services:

  •  “It’s as if they see themselves in competition with us”.
  • “It has not always felt like a mutually respectful platform”.
  • “I think some budget holders see us as competition eg. we have had occasional times where the cost benefit the LA has been willing to attribute to services has been down scaled because of concerns it would result in them losing staff.”
  • “It’s as if they see voluntary as secondary.”
  • “The demands to fall in line with “clunky” operating systems and LA databases can be prohibitive from a resource perspective with a small staff structures.”
  • “There is a definite sense that we are helping them with “their” cases. “

They also reported facing serious obstacles in getting funding from local government and non‑governmental organisations.[5]  One reason for this is that government funding comes in a large number of discreet, time-limited funds, pilots and initiatives which are too short-term for small charities to cope with.

Government can enforce the stipulation that public service commissioners’ contracts meet “social value” criteria. The taxpayer spends £300 billion a year on goods and services through hundreds of thousands of separate contracts that follow guidance laid down by government.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2011 required commissioners to consider the wider social value of bids when awarding contracts for services. Despite this, Social Enterprise UK found that only eight per cent of the £300 billion public sector procurement budget actively champions socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

Government can also ensure that Job Centre Plus staff are aware of the amount of volunteering claimants can take part in, and correctly informing them of it; and it can include information on volunteering in the pensions pack sent to those who reach retirement age, as was recommended by the House of Lords committee on civic engagement.

The post-pandemic economy will see a surge in unemployment. Channelling the energy and creativity of job-seekers and the job-less, especially among the young, into community engagement will benefit these individuals and the local area. According to Department for Work and Pensions guidance, volunteering can count for up to 50 per cent of a jobseeker’s time that they are spending taking reasonable action to find a job.

The introduction of the government’s Innovation Partnership model may help counter this: it allows commissioners to work with potential providers on the design of a contract, seeking to leverage their resources to support the public budget using simpler, outcomes-based contracts.

It would be a shame for the goodwill, energy and flexibility of the voluntary sector to be wasted by bureaucracy and wrong assumptions. Government must act urgently to ensure that charities are allowed to carry out their work: our most vulnerable children need them.

The CSJ’s report Safely reducing the number of children going into care was published this week.