Edward Timpson – 2011 Speech about Children in Care

Below is the text of the speech made by Edward Timpson, the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, in the House of Commons on 10 February 2011.

Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by thanking you for granting this short but none the less invaluable and timely debate on improving outcomes for children in care. With Eileen Munro’s final report on child protection due out in April, the spotlight on looked-after children in this country is rightly intensifying, as we strive to narrow not the gap but the chasm that still exists between the life chances of children in care and others. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on looked-after children and care leavers, I was disappointed not to be able to contribute to the recent excellent Backbench Business Committee debate on disadvantaged children, which was opened with great force by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to speak up for all those children and young people in care.

I also declare an interest as a non-practising family law barrister specialising in care cases and, perhaps more importantly, as someone who shared their home for more than 30 years with 90 foster children and two adopted brothers. I have no doubt that that experience not only shaped and hardened my strong sense of social justice but propelled what some would argue was my misplaced desire to come to this place and fight for better outcomes for children in care. Indeed, I had no hesitation in using my maiden speech almost three years ago to do just that.

I want to pay a warm—and, I stress, in no way sycophantic—tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is replying to the debate today. He has shown a profound interest in and deep knowledge of this subject. In government, he has embarked on the direct, purposeful, common-sense programme of reform that he advocated in opposition. As he has said, the programme is committed to

“infusing the entire care system with a culture of aspiration, hope and optimism for each young person”.

I am sure that his recent appearance before the all-party group, when more than 100 passionate young people came to Parliament to make their views known directly—and, on occasion, quite forcefully—to the Minister, did not put him off his stride. Instead, I am sure that the experience provided him with ample proof of the importance of the work that he has undertaken.

I am sure that much of what I am about to say will sound as though I am teaching the Minister to suck eggs, but I hope to persuade him that, in supporting his efforts, there is even more we can do to help children in care to overcome the odds that are still so heavily stacked against them. Let us look at the facts. Looked-after ​children are four times more likely than others to receive the help of mental health services, nine times more likely to have special needs requiring assessment, support and therapy, seven times more likely to misuse alcohol and drugs, 50 times more likely to end up in prison, 60 times more likely to become homeless, and 66 times more likely to have children of their own who will need public care. As if that were not enough, there are four times fewer children in care getting five good GCSEs including English and maths than their peers.

The financial and societal cost of those appalling statistics is heavy. According to Demos’s recent report “In Loco Parentis”, published last year, a young person who leaves care at 16 with poor mental health and no recognised qualifications could cost the state more than five times as much as one who leaves care with good mental health and strong relationships and who goes on to university or an apprenticeship and finds a job. The costs to society are, perhaps, immeasurable.

I recognise that there are a number of counter-arguments to the picture that I have just painted. We must exercise a degree of caution about making direct, unqualified comparisons between children who have been through the care system and those who have not. In too many cases, children who enter the care system are already deeply damaged by their early-life experiences, which even the best possible care might be unable to unravel and overcome by the time they reach adulthood. We must therefore be careful to view such children’s outcomes in that context.

We must also acknowledge the tremendous amount of fantastic care and support that is benefiting thousands of children in care every day. I have seen it and lived with it myself; I have witnessed at first hand what good parenting and appropriate emotional support can achieve. We should not forget that there are many children whose time in care was an enriching life-changing experience that led to a successful career and a fulfilling personal life. We need to be better and more open about accentuating the positive work that is done and not drag all those who work in the care system down with the structural failures within it.

In many ways, we do not have a single care system, but more of a fragmented patchwork of care systems where good practice thrives in some parts of the country, despite the design of the system. In other areas, however, as noted in the Select Committee report on looked-after children during the last Parliament:

“The quality of experience that children have in care seems to be governed by luck to an…unacceptable degree”.

Let us be clear. As I know the Minister accepts and appreciates, there is no quick fix. This is going to require a cross-party commitment over a generation to build a care system that is proactive, responsive, joined up and brimming with high-quality multidisciplinary support, giving a real and enduring priority to improving outcomes for children both in and on the edge of care.

As Sean Cameron and Colin Maginn lay down in their paper of March 2007:

“The challenge for social work is to provide the quality of care and support that is to be found not just in the average family home, but also in the most functional of families.”

So how do we achieve that end?

Based on strong body of evidence and research by Demos, the three main factors associated with achieving the most positive experiences of care and the best ​outcomes for looked-after children are: first, early intervention and minimal delay; secondly, stability during care; and, thirdly, supported transitions into independence. This is backed up by Mike Stein of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who similarly identified the priorities for ensuring resilience and well-being for looked-after children in later life as preventing children entering the care system through pre-care intervention, improving their care experience and supporting young people’s transitions from care.

The fact is that we need a comprehensive response at all stages of childhood, but there is unquestionably in my mind, amid a growing consensus, the need for a strong emphasis on and commitment to early intervention and prevention, which are absolutely key. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—a standard bearer for all things early intervention—said in his latest report, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that

“we need to rebalance the current culture of ‘late reaction’ to social problems to help create the essential social and emotional bedrock for all children to reap the social, individual and economic rewards.”

To that end, I welcome the Government’s financial commitment to that programme through the early-intervention grant, the expansion of family nurse partnerships and the widening of free nursery care for two-year-olds. Like others, I would also want to highlight the superb work done by Home-Start in my Crewe and Nantwich constituency and across the country to help families struggling with the demands of very young children. They deserve proper and longer-term support, so I look forward to the Minister taking the opportunity today to reiterate that to local authorities in no uncertain terms.

By getting in early before problems become entrenched, Action for Children and the New Economics Foundation have calculated a potential saving to the economy of £486 billion over 20 years—imagine that. Just as relevant would be the transformation of life chances for so many young people. The brutal truth is, however, that even with more targeted and consistent preventive work, there will still be children who need the state to intervene in their lives. For them, stability is the foundation stone.

Young people who experience stable placements providing good-quality care are far more likely to succeed educationally, to be in work, to settle in and manage their accommodation after leaving care, to feel better about themselves and to achieve satisfactory social integration into adulthood than young people who have experienced further movement and disruption during their time in care. With stability comes the security as well as the time for children to develop those all-important secure attachments, but much of that is undermined by frequent and disruptive moves, which are too often a feature of a child’s experience in care. As one year 8 child in care put it:

“What was the point in trying to please people, because you would just get moved on again?”

Children need and want a sense of belonging, of family, to feel reciprocal emotional warmth and to have someone who loves them unconditionally and believes in them.​

It is true that in recent years there has been a small drop in the number of looked-after children with three or more placements during the year, but there is still a long way to go. We are short of about 10,000 foster carers. Given that foster placements make up about three quarters of all care placements, and given that in 2010 the number of looked-after children stood at 64,400—up 6% on 2009—a relentless recruitment and retention drive for foster carers remains crucial if we are to increase the prospect of providing every child with the right placement, rather than providing the right child for the placement.

However, foster carers are only part of the stability equation. The recruitment and retention of social workers continues to cause concern, which is the driving force behind the Government’s new “step up to social work” scheme. With a high staff churn rate comes more instability for the child. That is not new. Lord Laming, Moira Gibb and, most recently, Eileen Munro have produced reports in the last few years that pinpoint the tick-box culture that has spread its tentacles across social work and has sapped the morale and professional judgment of social workers. Eileen Munro hit the nail on the head when she said:

“Compliance with regulation and rules often drives professional practice more than sound judgment drawn from freed up social workers spending meaningful time interacting and building a trusting relationship with children, young people and families.”

As the Minister has said previously, taking a child into care is not a science but a subjective judgment. To be able to make that and other judgments correctly requires experience, consistency, and the time and space that make it possible to really understand the needs of a particular child. A change of social worker every five minutes will not lead to good child-focused decisions. But it does not have to be that way.

I am conducting a cross-party inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children, with the welcome support of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and Lord Listowel. A few weeks ago we visited Hackney children’s services to observe the way in which children’s social care in the borough had undergone a complete shift in the culture of practice and management by reclaiming social work through the establishment of social work units. There are teams consisting of a social worker, a family therapist, a children’s practitioner, a unit co-ordinator who takes all the red tape out of the hands of the social worker, and a consultant social worker who, under the old system, would have gone into management and had little or no contact with children of families, but is now using his or her experience on the front line.

The results have been dramatic. We have seen a reduction in the number of looked-after children from 470 to 270, a reduction in the number of agency staff from 50% to just 7%, a 50% reduction in sickness levels, a 5% reduction in overall costs, high levels of morale, and a strong increase in academic achievement among the children in the care of those teams. That example of best practice shows what is possible at a lower cost. Other local authorities have shown an interest in copying the model, but let us make sure that they all know about it. The Government have rightly embarked on a trial of flexible assessment time scales enabling social workers to exercise their professional judgment more effectively, and I note that Hackney council is among those taking part.​

Despite those welcome initiatives, the lines of accountability in local authorities remain cluttered, blurred and confusing. Local safeguarding children boards, directors of children’s services, children’s trusts, children in care councils, virtual school heads, corporate parenting boards, independent reviewing officers and others are all there to champion the voice of the vulnerable child, but, as Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, will confirm, many children in care feel that their voices are lost in the myriad management decisions being made in their name. The problem needs to be sorted out. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to look formally into how the voice of children in care can be better and more clearly represented, so that all who act as corporate parents have them constantly at the forefront of their thoughts, words and deeds.

I mentioned my current inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children. I do not want to pre-empt its outcome, but the very fact of its existence demonstrates the central role that education plays in improving outcomes for children in care. Evidence that the inquiry has taken from young people in or leaving care suggests strongly that when they have had a stable educational experience not only are their prospects of future employability and independent living greatly enhanced, but their self-esteem, confidence and belief in themselves are significantly boosted. That is why I am reassured by the Government’s guarantees that all looked-after children will receive the pupil premium, and that that additional money will be attached—metaphorically speaking—to all children wherever their education is taking place. However, it would be remiss of me not to add a further plea to my hon. Friend the Minister. If it is right that the personal education allowance is to be rolled into the pupil premium, I urge him to make robust representations to his ministerial colleagues in the Department and the Treasury and to put to them the compelling case for looked-after children to receive an additional sum—a pupil premium-plus, as it were—to reflect their often acute problems, and therefore their heightened need for one-to-one support, psychological input such as cognitive behavioural therapy and other specific interventions relevant to ensuring their prospects at school are not compromised in any way by their looked-after status.

Good quality support does reap rewards. We need only look at the achievements of the Horizon centre in Ealing, which was opened by the Minister and which I recently visited. Through offering young people in and leaving care a safe space where they can get financial, emotional and psychological support, and education and training, the centre has helped to increase the number of children in Ealing borough going to university from 7% to almost 20%. It is an example to others that the transition from care into independence can be successful with the right level and length of support. The so-called cliff-edge that many children leaving care face needs to become a thing of the past, and be replaced by an appropriate and incremental release of support backed up by a safety net when needed, something their peers—who on average do not now leave home until the age of 25—often take for granted, me included. Why should looked-after children be any different?

If time had allowed, I would have wanted to cover much more ground, but before giving the Minister his opportunity to reply, there are four specific issues I want him to respond to in detail, if not today, then at a ​later date. First, we need to widen the range and choice of care. At present, about 14% of looked-after children are in a residential setting. That may be too high, or it may be too low; I simply do not know. Yet in Denmark and Germany more than half of looked-after children are in residential care. Why the huge difference? Is residential care in our country now seen as a placement of last resort? As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, there is scope for seeing whether a greater use of children’s homes is appropriate. The Select Committee report on looked-after children to which I have referred stated that

“the potential of the residential sector to offer high quality, stable placements for a minority of young people is too often dismissed. With enforcement of higher standards, greater investment in skills, and a reconsideration of the theoretical basis for residential care, we believe that it could make a significant contribution to good quality placement choice for young people.”

Indeed, the New Economics Foundation report, “A False Economy”, estimated that for every pound invested in providing an appropriate residential placement leading to good outcomes, a return of between £4 and £7 was created for the economy. With the continued shortage of foster carers and the hit-and-miss aspect of matching children to the right placement still prevalent, I invite the Minister to consider seriously the case for a full and proper national review of residential care, to ensure we can be confident that we are offering children the right placement for them, not simply the only placement available.

Secondly, on looked-after children in custody, I urge the Minister to look urgently at ending the continuing and unjustified anomaly whereby, unlike a child placed under a care order, a looked-after child who was voluntary accommodated prior to custody loses their looked-after status on entering custody and therefore the support of their social worker and other key professionals. I know that people’s minds have been on prisons for another reason today, but this is a serious issue that merits action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister spoke in favour of putting this discrepancy right during the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, so I hope that now he is in a position to do something about it, he will do so.

Thirdly, I echo the words of Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, who has called for the prioritising of children’s cases in court above all other family law proceedings, especially judicial decisions on placement in care and adoption. I am aware that there is currently a review of all aspects of family law, so I hope this plea from our most senior family judge does not go unheeded.

Fourthly, more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being looked after by local authorities, but there continue to be concerns about their access to fundamental services such as education, as well as their vulnerability to trafficking. I know the Minister is vexed by this issue and trust he will look into it closely.

I do not doubt that this Government and all previous Governments of whatever political hue have been, and are, determined to improve outcomes for children in care. So am I. With the tightening of purse-strings, the temptation for some will be to continue on a course of crisis management. My message to the Government, local authorities and all those who work with children in care is this: “Be bold, be smart and, above all, show you really care.”​