The speech made by Helen Hayes, the Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, in the House of Commons on 23 May 2022.
I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement today. Labour welcomes the report of the independent review of children’s social care. I would like to add my thanks to Josh MacAlister and his team for their hard work and commitment. I also want to pay tribute to the social workers, support workers, foster carers, children’s home staff, youth workers and everyone else who strives day in, day out to provide safety, support and stability to children who are in need or whose own families are unable to care for them. Their work is vital, it makes a huge difference, and it often goes unrecognised. At the top of my mind today are the group of care leavers I hosted in Parliament earlier this year. They were articulate, thoughtful and kind. All had been through experiences that no child should have to endure, and they all deserved far better than the current system had been able to deliver.
I welcome the review’s conclusion that a total reset of children’s social care is needed. That conclusion is a terrible indictment of the extent to which this Government have been failing children for more than a decade. During those 12 years, we have seen the number of children living in poverty rise to 4.3 million. That is a key causal factor underpinning the Government’s failure of children: the unbearable pressure on families increases the risk of abuse and neglect. We have also seen the number of looked-after children increase continually, up by a quarter since 2010; the number of section 47 inquiries, when a local authority has cause to suspect that a child is in need, has gone up by 78% since 2011; half of all children’s services departments have been rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”; vacancy and turnover rates for children’s social workers are increasing; and outcomes for care-experienced children and young people are worsening. In the meantime, the 10 biggest private providers of children’s homes and private foster care placements made a jaw-dropping £300 million in profits last year.
We welcome the review’s clear statement that providing care for children should not be based on profit—it should not. The law recognises childhood as lasting until the age of 18, and it is shocking that the Government have continued to allow children to be placed in unregistered children’s homes and other completely unsuitable accommodation. We welcome the review’s conclusion that the use of unregistered placements for 16 and 17-year-olds must stop, and stop now.
At the heart of the Government’s failure is the erosion of early help and family support, which is demonstrated no more starkly than by the 1,300 Sure Start centres that have closed since 2010. We welcome the review’s focus on restoring early help to families so that many more children can be supported to remain and to thrive with their own family, on supporting kinship carers and on seeking to ensure that every looked-after child can build lifelong links with extended family members.
Although the Minister reannounced a series of policies today, there is nothing here that will deliver the transformation in children’s social care that the review demands. Successive piecemeal announcements are yet further indication of what the review describes as
“a lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care”.
The Minister does not seem to grasp the depth of change that the review requires, at scale, across the whole country.
Will the Minister commit to a firm date for publication of a comprehensive response to the review and a detailed implementation plan? Does he expect that there will be a need for legislation? How does this square with the Queen’s Speech voted on last week, from which children’s social care was completely absent? How will today’s announcement of early help investment in a handful of additional places ensure that early help services are available in every single area of the country, so that every family who need help can be supported?
What representations is the Minister making to the Treasury in response to the review? Will he commit, as the review demands, to an end to profiteering in children’s social care? How will he ensure that the voices and experiences of children are always at the heart of children’s social care? How will he guarantee that the workforce, who are the backbone of children’s social care, are fully engaged and involved as the reforms are implemented? Finally, how will he ensure that, as the reforms are implemented, the framework of accountability for decisions made by the state about the care of children is strengthened?
This review sets out the urgent need for the Government to put children first and to stop poverty, mental illness, substance misuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and other adverse childhood experiences becoming the defining experience of a child’s whole life, so that every child can thrive. Labour will always put children first. We did so in government, and we will do so again. This review represents an opportunity to deliver the total reset that is needed in children’s social care. It is an opportunity that must not be missed, and we will hold the Government to account every single day on the framework of support and the outcomes for our most vulnerable children.