Rachael’s Speech for the Backbench Business Debate on the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important and timely debate on children in the care system.
It is imperative that we see investment in a new approach to keep young people safe and supported, and to rebuild services and skills around their needs. In this debate, we must be mindful that millions of parents have excelled in nurturing their children in loving, secure homes—but sadly that is not everyone’s story. Good parenting takes skill, time and patience. That is why parents, foster carers, kinship carers and adoptive parents are simply amazing. No matter the relationship, when there is a cry for help, it must be heeded.
Asylum-seeking children, disabled children and those with learning disabilities or from minoritised groups need excellence and care; they need safe, secure and loving homes. That is what we want for every child. Tragically, for too many, that is not their experience. We worry, and we have to act. Serious case reviews shake us, they are aired in this place and then they are filed, until we are reminded by the next report, and then the next.
The story is familiar: invisible children, overstretched services, social workers drowning in demands, warning signs—and then it is all too late. Children disappear between agencies, between the multitude of social workers who are never given the chance to excel as they are squeezed by demand. Parents are let down, children are let down. Parents endure the pain of separation from their children, just because life failed them—life went wrong. If only the system had time to break in and break the intergenerational cycles to provide the very best early interventions.
There are half a million children in need of support, 82,170 of them residing in the caring system. If we do not pivot, it will be 100,000 in a decade. But they are not numbers: they are our future, they are our now, they are our children. Like all of us, they want to know they are safe. They want love. They want family.
We get it. Life is hard. Parenting is really tough, and where there is little support and stress presses in, something breaks. However, when children’s social services are under-resourced and overwhelmed, reparation is harder. Take Ava, who was placed in foster care when family hardship meant she was not provided with the care she needed. She moved far away, separated from her brother and sister. On the cusp of turning 18, she was told to move out and is now living alone in an unfamiliar town, all because her family struggled. That is not care.
I think of the young mum desperate to do the right thing, but not supported to parent before the painful adoption order is granted. The trauma never leaves her. I think of parents not coping with complex needs and complex relationships, coercion and control, violence in the home, poverty knocking on the door, isolation and poor mental health. I think of the children left lonely, afraid, neglected, in need of care, and sadly, for some, in need of safety. I think of those sucked into slavery: from county lines to sexual exploitation, they disappear, lured by the promise and the hope of better, then destroyed. Sometimes, thing just go wrong.
We all know the stories, because these are our constituents. That is why we are here—not to make another speech but to lever in change. The Minister has the power to make that happen. There is a blueprint on the Minister’s desk: to cut the number of children in care by 30,000 in a decade and to make countless more families thrive. If Government really grasp the urgency and importance of this, they will find the money, too, not least as they will see the return quickly.
Last May, Josh MacAlister published his Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We are waiting for the Minister’s response. We need the reforms and the funding in full. For children in and around the care system, time is not on their side. Key parts of the workforce are contemplating their future. Families are under ever growing stress, as are services, and children need to be kept safe. The power of the report is in its echoing of the voices of people with care experience. Their aspirations must turn into Government ambitions. From the outset, it would be unethical for Government to speak of pilots for implementation. Clearly, every authority has its differences—some have better leadership, some better funding, and some are already on the path of reform—but to leave an authority behind would be to leave a child behind.
Secondly, on funding, may I remind the Minister that the total package would cost just £2.6 billion? The cost of children’s social care is £10 billion a year right now, and the current cost of adverse outcomes is £23 billion a year. Not to act will cost £15 billion in 10 years’ time and have a higher social tariff, too. The Minister cannot afford not to implement now. Any delay will cost her and cost families.
Investing in families is the most pressing reform, by bringing together multidisciplinary teams from across agencies together to input into, support and transform families, with health, mental health, education, social services and families working together. It is about building families, investing in families, and getting the right support to families in the right time. We need family help delivered by brilliant practitioners through family hubs and schools, with skilled and intensive support from the first 1,001 critical days through to childhood and adolescence, and into young adulthood—one team around one family, one assessment process and one plan; radical help, bringing radical resolution.
Rachel de Souza’s report, “Family Matters”, encourages the wider involvement of family, recognising their role in raising a child and, if the child is entering care, the interventions they can make, including through kinship care, which is today homing 162,000 young people. Having a family network plan will unlock the potential of the wider family role in supporting parents and caring for children, not least when a new placement is sought. The Mockingbird project provides networks of support around foster carers, but could be extended to recognise wider community networks. Supporting families in the context of society builds more sustainable, resilient families.
For some, adoption is the path forward, but this must change, too. I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence. Our report, “Strengthening Families”, highlights the cracks in the system. There is inequality, with some children taking longer to place—sibling groups, minoritised children, disabled children, and older children too. We need better matching, and they need better support, but adoption is more than family matching. We need excellence in family building and trauma therapy, too. In the social media age, children are finding birth parents, and birth parents are finding children. Instead of being well prepared, they are doing that on their phones, alone in their bedrooms. The trauma from the intrigue can be devastating, not least as life’s journey of questions may not produce the hoped-for answers. At worst, it can destroy both families and the child. More open processes can be safer.
Strong leadership leads to strong services. We need the very best leaders heading up services—one controlling mind driving through this once-in-a-generation reform. From here, we need confident and competent key workers. Social workers are too often thrown into the deep end before learning to swim, or are drowning in paperwork when families need their skills. Sixty-five per cent. of children have more than one social worker in a year, and 27% more than three. It is not acceptable. Building an early careers framework will grow the skills of graduates, so that they gain experience, make a positive difference and work with a safe case load, with the mentors, learning and supervision necessary to make them excel as professionals. After five years, practitioners can then seek posts that demand higher levels of expertise and clear, focused, decision making, such as in child protection. They need that experience.
There is a proposal for a national pay scale, which is right. I look at what Agenda for Change did for the NHS. It built workforce stability and pay transparency, and it helped people to build their careers. The pay market, fuelled by the spike in agency workers, is like a magnet. Areas that pay less are often where the greatest needs are, escalating workforce churn and leading to disruption for families. The use of agencies must end. Not only are costs out of control, but it is in the interests of neither the practitioner, the service, nor, especially, the child. Everything must relentlessly focus on young people, improving their futures, opportunities and safety. Service improvement commissioners must challenge and improve services, not just assess them, so that excellence is achieved in all areas at all times.
But even when taken into the arms of the state, into residential care, as 16% of children in care are, they face multiple placements, of which 20% are neither good nor outstanding. Thirty-seven per cent. of placements are more than 20 miles away, some in unregulated, unsuitable settings, as I found out from children in my own constituency. These are places profiteering out of the most fragile of children. Seventy-eight per cent of residential care places are provided in the private, for-profit sector. This failure on availability, quality and costs demands reform, as set out in the Competition and Markets Authority report. On average, profit margins rose by 22.6% from 2016 to 2020, an average of 3.5% a year above inflation, with total costs of £1.33 billion to these organisations, but for a child with complex needs the costs are limitless. So why are people profiting out of children?
As for quality, these services are rated more poorly, violate more requirements and are rated more negatively. The CMA’s “Children’s social care market study” also outlines fears of market disruption, as private equity firms have overreached and carry substantial debt. A closure would be disruptive. Even the Minister, Baroness Barran, said “it sticks in my throat to have private equity investors” in this role.
The chair of a Government review of private children’s home providers found that children are being failed as the largest providers make millions in profit. New regional care co-operatives need to sort that out. As partners of local authorities, they can provide the scale and focus to oversee fostering—particularly when 9,000 new foster carers need recruiting, training and supporting—and residential care. We must rid the market of such responsibilities and rebuild outstanding therapeutic and homely facilities, with the very best of staff.
The ambition of the review must be fulfilled, so that every child is loved, healthy and happy, excels in school and then work, and is safe and secure. Being care-experienced will never leave a person, but adopting this as a protected characteristic will help with navigating life. Above all, the child must always have a strong voice. The independent reviewing officer has been that voice and changes to the role, while questioned, have pointed to the conclusion that every child needs a competent practitioner the child trusts who will advocate for them. Of course prevention is vital. Understanding the intersections between poverty, life’s challenges and family must guide wider policy choices, but starting with the reforms we are debating today will secure a necessary workforce reset and provide every child with the care, love and safety they need. We must not let these young people down; they have ambition and so must we.
This has been an incredibly powerful debate and the quality has been of the highest standards of this place. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, and the Minister for setting out her proposals.
It is disappointing to hear that we will have to wait until the new year to hear about the Government’s implementation plan, but I trust it will come with strength and fortitude when it comes. Certainly we look forward to seeing that, scrutinising it and pushing the Minister further to make sure that it goes the furthest that it can.
We are indebted to Josh MacAlister for the careful consideration he has given to the future of children within the care system. We are also indebted to all those who step up, day in, day out, to care for children—be they social workers and other professional staff, charities and local authorities, parents, adoptive parents, foster carers or kinship carers. For the children who are dependent on us, we cannot let them down. We cannot give them second best.
I trust the Minister will do her utmost to make sure we see the real transformation that those children deserve.
Note: The full text of the debate is available here