17 January 2019
Nadhim Zahawi replies to a debate on children’s social care in England

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the Education Committee’s report on fostering and children’s social care.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate, on his expertise and on his persistence in ensuring that this debate was held—third time lucky. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Lincoln (Karen Lee), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), as well as others who intervened, including my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood), and the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). They brought valuable—indeed sometimes invaluable—insight to this vital issue.

Nothing is more important than our work to identify vulnerable children early and to give them the support they need to keep them safe. I applaud the all-party group for children for being vocal champions of that, and I give an assurance that the Education Secretary and I share that priority. As many colleagues pointed out, the importance of children’s social care too often goes unrecognised. Many colleagues said that today. It makes headlines only when things go wrong. We should value the contribution of social workers day-in, day-out in making a difference to children’s lives in sometimes very challenging circumstances.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, the challenges facing children in families, communities and beyond are many and varied. As we all know from our constituencies, there can be stark differences in the demographics, economic status and social problems faced by different communities—even between one area and its neighbour. That is why children’s social care is delivered locally within a national legislative framework for safeguarding and child protection in England. That long-standing principle is enshrined in the Children Act 1989 and it places on all local authorities the same duty to take decisive action wherever a child is at risk of, or suffering significant harm.

All 50 judges in the family courts must use the same law when making decisions wherever care proceedings are under way, but local authorities remain best placed to identify, assess and respond to local priorities, setting the criteria for accessing services that reflect the needs of children in their area. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham rightly reminded us, thresholds play an important part in allowing local authorities to do that work. Whether those thresholds are set appropriately and properly understood is scrutinised by Ofsted as part of its inspections, and factored into its independent judgment about the quality of local services.

What Ofsted tells us about quality corroborates some of the APPG’s findings, which suggest that the picture across the country is far from uniform—indeed, it has been described as a postcode lottery. Although some children and families receive good and outstanding services, the majority live in areas where those services are inadequate or require improvement. Some variation is right and necessary in responding to local needs, but such inconsistency in the quality of services is not. We must recognise that Government action is needed if all children are to receive the same quality of support that every child deserves. Addressing this inconsistency is a priority for me and my Department, through our wide-ranging national social care reforms and through strong action to drive up quality where services are less than good.

We will intervene every time Ofsted judges children’s services to be inadequate. Our intervention brings results: the first children’s services trust in Doncaster moved from inadequate to good in just two years. Just last week, Ofsted published an inspection report for Bromley—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is not in her place, but she rightly praised the team and the leadership in Bromley—showing that its services are no longer inadequate, but are now judged as good. Today I am delighted to say that, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded us, after almost a decade of deeply entrenched failure, children’s services in Birmingham are no longer inadequate. Ofsted published its inspection report for Birmingham this morning. It noted that the children’s services trust, which we worked with the local authority to establish, has:

“enabled the re-vitalisation of both practice and working culture, and, as a result, progress has been made in improving the experiences and progress of children”.

In fact, since 2010, 44 local authorities have been lifted out of intervention and not returned. The significance of that should not be underestimated. We raised the bar for Ofsted inspection in 2013 to drive up quality for children, but by May 2017 20% of authorities had not met our new standards and had been found inadequate. That has since reduced by a third, from 30 to 19 today as a result of our reforms. This is not intervention for intervention’s sake, as the Labour Front-Bench team attempted to spin it, but improving the lives of children and families.

I am not complacent about the challenges. We have seen considerable improvements in some areas, but other areas, such as Wakefield, Bradford and Blackpool, have declined this year. That is why we are investing £20 million in regional improvements to get ahead of failure. As well as supporting every local authority rated inadequate, a further 26 are receiving support from a strong Partner in Practice local authority, with work under way to broker support for many more.

The number of local authorities achieving the top judgments under the new Ofsted framework is small but growing. In December, Leeds was rated as outstanding and, just last week, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, Essex received the same Ofsted judgment. I visited the hub she spoke about and I have to admire Councillor Dick Madden and his excellent director of children’s services for what they have been able to achieve. That example demonstrates that this is about not just funding, but real, good practice on the frontline and strong leadership. In total, five local authorities have been rated outstanding since 2018, setting the highest ambitions and showing that even within current constraints—there are financial constraints, as the hon. Member for West Ham reminded us—local authorities can deliver outstanding children’s services. My aim is that the improvements we are making continue at pace, so that by 2022 less than 10% of local authorities are rated “inadequate” by Ofsted, halving failure rates within five years and providing consistently better services for thousands of children and families across the country.

Service quality is a significant variable in what differs between local areas. Crucial to service quality is the social care workforce. The practice of staff locally, from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers, makes a huge difference to ensuring that the right children get the right support at the right time. That is why we have set clear professional standards for social workers, and invested significantly in training and development to meet those standards nationally—to ensure a highly capable, highly skilled workforce that makes good decisions about what is best for children and families.

Lyn Brown

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I do not have enough time. I have a lot to get through and I am hoping to make lots of responses to colleagues.

Beyond the front door, decision making is especially critical at the high end of social care, recognising that, where children are at significant risk, these decisions can be life changing, and in both directions. Over-intervening can potentially cause as much harm as the consequences of leaving a child where they are. In most cases, children are best looked after by their families, with removal a last resort. That is paramount and it is important to strike the right balance between local support to keep families together and protecting children from dangers within their family. Where a child cannot live within their birth family, I am clear that finding the right permanent home and permanent family must be a priority, while always taking account of children’s own wishes and feelings. Sometimes the best place for a child can be found within the care system. Sometimes it can be with a new family through adoption and sometimes it can be with family and friends informally or through special guardianship.

A recent sector-led review found a complexity of many overlapping factors contributing to a known rise in care proceedings and entries into care. That is why the sector, my Department, the Ministry of Justice and the recently established What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care are all looking to understand better what makes a difference in supporting children to stay with their families safely and preventing them from reaching crisis point.

Some promising signs are emerging from our innovation and partners in practice programmes. We have invested almost £270 million in developing, testing and learning from new practice. From innovative projects showing real early promise, we have identified the seven features of practice that achieve impact and allow change to take hold. We continue to learn from what achieves the best outcomes for children and families and to support local authorities to adopt and adapt the programmes that successfully intervene. Early help plays a significant and important part in promoting safe and stable families. It is about intervening with the right families at the right time and, most importantly, in the right way. In doing so, the statutory guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children” is unequivocally clear that local areas should have a comprehensive range of effective, evidence-based services in place to address needs early.

Unfortunately, I am out of time. I would just like to remind the House that my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the Troubled Families programme. The three local authorities—Leeds, North Yorkshire and Hertfordshire—where we are going to scale up with the £84 million that the Chancellor backed us with at the Budget were asked how they have delivered effective children’s services. They all mentioned the Troubled Families programme as being a central pillar of their work. I will leave it there. I had much to say in response to many of the contributions today. Perhaps I will write to colleagues on the specific points they raised. I leave a couple of minutes for my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, to sum up.