3 April 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to children's social care services debate

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on children’s social care services in Stoke-on-Trent.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) on securing this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton)—my PPS—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for engaging with it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North raised the important issue of social workers. We must not forget to thank the frontline workers. I went up to Doncaster after the turnaround there, and I met social workers on their own without directors in the room. I asked, “What happened? Seventy per cent. of you are the same people who were here when you were failing, and yet you are now ‘good’.” To a man and woman, they said to me, “It’s because we had strong leadership—political leadership and officer leadership—that believed in us. It was consistent, it was there for us and it supported us in what we were trying to do.” That is a strong message to take from that.

I commend the leadership in Staffordshire County Council—the political and officer leadership. The chief executive and the director of children’s services are both outstanding. I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more important than the work that we do to ensure that vulnerable children are able to live safe and happy lives and achieve their potential wherever they live in our country. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the 2015 Ofsted inspection. Sadly, it clearly stated that improvement was required, but services were in a much better place than they are today—the hon. Lady is absolutely right about that.

The inspection of local authority children’s services report states that there are demonstrable failings in protecting the most vulnerable children. The Government have always been crystal clear that it is the responsibility of the local authority to manage their service to ensure continuous improvement and proper protection of all children, but Stoke’s decline—all service areas are now deemed “inadequate”—since its last inspection in June 2015, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned, is deeply concerning and highlights the urgent need for central Government intervention. It is important that we act quickly on improvement, so we are funding Leeds—an outstanding authority and one of our “partners in practice”—to provide immediate peer support to Stoke and help ensure that children there are safe.

In the light of the seriousness of that systemic failure and as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Department will also appoint a children’s services commissioner to conduct on my behalf a three-month review of Stoke’s capacity and capability. The commissioner will look at all evidence and views, and will report to me after three months on whether the council can improve in a reasonable timeframe—I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments on that—or whether services are more likely to improve if run by another organisation, such as a children’s services trust, to which he referred, or a better-performing local authority.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw at first hand in Doncaster how trusts have been effective in securing change in local authorities that have had some of the most serious failures. Doncaster is now rated “good”, having been a failing local authority for children’s services. Birmingham and Slough are now no longer “inadequate” after years of failure. Local authority partnerships have also shown success. The Isle of Wight has improved from “inadequate” to “good” as a result of its partnership with Hampshire.

That is not to say, however, that local authorities cannot improve themselves when there is the commitment and the capability to do so—I think that is the point the hon. Gentleman sought to make in his outstanding remarks. I enjoyed visiting Bromley and Bexley earlier this year. Both have been the focus of Government intervention in recent years and are now deemed “good” and “outstanding” respectively. There was real commitment, from the political leadership to the officer class and all the way through, to deliver on that.

The Department has a good track record of working with local authorities to improve “inadequate” services. Since 2010, 44 local authorities have been lifted out of intervention and have not returned, the significance of which should not be underestimated. I am also keen to focus on preventing failure, which is why the Department has developed a new improvement programme over the past 18 months. Bringing local authorities together through regional improvement alliances, and identifying “good” and “outstanding” authorities to be our partners in practice, is helping to get ahead of failure, while supporting sector-led improvement. Since April 2017, the number of “inadequate” local authorities has been reduced by a third, from 30 to 20. We are on track to achieve our target of having less than 10% of local authorities deemed “inadequate” by 2022.

I recognise the importance of supporting performance improvement across all local authorities, so that more and more are providing “good” and “outstanding” services to children. The Department’s innovation programme focuses on ensuring that families receive the right support at the right time by adopting and adapting the best new practices, and continue to do so with the advent of the new What Works centre. That initiative seeks better outcomes for children, young people and families by helping practitioners and decision makers across the sector to inform their work with the best possible evidence.

Some promising signs are emerging from the innovation investment, such as an integrated edge-of-care service, “No Wrong Door” in North Yorkshire, which has delivered extraordinary results: 86% of young people in North Yorkshire stay out of care, with greater stability and improved educational and employment outcomes. The Department, with the Treasury, is committing £84 million over the next five years to build on learning from the examples in North Yorkshire, Leeds and Hertfordshire—the most promising innovation projects. The programme is called “strengthening families; protecting children”, and it aims to improve social work practice and decision making in up to 20 local authorities, and to support more children to stay safely at home with their families.

We will also continue to learn from What Works, and understand how we might further strengthen the quality of social work practice. The most valuable resource is our people—the workforce. The practice of staff locally, from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers, is all paramount to ensure that children get the right support at the right time. That is why we are undertaking a programme of reforms to ensure that a highly capable, highly skilled and highly confident workforce make good decisions about the best outcomes for children and their families.

I recognise that Stoke and other local authorities are delivering services in a challenging environment—there is no doubt about that; the hon. Gentleman was right to highlight it—and they have had to make difficult choices to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced an extra £410 million to address pressures on adults’ and children’s social care services.

The Department is also working closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding, as part of my pitch for the spending review. We are in dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inform a review of relative needs and resources, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That will make sure that the money gets to where it is needed most after future Government funding settlements.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I mention for the record the fantastic work that he and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North do to champion the opportunity area programme. With people of such passion, commitment and quality, we can turn children’s services around in the local authority. I am pleased to hear that we share the ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Stoke have the safety and stability that they need to achieve their potential. I hope that I have provided reassurance of this Government’s commitment to taking urgent action to support Stoke-on-Trent in its journey to improve children’s services, so that all children are well protected and cared for and their social workers are supported to practise safely.