5 February 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on children’s services in Rotherham

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to an Adjournment debate on children’s social care in Rotherham.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. We have heard interventions from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about her work in this area. I whole- heartedly agree that nothing is more important than the work we do to ensure that vulnerable children are able to live safe and happy lives and achieve their potential wherever they live and whatever their background or circumstance.

I congratulate Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council on how hard it has worked to turn around its children’s services, with the instrumental support of our commissioners, including Mary Ney and Patricia Bradwell. I was delighted when Rotherham’s children’s services were rated “good” by Ofsted last March, following three years of intervention by my Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to address systemic failings. That is a real credit to Ian Thomas and Sharon Kemp, and to the local politicians who have worked so closely with them. It is good to see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on the Opposition Front Bench. He, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and the hon. Member for Rotherham have spent many hours working with their local politicians and leaders to deliver that turnaround. They have shown that when there is buy-in from leaders locally, both politically and at officer class, real change can be achieved. This was not intervention for intervention’s sake, but to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society.

As I hope we all agree, we welcome the further £410 million in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services, which was announced in the autumn Budget. That is on top of the more than £200 million until 2020 that was made available in the 2015 spending review for councils to deliver local services, including children’s services. Of that, Rotherham is currently forecast to have a core spending power of £206 million in 2019-20—an increase of 1.6% on last year.

I recognise that Rotherham and other local authorities are delivering in a very challenging environment—it would be foolish to claim otherwise—and that they have had to make difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. I assure the House that my Department is continuing to work closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding as part of the spending review. We are also working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inform a review of relative needs and resources to make sure that at future Government funding settlements, the money gets to where it is needed most.

On top of that core funding, my Department has agreed to provide an additional £2 million to Rotherham over the four years to 2021, recognising the additional pressures from the increase in children’s social care referrals from Operation Stovewood. That is in addition to the nearly £750,000 that we gave in 2015-16 to 2016-17 to alleviate the immediate pressures on services. My Department also remains committed, along with the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and NHS England, to continuing to work with Rotherham and South Yorkshire police to assess the demand on local services as a result of Operation Stovewood. As set out in the Government’s victims strategy, we want to support even more victims to speak up by giving them the certainty that they will be understood, protected and supported through their journey, regardless of their circumstances or background and whether or not they report the crime.

We all agree that the failings that led to the child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham must never, never happen again, either in Rotherham or elsewhere. The Secretary of State and I are united in making it our priority to do everything that we can to prevent that. That is why my Department is funding the child sexual exploitation response unit to provide independent support to local areas and will be funding a new £2 million child exploitation service, which is launching later this year. That is on top of over £2 million of funding for two innovation programme projects. The hon. Member for Rotherham referred to them as drops in the ocean, but they are innovative programmes to test new models of safeguarding children. That includes the Lighthouse project, based in Camden, which is providing a complete range of services for victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation and their families, under one roof.

We know that many of the children and young people who were victims of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham are now facing, or have already faced, the difficult transition to adulthood, about which the hon. Lady is rightly concerned. The Government are committed to ensuring that they and all other vulnerable children are ready for adult life, avoiding cliff edges in support. That is why we have extended the offer of support from local authorities to all care leavers up to the age of 25, and why our reforms to support special educational needs also now extend from nought to 25.

By revising it last year, we strengthened the statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children”, to make clear the importance of transitions, and it now states clearly the expectation that a local authority should plan for transitions in advance for children on child in need plans and child protection plans, including, specifically, where children are likely to move between children’s and adult services.

I turn to the hon. Lady’s comments about early help, which we know plays an important role in promoting safe and stable families. Early help is about intervening early with the right families at the right time and in the right way. The statutory guidance is clear that in doing that, local areas should have in place a comprehensive range of effective and evidence-based services to address assessed needs early.

Across Government, we are doing that by tackling the problems that cause children to be in need. That includes better supporting those with alcohol-dependent parents, landmark legislation for those affected by domestic abuse, investment in early years education and support for children and young people’s mental health. The Government have also committed £920 million to the troubled families programme to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple, high-cost problems by 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the cost of non-intervention and failure is much higher. Rotherham has been allocated £5.5 million from 2015 to 2020 and has already received over £3 million of that funding.

In making sure that the right families receive the right support at the right time, investment in innovation is key and must not be underestimated. The hon. Member for Rotherham is critical of that investment, but I would argue that it is right that core social care funding be supplemented by that support for local authorities to manage rising demand and costs through adopting and adapting the best new practices.

Sarah Champion

To be clear, I am not critical of innovation—it is great—but it should come on top of core funding, not instead of it. The Minister mentioned the £500,000 a year for four years. That will fund 10 looked-after children placements. We have over 600 in Rotherham. Will he please just tell me whether he is going to give us additional funding? We are on our knees in Rotherham and begging him for support.

Nadhim Zahawi

I attempted earlier to explain our plan for the spending review, but I hope the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot pre-empt a spending review from the Dispatch Box.

The sector, my Department, the Ministry of Justice and the new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, funded by my Department, are all looking to understand better what makes a difference in supporting children to stay with their families safely and preventing them from reaching this crisis point. Strong decision making is critical to ensuring that children are removed from their families only as a last resort.

As I highlighted earlier, promising signs are emerging from our £270 million investment in the children’s social care innovation, partners in practice and improvement programmes. For example, an integrated edge-of-care service, No Wrong Door, in north Yorkshire, has delivered extraordinary results, with 86% of young people staying out of care and getting greater stability and improved educational and employment outcomes. All of this is strengthening families and protecting children.

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 to prevent problems from escalating. The hon. Lady mentioned the £84 million investment over the next five years to build on learning from the most promising innovation programmes and projects, such as that in north Yorkshire, and to improve social work practice and decision making. In up to 20 local authorities, this new strengthening families and protecting children programme will support more children to stay safe at home with their families, where that is in their best interests. The hon. Lady asked how the funds would be allocated. We are working with the sector to determine how best to do that, looking particularly at authorities that are struggling to meet challenges caused by rising pressures.

The practice of staff locally—from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers—is also paramount in ensuring that the right children are given the right support at the right time. We are undertaking a programme of reforms to ensure that there is a highly capable, highly skilled workforce making good decisions about what is best for children and families. That includes a significant investment in training and development to meet clear professional standards for social workers. We have also established a new specialist social work regulator, Social Work England, and we are rolling out a national assessment and accreditation system. I am pleased that we are discussing Rotherham’s participation in the second phase of our voluntary roll-out of the programme.

Alongside our existing programme for aspiring practice leaders and new practice supervisors, we are working with the sector to establish a strategy to support current and future leaders. As I have said before, this is about realising our aim to establish a consistently stronger, more confident profession, making better assessments of children’s safety and welfare and equipped with the skills to deliver lasting change for families.

Let me end by echoing the hon. Lady’s thanks to social workers and all those who work so hard to support vulnerable families and children every day. I have seen their passion and dedication at first hand. For example, last year, during my visit to Brighton, I spent the day with two social workers, Ruth and Jen, who were an absolute credit to the profession. As I said at the beginning of my speech, we have a shared ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable children have the safety and stability that they need in order to achieve their potential.