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Michael_gove_mp_2Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Michael Gove spoke this afternoon on the progress report from Lord Laming on the protection of children.

Mr Gove compared the refusal to publish the details of a child’s death to keeping the information from an aviation black box secret after a crash, in that it prevents us learning all we need to. This is a persuasive argument.

The full case details of Baby P (a child who was brutalised to death despite being visited by 60 professionals) are being kept secret – and one can’t help wondering if that is because they would bring shame on influential politicians. They should be made public immediately.

The text of Mr Gove’s speech follows.

Tom Greeves

"The events that we are reflecting on today were horrific and they still haunt the nation’s conscience. Protecting vulnerable children is a duty that I know the Secretary of State takes seriously and none of the questions that I ask today are intended as criticism of him personally. May I thank him for allowing me to read Lord Laming’s report earlier this morning and for early sight of his statement?

May I also thank the Secretary of State for the speedy manner in which he has taken steps to rectify problems in both Doncaster and Haringey? We all know that the director of children’s services in Haringey was dismissed some time ago. Will he update the House on what has happened to the other officials who were suspended in Haringey at that time?

I also welcome the steps taken today to review the impact of court fees on care proceedings. The Secretary of State has said that he was sure that the high level of court fees was not a barrier to taking children into care who needed that step. We welcome the fact that he will now look again at that decision.

I also thank Lord Laming for his diligent work in the report. He has done a great deal of useful analysis of the weaknesses in our child protection system and his report is powerful in its condemnation of the bureaucratic burden faced by social workers. He reports that

“a tradition of deliberate reflective social work practice is being put in danger because of an over-emphasis on process and targets, resulting in a loss of confidence amongst social workers”.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what he will do to reduce the burden of bureaucratic compliance and the number of targets faced by front-line professionals?

Lord Laming spells out in great detail the consequences of the bureaucratic burden. Vacancies in social work departments are running at more than 12 per cent., compared with just 0.7 per cent. for teachers. Turnover rates are high, with two thirds of local authorities reporting difficulties in engaging social workers and three quarters of social workers reporting that case loads have increased worryingly since 2003. Lord Laming reports that front-line social workers experience

“low staff morale, poor supervision, under-resourcing and inadequate training”.

They face high levels of stress and there are formidable recruitment and retention difficulties. Social work, he records, is a Cinderella service and we now have, in his words, a “crisis” in social work. Does not the Secretary of State agree that that is a remarkable indictment of the state of child protection in this country? Where does the responsibility for that failure lie?

Will the Secretary of State also tell us what urgent practical steps he is taking, beyond the creation of a new quango, to raise morale, to ensure that resources reach the front line and to reduce red tape? Lord Laming’s report is again scathing about the unwieldy and overly bureaucratic nature of the regime currently in place. He reports that the central bureaucratic tool used to help children at risk—the comprehensive assessment form—is

“in danger, like other tools, of becoming process-focused, or… a barrier to services for children”.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has to simplify this area of bureaucracy?

Lord Laming’s report also reveals the significant problem with the information technology systems that are supposed to help child protection. He reports that help for children is being

“compromised by an over-complicated, lengthy and tick-box assessment and recording system”.

The IT system that the Government favour—the integrated children’s system—is reported by Lord Laming as “hampering progress”, with the best local authorities having to

“find ways to work around the system”.

One of the best local authorities for children’s services, Kensington and Chelsea, has abandoned the Government’s overly bureaucratic approach to IT and set up its own much more flexible and professional-friendly system. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the IT system that he favours will no longer hamper progress? What steps has he taken to learn from those local authorities, such as Kensington and Chelsea, with first-class child protection records?

Is it not clear overall that we need a shift, led from the centre, in the culture of child protection to put improving the work force ahead of adding to the quangocracy or finding new boxes to tick? Should not that shift in culture mean a significant extra investment in a universal health visitor service? Lord Laming argues persuasively that the role of health visitors is crucially important. He points out that an evaluation of 161 serious case reviews showed that nearly half the children who suffered terrible harm were under one year of age but only 12 per cent. of them were subject to a child protection plan. Many more of those children at risk might have been identified, if we had a truly universal health visitor service supporting children from birth. Will the Secretary of State now offer his support for the proposals put forward by the leader of my party for an expansion of the health visitor service to make it truly universal?

We are, as I have said, very grateful to Lord Laming for his report. It contains a great deal of useful testimony and evidence, but it is stronger in analysis than in recommendation and better at explaining what has gone wrong than spelling out how to put it right. It exposes the problems with the current level of bureaucracy, but far too often falls back on recommending more bureaucracy as the answer.

Crucially, Lord Laming recognises that serious case reviews—the policy inquests that follow the death of a vulnerable child—are valuable tools for learning lessons to enable us to avoid making similar mistakes in future. He points out that the lessons from serious case reviews need to be better learned and more widely disseminated, but he fails to recommend that they now be published in full. Refusing to publish serious case reviews after a child’s death is like keeping the information from an aircraft’s black box secret after an aviation disaster—it prevents us from learning the lessons that we need to learn and from debating openly how we keep children safe. We cannot have a situation where we keep terrible errors secret because we will not face down those involved. The lessons of the past year are clear: buck-passing and back-covering cannot come ahead of protecting vulnerable children. Will the Secretary of State please think again on this issue and put children first?"

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