Lord Farmer is a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
With the word Brexit banished from the lips of those who work in and around Downing Street, the Government is, at last, turning its full attention to the domestic agenda.
A radical shake-up of the Civil Service is on the cards, and other mooted reforms aim to make the Government less London-centric, improve military procurement, introduce tougher sentences for criminals, and boost NHS spending.
These are all important, but I would also urge Mr Johnson to press ahead with a big R-review of Children in Care as a priority. The system he has inherited is at breaking point. It needs to be looked at, root and branch – and through a relational lens. Does the system ensure our most vulnerable children have the relationships which are, for all of us, the very essence of life?
The Review also needs to address the fact that the number of children being drawn into it is growing: between 2009/10 and 2016/17, the total number of “looked-after children” increased by 17 per cent, from 64,460 to 75,420. The number of local authority court applications to take children into care rose by over a fifth (22 per cent) and the number of children on a child protection plan increased by 38 per cent, from 39,100 to 53,790.
At the same time, the profile of those taken into care has changed dramatically, driven by a growing share of older children and teenage care entrants, many of whom have more complex needs.
Some of the change in the profile of those in care is down to unaccompanied children arriving in the UK, but equally, there has been a significant rise in Section 20 applications, where parents effectively hand over their children to social services because they can no longer cope – a harrowing decision for any parent to have to take.
Worse still are the outcomes of those children and young people in the state’s charge. In 2017, just 2.7 per cent of children who had been looked after for 12 months or more achieved GCSEs in English language and literature, maths, science, geography or history, and a language, compared to 21.9 per cent of the general population
It is not just in the field of education that we are failing these vulnerable children. On average those in care have worse mental and emotional wellbeing, are more vulnerable to poor physical health, substance misuse, early pregnancies and are more likely to be known to the criminal justice system.
Now, this might seem like an unlikely subject for a former metal trader and Treasurer of the Conservative Party to champion, but I speak from a childhood lived under the dark cloud of parental alcoholism with all the stigma of neglect, shame and poverty this entails. If I had not been sent to a state boarding school and experienced stable relationships, I would likely have ended up in care myself.
I have also conducted two reviews for the Ministry of Justice on the importance of family and other relational ties to reduce reoffending and the intergenerational transmission of crime. The first looked at male prisoners, the second more broadly at female offenders. My primary recommendation was that the importance of relationships should be the golden thread running through the criminal justice system. This has been accepted by the Government not least because their own research found that prisoners who receive family visits are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend than those who do not.
So the broadly acknowledged failure of the current care system is also not simply a question of money, even if some claim it is. Local authorities in England spent nearly £8 billion in 2017/18, indeed many overspent. If the Review is limited to bickering about resources, it will fail. It must be far more ambitious in scope than a focus on resources – or on those already in the system.
We have to do far more to prevent children from coming into care in the first place, where possible. The answer to our high levels of fractured family relationships is not to sever existing ties but to do more, earlier, to strengthen families. Hence my strong support for the Conservative manifesto commitment to champion Family Hubs.
We must also prevent the care system from being a conveyor belt into crime, or other highly detrimental outcomes. Just this week, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall said that young boys caught up in county lines drugs gangs should be seen as victims, not criminals. He points to the gap in family support as a root cause and he is right. Dysfunctional homes and the lack of family security in these children’s lives drives them into these gangs.
Currently, relationships are either treated as disposable or are under-exploited. My two prison reviews and a lifetime of experience have taught me the paramount importance of children finding a connection. Someone who is irrationally committed to you, who will support and guide you, and provide the unconditional love so many of us take for granted. The Government is alive to this and has developed the Lifelong Links programme through its Innovation Fund, but this programme’s DNA has to be replicated throughout the care system – and in the lives of care leavers in prison.
Adopting this relational lens will fundamentally reset the care system and thereby enable a generation of children, tens of thousands of lives, to escape the trap of low expectations, poverty and crime.