The failure of child protection and the need for a fresh start

Education Secretary speech on child protection on 19th November at the Institute of Public Policy Research.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Michael Gove

Michael Gove speech on child protection

[We apologise for the sound quality.]

I am very grateful to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) for giving me a platform today. The IPPR has been one of the most influential organisations in shaping social policy in Britain over the last two decades. The work you have done has ensured the case for greater social justice has been prosecuted with both passion and rigour. And under Nick Pearce’s directorship and James Purnell’s chairmanship your intellectual energy has never been greater.

I want to talk today about a theme I have touched on before - the way in which our society has put the interests of adults before the needs of children.

In other speeches I have given and articles I’ve written I’ve argued that the interests of adults in our education system have too often been given precedence over the needs of children.

I have argued that the interests of trades unions in protecting outdated working practices, the interests of academic ideologues in defending theoretical positions and the interests of politicians in preserving their power networks have all worked against the flexible, empirically-based, child-centred education policy we need.

A genuinely progressive education system, I have argued, should be judged on how effectively it helps children transcend the circumstances of their birth and how comprehensively it equips them to take control of their own lives.

That is why I believe in school league tables based on externally set – and marked – exams, because while they may be uncomfortable reading for some adults they help us identify the teaching practices which are best for our children.

That is why I believe in breaking open local monopolies of educational provision – because while that may challenge the arrangements that suit adults in power it creates a dynamic which ensures we all do better for children.

And it’s why I believe we need to make it easier to remove bad teachers, and pay good teachers more based on proven performance - because while that may disrupt assumptions adults have got used to, it guarantees that we reward those who put children first.

Today, however, I want to talk about another – if anything more important – area where the interests of adults have come before the needs of children.

The failure of our current child protection system

I want to talk about child protection.

Specifically, how we care for the most vulnerable children – those at risk of neglect or abuse – those who come into the care of others because their families cannot care for them.

And I want to begin with an admission.

The state is currently failing in its duty to keep our children safe.

It may seem hard to believe - after the killing of Victoria Climbie, after the torture of Peter Connelly, after the cruel death of Khyra Ishaq – surely as a society, as a state, we must have got the message.

But, I fear, we haven’t.

We are not asking the tough questions, and taking the necessary actions, to prevent thousands of children growing up in squalor, enduring neglect in their infancy, witnessing violence throughout their lives and being exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse during the years which should be their happiest.

The facts are deeply depressing.

Too many local authorities are failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding.

Too many children are left for far too long in homes where they are exposed to appalling neglect and criminal mistreatment.

We put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children - even when those parents are incapable of leading their own lives safely and with dignity never mind bringing up children.

When we do intervene it is often too late.

When children are removed from homes where they’re at risk they’re often returned prematurely and exposed to danger all over again.

Instead of concentrating properly on the appalling neglect and abuse visited on children by those they know or who are in the family’s immediate circle we have been pre-occupied by the much smaller risk of strangers causing harm and in so doing have established an intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy which creates a false feeling of security for parents while alienating volunteers and eroding personal responsibility.

When things go wrong and children suffer we are not transparent about the mistakes which were made.

We do not learn properly from what went wrong to improve matters in the future.

We do not support the social work profession properly, nor have we modernised its ways of working in line with other professions.

When children are taken into care we take far too long to find them a secure and loving home.

We don’t recruit enough foster parents for children with very challenging needs – especially from more economically secure homes.

We don’t recruit enough adoptive parents – and those heroic adults who do wish to adopt are treated consistently poorly by a system which does not put children’s interests first.

For those children who are placed in residential care homes, we don’t provide sufficient support or security.

For older children in their teenage years who are neglected or who are vulnerable to exploitation we don’t provide enough respect or protection.

And for all those who leave care we don’t provide a sufficiently clear and secure path to the future.

Today I want to lay out a path to a better future for children in need, at risk and in care.

In so doing I will be explicitly challenging, deliberately uncompromising, blunt.

I am sure there will be criticism, counter-arguments and equally blunt reaction.


Because unless we have this discussion in the open – free of cant, obfuscation, emulsifying jargon and euphemism – we will not be able to arrive at a clear and enduring consensus about how we can better protect our children.

The interests of adults – their desire to escape criticism, avoid controversy and carry on much as before – cannot be allowed to take precedence over the needs of our most vulnerable children.

A failure of leadership

Which is why it is necessary to highlight how poorly some parts of local government are discharging their responsibilities.

After 160 Ofsted inspections of local authorities to see how effectively they safeguarded children less than 40 per cent got to a level we could be happy with – only three per cent of local authorities were considered outstanding and just 36 per cent good. 45 per cent were ranked at Ofsted grade three – what we call adequate but everyone now recognises is a situation which is not good enough and requires improvement - while 16 per cent were inadequate – simply nowhere near good enough.

And lest you think those judgements were unduly harsh, it should be pointed out that Ofsted revised its inspection framework in June this year to sharpen the focus on practice - the nitty-gritty of child protection. With the three inspection reports being published today 12 local authorities have been inspected under this framework. Six are at level three – adequate and therefore requiring improvement. And five are inadequate. What is also clear is that local authorities can get it right, and I congratulate Redbridge, whose inspection report is published today, for their good child protection services and wish them well on their journey to outstanding.

Also published today is Ofsted’s latest inspection of child protection in Doncaster. The local authority, despite valiant efforts by many well-intentioned professionals, is found, after having improved slightly, to have slipped back to being inadequate.

I’ve taken a particular interest in child protection in Doncaster because I, like many, was horrified by the events a few years ago in Edlington, a village within the Doncaster local authority area, which resulted in two innocent children being horrifically abused by other children who were themselves the victims of parental abuse and neglect. I had the opportunity to meet the parents of those victims and was deeply moved by their courage and also determined that lessons be learned. I asked the distinguished lawyer Lord Carlile, the author of a very well-received investigation into child abuse in Ealing Abbey, to investigate and his report is published today. It should be read alongside the Ofsted report into Doncaster to give a full picture of the child protection problems Doncaster has faced.

Anyone reading both reports will appreciate that the problems Doncaster faces are not amenable to a quick fix. Nor is there any single individual - or group - whom we can say are alone responsible for the problems Doncaster faces. But the situation is unacceptable, and needs radical change and improvement.

I travelled to Doncaster to talk to the parents of the victims in the Edlington case, and earlier this month I visited Doncaster again to talk to the Chief Executive and the Director of Children’s Services. I hope to meet the town’s MPs next week, and will announce – after that meeting – the action I intend to take.

I asked Lord Carlile to look at the situation in Doncaster because there were problems specific to the town which required expert external analysis. But in asking him to take on this work I was keen not just that we should learn lessons specific to Doncaster - but also that he should make recommendations about wider changes we needed to make to improve child protection.

Reading his report, I have found his overall argument compelling. There are a series of specific recommendations, many of which I am instinctively drawn to and all of which deserve careful consideration. The Government will respond formally to all the recommendations in due course.

But I want there to be a time for debate before the time of decision. Because one of the reasons why I like Lord Carlile’s approach so much is that he issues tough challenges - as I hope to today - and if we speak plainly then in fairness we need to hear how others respond before acting.

A child’s need for protection trumps the adult’s interests in the child

And one of the first arguments where I want to hear how people respond is the case Lord Carlile makes that we should be much more assertive in taking children out of homes where they are at risk.

Lord Carlile’s thinking chimes with the Education Select Committee’s recommendation in its report last week on child protection. It’s another excellent analysis which richly repays reading and it makes the point that the “balance of evidence is heavily in favour of care” for vulnerable children being considered “at an earlier stage for many children”. The report asks that ministers should encourage public awareness of that fact.

Let me try to do so now.

I firmly believe more children should be taken into care more quickly, and that too many children are allowed to stay too long with parents whose behaviour is unacceptable.

I want social workers to be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, courts to be less indulgent of poor parents, and the care system to expand to deal with the consequences.

I know there are passionate voices on the other side of the debate.

They express sincere concerns about children being separated from loving parents in stable and secure families and heart-breaking battles to bring those children home.

I don’t deny that such cases exist. But there is no evidence that they are anything other than a truly tiny number.

Whereas there is mounting evidence that all too many children are left at risk and in squalor - physical and moral - for far too long.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee, Martin Narey, the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, underlined that he had never come across a case of a child being taken wrongly into care but he had come across all too many cases where he was “astonished that we have not intervened”.

Martin cited a report - commissioned by the last Government - which showed that “Thresholds of entry to care were often high. 92 per cent of children in the study had experienced two or more forms of maltreatment, including neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. In a number of cases, the abuse or neglect of children had persisted for many years without decisive action by children’s services or the courts.”

Recent academic research is consistent in underlining the damage done by delaying intervention and The Home or Care?, the Neglected Children Reunification and the Significant Harm of Infants Studies found extensive evidence of the consequences of abuse in children’s delayed development, poor speech and language, poor school performance, decayed teeth and untreated medical conditions, as well as in numerous emotional and behavioural problems, particularly violence and aggression.

And when Professor Elaine Farmer and colleagues carried out a five year follow up study of neglected children returned home, they found that even when we do intervene we still return children to abusive homes too early - and in too many cases. She studied 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families. After two years, 59 per cent of children returned home had been abused or neglected, and after five years, 65 per cent of returns home had ended.

In half of the families, children had experienced two or more failed returns home, with some children repeatedly returned home to circumstances that remained unchanged and about which social workers had concerns.

But dry numbers alone cannot convey the real - enduring - pain we cause children when we leave them in danger.

You need to read the serious case review into the case of Peter Connelly to confront the reality of a child left, uncared for and neglected, to soil himself and starve and then, when he cried out in his anguish, the people who should have cared for him allowed him to be violently assaulted.

You need to read the serious case reviews of children in Southampton and Bristol whose substance-abusing parents were so incapacitated their own children died from ingesting their parents’ methadone.

You need to read the words of Sylvie Carver in last week’s Times, when she wrote of her own experience

The neglected child can sit in a soiled nappy for hours, piss-soaked vests are not changed but just turned inside out and the nappy rash never quite goes away. As a toddler this baby learns to take its own nappy off when it can’t bear the pain of the full nappy rubbing against the rash. He also learns to shove as much food as is offered into his mouth because living with a neglectful parent means, for many reasons, regular mealtimes don’t exist. Life is chaotic and food turns up as unexpectedly as your absent dad wanting the child benefit to drink up in the pub. Your parent might only sort out a meal when they feel hungry and anyone on drink and drugs doesn’t do three meals a day. When parents are wrecked you might get some money for sweets or a swig of the medicine that seems to make them happy, but when they are bored with you they ignore you. The house is so chaotic and out of control that even when you’re old enough to bath yourself you can never get clean. You run a bath in a scummy tub and when you get out you dry yourself with a mouldy towel and get into dirty clothes.

In all too many cases when we decide to leave children in need with their biological parents we are leaving them to endure a life of soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair. These children need to be rescued, just as much as the victims of any other natural disaster.

But because of what has been called optimism bias - the belief that with a little more help and support the family will, at last, at long, long, last mend its ways - we leave children in danger for too long.

Social workers are encouraged to develop relationships with adults who are careless of their own welfare and dignity. And for perfectly understandable reasons sometimes professionals are reluctant to directly and robustly challenge the behaviour of people whose trust they are trying to win. But all the time, while adults are trusted, children continue to suffer.

Social workers - partly because so much of their time is spent in uniquely difficult circumstances many of us will never encounter - can become desensitised to the squalor they encounter and less shockable overall.

Which is why it’s up to the rest of us to show leadership. That means supporting social workers who are prepared to take children into care when parents are in the grip of drug or alcohol abuse, backing social workers who rescue children from homes where they are left in their own urine and faeces for days, left to forage for scraps of food and drink and denied warm, clean bedding and clothing.

It also means being clear that the presence of a sequence of males in a relationship with vulnerable women when those men are not the biological fathers of children in the house is a danger sign. Especially if there is the slightest evidence that either adult is a substance abuser or the man has any record of domestic violence. Refraining from passing judgement on adult lifestyles in these circumstances is condemning children to an unacceptable level of risk.

It is putting our fear of offending adults ahead of the needs of children in need.

I know the counter-arguments.

There are already too many children in care, some say.

Well the current number of around 67,000 is lower than the number in 1981 when it was 92,000 - and there is in any case no such thing as a right number overall - only a right solution for every child in need.

Precisely, say others, and care is itself damaging - look at the numbers of care leavers who are unemployed, whose health is severely impaired or who are in prison. Care is a terrible misnomer. Looked after children are really passed over children.

Well I won’t deny there are many things we must do - urgently - to improve the treatment of and prospects for children and young people in care. Not least, to improve the education they receive, to make sure that they leave school and college with good, valuable qualifications, ready to progress into higher education (HE), work and adult life.

But those who point to the numbers in prison, or suffering mental health problems, or in poor schools, or without qualifications, or who are unemployed and who are, or have been in care, and conclude that it is always care that is responsible for these terrible outcomes are making a terrible error.

They are confusing correlation and causation. It’s as foolish as concluding that because so many die in hospital, hospitals are bad for your health.

These children do not face difficulties later in life because they have been in care.

These children are in care because of the terrible circumstances they have endured already in their lives.

They are, in all too many cases, damaged young people. And while care is far from perfect it is much, much better than neglect, let alone the risk, or reality, of abuse.

So - again - I hope I am clear. A rising number of young people in care is not a cause for concern in itself. What is a cause for concern is the horrific neglect and abuse that care can be a rescue from.

We have been looking for danger in the wrong places

And - as I hope I have also made clear - because the neglect and abuse children face is - tragically - generally visited on them by those they already know - parents, mum’s new boyfriend, members of an extended family as in the Matthew’s case or with Peter Connelly - we have been guilty of a tragic misallocation of effort and energy recently in concentrating so much on stranger danger.

Yes, there are predators targeting children for sexual abuse, as well as those who traffic vulnerable young people. And we have already taken steps to tackle these problems. My colleague Tim Loughton developed and published the first Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan - bringing together those most engaged in fighting this evil. The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, will shortly publish her interim report on child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups and it will also help us make the changes we need to keep children safe. I will turn in a moment to how we protect those most at risk from organised exploitation.

But while the threat of criminally organised paedophilia is real, the balance of recent media coverage might lead some to believe that the greatest present danger to children is from powerful strangers who hide their abuse behind a cloak of celebrity or in the dark recesses of the corridors of power.

The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80 per cent of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim, and, by definition, almost all neglect occurs at the hands of the parent or care giver.

And that is why the huge panoply of regulation which started with CRB checks and culminated under the last Government in an Act of Parliament requiring eleven million of us to register before we could even help at a Sunday school or drive a minibus from one sporting venue to another was an over-reaction. Thankfully, my colleague Theresa May has restored matters to a far more common sense position. From 2013, organisations can use just one check for any adult working with children, and the numbers requiring a check have been cut back to sensible proportions so writers visiting school classrooms don’t have to be vetted by the state for their suitability.

But it is still the case, I feel, that by putting so much stress on a CRB regime that sought to limit the danger from strangers and gave some the false comfort that we could regulate and license sin out of all our lives, we actually only ended up damaging the voluntary spirit and introducing suspicion into perfectly normal and healthy interactions between children and adults. Music teachers were told never to touch young violinists. Teachers were afraid to comfort young children in pain with a consolatory hug or restrain violent youngsters when they were a danger to themselves and others.

This misdirection of attention risked making normal adult child contact seem suspect while at the same time, as I have pointed out, the criminal neglect and abuse of children by irresponsible adults was accepted far beyond what any of us should have considered tolerable.

This regrettable state of affairs has been a consequence of failing to follow the data, and instead succumbing to lurid fears which lurk in our psyches and take hold of the public imagination after particularly turbulent news cycles.

Home office data shows of the 56 children murdered, 16 in 2011, 77 per cent, knew the person suspected and 64 per cent were killed by a parent or step-parent.

The debate about how we improve child protection needs - like all policy debate - to be informed by evidence and open examination of what the data tell us.

Transparency when adults get it wrong helps us get it right for children in the future

That is why I have been determined to ensure that when things do go wrong - as they always will - we must make sure we are rigorous in analysing our errors and clear about how everyone may learn the appropriate lessons.

After every child death - or indeed any serious case of abuse or neglect - the law states there should be a full Serious Case Review - a dispassionate assessment of what went wrong and why, so we can all improve practice in the future.

But, under the last Government, SCRs were kept secret and all that was published were bland and uninformative executive summaries drafted in vapid jargonese, risking the wrong lessons being drawn.

It seemed to me that - once again - we were getting our child protection system wrong by putting the interests of adults before those of children.

It suited adults who had made mistakes - the police, lawyers, doctors and others who had, for example, failed Peter Connelly - to have their errors kept hidden behind a veil of confidentiality. No real sense of what went wrong could be divined from a bland exec summary. So no action which would make the lives of those who had made errors more uncomfortable could be taken.

That is why, in Opposition, I campaigned for the publication of Serious Case Reviews and in Government we have insisted on their being made public.

After catastrophic incidents in other areas - for example air crashes - the entire aviation industry has an interest in learning what went wrong and incorporating lessons from the disaster into future good practice. The aircraft’s black box yields information about precisely what went wrong - that is shared across the industry entirely openly - and professionals can then improve their operations by learning from others errors.

But in child protection, professionals have fought greater transparency, often citing the adverse effects publication might have on surviving victims of abuse or neglect, or even on the perpetrators as they are rehabilitated.

I find these arguments are - more often than not - spurious. Families of victims - like those I talked to in Doncaster - want the fullest possible transparency - not only so they can achieve what psychologists call closure but also because they are determined that some good come from the suffering visited on them - and they believe good can only come if lessons are learned. As for publication of past crimes impeding rehabilitation, that is not an argument we have heard with respect to, say, the Hillsborough Panel’s Report and it is not an argument anyone who believes in open justice or free speech can ever be comfortable with. Especially when non-publication so clearly serves the interests of those professionals who have failed.

That is why I am glad that some local authorities have responded to our call for greater transparency by publishing SCRs - such as Leicester, North Somerset and Nottinghamshire.

But I am still – frankly – frustrated that only 28 SCRs have been published since June 2010 of the 147 initiated and of which 80 have completed. I know in some cases we wait on the termination of legal proceedings before SCRs can be published but this still leaves a large proportion, well over half, unpublished.

Lord Carlile - in his report - makes a series of suggestions about how we might reform the SCR process. And I am open to arguments about how to reform and refine the process. But at the moment there is too much foot-dragging, prevarication and obfuscation. There is a lot of media noise about inquiries these days, some of it frankly misdirected. But if there is any spare outrage going around it should be directed at those who are not publishing - in full - the current crop of SCRs - the robust inquiries required into the real tragedies of child death, abuse and neglect which deserve genuine investigation.

We need rapid progress towards greater transparency. If that doesn’t happen soon, we may need to legislate – for example to ensure that lessons learned investigations are carried out by investigators with a clear remit to publish the truth in full as rapidly as possible.

Because at the moment there are real structural impediments to greater open-ness. One of the biggest is the way in which those responsible for child protection are held accountable. The body which commissions an SCR in relevant cases is the Local Safeguarding Children Board. But the members of the LSCB are generally representatives of those very organisations - the local authority, the local police force, the NHS and others - who have made mistakes in child protection and whose errors need exposing. And the Chair of the LSCB - the principal watchdog - will be appointed by the Director of Children’s Services - the figure in the local authority with direct responsibility for child protection. There is a clear potential conflict of interest. Which is why - at the very least - we need to change the way we appoint chairs of LSCBs. I am open to suggestions and arguments about the future approach, provided we can ensure that it creates more pressure for accountability, transparency and more energetic action to protect children.

The structures adults hide behind need to be reformed in children’s interests.

But this change can only be a first step. The whole structure we inherited - a tangled web of trusts, partnerships, committees and boards pulling professionals away from their core responsibilities - has not made children safer. We need to ensure there is clarity about who is responsible for what in child protection. And clarity over the steps required to keep children safe.

The last Government’s guidance in these matters, including Working Together to Safeguard Children, was over 700 pages long. Impossible to digest, let alone remember, for any hard-working teacher or police borough commander pulled in every direction by the many competing demands on their time.

Even at that length - perhaps indeed because of that length - professionals were still left confused and uncertain about basic principles of child protection.

Professionals today - as serious case reviews I have read have revealed - still do not know what facts they can share with other professionals about children in need because there is no clarity in their minds over how data protection laws operate.

We are working in Government to simplify - and clarify - the rules in all of these areas. We are fortunate that directors of children’s services, the royal colleges and others are working with us.

But let me again be frank. The over-complicated bureaucratic machinery we inherited diffuses accountability rather than clarifying it, makes sharing information more difficult, not easier, privileges process over results and committee attendance over action. We are taking steps to improve things as quickly as possible - following on from Eileen Munro’s superb work on how we improve children’s experience of child protection. But there is still much to do.

I still believe that the best people to help lead improvements in children’s services are those from local government who have outstanding track records in child protection. That is why I have committed to funding the work done by the Local Government Association, the ADCS and SOLACE for another year. Their approach teams strong councils with weaker councils to improve child protection. But we need to see rapid progress if that support is to continue in the future.

And critical to improvement - as Eileen’s own work so clearly demonstrates - is improving the quality of social work practice.

Learning from education when it comes to reforming the profession

One of the reasons why there has been so much bureaucratic intervention intended to regulate the social work profession into better performance is because previous governments had a fundamental lack of confidence in social workers themselves.

As Andrew Adonis has pointed out - what was done for teachers now needs to be done for social workers. They too need support to improve their practice. That is why the College of Social Work has been set up and we are planning to establish the office of Chief Social Worker. More requires to be done - both in improving initial training and enhancing leadership - but the recognition is there - among ministers and social workers - that we need to work harder to improve how the profession operates. And one of the most promising developments in improving how the profession operates is the idea - first floated here at the IPPR by a Teach First alumnus Josh McAllister - that we support a charity doing for Social Work what TeachFirst did for teaching.

Frontline - the proposition Josh has advanced with such care, thought and passion - is a brilliant idea. It offers more talented graduates the chance to make a dramatic difference to the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. The same idealism which drew TeachFirst alumnae into the nation’s most challenging classrooms can now be harnessed to get committed, intelligent, compassionate leaders into the homes where children need most help. By providing a shorter and more focussed training programme - just as TeachFirst does with its recruits - one of the biggest barriers to entry for gifted graduates contemplating social work has been cleared.

That is why I intend - on receipt of a proper business plan in the next few months - to support Frontline’s establishment and get it up and running as soon as possible.

But if we are to improve the lives of vulnerable children it is not just more high quality social workers we need to recruit.

Finding the right adults to care for children

We also need to recruit more foster parents. And more adoptive parents.

We know that one of the surest foundations for any child’s progress through life is a secure attachment with an adult who loves them in their earliest years.

And we know that for damaged children who’ve grown up in households where love is absent, fitful or glimpsed only occasionally when the haze of intoxication clears, the search for love - indeed for almost any display of affection or even attention - can dominate their later years.

Every child needs to be somewhere they are genuinely cared for, protected, and where the adults looking after them love them and aspire for them to succeed in school and as they grow into adulthood. When children are in an environment where they know they are loved they are also more ready to accept boundaries and limitations, because they know curtailments of their liberty or restraints on their wilfulness are being imposed by someone whose heart is committed to them rather than someone who is simply discharging a responsibility.

Adoption means taking a child not just into your home but into your heart - it is a relationship for good in every sense of the word. It means committing to another person for life in a way which as profound, indeed even more so, than marriage.

That is why it is such a daunting responsibility.

But also such a wonderful gift.

And because I have benefitted from that gift so much I am determined to ensure more and more vulnerable children also find loving homes for good.

If adoption is right for a child who is taken into care, we are doing everything we can to ensure that he or she is placed for adoption as soon as possible.

That is why we’ve published data on the performance of local authorities in helping children find adoptive parents - so we can learn from the best and challenge others to improve.

It’s also why we’ve changed rules to make it easier for children to move out of the care system more quickly and into the arms of loving parents.

We’re legislating to ensure BME children are not left in care for many months longer than average because adults believe they need to find a perfect or even a partial ethnic match.

We’re changing the rules so that approved adopters can foster the child they hope to adopt at an early stage - thus building attachment and security.

We are also exploring changes to allow siblings to be adopted separately - and to strictly limit or prevent contact between birth parents and adopted children.

In both cases the wishes of adults and children to keep siblings together - or to maintain historic relationships - can work against the interests of children - who may best be served by being adopted as quickly as possible and forming as secure an attachment as possible with their new parents. Waiting until two or more siblings can be adopted together can limit the speed with which either might find a loving home. Allowing inappropriate contact with a birth parent could impede a child’s ability to settle in a new family without any gains for either child or parents.

I am open to making whatever other changes are necessary to speed this process - but as reform bites so it becomes even more imperative that we accelerate and increase the numbers becoming approved adopters.

That is why I am open to changing how we recruit new parents, giving voluntary adoption agencies a bigger role, with costs and payments reflecting their ability, indeed determination, to recruit more parents.

Local authorities have little incentive at the moment to recruit beyond the numbers they may consider appropriate for their own area - while voluntary adoption agencies want to work across localities to recruit more parents. I don’t have any ideological preference as to who recruits more parents as long as more parents are recruited. As that thoughtful advocate of competition in the provision of public services, Deng Xiaoping, once said, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. And I don’t mind it if it’s a council or an agency recruiting adoptive parents as long as they don’t ask unnecessary and intrusive questions about faith or sexual politics, as long as they don’t keep compassionate volunteers waiting for long weeks and months to be assessed, as long as they don’t impose irrelevant class, race or lifestyle tests on prospective parents and as long as they work hard to make sure that sooner or later every prospective parent is given the chance to adopt. But unless I can see a change in attitude, quickening of the pace and a raising of the level of ambition, again, we are prepared to act.

And just as I want a wider range of people encouraged to become adopters so I want to help an even wider range of people to become foster parents. We need in particular to encourage more foster parents from a wider range of homes. Edward Timpson – the Children’s Minister – grew up with a total of 89 foster siblings. He is used to people saying “you must be a very special person to do this” but he and his parents disagree. You don’t have to be special – there are lots of people who could foster children. We need more aspirational and engaged parents who can introduce looked-after children to a wider range of experiences and opportunities would be hugely powerful in improving the prospects of our most vulnerable children. Other EU nations tend to recruit foster parents from an even broader pool than we do and we are looking at just how we can extend both the number, and the diversity, of those who foster.

And I should add, of course, that the growth in special guardianship provides another route for children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents to enjoy the security of a home in which they are loved and cherished

All of these options together provide an opportunity for children who have known only upheaval and neglect to enjoy permanence and love - and thanks to the generosity of adopters, fosters parents and special guardians the number of children and young people in residential care homes has diminished during my lifetime.

Holding adults to account for children in their care

Of course there are some children and young people who simply cannot function in the family environment of foster care, and they need the framework and intensive professional help to be found in good children’s homes. I know that many children recognise and respond to the warm and sympathetic care they then receive. The best residential care homes are very good indeed - warm and caring environments where the highest professional standards help young people find stability after years of abuse or neglect.

It is, however, very sadly the case that there are residential care homes where these high standards are not maintained. Homes where facilities are poor, supervision ineffective, affection absent and support for the young person either scanty or misdirected. Worse, many of these homes are located in parts of the country where other facilities for young people are poor. Worse still, many local authorities deliberately send their looked after children many miles from their friends and families to care homes in distant areas. Worse still, some of these homes are located in high-risk areas with large numbers of sexual offenders or organised criminal activity which can ensnare vulnerable young people.

Now, no Director of Children’s Services or Council Chief Executive would willingly put vulnerable young people in harm’s way - but that is what happens.

In places such as East Kent and East Lancashire there are vulnerable children from all over the United Kingdom, at risk of exploitation and vulnerable to criminal activity. They have been sent there by professionals charged with protecting them.

How can this happen?

In order to establish why good-hearted and well-intentioned people are not just allowing this to happen - but directing this activity - my colleague Tim Loughton established detailed work to consider how we could improve provision. That work will be completed shortly.

We know that many of the young people who have found themselves in these homes - and whose lives will already have been characterised by neglect and abuse, the withholding of affection and the manipulation of their emotions - are being targeted by adults intent on sexual exploitation.

Thanks to the determined work of Times journalist Andrew Norfolk, we know that the targeting, grooming and horrific mistreatment of young girls is facilitated by the failures of our residential care system.

Indeed our care system overall.

Policing the boundary between children and adults

For a disproportionate number of young people who have been sexually exploited are or have been in care. And as Sylvie Carver’s Times article also made clear children who have been neglected early in their lives are uniquely vulnerable to sexual exploitation later.

We need to ensure all adults recognise this vulnerability. That means tackling head on the attitudes of these professionals reported to have dismissed many of these young girls as “difficult”, “drawn to danger”, “risk-fuelled” “asking for it” or “sexually available”.

It is chilling to read how nominally responsible adults treated the sexual activity of children in Rochdale. Because of an attitude that may have begun as exasperation with damaged young people but ended in acceptance of their abuse by adults, we let those children down.

We let them down because we did not - for them - and for others - uphold the principle that laws are there to protect the innocent. The law of consent is there precisely to protect young people - children in fact and in law - from exploitation by their elders. When anyone - anyone - interprets children’s sexual activity - or availability - as a matter of free choice, or evidence of their appetite for risk and danger, or behaviour just too difficult to handle, they are acquiescing in abuse.

Because the girls exploited in Rochdale are not an isolated and wholly unrepresentative group. According to data from the Health Protection Agency approximately 3000 children - children - attended a genitourinary medicine clinic on more than one occasion between April 2010 and March 2011. The Department of Health confirms that in 2011 there were 84 terminations of pregnancy for children under the age of 16 - who had already had at least one previous termination.

Now I am absolutely convinced that we must have good sexual health services for every citizen. I know that health professionals must always - always - act to alleviate harm and never seek to pass personal judgement - and I am not one of those who wishes to see any reduction in women’s reproductive rights or undermining of women’s health and well-being.

But while I do not wish to see the NHS be any less responsive to those in need, I have to ask - can we as a society be happy with the exposure to risk - to physical and mental health, to social and emotional maturity - revealed by this evidence of early sexual activity?

I think we all need to ensure the importance of 16 as the age of consent is appreciated by every one who has responsibility for young people. As Anne-Marie Carrie says, no child can consent to their own abuse. They deserve our protection.

And to help combat the erosion of that safeguard, and the exploitation of the vulnerable, I think we should erect more - not less - protection around childhood.

That is why I applaud the campaigning efforts of organisations like Mumsnet with their “Let Girls be Girls” campaign, and why the Government commissioned the Bailey Review into the premature sexualisation and commercialisation of children.

It is also why I think we need to recognise that all the pressures put on young people to grow up faster need to be resisted.

That is why I think we should do all we can to discourage young people in care from leaving care before they are 18.

We are - rightly raising the age of compulsory participation in education. We believe young people should carry on learning until they are at least 18, in preparation for adult responsibilities and opportunities.

And I think - in line with the steps we are taking to raise the participation age - we should ensure looked after children are expected to remain in care until they are 18. And, much more often, to stay with their former foster carers until into their early twenties.

We should not be allowing vulnerable young people at 16 or 17, before they are ready, to be placed in additional risk.

We know that the prospects for many care leavers across the country are poor. The circumstances some of them find themselves in are desperate. Even when they are in suitable accommodation in a foyer or supported lodgings they may be vulnerable to exploitation from drug dealers, pimps and other predators who may live in the area. So we need to ensure children are not leaving foster or residential care only to have their whole futures endangered.

And because local authorities have a specific duty of care here I want to ensure we hold them accountable for what happens to these young people. We are holding our schools more effectively to account by recording the number of their students who go onto university, college, proper apprenticeships or satisfying jobs. This destination data will complement other performance measures to ensure schools prepare students for all the challenges of adult life. I believe we should hold local authorities similarly to account for the destinations of looked after children. We should be able to plot where children in care progress to, local authority by local authority, so councils have an even more powerful incentive to ensure care leavers are prepared and supported for all the risks, and opportunities, of adult life.


The proposals I have put forward today are, I hope, the start of a debate, not the summing-up; the beginning of a conversation, not a conclusion.

I have spoken as honestly as possible today because I want there to be no excused for inaction in the days ahead. I want those of us entrusted with responsibility at this time - in central and local Government - in social work, schools, the police, the health service - to work together to improve our child protection system. I want us to ensure that - at last - ahead of the interests of adults - we put the needs of children.

Updates to this page

Published 21 November 2012