Tim Loughton sets challenge at ADCS conference

The Children's Minister challenges Directors of Children's Services to improve standards of residential care for vulnerable children.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Tim Loughton MP

Thank you Debbie. It’s a great pleasure to join you today to discuss our plans for the year ahead and beyond.

But before I look forward, I want to look back and pay a few words of appreciation and acknowledgement to your teams.

In particular, I want to say thank you to the ADCS and its members for your thoughtful, positive engagement with government over the last year in business critical areas like fostering, adoption and social work reform.

Thanks to you, we are beginning to see significant progress in the implementation of Professor Munro’s child protection recommendations and real evidence of sector led improvement, particularly in terms of supporting and challenging councils.

This is important progress - in an exceptionally difficult economic context - so let me start by offering my warmest congratulations, and can I ask that you please pass on my appreciation to your teams around the country.

I would like to say a few words this morning about the work we need to do to speed up progress in child protection, focusing on the most vulnerable children in particular. But I am going to start by laying down some very substantial challenges for local areas in the year ahead.

Over the 12 months, I have witnessed some truly inspiring turnarounds in fortune for many of the most vulnerable children and families in this country: for which you must all take enormous credit.

Young people moved back into education after months, sometimes years of disengagement. Chaotic families supported to establish loving attachments. Children rescued from neglect and abuse by the extraordinary professionalism of social workers.

This is the very best of child protection work in this country - the very best example of what can be achieved with focus and ambition.

But I am also acutely aware of the fact that these successes do not excuse the very serious examples of service failures we have sometimes seen:

Young people transported across the country to live in care miles from family and friends and familiar environments. Teenage girls lured away from residential homes by gangs of men to be sexually exploited. Children waiting years for high quality adoption placements to take place.

These kind of failures ask all of us to take a long, hard look at the circumstances in which they occur, and keep occurring.

Where is the drive in weaker areas to reduce delays in adoption and fostering placements? Where are the basic safeguards against children being placed in unsafe, unsuitable accommodation? Why are we still failing to protect children in care from abusers: surely the most elementary of all expectations?

These are questions we all, and I do mean all, need to confront: from politicians to policy makers, DCSs to staff on the frontline. They are also the challenges I want you to now put at the top of your in-tray if they aren’t already.

In saying this, let me make the point that I know, as well as anyone, the utter commitment of everyone in this room to protect young people from danger; to secure the best results for them; and to deliver the very highest quality services. I also understand as well as anyone that we cannot guarantee the safety of every child in this country.

But as leaders, we need to be relentless in our ambition to improve safeguarding arrangements: continually to assess where we could do better, where we could reduce risk.

I want us to be able to look each other in the eye at these conferences and say: ‘yes we have done everything humanly possible to safeguard those children in our care’.

But to accomplish this, we must first be honest and transparent about performance levels. We must be rigorous in our commitment to self-assessment and improvement. We must work across the sector to encourage, challenge and support one another. We must ensure that the experience of the best is transferred to those who are not so strong, and make sure there is no scope for the denial of weak performance.

For our part, we will continue to do everything we can as a government to support you, to get safeguarding right and to strengthen public confidence. I talk about an approach of spreading best practice, not just finger wagging. Sending out letters of congratulation, not just scrutiny and intervention

Already this year, we have made significant progress to bring Professor Munro’s widely acclaimed report on child protection into practice.

We have shortlisted several exceptional candidates for the position of Chief Social Worker and will announce the successful candidate shortly. Eight local authorities are testing new approaches to child assessment. Ofsted has introduced its new inspection framework to provide a sharper focus on the quality and effectiveness of support for children.

We have also responded to your concerns over excessive government control by cutting back disempowering bureaucracy in areas like the Working Together guidance. The three draft documents we have published for consultation will replace over 700 pages of detailed instructions with just 68 - focusing on the essentials and leaving the details to you.

These are radical reforms aimed squarely at putting the power of decision making back in your hands.

My plea to you this morning is to embrace this power shift enthusiastically and energetically. Don’t wait for government pronouncements that are not going to arrive, take charge of the opportunity and press ahead with local reform.

To support you we have invested in the Children’s Improvement Board to work with councils across the country to develop a model of sector-led improvement that is based around rigorous, honest and open self assessment, peer challenge and sector based support.

This is not an insignificant commitment from government. We are providing seed funding of £8.85 million over this financial year to support CIB and we expect to see lead members, chief executives and yourselves leading us towards a more open, transparent, innovative and collaborative approach to self improvement.

I have been hugely encouraged to see you putting the structures in place that will allow every region to make a reality of sector led improvement.

What we need to see now though, is more impact across the country - with self-assessment, peer challenge and support used as a routine way of securing meaningful improvement.

In particular, I want to see much faster progress towards raising standards of residential care for young people.

On Tuesday, I wrote to you all outlining the urgent reforms we are taking to protect children in care from sexual exploitation as part of a wider overhaul of the system.

These measures include ensuring more robust checks are made before children are placed in care outside their home boroughs, and ordering the immediate lifting of all regulations that stop Ofsted telling police and other agencies the location of children’s homes.

On top of this, we are reviewing all aspects of the quality and effectiveness of children’s homes - including their management, ownership and staffing.

It is important to say that there are many exceptional children’s homes that keep vulnerable children safe, as well as helping them to thrive and succeed. Last month I met inspirational residential staff who had been nominated for awards by the children in their care.

I know there are many more professionals like these around this country, who work tirelessly and passionately to support children in care, and they deserve our unstinting praise and respect.

But it would be entirely wrong to pretend there are not significant challenges before us. You know, and I know, that there are residential homes in this country that are clearly failing their children in the most tragic of circumstances.

Sue Berelowitz underlined the scale of the problem earlier this week and I am enormously grateful to her for responding to us so quickly with the early findings into her ongoing report on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.

As you will have seen, her report finds a clear pattern of residential homes being specifically targeted by abusers where there is, in her words: ‘a constant flow of vulnerable children for perpetrators to exploit’.

We are working with Ofsted to make sure all care homes match up to the very highest standards and are properly assessed. I have also set up a multi-agency taskforce to address the inadequacy of data relating to children missing from care.

Most importantly, as many of you will know we published the Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan last November, identifying several key stages where we needed better intervention on child sexual exploitation: including taking more effective multi-agency action.

We are already seeing signs of positive progress, with the LSCB chairs’ network helping to spread best practice. And I thank Sue Woolmore for her efforts on this and for helping to coordinate the efforts of individual LSCBs.

But I remain acutely concerned at the worrying trend for placing children in unsuitable residential accommodation miles away from the familiarity of home. Some 45 per cent of young people in care now live outside their home boroughs.

If you look at a heat map of our towns and cities showing the locations of residential homes and then transpose onto them the whereabouts of known child sex abusers, drug dealers and criminal activity, you will find that we are too often placing our most vulnerable children into the most dangerous areas of our country.

We should not imagine that the public easily accepts or forgets failures in child protection of this kind. Or of the kind we saw in the Rochdale case this year, where young girls were lured from care homes with the promise of cheap vodka or drugs, before being passed around ‘like balls’ in the words of one of the victims.

So, I want to make it absolutely clear today that we expect action to be taken immediately, and decisively, if there is any suggestion that care homes are not passing muster or providing excellence in safeguarding.

DCSs have a critical role to play in selecting the best care homes for individual children: do not think it is ok to send a child to a poorly run home miles away from your own authority - or to take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to child protection.

This is an issue we must all work together on, with total determination. And I want today’s conference to mark the start of an uncompromising focus by councils on improving standards in residential care for children.

These homes should not simply be protecting children from danger, they should be supporting them to achieve to the very best of their abilities: to succeed at GCSE; to succeed at A Level; to go on to University; and to secure meaningful employment.

I want residential homes, and their staff, to take their responsibilities to these children as seriously as you or I take our own role as parents.

They should set world class benchmarks for the care of our most vulnerable young people and hold themselves to the highest possible standards of delivery.

As you are by now well aware, the other, related, area where we want to see significant progress is in adoption.

At the NCAS conference in October, I made the point that there are councils doing a sterling job of improving the quality of their adoption metrics.

But we know the wider picture is mixed. Overall adoption figures fell again last year. Still only 74 per cent of children are being placed within 12 months of their adoption decision, and there is significant variation at local level.

The evidence shows overwhelmingly that delay has a negative impact on the life chances of children. It is imperative that stable homes are found within a reasonable time, and we are determined, as a government, to do all we can to speed up and streamline the adoption process.

In March, I wrote to you announcing the publication of the Adoption Action Plan. Last month, we published our adoption scorecards setting out performance thresholds and minimum expectations for timeliness.

On top of this, we are undertaking critical research in areas like adoption breakdown so we can fill data gaps, and we’re working to recruit a greater number and wider range of prospective adopters.

We know this is already having a positive impact, with greater attention and interest by councils producing substantial improvements in their adoption figures.

I would like to thank those authorities straightaway for their work but I also want encourage the others to will themselves on to do even better.

I ask you to treat adoption as a priority issue and to take it as a given that we will do anything, and everything we can to support you as you take action.

At the same time, I ask you to focus hard on fostering, where the challenge is just as significant, just as urgent.

According to the Fostering Network, a child comes into care every 22 minutes. Of all the children who come into care, 75 per cent are looked after by foster carers. To cope with demand, an estimated 8,750 new foster carers are needed across the UK in this year alone.

Foster carers are in an unrivalled position to build strong, stable relationships with the children they care for and to help a child address difficulties resulting from their experiences before entering care so they can turn their lives around.

That is why I launched the Foster Carers’ Charter last year, to give foster carers the recognition they deserve. I am delighted that 86 local authorities have already signed up to the Charter with a further 37 in the process of doing so.

The issue now is to make sure all fostering services sign up to, and implement the Charter so that all foster carers, whether they foster for local authorities or independent providers, receive the support, training and recognition that they need.

Finally, I want to build on my comments from last year’s conference and encourage everyone here to ensure they are using Positive for Youth to inspire high quality services for young people.

As some here will already know, we are publishing new guidance for local authorities shortly that will show the key role that services for young people have to play.

As I said at NCAS, we are going to provide you with the flexibility you need to design services and prioritise resources around local needs. In particular, the guidance will be shorter and sharper and it will be up to you to assess the sufficiency of the offer you make to young people.

We’ll also be taking stock of progress on positive for youth at the end of the year and pushing ahead with the inspirational National Citizen Service programme.

But I want to take this opportunity to say that I have been delighted to hear so many stories about the involvement of young people in local decision making, scrutiny of services and commissioning.

In particular, it is enormously encouraging to see so many positive examples emerging of councils working together across professions, legacy service structures, and radically redesigned local services.

I appreciate these efforts and do please keep on sharing your experiences of what works, and indeed what doesn’t, with colleagues around the country.

I know many of you are already doing this as a matter of routine so I want to end with sincere thanks to the ADCS.

I am aware that I have been challenging at times today. I do not, however, want you to imagine that I either underestimate or under appreciate the inspirational impact that you can have as DCSs.

I see the difference you make with my own eyes every day: not just in the reports that cross my desk and the conversations we hold across board tables, but in the work I see being done on the frontline by your teams.

Nor do I live in ignorance of the tremendous pressure that is placed on you from all angles, particularly in these tough economic times.

It is very difficult for those not directly involved to appreciate fully the extraordinarily fine judgements involved in child protection, and the pressure under which your staff are expected to deliver.

On a day-to-day basis, DCSs negotiate conflicting demands and situations of inordinate complexity, making the most far reaching of decisions. I want to assure you I never forget this contribution or take it for granted.

So, thank you and please take my challenge only as a signal of my very highest regard: the confidence I have in you to make a lasting difference to the most vulnerable young people in this country.

Published 10 July 2012