Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, it may not be fashionable, but it is critical. I could not agree more with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about the role of faith in fostering. The placement must be right for, and meet the needs of, the child. That means we must pay attention to the things that matter to the children who enter the care system.
I want to begin by asking why so many children are being taken into care in the first place. The Minister will be aware that I worked with children and young people for some time before I entered Parliament. I have never known the situation for children and families in this country to be as desperate as it is currently. We should be deeply concerned about the fact that the number of children in care is, as Barnardo’s says, at its highest point since the mid-1980s. The number of children entering the care system has increased every year for nine years. In the first six years of the coalition and Conservative Governments, the number of children subject to a child protection plan went up by 29%. The Minister will be aware that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services identified a £2 billion funding gap, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central mentioned, between the demand for children’s services and the available resources. Often when I have conversations with social workers they tell me that they are unable to take children into care when they think they need to, because of the resources available. That suggests that the situation is even starker than the figures lead us to understand.
The ADCS is clear about the reasons for what is happening. It has laid the blame squarely at the door of the coalition austerity policies that have continued under the present Government. It has blamed long delays for universal credit, and I recognise that issue from my constituency, which was a pilot area. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham shakes his head, but I spent Friday sitting with representatives of charities, primary school teachers, police and clergy in one of the poorest areas of my constituency, and some of those people were in tears because in 19 years of working with children in that community they have never known a situation so bad: it is to do with policies such as the two-child limit on benefits and the housing benefit cuts. In my area in particular the bedroom tax has been devastating. We never had the smaller properties, but we had big family homes; they were built on purpose because they were better for families. We placed families in them, and suddenly told them, “You can’t pay your rent, and it is your own fault.” The impact on those families has been devastating. There is usually nowhere to move to apart from the private rented sector, and we do not have a huge private rented sector, so many people are stuck in their accommodation accruing arrears and worrying every day how they will pay the bills and feed their children.
The situation has an impact on the profession, too. There are currently 5,540 child and family social work vacancies. That means that 13% of the children’s social work workforce is missing. Is it any wonder, then, that there are issues of continuity of care and support for children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has mentioned? During the time in question, support outside children’s services has been stripped away; 600 youth centres have closed in four years; there has been a huge loss of Sure Start and children’s centres across the country. The upshot is stark. As the ADCS found in a report last year, children in the poorest areas are 10 times more likely to be put on a child protection plan or be subject to care proceedings than those in the wealthiest areas. It is an absolute disgrace.
While I sat with frontline workers in my constituency on Friday trying to work through with them how better to support families in crisis, representatives of the secondary school—the academy—were absent. There were police at the meeting to raise concerns about the welfare of particular children. The academy tells me that it has not expelled them, but it has given them managed transfers outside the school—presumably because of the impact of some of the children on results. From 2010 onwards, many of the Members present for the debate have been coming to debates and Select Committees warning Ministers that if the children’s service workforce is fragmented—if that family of professionals who used to hang on to children and families in times of crisis is broken up—the result will be what is happening now. We see it in our communities; we see the impact on children.
I want to focus on what happens to children when they go into care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has said, there has been a lot of focus on adoption in recent years. I do not criticise the Government at all for wanting to look closely at what happens in adoption, and to make sure that the children for whom it is right get placements quickly—that they do not miss out and find that there are no suitable families to take them. However, as my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of children in the care system are fostered. There was a lot of anxiety, in the years when it seemed that the Government were interested only in adoption services, about the lack of attention being paid to pressing problems in fostering. That is why the fostering stocktake was greeted with such enthusiasm by the sector, but it would be wrong not to explain to the Minister the real sense of anger and frustration about the fostering stocktake and its inability to deliver on the promise it made.
Before I talk a little bit about some of the problems that have emerged with that report, I will say that one area in which it is particularly strong—knowing Martin Narey as I have for many years, I am not surprised by that—is the positive role that care can play in children’s lives. He is absolutely right to highlight in the report the fact that it is not primarily the fault of the care system that children often leave care with such poor educational outcomes. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central cited the figures on young people from the care system who get into trouble with the law or end up in prison.
In the vast majority of cases, the care system does a tremendous job in supporting and enabling children to go on and live better lives than they would otherwise have done. We cannot expect the care system to compensate entirely for every single thing that happens to children before they come into care. In fact, to see the most successful examples of children who have left care, we must look to the children themselves, their ambitions and aspirations, and the support we package around that, rather than telling them how to do it.
The concern about the fostering stocktake centres on a number of key areas. There is a real sense that it is dismissive of the shortage of foster-carers and therefore the numbers who are placed outside care. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is not that there are not enough foster-carers in the country, but that there is not enough spare capacity, so that when a child in one particular area needs a foster-placement that is available in that area. As a consequence, we are still seeing far too many children moved outside their area, stranded a long way from school, family members and friends.
In all the time I worked with children and young people, what stayed with me most was that the thing that sustains them through the hardest time in their life—being taken away from family and forced to confront a whole new life unfolding ahead of them—is relationships. Sustaining those relationships ought to be a primary goal of public policy for these children, because friends and family are their top priority. It cannot be right that, at the moment when they feel they have lost everything, they also lose the trusted aunt, the best friend or the teacher who cared.
The fostering stocktake does not pay anywhere near enough attention to that issue, or to the fact that one third of foster-carers are now being referred to look after children who lack any prior knowledge about them and whose needs are outside their approved scope, as the Fostering Network reminded me this morning. The stocktake does not reflect the real hardship that many foster-carers have to endure in order to care for children. The Minister will be aware of the “State of the Nation’s Foster Care” report that the Fostering Network undertakes every two years. The most recent one was published in 2016. Some 2,500 foster-carers were consulted and 42% of them said that their allowances covered the costs. That left 58% of foster-carers who had to dig into their own pockets to cover the full cost of foster care.
To me, that seems to be nonsense. It matters to all of us that we get this right for children. We should not be saying to those children or the people who step up to care for them that they have to suffer hardship to do it. There is an issue with staying put, which the Minister may be aware of; one third of foster-carers who did not continue with placements said it was down to financial hardship. He will know of the huge battle that many of us in this House fought to get that on the agenda. We were led by my right hon. Friend, the late Paul Goggins, who did such tremendous work for children. The former children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, rightly took that issue up and said, “We have to do right by these children; we have to make sure they have the same level of stability as we would expect in any other family.” The truth is that it is not working, and the reason is the level of allowances that are paid, or sometimes not paid at all, to those foster-carers.