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Parliamentary: Youth Justice and Child Welfare Policy


Youth Unemployment, a House of Lords Debate in June 2012

The Earl of Listowel commented thus:

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and his passionate advocacy for autistic adults and children. I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for securing this important and timely debate. I thank the Minister for organising a seminar recently on the employment support allowance. It allowed many of us the opportunity to speak to the manager of a jobcentre – to have the privilege of speaking to someone who had spent much of her life helping adults and young people into employment. It was a very helpful experience.

I will concentrate on the lack of employment for young people leaving care. They are especially vulnerable because of their poor start in life. They are heavily overrepresented in the NEETs group; a third of 19 year-olds leaving care are NEETs. One sees the consequences too easily. Half of the juvenile prison population have had care experience, as have a quarter of the adult prison population, while one in seven rough sleepers have care experience. The best chance to protect these young people from such poor outcomes and help them into the job market is to give them an excellent experience while they are in care-to seize the opportunity then to build the resilience that they need.

To concentrate on the most vulnerable group of children in care-young people in children’s homes, who are the neediest 7% of the 60,000 children in local authority care-we could do far better to give them that excellent experience. I highlight these children in part because recent child protection failures for girls, with 187 incidents of suspected prostitution coming from children’s homes in the past 10 months alone, have highlighted the need for reform. Your Lordships may have noted the reports regarding these children on the BBC news and “Newsnight” last night.

There is now an opportunity for the Government to ensure that, in future, young people leaving children’s homes are far more ready for employment or periods of unemployment. For instance, they might institute an independent inquiry into residential care which could look at the professional qualifications of staff and the possibility of emulating the success of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, which is devoted to training staff. They could seek to emulate the success of initiatives in the teaching profession, looking, for instance, at the Training and Development Agency, the National College for School Leadership and the excellent programme Teach First, about which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, spoke. That is now being stretched to Social Work First and could perhaps be applied to residential care.

In social work, the Government could consider copying the College of Social Work and the introduction of chief social workers in each local authority and central government. They might engage with the public in seeking funds and practical help. They might look to the great success of the charity Volunteer Reading Help, which, in partnership with the Evening Standard, raises funds and recruits reading mentors to work with thousands of our vulnerable children in primary schools. Surely many of the public would be moved to volunteer to help children in residential care with their reading. Some businesses might wish to support services for these young people as an expression of their corporate social responsibility. These are all our children.

The single greatest concern about children’s homes is the mismatch between the qualifications of the staff and the needs of the children. In England, we require staff to have a level-3 NVQ in childcare and a manager to have a level-4 NVQ. They are roughly equivalent to an A-level and the first year of a degree, respectively. On the continent, the norm is a bachelor of arts degree, yet as residential care is far more widely used there, the needs of their children-a mixed group-are far lower. Therefore, we have a perfect storm, with often poorly qualified staff caring for very needy, often very challenging, children.

A project that brought German residential childcare workers to work in children’s homes here was undertaken. Professor Claire Cameron evaluated this work and commented that the German social pedagogues, “were also rather taken aback by the role of the residential worker in England. They – the pedagogues “had a range of professional qualifications, the majority of them graduates, and some were also equipped to be employed as social workers in their own country, or to work with other user groups as well in a range of other responsible roles. In contrast, in children’s residential care their English equivalents have low status and little influence. Their professional input is marginalised and they lack autonomy. They usually refer on to experts rather than take control of issues themselves”.

She went on: “Our child care system is over-bureaucratic and risk-averse. History and policy have created this set of circumstances or not altered them. It is unsurprising that our continental visitors often felt bemused and deskilled”.

The author Paul Connolly grew up in a children’s home. He learnt to read and write in his 20s, and went on to found a successful business and to publish his best-selling autobiography, Against All Odds. When asked the secret of his success, when so many of his peers had died young, he said that he had always sought to surround himself with successful people. For him, the route out of an abusive children’s home environment was a local boxing club and the men there who took an interest in him and encouraged him to become a boxer. Mr Connolly has written to the Children’s Minister, saying:
“I attribute my success to the people who positively influenced me, and my avoidance of negative influences. My experience was that as soon as I left the care system I cut all ties with everyone that was connected, and I surrounded myself with people I could aspire to … It is so important that these vulnerable children can aspire to somebody that has achieved in life and presents a positive role model”.

There are many fine examples of good practice in residential care, and most of those who work there sincerely give their best efforts for these children. However, government action is needed if a consistent high-quality standard of care is to be offered to these young people, and if they are to develop the resilience to succeed in what is now-and will continue to be for several years, as noble Lords have said-a challenging employment market. For many young people, the best placement is in a high-quality children’s home. We need a strategy for this sector to prevent further drifting downwards. I look forward to the Minister’s reply; he may wish to write to me.

The Earl of Listowel

June 2012

The Budget March 2012

The Earl of Listowel commented thus:

My Lords, I shall address the issue of childcare and related issues. Professor Melhuish, in his presentation to the OECD in 2011, highlighted that China had invested more than any other nation as a percentage of its GDP in childcare in the past 15 years. The PISA organisation, which looks across the globe at educational performance, finds a very close connection between good-quality early years care and long-term educational outcomes. Although, in the past, Finland has been at the top of the PISA tables for numeracy, literacy and science, Shanghai is now at the top of those tables of achievement.

I thank the Minister for introducing the debate. I am grateful to him for reminding us of the investment by GlaxoSmithKline in Cumbria, and in the creation of jobs. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, also mentioned that. A number of other companies are also investing in this country and that is very good news. I noted what the Minister said about our infrastructure plans and the emerging economic giants, such as China. I shall return to that subject. I also noted what the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, said about credit for small and medium-sized businesses. That is a recurring theme whenever I speak to owners of smaller and medium-sized enterprises. I welcome what the Government are doing in this direction although I wonder whether they might not go further still. I particularly welcome what might be seen as a small thing – the 5 per cent rise, or 37p increase, in the cost of a packet of cigarettes. Cigarettes are the bane of the nation’s health and that increase should be highlighted.

I am sure that all noble Lords are very concerned about the exceedingly high rate of youth unemployment, which stands at more than 1 million. I hope that the Minister will say something about the long or medium-term forecast on youth employment and that he will be able to offer some encouragement in that regard.

As I am a trustee of a child welfare organisation, the Michael Sieff Foundation, I would like to address three key points: childcare, strong family attachments and getting the professionals in place who can support families to be strong. I have already mentioned the importance of childcare. Recently, however, when speaking with Save the Children, I was reminded that the United Kingdom is among the three most expensive nations for childcare. Although I welcome the steps which this and the previous Government have taken to make childcare much more widely available, its provision is still very expensive. I hope that we might move towards the situation in many other nations where childcare is as freely available as school and health provision. If we want to compete in the future, we need to have easy access to good-quality childcare.

The noble Lord has referred to investing in the physical infrastructure, in roads, in universities and in academic research. I would like to say something about investing in the social infrastructure. If we want young educated people who do well, we have to acknowledge the importance of schools. It was interesting to listen to the comments this week of the Chief Inspector of Schools about the importance of school leadership and excellent teachers. In his view, we have the best cadre of new teachers, which is wonderful news. We are grateful to the previous Government as well as to the current one for their commitment to teachers and to education.

Academics say, however, that schools can make only a 10 or 20 per cent difference to the educational outcome for children, and that the biggest difference is determined by what happens at home. The principal indicator of whether a child will succeed in education is how successful their parents were in education. So we need to support families better. If a family experiences domestic violence in the home, if the parents are alcoholic, or if they are simply at loggerheads all the time, even the most enthusiastic and able teacher will find it difficult to get the child in that family to concentrate and do well in school.

We have a real issue with so many young men growing up without contact with their fathers. That issue again came to the surface in a recent report from the Children’s Commissioner on school exclusions. This report highlighted the large number of Afro-Caribbean boys being excluded from schools. A documentary that I saw a few years ago about a young Caribbean boy in a children’s home reminded me of the greater number of Afro-Caribbean boys in local authority care. We saw this boy at Christmas and on his birthday. His father had told him that he would visit but never turned up. The educational and life outcomes of so many young men are being seriously diminished because they do not have a father or steady male role model who will take a continuing interest in their education, and support and encourage them. I only have to think back to my own father to recognise how important he was to me and to my education. We must address this as a nation if we are to be as productive as we can be in future.

To do that, we need the right professionals in place. I spoke of the welcome recruitment of excellent teachers to the profession. The previous and present Governments have done good work with health visitors, and with child and family social workers. It was very encouraging to hear from Tim Loughton MP, the Minister in the Department for Education responsible for child protection. He took the trouble to spend a month last year in a social services department, shadowing social workers. He has a long-standing commitment to raising the status of social work. The Government, under David Willetts and Michael Gove, have raised the threshold of entry to social work. Many agree that the new generation of social workers is of the best quality that has been seen for a very long time. This is extremely good news.

We need to invest in these people. If we invest in accountants and lawyers, we pay the best money for the best people because our capital investment is so important. We need to take the same view with vulnerable children and families. If we fail them and they grow up without an education, dependent on the state and entering the criminal justice system, there will be huge costs to us. We have an ageing population and we need to make the most of every young person in the country. We cannot afford to depend on immigrant labour. Many other nations are competing for it. We must make the best of the resources available to us.

I am very grateful for the work of the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He has worked for a long time with the Centre for Social Justice, which he set up to look at what he called broken Britain, and the families that are not functioning as they need to, and to support early intervention. It was encouraging last week to hear about his social justice strategy, and the mooting of an early intervention foundation funded by business to intervene early and effectively with families. The Labour MP for Nottingham North, Graham Allen, has worked with Iain Duncan Smith on these important developments.

I mentioned the costs of failing to intervene early, so I will wind up. We are of course in a terrible recession. Difficult decisions have been made about cuts, particularly to local authority budgets. Authorities have had to make tough choices and have chosen in particular to cut funding to charities that support families. One hears that many charities that supported struggling families are no longer there to do so. As soon as we can, we should start reinvesting in supporting those vulnerable families. We need to recruit social workers who will develop a network of foster carers, because they depend for support on good-quality social workers. We need teachers and early-years workers. In general, we need to think about the familial infrastructure of the country as well as the concrete infrastructure if we are to compete in future with countries such as China. We must think about how to make good-quality childcare more affordable and available. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

The Earl of Listowel

March 2012