27 Nov 2008

Looked-after children : Speech in the Scottish Parliament 20 November 2008

I join Robert Brown and others in praising the work that social workers do, often in difficult circumstances.
Ian McKee is right to talk about the complexities of their work and the difficult decisions that they make.
Often, we do not dwell on the good, correct decisions that are made, because we take them for granted, but tragically we have to confront the wrong and bad decisions that are made, and that is often done only with the benefit of hindsight.
Having been friendly with many social workers for many years, I know how difficult decisions can be, and I know the dilemmas that they face and the pressures under which they work.
No one should underestimate the work that social workers do or the complexity of the decisions that they make.
We can agree about much of what has been said in the debate.
I agree with Adam Ingram when he says that what we have is a national disgrace.
He is right—the judgment is damning, and not just for the current Administration.
The same applies to previous Administrations, including the one of which I was a part.
Collectively, we have failed looked-after children over many years, and local authorities, collectively and individually, have also done so.
Sometimes, we get into the trivia of wanting instant responses to everything, but we cannot make simple judgments about many children, given their complex lifestyles.
As has been said, we want to avoid taking some children into care.
Instead, we should do whatever we can to keep them with their family.
However, as recent reports have shown, some children need to be removed from their family for their own sake and their own protection.
Richard Simpson is right to point out the complexities that drugs and alcohol bring to the equation.
As the Minister for Children and Early Years said, we can undoubtedly point to some successes.
Some children have gone on to lead hugely productive and rewarding lives, but I wonder how much of that we can put down to the system and how much of it is to do with the individual and what they have achieved despite everything that they have had to confront.
In passing, however, like Richard Simpson, I note that the families with which they are placed make an enormous and beneficial contribution to their development. We should thank those families for that.
On the one hand, the debate is encouraging, because of the consensus and shared values that we have, but on the other it is profoundly depressing.
I suggest that we all—including me—have a degree of complacency on the issue.
I address the following words in particular to the minister.
I worry that complacency can turn to negligence if we are not careful. In effect, we are neglecting looked-after children. Offering warm words, as we have all done this morning, is complacent. We need much more than warm words.
Ian McKee said that we do not want to get into a squabble about budgets, but if social workers are not properly resourced at the local level, they are unable to make the decisions that children need.
As politicians, we cannot turn away from that.
We are guilty if we simply exhort social workers to take on better practice and say, "It doesn't matter about the budgets. We're not going to squabble about that."
We need to confront that.
We need to take action.
Whether ministers and the Scottish Parliament should take action through legislation or just through policy development is a matter for debate, but action is needed.
I ask the minister to consider the results of previous work and reports.
If he cannot do so in today's debate, I ask him to respond to me in writing.
One reason why I am depressed about the situation is because, when I look back to the words that Peter Peacock and I said as ministers, and compare them with what Adam Ingram is saying, I find that we are not moving forward.
In 2007, I said:
"Too many of our most vulnerable young people are not fulfilling their potential ... This is a problem that needs care and attention from everyone ... We must increase the possibilities".
We can go on with the warm words, but what has happened—

The Minister for Schools and Skills (Maureen Watt): Will the member take an intervention?

Hugh Henry: Can I just finish, minister?
There is a specific point that I want to make.
What happened to the commitment, which was made publicly on behalf of us all, that the Scottish Cabinet would get regular reports?
How many times since 2007 has the Cabinet been given a report on how looked-after children perform at school?
What has the national champion that was suggested been doing, if indeed they have been doing anything?
What have we done specifically to remind councils of their role and responsibilities as corporate parents?
What have we done to improve training for teachers and other professionals, as we committed to do?
Can the minister give me details of the guidance that key workers have been given on their role in supporting young people?
It is all very well to say that we want councils such as Inverclyde Council to be emulated—every council should have a champion—but we need not an exhortation but an insistence that that happens.
Indeed, we should set an example by having a Cabinet of champions.
Not just the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning—who, unfortunately, is not here—but every member of the Cabinet should be responsible for making sure that a certain number of authorities do their job.
If we do not give a lead, how can we expect others to follow?
As Adam Ingram said, the issue is a national disgrace.
It has gone on too long, and we are all part of it.
We need to finish with the warm words and commit ourselves to effective action.