State Pension Age (Women): Children in Care

I thank
the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and my hon. Friend
the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate. My hon. Friend speaks from more direct and personal experience than any of us would like to have. Nobody could have a higher opinion of and greater respect for social workers and child protection officers than I do. At the time I was born, my mother was running a local authority children’s home in central Birmingham, so the first years of my life were spent living in that home. Even at that age, I was able to see daily the dedication, care, commitment and love shown by the workers in that children’s home, but I also know that even the most compassionate and dedicated social worker cannot possibly replace the care and love of a family. That is why we must do everything we can, where possible—where there is no threat of abuse or serious neglect—to help keep families together.

It seems that the pendulum has swung too far towards an assumption that where any kinds of concern are raised, one option on the table is to take a child into care. We desperately need to address that. Nobody would argue against removing a child from an environment where it is at risk of abuse or serious neglect, but in too many of the cases we see at our surgeries that is simply not the assessment that is being made.

Shortly before Christmas, I came across a constituency case which appeared to me, having read the magistrate’s report, to be based primarily on a chaotic lifestyle in an untidy house. Those issues clearly need addressing, but they were not serious threats to the welfare of the children or certainly to their safety. If more support could be put in place to help with those issues, it must be better for the families, particularly for the children, and much more economic for local authorities and for the Government.

One aspect of the care system that has not yet been referred to is how we approach the mental health of parents. A lot of extremely valuable work has been done by a number of Members, particularly
the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend
the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), in establishing the principle of parity of esteem between physical and mental health. However, that approach is simply not being taken where the care system and assessments about taking children into care are concerned. Children are being taken into care when parents are suffering from mental illnesses, whether that relates to depression or other mental health issues.

Yesterday, a former Labour councillor in my constituency wrote to me to highlight a case that she had been involved with in the past. It concerned a mother of three young children who had nursed her husband through the advanced stages of cancer. Sadly her husband did pass away, the mother struggled to cope, as many of us would, and the three children were taken into care. Rather than making sure that the mother received the support she needed to look after the children or to find a temporary solution, the children were taken into care. The mother therefore lost not only her husband but her children, and not only did the three children lose their father, but in a short period of time they were taken away from their mother. They were put into care out of borough, so they were at a different school and they had, in effect, lost their friends, too. This really matters because, as has been said, on any metric we can measure, the outcomes for children in care are significantly worse than they are for the population as a whole. That applies in respect of employment, housing, the criminal justice system and educational achievement, and it has to be because of the thing we cannot measure: the enormous psychological and emotional impact of taking children away from their families. The safety and welfare of children must come first, but I do not think that always applies—