Dobson pledge to children in care

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FRANK DOBSON, the Secretary of State for Health, yesterday announced sweeping changes for looking after children in care, admitting that "the whole system has failed" and "there can be no more excuses".

A new Criminal Records Agency to stop potential abusers working with children will be set up and a pounds 375m grant for children's services over the next three years are among the main points of the overhaul of children's services.

Tightening regulations for foster care, boarding schools and small children's homes are also included in the task force's recommendations. A new national group representing the voices of children in care will also be set up.

Mr Dobson told the Commons that he would look again at the idea of a children's commissioner, particularly to ensure that those who abuse children are not able to move around the country and work with young people again.

He said: "We owe it to ... all the children in care to root out and punish the wrongdoers and to put in place a system which really cares for children in care. Vulnerable children are the responsibility of us all. In the past the whole system failed. We intend to make sure that in future the whole system delivers."

The ministerial task force, which ranged across 10 departments, was set up in response to the inquiry carried out by Sir William Utting into children in care. Sir William, who published his report a year ago, said his inquiry "seemed at times a crash-course in human ... wickedness and the fallibility of social institutions".

His work was as a result of continuing revelations of widespread abuse in children's homes, stretching back 20 years.

The outlook for children who spend time in care is grim. Research has shown that 75 per cent of children leaving care have no academic qualifications. More than half are unemployed, and 38 per cent of young prisoners have been in care. One in seven girls was pregnant on leaving care aged 16 or 17.

To stop potential abusers from working with children, Mr Dobson announced the setting up of the new Criminal Records Agency, which hedescribed as "the first step to a one-stop shop". It will give employers access to police records and separate lists from the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health.

The Children's Services Special Grant of pounds 375m will support the Quality Protects Programme launched in September, which aims to set clear objectives and targets putting action plans in place.

Councils will also have a duty to children in care up to the age of 18 rather than 16 as at present. A further pounds 450,000 will be spent on establishing a national body so children in care, or those formerly in care, can voice complaints and concerns.

The proposals also include more effective regulation of children's homes and residential schools. A code of practice and a set of national standards will be adopted for foster care, along with recruitment campaigns to attract more foster carers.

Local authorities are also to work to improve the educational record of children in care. In some authorities as few as 25 per cent of children leave care with one GCSE or GNVQ. The Government says the proportion must be raised to 50 per cent by 2001 and 75 per cent by 2003. Mr Dobson also announced that about pounds 51m is to be spent over the next three years funding reforms of the Prison Service.

Campaigners against child abuse last night welcomed the reforms. Mike Taylor, of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, praised the Government's commitment to looking after children when they leave care at 16.

The main Points

A new Criminal Records Agency to improve access to checks on people intending to work with children.

A new Children's Special Services Grant totalling pounds 375m to support the Quality Protects Programme.

Extending the council's duty of care from16 to 18.

Giving pounds 450,000 over three years to establish a new group to provide a national voice for children in care.

Tighter regulation of children's and residential homes and a Code of Practice to be developed for foster care.

pounds 51m to fund reforms in the prison service so that young people are not held in the same place as adults.

New initiatives to improve school attainment and reducing the number of times children are moved around.