Today, Charles Clarke sets out the government's plans for far-reaching reform of the social care system. The review which led to these changes was begun after the tragic death of Victoria Climbie; and one of our key proposals is for a Children's Commissioner for England, to ensure much better oversight of local children's services and more effective complaints procedures.
The appointment of a Children's Commissioner is important. But it is only one element in a comprehensive programme of change we are putting in place - in this Green Paper, and in other measures going back to 1997 - to address the needs of disadvantaged children. It has to be seen alongside:
* The Sure Start programme to help families in poor neighbourhoods, now operating in more than 500 places in Britain
* The extra child benefit, the Children's Tax Credit and the Working Families Tax Credit, which have substantially raised the real income of less affluent parents, especially those in low paid work.
* Our commitment to give every child born after September 2002 a nest egg of their own, with more money for poorer children.
* The extension of universally available nursery provision for three and four year olds, and the creation of close to 650,000 childcare places for over a million children.
Together this programme for Britain's children may not hit the headlines or even yield big results in its early days. But over time it will transform the life prospects of many of Britain's most disadvantaged children and their parents. When that happens the benefits in greater responsibility, lower crime and expanded opportunity will be evident for everyone - better-off and worse-off alike.
As a result of our reforms since 1997, families with children are on average ??1,200 a year better off, while those in the poorest fifth of the population are on average ??2,500 a year better off in real terms. And we have taken over half a million children out of poverty.
Turning to the Green Paper, it sets out plans for the most far-reaching reform of children's services for 30 years, founded on the principle of the equal worth of each child.
Our goals are summed up in three words. Security. Opportunity. Responsibility.
The failure of the existing system to keep all children secure was tragically illustrated in the failures to protect Victoria Climbie, which follows other such tragedies in recent years. Child protection must therefore be our top priority.
But our ambitions have to go broader. There are 55,000 children who, because of abuse and neglect, have been taken into foster or residential care. It is not enough to keep children safe. They need to make the best of their lives, with opportunities to enable them to do so. At present, there is chronic failure in this area. Six out of ten children in care leave school with no qualifications whatever - failing to achieve even the most basic educational standard necessary to succeed in life.
But there must also be responsibility. A small proportion of children and young people cause misery in their neighbourhoods, corroding their communities, with seemingly no check on their activities and no sense of redress on the part of those who suffer. We need to develop the respect and responsibility on which any cohesive society is founded.
We now need bold reform enabling every child to reach their potential. Too many children do not enjoy the safety most take for granted. For too many children, circumstances rather than effort shape they destiny. Too many children enter patterns of behaviour that harm them and their communities.
The Green paper sets out a range of practical measure to continue the shift towards prevention:
Families are central to the lives of the vast majority of children at risk. Government should not influence the way parents choose to bring up their children - it is a very private choice - but no one can argue against the basics. Children need a supportive, loving environment in which they can grow, and young people need guidance, role models and clear boundaries to enable them to develop into adults. Evidence shows time and time again that where these factors are not present in the home, the child is at risk of failure. I know as a parent just how hard it is to raise children today.
We need to ensure that where parents need support, it is there for them. That's why I can announce today that we will bring forward proposals to roll out Home Start which current provides home visitors for one in 50 children in the areas it serves. This will be rolled out nationally to provide more support for parents in need. We also need to go further to ensure children who cannot live with their birth family get the stability, and nurturing needed to thrive. We want to develop a new measures to recruit, retain and value foster carers, including increased rewards for foster carers who develop specialist skills to support the most vulnerable, extending rights to parental leave to foster carers and adoptive parents, and incentives to encourage experience foster carers to mentor new ones.
The number one concern for many children, families and communities is the lack of things to do. Every young person should have the opportunities to enagage in sport, cultural and other recreational activities that are too often restricted to the well off. It is a crucial part of growing up. But it also allows young people to discover creative skills and talents that lie undiscovered.
This area remains under served, by both local and national government. We are turning the tide by increasing our provision within schools through school sport partnerships and the arts programme, Creative Partnerships. But in addition, to stimulate the innovation within the voluntary sector as well as within schools and local authority youth services, we are creating a new Young People' Fund.
It will be a long term funding stream of the new lottery distributor, kickstarted with a ??200m contribution from NOF. The Young People's Fund will give financial assistance to providing the kind of activities that young people want, and public funding has too often ignored.
We are also placing schools and child care at the heart of communities - providing on the spot support to respond to problems quickly. Our aim is to create 800 new children's centres, one in every disadvantaged neighbourhood. Some will be part of schools. Others will be newly built centres. These will bring together early years education, parenting and family support, and health - high quality services located together in one place. We will also create full services schools in every local authority - schools like this that provide breakfast and after-school clubs, but also have childcare, health and social care support on site.
Some children will always require more intensive support. But too often children are known to several agencies but nobody picks up on the warning signs. Victoria Climbie's life could have been saved on 12 occasions, but on each occasion the professionals did not have a proper case history of who Victoria had been in contact with.
Today we are setting out plans to ensure that every locality has a list of all the children in their area - with the details on which professional the child has had contact with, and who is the lead professional in charge of the case. Accountability has to be clear at all levels, from top to bottom
For children who become involved in crime and anti-social behaviour, we will continue our youth justice reforms with the introduction of intensive fostering for the under-10s, a simplified menu of community sentences for juveniles, and rolling out the toughest community penalty (ISSP), with greater use of electronic tagging.
But the message from the Victoria Climbie Inquiry, and elsewhere, is that we need fundamental reforms to address the barriers that prevent the things we know to work from being implemented. Too often children suffer because information is not shared. Children are dumped across agencies. Children assessed over and again. Lots of professionals involved but no one provide continuity and stability to build up trust. Lots of agencies spend a little, but badly.
To do better with the people and resources we have, we need institutional reform as well as new initiatives. In particular we need to address three problems - problems that do not just affect child protection, but children's lives more widely: 1) lack of accountability with nobody clearly in charge of coordinating resources and professionals. 2) Poor integration with children falling between the cracks of services. And 3) workforce problems in terms of recruitment, retention, skills and leadership.
At local level we would like to see steady progress towards the creation of children's trusts in each local authority joining up services for those most at risk. Currently access to key services in many areas is confused and needs to be streamlined. Children's trusts will bring together social services, education departments, and for the first time commissioning of health services for children under one umbrella. We expect too see most areas to create Children's Trusts by 2006. This will help to ensure that in future no child slips through the net, breaking down professional demarcations at local level. We will also legislate to create a children's services director in each local area - one person, locally, with the power and the responsibility to improve the life chances of those most at risk. This will give local government a real grip on the challenges posed by the most disadvantaged, and will ensure that one person carries the can where things go wrong - the buck stops here.
We will also create a statutory duty on all local authorities, NHS bodies, the police service and other relevant agencies to safeguard children and work together through local safeguarding children boards.
Nationally, following the changes we made in June, we now have a central structure which mirrors these local changes - we have appointed the first dedicated Children's Minister, bringing together policy on children's social services, family policy, CAFCASS and youth services in one place to ensure there is a voice for children at the heart of government. I know that Margaret will want to work with many of you to ensure that these key local changes really deliver for children.
We will also set out clear practice standards for what each agency should do in relation to child protection. We will put a statutory duty on the local authorities, policy and NHS to make child protection a priority and form local safeguarding children boards. We will create a new integrated inspection framework for children, led by OFSTED. For the first time, we will judge services against how they work together for children - each locality will be scored against how well it serves children. Every agency will make child protection a priority - but there will be someone in overall charge of ensuring these services work together.
To further enhance this tougher accountability, we will appoint a Children's Commissioner for England. The Commissioner will represent the views of children and young people to Government, engage with others such as business and the media whose decisions and actions affect children's lives, and will have a key role in ensuring that children have quick and easy access to complaints procedures when things do go wrong. The Commissioner will have a role in investigating individual cases of concern following agreement with the Secretary of State. And the independence of the office will be enshrined in a duty to report annually to Parliament.
Revitalisation of the social care workforce for children will be critical to our mission. The vast majority of social workers do a wonderful job. But as many of you will attest, it can be a very difficult job working with some of the hardest to help families day in, day out. And I'm afraid it can also at times seem a very thankless task. With vacancy rates standing as high as 40% in some inner city boroughs is it any wonder that staff become demoralised and social services departments can end up failing the very children and families they are trying to help? Today, I can announce that we will create a new Sector Skills Council for children's workers - an organization dedicated to creating a world class workforce to support our children. We will introduce a graduated career ladder to improve childcare worker recruitment and enable career progression, and the new career framework will also look at pay. We will create new fast track work based entry route to attract graduates into children's social work. We will also develop a leadership programme to support the first generation of Children's Directors. Radical reform of this nature is never easy, but in this area more than many the rewards of success - happy young adults able to live fulfilled and useful lives - and the costs of failure - more tragic cases, more juvenile crime, further waste of potential - justify the challenge.
In truth, nothing can ever guarantee that no child will be at risk of abuse and violence within their own family. What we want is to see the people, practices and policies in place that make the risk as small as humanly possible.
All our children should have the chance of a proper start in life. Underpinning this must be not just resources but a change of attitudes that reflects that value that society places on children and childhood. Children embody our future - the future of our society, our communities, our own families. We want to transform the life-chances of this generation, allowing all our children the opportunity to fulfil their talents. This Green Paper marks a significant step towards that goal.