The education secretary has said he “will not rule out” legislative changes to The Children Act following the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.
Nadhim Zahawi told ministers: “No government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil, but we will take action wherever we can to stop this happening again, because we must do more.”
Responding to a question from David Simmonds MP following a statement to Parliament about the death of Arthur, Mr Zahawi added: “I will not rule out legislative changes if we need to make them.”
Addressing MPs, he said: “The whole nation is distraught at Arthur’s tragic and horrific death. Across the House and across the country, we find it impossible to imagine how any adult could commit such evil acts against a child, particularly a parent or carer to whom the child looks for love and protection. I know colleagues and people outside this place are seriously troubled that Arthur was subjected to a campaign of appalling cruelty, and was murdered after concerns had been raised with local services.
“I assure colleagues on both sides of the House and the public that I am as determined as they are to get to the truth, to expose what went wrong and to take any action necessary to protect children. To do so, serious questions need to be asked,” added Mr Zahawi.
The education secretary made it clear that social workers, police officers, teachers, health workers and others go to work each day “to try to make things better and to do their best at what are very difficult jobs”.
“Those already serving our country’s most vulnerable children deserve our thanks, and I want to be extremely clear that no safeguarding professional should be the victim of abuse. The targeting of individuals is wrong and helps nobody, but that does not mean we should not seek to understand what went wrong and how we can stop it happening again,” he added.
This is one of the reasons WillisPalmer launched the #Respect4SocialWork campaign earlier this year. All too often the life-changing work that social workers carry out on a daily basis goes unrecognised and it is only where there are tragic cases such as the death of Arthur that social workers and thrust into the spotlight.
Mr Zahawi said: “When I was children and families Minister, I was the champion of social workers, and I will continue to be the champion of social workers as Secretary of State.”
A major review into the circumstances leading up to Arthur’s death in June 2020 following a catalogue of abuse at the hands of his father Thomas Hughes and his step-mother Emma Tustin has already been announced by the government.
The independent, national review led by the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel will identify the lessons that must be learnt from Arthur’s case for the benefit of other children elsewhere in England.
A Joint Targeted Area Inspection In addition, four inspectorates, covering social care, health, police and probation have been commissioned to undertake an urgent inspection of the safeguarding agencies in Solihull to whom Arthur was known.
Alongside this, the independent care review into children’s social care chaired by Josh MacAlister is currently underway and Mr Zahawi said it is likely the review will make recommendations on what a decisive child protection response needs to look like, given that that sits at the core of the system.
Mr Zahawi told ministers that the public deserve to know why things went horrifyingly wrong in Arthur’s case and what more could be done to prevent abuse such as this from happening again.
“Since the horrendous deaths of Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka and, sadly, others, the government have established stronger multi-agency working, putting a shared and equal duty on police, councils and health in local areas to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, alongside a role for schools. improvements have been made from previous reviews, but the question now is whether that is enough,” he said.
“As we uncover what went wrong and what led to Arthur’s tragic death, we must also strengthen our resolve to make sure that we prevent these crimes as much as they possibly can be prevented. We must make sure that those who would do wicked acts to children face justice. We must do absolutely everything in our power to protect vulnerable young children from harrowing and evil abuse,” he added.
Dian Abbot asked Mr Zahawi whether, if it emerged from the independent review into children’s social care and the government review into Arthur’s death that there were insufficient social workers and too much pressure on the social work profession, would he put forward a case for more resources for funding social workers.
Mr Zahawi responded that there had been a 10% rise in the number of social workers since 2017, however, “whatever the reviews recommend—including of course the McAlister review—that is exactly the thing that we will look to implement,” he added.
Munira Wilson went on to ask the education secretary whether the resources would be made available to increase the social work workforce given there is a high turnover of staff, a 7.5% vacancy rate and a quarter of the workforce is due for retirement in the next 10 years.
Mr Zahawi responded that there had been two successful schemes Frontline and Step up to Social Work, but that he hoped that the MacAlister review will make some operational recommendations on that.
Laura Trott MP asked Mr Zahawi whether, given there was in an influx of referrals to children’s social care and children being taken into care, would he back an increase in resources for social workers in the near term to handle that increase in referrals, and get the message to social workers that a balance needs to be struck between taking children away from their parents and making sure that they are safe.
The education secretary said Ms Trott is absolutely right about how social workers identify support networks for children, adding “of course, if there is a scintilla of doubt in terms of any harm being caused to a child, they absolutely should be taken away”.
“She also makes an important point about learning from previous cases and the additional work that will now be placed on the social work frontline. We are cognisant of that, and I know that the minister for children and families is looking at how we can continue to support the frontline,” he added.
Responding to further questions, Mr Zahawi said better outcomes should be delivered and that is why the MacAlister review was commissioned. “I am confident that the review will deliver recommendations that I hope we can be ambitious about and deliver rapidly.”
“My hon. Friend is also right that we cannot continue to have review after review. We have to learn from them and operationally implement the recommendations. I am passionate that, in complex systems, we must have thorough investigations, because that is how they are improved and made failsafe for those they protect,” he concluded.