One cold evening a couple of years ago I went to hear Tim Loughton, the former Children’s Minister shuffled out of the pack yesterday, speak at a meeting of the All Party parliamentary group for children in care. We queued to the sound of shrill chanting and ominous bullhorns. The Comprehensive Spending Review was being debated in the House, the first indication of the true extent of the government’s spending cuts and Whitehall was closed to traffic as a protest rally gathered.
Accompanied by two young women in foster care, we dawdled through Westminster Hall and the corridors of power. It’s a privilege to be so close to government, never to be rushed. As we hung around in the lobby, the division bell sounded. Members appeared from all sides and dashed into the Commons chamber. They left the door open for a while so we could peer around the corner to see democracy in action.
Given the significance of the evening’s events he could have easily been excused but to his great credit, Loughton appeared as scheduled to address the packed committee room full of young people from all over the country. His speech was a characteristically robust endorsement of the value of foster care and the rights of children and young people in care to the same opportunities as their peers.
With the eloquence of experience, a succession of young people politely but firmly pointed out the flaws in his argument. You say education is important for children in care but you’ve just voted to do away with educational maintenance, the money that supports us. You say jobs are important but unemployment for young people is rising. You say we all deserve good foster carers but there’s a chronic shortage of resources to recruit them. Thanks for coming, though.
And that’s Tim Loughton in a nutshell. Unfashionably sticking up for children and young people in care and defending the social work profession whilst simultaneously his Cabinet eviscerated the resources he claimed were in place to support them.
That night Loughton bobbed and weaved with the skill of an experienced politician, riding out the storm without properly satisfying anyone in his responses. Most ministers would have ducked out: he was there because he wanted to stay. Loughton is no placeholder or careerist. Shadow Children’s Minister for several years before coming to power, this is the portfolio he sought and prepared for.
The former minister is extremely well-informed about fostering, adoption and children in care. Unusually his main source was the people involved rather than his civil servants. Over an extended period he’s taken the time to understand the sector by making himself available to children, young people and carers. He created a telephone hotline, “Tell Tim”, and met regularly with organisations representing young people and carers, offering an unprecedented degree of accessibility. Last night on twitter they lined up to thank him and praise his commitment. For a group who voice is seldom heard, his willingness to listen meant an awful lot.
One of the things children and young people in care told him was that they were fed up with needing to get permission from social workers for school trips, holidays, activities and sleepovers with friends. You couldn’t mark them out as more different from their peers if you felt-tipped a red cross on their foreheads. A group of young people confronted him on television about this. Loughton shifted uneasily under the pressure, yet he delivered on his promise to respond. His first act as a minister was to write to local authorities to remind them that they had the power to give foster carers discretion on these matters. I showed a copy to one of the young women who appeared in the programme – “You did this,” I said. Now it’s enshrined in the revised Fostering Standards. The fact authorities have still not got the message is not his fault.
It’s not all so positive. He defends social work yet I’ve heard him dismiss the content and nature of assessments with the sarcastic panache of a Daily Mail leader writer. His promised fostering action plan is still to materialise. Hearing him several times subsequently, I continued to admire his grasp of the fostering task whilst growing weary of disingenuous references to the deficiencies of authorities he knew full well were tottering under the burden of his government’s cuts.
Ultimately his departure may say less about the man and more about the government’s perception of the sector. The adoption agenda has been dominated by Gove and Cameron. Martin Narey joined the chorus of praise and regret but in terms of policy creation made him largely redundant.
They have seized the big issues, relating it to other props of Tory policy around the family and budgets cuts. In this world, an understanding of the details, of the everyday problems facing children, carers and social workers, gets in the way. The struggles with resources, with finding the right placement, with whether a child can stay with her friend this weekend, have little significance. More than this, they may actually obstruct the agenda for change because they don’t fit together with policy as neatly as the Department may wish.
Yet these are the issues that make life better for children and young people in care. For children and carers alike, nothing is more important. Gove’s distance from this awkward day-to-day reality leads to dogmatic policy. It leaves you to wonder if there is ever a place for any minister who thoroughly masters not his brief but an understanding of the people affected by it. It’s hard to understand social work. Loughton did, but in the end all it got him was the sack.