I have published today Francis Plowden’s independent review of court fees in care and supervision proceedings. In May 2009, in response to a recommendation made by Lord Laming in “The Protection of Children in England: a Progress Report”, I asked Mr. Plowden to undertake a review to determine whether or not there was incontrovertible evidence that fees were a deterrent to a local authority when they decided whether or not to commence care proceedings. As part of the review, Mr. Plowden considered how budgets were allocated and managed within any local authority area, including how, and by whom, decisions regarding issuing care proceedings were made. Francis Plowden has presented me with a comprehensive and considered report and I am grateful to him for his work. He believes that, at the margins, resource issues, including fees, can play a part in determining when care proceedings are initiated, but concludes that it is unlikely that children have been knowingly left at unavoidable risk by local authorities. He therefore recommends that these fees should be abolished.
The fees for care and supervision proceedings by local authorities were increased in May 2008 from £150 to up to £4,825. To facilitate this, approximately £40 million was transferred from my Department’s budget to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and to the Welsh Assembly Government, for onward apportionment to local authorities in England and Wales so that the fee increase would be cost neutral for local authorities.
Francis Plowden commented that there was a sharp fall in the number of applications during spring and autumn 2008, which caused speculation that the increased fees might have been the cause. However, he believes that the introduction of the public law outline in April 2008 is more likely to have been responsible for the temporary reduction in application volumes as local authorities familiarised themselves with the new court procedures and carried out the work required. In any event, application levels have since risen and the latest data shows that this has been sustained with no indications of a return to pre-November 2008 average volumes.
At the outset of the current comprehensive spending review period, the Government responded to requests from local authorities by making an unequivocal commitment to ensuring that local authorities had a stable financial settlement for the duration of that period and that there would be no amendments made to their settlement other than in exceptional circumstances. Lord Laming acknowledged this in his report, commenting that in the event that an independent review recommended abolition of these fees, the appropriate transfers would need to be made back to my Department to enable implementation of such a recommendation.
In such circumstances, and following further consideration of Francis Plowden’s report with particular regard to the safety of children, I have agreed that the circumstances surrounding the recommendation to abolish court fees are not of sufficient exception to justify breaking the Government’s commitment to giving local authorities financial stability. I have also considered the fact that funding to cover the cost of the fees has been transferred to local authorities up to and including March 2011.
I therefore intend to abolish court fees for care and supervision cases with effect from the next spending review period beginning April 2011. Appropriate adjustments to local authorities’ funding will be made at that stage.
The safety and welfare of children is, and always must be, our priority. My decision today means that local authorities can now be certain that they have the £40 million funding for the next financial year to pay for the court proceedings necessary to keep children from harm.
I have placed copies of Francis Plowden’s report in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.