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House of Commons Hansard
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Public Bill Committees
15 December 2016

Children and Social Work Bill [ Lords ] (Third sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Mrs Anne Main, Phil Wilson

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Fellows, Marion (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Fernandes, Suella (Fareham) (Con)

† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)

† Kennedy, Seema (South Ribble) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

† Merriman, Huw (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)

† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)

† Syms, Mr Robert (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Timpson, Edward (Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

† Whately, Helen (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)

Farrah Bhatti, Katy Stout Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 15 December 2016

(Morning)

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Clause 8

Care orders: permanence provisions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. We are all sad that Mr Wilson is not with us today, but we all agree that you are a fantastic and exemplary replacement.

Clause 8 will expand the factors that courts must consider when deciding whether to make a care order in respect of a child, and it will ensure that consideration is given to the impact on a child of any harm they have suffered or may be likely to suffer; the child’s current and future needs, including any needs arising from that impact; and the way in which the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child will meet those needs. Those are all key considerations when courts are deciding whether to place a child in authority care and are considering all the permanence options available.

The family is, of course, the most important building block in a child’s life—every child deserves a loving, stable family—but it is important that we find children who cannot live with their birth parents permanent new homes without unnecessary delay. It is common knowledge that children who enter care are particularly vulnerable, often having experienced abuse, neglect and disruption—experiences that can have a significant detrimental effect. That means such children have additional needs now and later in life, something I know all too well from my own family.

Research confirms that these children need quality care and stability, in particular, in order to secure their future chances in life. However, there is concern that, at present, those factors are not always at the forefront of decision makers’ minds and, consequently, some children may be missing out on placements that would be right for them.

The Department’s review of special guardianship orders in December 2015 found that potentially risky placements were being accepted. For example, in some cases special guardianship orders were being awarded with a supervision order because of reservations about the guardian’s ability to care for the child in the long term. That was never the intention when the Children Act 1989 was introduced, so clause 8 seeks to ensure that courts also consider the individual needs of the child now and in the long term, particularly in light of any abuse or neglect that they have suffered, and assess how well the proposed placement will meet those needs.

By ensuring that information about children’s current and long-term needs is made available when key decisions are taken, we aim to ensure that the best placement option is pursued in every case—in other words, the placement that is most likely to meet a child’s needs throughout their childhood. Those working with children in this area support the clause. Andy Elvin, the chief executive of the Adolescent and Children’s Trust—TACT—the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity, has said:

“All of this is eminently sensible. In practical terms it will raise the evidential bar for all care planning.

The biggest impact, rightly, will be on special guardianship order assessments. The logic of this is that these will have to move to be on a par with fostering assessments. The court is being asked to make a decision that will last not only the child’s minority, but impact the rest of their life.”

Dr Carol Homden, the chief executive of Coram, has said:

“Recent research shows that many people underestimate the significance of harm that all too many children experience before coming into care. Therefore, we particularly welcome that this Bill calls courts and local authorities to focus on the impact of any harm a child has previously suffered and their life-long future needs when making decisions about their care.”

These are clearly important measures that have the strong support of those outside the House.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. The Opposition do not have a problem with the clause. In fact, when I first entered the House three years ago I questioned the Minister on SGOs, so I am pleased that he has now listened. In practice, I would routinely do this in care plans any way, and I think a lot of social workers do. We welcome the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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We believe that clause 9 should be deleted from the Bill, because under its provisions prospective adopters could be prioritised over relatives or other carers. That completely contradicts the Children Act 1989. It could lead to children being prematurely placed with prospective adopters even before the conclusion of court proceedings, in order to build a relationship with prospective adopters that is then used to undermine the child’s prospect of going back to his or her birth family, extended family members or friends, who love the child and have been trying to do their best to keep them in their care.

A premature placement with prospective adopters could prejudge the outcome of legal proceedings, causing unnecessary pain and distress to all concerned. It diminishes a child’s right to a family life, risks the early separation of siblings, and inflicts trauma and grief on children and their primary carer, who more often than not is their mother, as well as on other loving family members, especially grandparents.

The clause is a prime example of the Government’s obsession with adoption to the detriment of all other forms of care. The time and money that the Department has spent on adoption is staggering, with more than 20 policy changes since 2010. Back in 2012, the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said:

“I firmly believe more children should be taken into care more quickly…I want social workers to be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, courts to be less indulgent of poor parents, and the care system to expand to deal with the consequences.”

And Lord Nash said in the other place, in the proceedings on this Bill, that

“the Government are strongly pro-adoption.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 2016; Vol. 773, c. 1114.]

What the Government should be doing is strongly advocating whatever care is right for each and every individual child, and not what they believe is right.

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Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the evidence shows that long-term stability is obviously important, and that part of that includes the option of adopting? It is not just adoption that is being promoted; that is but one string to the bow for the Government’s weaponry, if you like, although “weaponry” is the wrong word. Can she not see that adoption is just one part of the Government’s approach—albeit an important part—and that evidence also supports this approach?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, the clause singles out adoption for special attention; the issue needs to be looked at in the wider context of overall Government policy relating to children in care and plans for permanence.

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The Government probably have the right intention in trying to put the emphasis on the permanence of arrangements for children, but the point my hon. Friend is making about the singling out of adoption is that adoption has a history, which is also negative.

Anyone who has read the book about Philomena Lee’s experience or seen the recent film of it will know how adoption can be misused, and there is a history to adoption in this country that is not always positive. When we consider the issue of adoption, we should always think about the best interests of the child and not risking lapsing back into bad old habits and bad old days, when adoption was misused and abused in this country.

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My hon. Friend is right—adoption should not be the only option for a child. It is lazy to think that. That approach does not take into account all the other options that are there and that are in the best interests of the child.

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To the best of my memory, “Philomena” is a film set in the 1950s in the Republic of Ireland, so it has nothing to do with the Government of the United Kingdom. If the hon. Lady is really suggesting that her opposition to the clause should be based on the adoption policies of the Republic in the 1950s, parents interested in adoption may look rather askance at that.

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I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, I will not dwell on the point, because I think he has missed the context of what we are trying to describe here.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that our concerns are based not on the history of adoption in the 1950s but on the discriminatory application of adoption proceedings, which often means that children from poorer families and certain ethnic groups and cultures are more likely to go through the adoption process more speedily? If the clause is not removed, it will make that even more likely.

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If the Department had spent this much energy on social worker recruitment and retention and invested in family support and early-years help, we might not be where we are now, with the highest number of children in care since 1985.

The Professional Association for Children’s Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers commented on the Department for Education’s adoption policy paper this year. It said:

“We note the Policy Paper does not address how to prevent children entering the care and adoption systems in the first place…We are concerned that despite the intention to ‘strengthen families’, no more is said on this point and that there is no discussion of support for disadvantaged families despite the worrying increase in the numbers of children subject to care proceedings.”

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Will the hon. Lady accept that the adoption paper is about adoption, and that there is another Government paper—we have referred to it previously in Committee—called “Putting children first”, which deals with all children who are going through the care system? It is not unusual for a Government to put forward different policy papers that cover different policy areas.

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I completely agree, but if the Minister lets me continue with my point, he will see where I am going with this.

The professional association continues:

“The scale of reduced spending on early intervention in children’s services and the way this leads to greater costs elsewhere is well analysed”

in a number of reports.

“The key point…is that by significantly reducing early preventive work, more public money has to be spent on costly proceedings, foster care, mental health provision, adoption agencies and so forth, which potentially could be avoided by better focused spending at an earlier stage…We strongly warn against an ‘evangelical approach’ to adoption, whereby it is perceived as a good in itself. This perception is contrary to the majority view of European and western thought and jurisprudence, and it fails to appreciate it represents a serious and draconian step and a measure to be considered only ‘when nothing else will do’…We strongly advise against performance indicators that positively promote an increase in adoptions as these inevitably lead to a distortion of professional activity in favour of adoption at the expense of other choices”.

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The Minister pointed out that there has in the past been a misuse of special guardianship orders—they were used in a way that was never intended, and the Government acted to address that. Does my hon. Friend feel that it would further the Government’s intentions for the clause if the Minister assured us that he planned to give clear guidance to local authorities stating that the evidence presented to the court on the relationship with the prospective adoptive parents and all other options must be absolutely balanced? In that way, we would not be in danger of thinking that one measure was being inadvertently promoted above another.

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Order. Before I call the hon. Lady to respond to that remark, may I draw her attention to the fact that this is a very narrowly worded clause about the duty to have regard to the relationship with adopters during the adoption process? I encourage her not to range too freely about why adoption is not necessarily a good thing.

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Thank you for that advice, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If the Minister can allay my hon. Friend’s concerns in his comments, we may not have to press the amendment to a vote.

The professional association states that “further tinkering with” the Children Act 1989

“could be unwise and the thin end of the wedge of social engineering.”

More children are adopted in the UK than in any other European country, and 90% of adoptions are without parental consent. One of the major arguments put forward for speeding up adoptions is that it would reduce the number of children in care, but the opposite has been the case. Dr Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, has found that adoption policies, rather than reducing the number of children in care, have led to a 65% increase in the number of children being separated from their parents. He feels that that is unlikely to be due to an increase in abuse, because child protection findings of physical and sexual abuse have fallen since 2001, yet child protection plans have increased since 2010.

The majority of such plans are about neglect or emotional abuse, both of which could be better dealt with through family support and responses to poverty and deprivation, which lead to children being over 10 times more likely to be in care or on a child protection plan. Dr Bilson’s research shows that over the past five years, the local authorities with the highest adoption rates also have the largest increases in the number of children in care. In those local authorities with the lowest rates of adoption, the number of children in care had fallen. In other words, prioritising adoption results in more children, not fewer, being taken into care.

For some children adoption is the best outcome, but the policy of adoption above all else works on the premise that children will be better off with wealthier parents, rather than on the premise of making all efforts to let them remain with their birth families. Putting the work in to keep children at home is hard social work. It costs time and energy, but in the long run it is worth it if it benefits the child.

Women Against Rape has highlighted that children are increasingly being removed from mothers who are victims of violence. Rather than providing them with the protection, resources and support they need to enable them to rebuild their lives safely, they are accused of failing to protect their children and often end up losing them as a result. Domestic violence is now a more common reason for the state removing children than mental illness or drug and alcohol misuse. Professor June Thoburn said:

“In many other EU countries, it is much easier for families to access support if they need help. Great emphasis is placed on helping families to care for children safely at home and maintaining family links if in care. But in “austerity” England, family support services are closing, thresholds are high, and social work is being defined as a narrow child protection service.”

In January, the Council of Europe highlighted the impact of austerity cuts on social services. In particular, it criticised England for its child protection focus and the removal of children who have been subject to domestic abuse, particularly in the context of policies promoting non-consensual adoption.

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Order. The hon. Lady is ranging widely off clause 9, which is titled “Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters”. I ask her to bring her comments back to that. I have allowed quite a lot of latitude.

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Thank you, Mrs Main. I will of course sum up very quickly.

The damage caused by the adoption targets is not being considered in the Bill, but it must be. Evidence reported just this week by The Guardian shows that local authorities are using targets, sometimes combined with financial incentives. It is worth remembering that adoption is far cheaper for councils than foster placements, because once a child is adopted, they are off the council’s books for good. Adoption is also cheaper than providing services that might ensure that vulnerable parents can care for their children, but what of the money being saved? What about the lives of those destroyed by the separation?

The Bill is concerned in part with improving the situation of care leavers, which is important, but we make a mistake if we focus on their needs without considering why so many children are being taken into care and what we can do to reduce that. It cannot be right that we are talking about resources for corporate parents while saying nothing about resources for children and families who have been impoverished by austerity policies. The Government need to take a serious look at the patterns and trends in child protection, adoption and fostering, but instead they have continued on this damaging path of pro-adoption, and they are using a small clause in the Bill to strengthen that further. I hope the Minister will explain in his response why, despite evidence to the contrary, they are continuing on that path.

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution to the consideration of the clause. Mindful of the narrow nature of the clause, I say from the outset that the Government have always been clear that the right permanence option— whether that is adoption, special guardianship, kinship care, residential care or even long-term fostering—will always depend on a child’s individual needs and circumstances. As the law clearly states, the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration, and that is as it should be. That is why I have to say to her that it is a little depressing to see the same arguments and rhetoric on the Government’s plans for children in care, saying that we only have eyes for adoption. That is simply not borne out by the facts.

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Will the Minister give way?

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Perhaps the hon. Lady will let me explain. This Government introduced the first ever legal definition of long-term fostering; none existed previously. We brought in quality standards on residential care a number of years ago, and 79% of children’s care homes are now rated good or outstanding. The hon. Lady has already alluded to the work that we do with care leavers to make sure that during the period when they leave care they have much better support.

What we are trying to do with adoption, however, is tackle two issues, which Tony Blair tried to tackle in the late 1990s and early 2000s—not in the way he did it, which was by setting national targets, but by ensuring that when adoption is right for children they can be adopted and by making sure that when that happens it is without unnecessary delay. I do not think that anyone would argue it is acceptable for children to have to wait an average of 26 months from the time of entering care to move to an adoptive placement.

Those are the issues we have been tackling. What we are doing is not based on an ideological fantasy. We know from the research of Professor Julie Selwyn that adoption has a huge number of benefits for the children it is right for. It has the lowest breakdown rate of any permanent placement—about 3%, with special guardianship orders at about 6%. I have seen from my family the huge benefits that adoption can bring, but I have also seen from my family the huge benefits that long-term fostering can bring. I know from personal experience that each child will need to follow a different path.

What we are doing is not a mission to try to ensure that every child who comes into the care system ends up being adopted; we are trying to stay clearly focused on making sure that, where it is right for a child, that is exactly what happens. In the past couple of years, on the back of the Re B-S judgment, there has been a fall in the number of adoptions, not a rise. That is because we have to face up to the fact that there are still people who believe that adoption is not the right course of action for children. I am saying that we should not stand in the way in cases where it is right for them.

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Would the Minister share something with the Committee, to support his argument? His Department has made 20-plus changes to adoption since 2010; how many changes has he made to other areas of care, and what is the comparative cost? If adoption is not seen as the gold standard, surely other areas of care will have the same number of policy changes and the same spending.

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I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Lady’s premise. It is not the number of things that are done, but whether the things that are done have a discernible impact of the kind that we want, and achieve the outcomes that we want to be able to celebrate. I do not accept that the amount of activity created is directly comparable to commitment or achievement of objectives.

I want to make it clear that local authorities’ decisions on the most appropriate permanency option are based on the child’s needs. That is what the law says. That is what the Bill does in making sure that those needs are given full and thorough attention when courts consider not just adoption but all permanent options. Clause 9 will ensure that courts and adoption agencies consider the relationship between a child and their prospective adopters when deciding about the adoption of a child in cases where the child is already placed with the prospective adopters.

That is an important point. It is not a matter of children who have no relationship with the prospective adopters, and have not met them or had time to get to know them. It is about those who are already placed, where there is already a relationship. The relationship between a prospective adopter and a child placed with them will clearly be a fundamentally important and relevant consideration when a court considers whether an adoption should be granted, because, ultimately, it is a court’s decision, based on the best interest of the child, and with their welfare as the paramount consideration.

In the past two years there have been a small number of cases in which decisions have been taken to remove children from settled adoptive placements in favour of alternative arrangements with relatives who have come forward at a late stage. That may have potentially serious implications for the child, given the disruption to the attachments the child is likely to have already formed with their carers. That needs to be taken into account when making that final decision.

Where the making of an adoption order is being considered, in most cases the child will already have been living with their prospective adopters for between six to 12 months. During that time, the prospective adopters and the child will have established a relationship, and the child may have built a significant attachment to their carers. I have met adopters who have told me just that. The Government believe it is important that that attachment should be considered in the balance when final decisions are made about a child’s adoption.

That is not to say that prospective adopters are prioritised over birth parents or other family members in those considerations. The existing legislation already makes it clear that the court is also required to consider the relationship that the child has with their relatives, including their mother and father, and the relationship they have with any other person the court considers relevant, such as close friends or wider family. That express and mandatory requirement is not changing, so there is no hierarchy here—just a fair, balanced consideration of each of the significant relationships a child has, based on their own needs.

I also point out that the court is required to consider the wishes and feelings of family members when making an adoption decision. In addition, the court must consider the value to the child of the continuing relationship with their relatives. That is already clearly set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which was introduced by the last Labour Government, so relationships with the birth family and the child’s relatives are therefore central to the court’s considerations.

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The Minister was talking earlier about the drop in the number of adoptions. One of the factors for that may have been that local authority departments misinterpreted the court rulings as advice to slow down the number of adoptions. They are easily influenced by such things. Is it the Minister’s intention to offer some guidance to local authorities in the terms he has just stated, so that it is absolutely clear to them what their responsibilities are and what the intentions of clause 9 are, and how that has to be weighed against all of the other considerations he has just referred to?

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I am happy to look again at what the guidance might say and what might be appropriate to reflect the change in the law in this small area. The primary legislation that is relevant to these cases is clear. I am on the record, not only in this Committee but on previous occasions, making it clear that it has to be a decision based on that child’s needs, taking into account all of the usual factors set out in the welfare checklist and so on. I am happy to look at that. On that basis, I hope hon. Members feel reassured, and that the clause can stand part of the Bill.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Division 8

15 December 2016

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 8
Noes: 5

Question accordingly agreed to.

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Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Power to secure proper performance

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the Government motion to transfer clause 11.

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Clause 11 seeks to retain the Government’s ability to intervene and drive improvement in combined authorities, in the same way that we do now in individual local authorities where children’s social care services are failing vulnerable young people. The motion to transfer this clause is a housekeeping part of the Bill and we propose that chapter 2 of part 1 of the Bill be divided into three shorter chapters with this provision appearing in the third. I move that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered,

That clause 11 be transferred to the end of line 12 on page 22.—(Edward Timpson.)

This motion would facilitate the division of Chapter 2 of Part 1 into three shorter Chapters, to be entitled “safeguarding of children”, “children’s social care: different ways of working” and “other provision relating to children”. Transferring clause 11 would enable it to appear in the Chapter entitled “other provision relating to children”.

Clause 12

Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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I hope to get some clarity from the Minister regarding the industry’s and the Opposition’s concerns about the clause and the introduction of the child safeguarding practice review panel. I will give a more specific analysis when we debate amendments to clause 13, but I will put them into the context of clause 12.

The British Association of Social Workers is worried about the independence of the child safeguarding practice review panel and the possibility that the Secretary of State could use the panel to hammer on local authorities that she would like to take over. There is widespread alarm in the sector that the warnings in the National Audit Office report, which we discussed in Tuesday’s sitting, are being ignored by the Department. Within recent weeks we have seen yet another Labour-led council being told to transfer its statutory duties to an independent trust. I hope that when the Minister responds he will point me toward evidence that trusts do better and can achieve what local authorities could not have done without support.

The clauses also allow for the creation of a national child safeguarding review panel that can choose to identify and review complex or nationally important child safeguarding cases and make recommendations. I completely understand the rationale for overhauling the local serious case review process, as there have been widespread inconsistencies in the quality of such reports. However, while local learning can be patchy and distorted by local political and inter-agency dynamics, local-led investigations also keep local agencies engaged and involved and enable local knowledge to inform the process and the recommendations. I hope the Minister will be able to explain how the local aspect will not be lost.

There are a few examples of independent expert boards set up by recent Secretaries of State and the Department for Education. In 2014, they created the innovation fund to promote new practice within children’s social care, with a board to oversee operations and to set strategic direction. It appointed three people with financial services and investment banking experience, plus the chief social worker for children, who we know sees herself no longer as the independent voice of the profession, but as a senior civil servant, yet she is the only person on the board with practical experience in children’s social care.

When the Government sought to promote and publish more serious case reviews in the same year, we saw yet another expert panel. The four members of the panel were a journalist, a barrister, an air traffic accident investigator and a former career civil servant who had been the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund. No one on the panel had any front-line experience in child protection or its direct management. It appears that there is a worrying recurring tendency. I hope the Government will reflect, rethink and build relationships with those who know most about helping children. At the moment, it appears that the DFE sees little value in using the professional experience and expertise of those who work to assist and protect families. Can the Minister shed light on how many former or still registered social workers are in his Department? When the Government appoint experts to oversee and direct children’s services, they have consistently considered commercial and financial expertise more relevant than direct experience. That is why there is some wariness about the intention to set up expert panels to advise DFE.

It is also intended that the Department for Education will have control over who can be a social worker, whether they can continue to work, how they are educated and trained and who will provide this education. The current preference is for that to be provided outside universities by Frontline, a fast-track programme that is premised on moving practitioners as quickly as possible from practice into management and threatens the continuation of traditional university courses.

The other big part of the Bill, which was removed in the other place, will create a system of inconsistencies. Rather than innovative, that system might less generously be described as an increasingly threadbare safety net. Control of social work and social workers should be in the hands not of politicians but of the profession itself.

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Clause 12 requires the Secretary of State to establish a child safeguarding practice review panel. The clause will add new section 16A to the Children Act 2004. The Government first announced their intention to centralise the serious case review process in December 2015. The background to their decision to legislate to introduce such a panel was set out in their response to Alan Wood’s review of the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards. I remind the Committee that Alan Wood is a former director of children’s services at Hackney. His review demonstrates that the Department is more than willing to ask people from the profession to advise and assist it in its decision making. The panel is being established in response to his recommendation that the Government should

“establish an independent body at national level to oversee a new national learning framework for inquiries into child deaths and cases where children have experienced serious harm.”

He suggested that the body that supported a centralised review process should be

“one that is independent of government and the key agencies, and operates in a transparent and objective fashion to ensure learning is the key element of all inquiries.”

The Government agree entirely with that recommendation.

I should add that we intend to establish the panel as an expert committee. I expect its chair’s appointment to be subject at least to a full, open Cabinet Office public appointments process. I envisage that panel members will come from various backgrounds, including social care, and have the relevant expertise and experience to fulfil the role. I expect the number of panel members to be sufficient to enable the panel’s effective operation, and the chair to be able to draw on the expertise that he or she considers necessary for effective decisions and recommendations to be made about cases.

The Secretary of State will be responsible for removing panel members if he or she is satisfied that they are no longer able to fulfil their duties, for example due to a long-term or serious health condition, or if they have behaved in a way that is incompatible with their role, such as by releasing confidential information that is provided to the panel or making use of such information for their own purposes. Those are usual conditions, and while such action is extremely unlikely to occur, it is right to make provision for the removal of panel members should the need arise.

The clause will also allow the Secretary of State to provide whatever assistance is required to enable the panel to carry out its functions, including staff and office facilities. The Secretary of State may pay remuneration or expenses to the chair and members of the panel, and make further arrangements to support the panel’s functioning, including, for example, the production of an annual report.

The establishment of a strong national panel is an essential component of the Government’s plans to develop better understanding of the factors leading up to serious cases, for the reasons that the hon. Member for South Shields set out, to inform policy and practice nationally, and to support local agencies in improving the quality of the services that they provide to vulnerable children and families. The new panel will be independent of the Government.

The hon. Lady quite rightly raised the need to ensure that local learning is not lost. To some extent, there are clear benefits in ensuring that we have a flexible approach, and I assure her that we will increase local flexibility at the same time as creating a national panel. Centralising review decisions will enable the new panel to identify national trends and issues that may benefit from a single national review. At the same time, the bulk of reviews will be local and will address cases that raise issues of local importance and relate to local safeguarding partnerships; that will increase local flexibility. We anticipate that the number of national reviews will be relatively small and the majority of reviews will take place locally. Most importantly, we must not just look at what happens when things go wrong but understand why and spread that understanding much better. I will go into more detail as we discuss clause 13 on how we will go about achieving that.

On that basis, I ask that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Functions of the Panel

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I beg to move amendment 36, in clause 13, page 11, line 9, leave out

“unless they consider it inappropriate to do so”.

This amendment would ensure that the Practice Review Panel publishes a report on the outcome of any review.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 37, in clause 13, page 11, line 11, leave out subsection (5).

This amendment is consequential to amendment 36.

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Amendment 36 would ensure that the new child safeguarding practice review panel publishes a report on the outcomes of a review. The current wording of the Bill allows the panel to pick and choose the cases it deems necessary to review, but does not compel it to publish a report if it does not think it is appropriate.

It is not appropriate for a national board to weigh in on highly sensitive local cases and then refuse to publish its findings. If the new panel goes ahead, preferably with guaranteed independence from the Secretary of State, it must do so as transparently as possible. Child death and serious cases of abuse have to be treated very carefully, especially by a new national panel which will naturally be met with some suspicion by front-line practitioners in particular, who might expect the panel to act as yet another mechanism for publically blaming and shaming them when things go wrong. That is not a baseless fear; social workers have had to learn the hard way, with previous instances of central Government interference in local cases. I am certainly not opposed to rigorous national oversight of serious cases—the more we can review and learn lessons, the better it will be for vulnerable children—but if lessons and improvements are very much the purpose of the exercise, the panel must have a duty to publish its report in every case it takes on.

The Government’s reason for creating this new panel is that it will pick up on cases that have wider implications than just those for the local authority, while ensuring that local authorities do not repeat mistakes that might have led to a child death or serious abuse. I want to know how the Minister can ensure that the national or local interest can be served if the reports are kept under lock, in secret.

Subsection (5) of the clause compels the panel to publish any suggested improvements arising from its report, even if it does not think that the publication of the report is appropriate, but that does nothing to solve the problem because improvements suggested out of any context are unaccountable. Who will guarantee that the suggested improvements arise from evidence presented to the panel? Amendments to mitigate the involvement of the Secretary of State in the business of the panel offer some reassurance, but the fact remains that if the mistakes are not published, suggested improvements cannot be properly owned by the managers or front-line practitioners that need to implement them in the local authority in question and nationally.

Under the Bill as it stands, the panel could publish a list of improvements to front-line practice that would leave practitioners open to public blame without recourse to a public document that explains their role. If front-line practice is at fault, that too needs to be made clear. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for the amendments and the important issues that she has raised. As I said a few minutes ago, the Wood review into the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards published earlier this year highlighted a number of long-term issues with the current system of serious case reviews, including reviews being of poor quality, taking too long to complete and failing to identify required improvements to front-line practice.

In response, the Bill establishes a new system of national and local child safeguarding practice reviews to help resolve those issues. National reviews will be undertaken by the child safeguarding practice review panel into cases identified as raising issues that are complex or of national importance that it considers it appropriate to review. Commissioning of local reviews will remain with local areas and will be carried out into cases where local safeguarding partners consider that there are issues of importance in relation to the local area and that a review should be carried out.

Amendments 36 and 37 relate to subsections (4) and (5), which set out the requirement on the child safeguarding practice review panel to publish reports unless it considers it inappropriate to do so. If, on rare occasions, it does consider publication inappropriate—for example, where publication might lead to risk or distress for children or adults involved in the case—the panel is required to consider what information it is able to publish about improvements to be made following the review. As in the current serious case review system, reports commissioned by the panel will need to be written from the outset with the presumption that they will be published, and reports should be written in such a way that publication will not be likely to harm the welfare of any children or other individuals involved in the case.

There is a small hint of irony here. I remember in my early days as a Member of Parliament being asked at the last minute to go on “Newsnight” to press the then Labour Government on why they still held the line of insisting on not fully publishing serious case reviews and asking only that executive summaries be published, as that was deemed to be sufficient. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has moved her party to a more enlightened position. We recognise, as I think she does, that there will be very exceptional circumstances where the publication of the full report may not be in the best interests of the child concerned or siblings and other family members. In those cases, it is important that, against the presumption in every case that it should publish the full report, the panel is able to exercise its professional judgment and discretion not to do so. The panel should also consider information that it is able to publish about implications for future practice.

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rose

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I knew that the hon. Gentleman would not be able to resist.

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I just want to ask the Minister about a very simple point. I agree with what he is saying and I remember the occasion to which he referred. Given that part of the purpose of the measure is to improve learning and understanding, in cases where it is deemed inappropriate to publish the full report for the reasons he gave, will academic bodies have access to that information, or will they be excluded from access as well?

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Will the hon. Gentleman confirm what he means by “information”?

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When the full report will not be published for the reasons the Minister mentioned, will it be available to academic institutions? Will they be able to make full use of the full report or will they be denied access?

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The report that will be published will be the redacted report, which will then be publicly available. We want to ensure that as much learning as possible can be extrapolated from that report. That is why we are setting up the What Works centre, which will be a repository for all serious case reviews. Practitioners and academics will be able to use the findings from those reviews to inform their own understanding and practice.

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I will not detain the Committee much longer on this point. I completely understand the Minister’s response that it is not always appropriate to publish such reports, but he did not comment on the fact that social workers are very anxious and scared that this might be used as another stick to beat them with. I hope that he will make some comments in the public domain or make some reference to that later in the Committee.

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I am happy to repeat what I have said before: this is not a blame game. One problem that has arisen is that in the past, a serious case review, which is about learning from things that have gone wrong and having an open and honest discussion about how things can improve—an acceptance of failure—has turned into a finger-pointing exercise. That is not always in every case helpful in really getting to the bottom of what has gone wrong. We are absolutely not trying to turn the clock back to that type of approach. The aim is to have a very clear way to ensure that we learn and change the way in which we deliver practice for children, so that they are protected as much as possible.

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I thank the Minister. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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I beg to move amendment 41, in clause 13, page 11, line 30, at end insert—

“(7A) When exercising its functions under this section, the Panel must, in particular, have regard to—

(a) concerns relating to child safeguarding resulting from contact arrangements in families where one of the parents of the child in question has perpetrated domestic abuse, and

(b) the implementation of Practice Direction 12J in child contact arrangements.”

This amendment would ensure that the Child Safeguarding Review Panel must have regard to circumstances around child contact arrangements that involve parents who have perpetrated domestic abuse. Practice Direction 12J (Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm) aims to ensure that contact ordered with a parent who has perpetrated violence or abuse is safe and in the best interests of the child.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 42, in clause 14, page 12, line 13, at end insert—

“(c) the child dies or is seriously harmed by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in circumstances related to child contact.”

This amendment would ensure that local authorities in England have a duty to notify the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel when a child dies or is seriously harmed by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in circumstances related to child contact.

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Amendments 41 and 42 would strengthen the role of the child safeguarding practice review panel in cases where domestic violence has been a feature. They would ensure that contact was safe for the child, and that in the terrible circumstances where a child dies or is seriously injured by a perpetrator in circumstances related to that contact, the local authority must notify the panel.

Women’s Aid’s recent “Nineteen Child Homicides” report, launched as part of the “Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives” campaign, revealed the scale of the challenge for child protection in families where one parent is abusive. Child contact arrangements should always be made in the best interests of the child and to protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care. However, there are significant concerns that the current system managing child contact decisions is not consistently upholding that principle, resulting in significant child protection concerns within families where there is a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The Bill is a critical opportunity to improve child safeguarding practice and help to prevent avoidable child deaths and harm as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Existing research provides strong evidence that in making arrangements for child contact where there is a history of domestic violence, the current workings of the family justice system support a pro-contact approach, which can undermine the best interests of the child and the safety and wellbeing of the parent with care. That frequently exposes children and women to further violence, causes them significant harm and prevents recovery. The impact of witnessing previous or continuing domestic abuse is in itself a form of child abuse, but the significance of that is often minimised by the family court system. In my experience, that is most likely because those making the decisions in court have never had to witness at first hand the harm that has been done, as social workers have to day in, day out.

On average, only 1% of applications for contact are refused, even though domestic abuse is identified as an issue in up to 70% of family proceedings cases—those are only the cases where domestic violence is disclosed. In three quarters of cases where courts have ordered contact with an abusive parent, the child suffered further abuse. There is nothing worse than having to visit a child who is crying, visibly shaking and terrified and letting them know that the court has ordered they have to see the very person who caused them that harm. Some children have even been ordered to have contact with a parent who has committed offences against them, and in some tragic cases children have been killed as a result of contact or residence arrangements. There are clearly significant safeguarding concerns resulting from the management of current child contact arrangements, which should be considered in efforts to improve child safeguarding practice.

In January this year, Women’s Aid’s “Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives” campaign to stop avoidable deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators launched alongside it the “Nineteen Child Homicides” report. The report highlighted 19 cases of children who were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances related to unsafe child contact. Those homicides took place in England and Wales and were outlined in serious case review reports. All the perpetrators were men and fathers to the children they killed. Later on, I will table new clauses to improve statutory support for victims of parental homicide. I hope the Committee will consider those.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is responsible for family justice, said:

“The Women’s Aid report makes for harrowing reading. No child should ever die or live in such dreadful circumstances, and it is incumbent on all of us to consider whether more can be done to prevent such tragedies. The report underlines the need to prioritise the child’s best interest in child contact cases involving domestic abuse, and to make sure that known risks are properly considered.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 1116.]

The amendments would do exactly what the Minister’s colleague asked for.

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What my hon. Friend talks about is incredibly important. One of the most upsetting cases I ever had to deal with as a Member of Parliament was one where social workers were writing letters in support of a woman’s perpetrator staying in the country because they felt it was in the children’s best interests to remain in contact with their father. As a result, she was put at direct risk, even though he had directly attacked the children, as well as her. We have to get this right and recognise the danger that perpetrators can present to the entire family. We must see it as being in the best interests of the children to keep the mother alive. The amendments would do exactly that and prevent such a scenario.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and her support for the amendments. She is exactly right. I know from experience of the family courts that parents’ rights can often take precedence over the child’s rights, especially in the realms of who has more in the human rights arena.

The Women’s Aid report examines circumstances in which abusive fathers had contact with their children and investigates the lessons that can be learned for Government policy. Key findings were that two mothers and 19 children, ranging from one to 14 years old, were killed intentionally. Those fathers also had access to their children through formal or informal child contact arrangements. For 12 of the 19 children killed, contact with their father had been arranged in court in a similar way to that mentioned by my hon. Friend. For six families the contact was arranged in family court hearings, and for one family it was decided as part of a non-molestation order and occupation order. In two families, the father was even granted overnight contact. In an additional two families, a father was granted a residence order, which means that the children were allowed to live with him.

All of those fathers were known perpetrators of domestic abuse. Nine of the 12 perpetrators were known to have committed domestic abuse after separation from the child’s mother, including attempted strangulation, sexual assault, harassment, threats, threats to abduct the children and actual abduction. They all indicated high-risk perpetrator behaviour. Of course, I agree that the responsibility for the deaths of those children lies squarely with the person who killed them, but research identifies key lessons for the child protection system in relation to child contact in families where there is one abusive parent.

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The shadow Minister is making a passionate speech about an issue close to my heart and, I am sure, to those of many in Parliament. I want to draw her attention to research on the risks to ethnic minority women in particular, and horror stories about refugee children who have seen their mothers abducted by fathers and abandoned in their country of origin without their children. Is she aware of that research?

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I thank my hon. Friend. I am not aware of that research but would like to discuss the matter further with her. It is critical to the Bill that the aim of improving local safeguarding is based on lessons learned from these tragic cases.

We need to understand that domestic abuse is harmful to children, even when they have not been directly physically harmed. There needs to be a culture change within the family court system to ensure that children’s experiences of domestic abuse and its impact on them are fully considered and that practice direction 12J, which instructs courts to ensure that where domestic abuse has occurred any child arrangements orders protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care, and are always completely in the best interests of the child.

Another concern is the professional understanding of power and control—of the dynamics of domestic abuse. Coercive control was a dominant feature in many of those cases, yet the report found a lack of professional understanding in statutory agencies and family courts about how power and control can manifest in an abusive relationship. The report recommends that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and child protection agencies and the judiciary should have more specialist training in that area.

There also needs to be an understanding that the point at which a survivor leaves an abusive partner is highly dangerous, yet time and again parental separation is seen by agencies as an end of the abuse and a reduction in the risk, when in fact that is the very time that the risk has intensified. As always in these cases, poor information sharing was identified as a major factor.

We need to support non-abusive parents and challenge abusive parents. In many of the serious case reviews, it was unclear whether the mother had been offered or referred to any specialist support, even when the abuse was known to police and social services. Statutory agencies often put the onus on the non-abusive parent to protect their children and end the relationship, rather than hold the perpetrator accountable. Communication between family and criminal courts must improve, and there must be the safeguard that no unsupervised contact is granted to a parent who is awaiting trial or involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse-related offences.

I know full well that the Minister understands the importance of the amendments. If he does not support them, I hope he will explain what his Department will do to protect children fully from harmful contact, and how we can guarantee that the child safeguarding practice review panel will know about the serious harm done to children by domestic violence.

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It is a great pleasure to serve on the Committee with you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend said and ask a couple of questions.

I hope there has been a shift from the attitudes I have detected in the past few years. The Minister was right to emphasise that the best interests of children are the fundamental guiding principle that underpins the legislation, but in recent years I think the balance has moved to some degree towards a presumption in favour of contact. Indeed, at times that has been almost explicit in some of the language I have heard from some political and other figures. It would be really helpful if the Minister made clear again that the presumption for contact, if it exists, is very much secondary to what is in the best interests of the children.

Contact often is in the best interests of a child, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to make that assumption when domestic abuse and violence have been present. Domestic abuse and violence cut across all social backgrounds, all economic backgrounds and all cultures and classes; the system needs to be aware of that. It should not be making assumptions that more articulate and authoritative men should in some way have their assertions taken at face value. I sometimes feel we see such examples in our own casework when particularly articulate cases have been made. Again, this is a good opportunity for the Minister to say how he envisages the panel will be able to spread good practice and awareness of such issues in responding to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend made a point about training professionals and mentioned in particular those in the family justice and family support system. In fact, a wide range of professionals who come into contact with children need to be alert to the signs of domestic abuse and violence. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about how the safeguarding panel could help to spread that knowledge and awareness as widely as possible across a whole range of professional disciplines.

As my hon. Friend said, we do see forms of domestic abuse and violence well beyond the physical, such as coercive control and the undermining and humiliating of women in the family, through which a mother’s self-confidence and self-esteem can be whittled away. That needs to be recognised when making decisions about the best interests of the care of children and their relationship with both parents. If the Minister feels unable to accept the amendments, I hope he will say how he intends to shift the balance back to where I think we agree it must be, with the best interests of the child paramount in contact decisions. A presumption of contact is not the place to start, least of all when domestic abuse or violence is present or feared.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for her amendments, which raise important, difficult and sensitive issues. She rightly made some insightful, wide-ranging points. I suspect that my response will not necessarily do justice to them all, but I will do my best.

One thing that the hon. Lady and I have in common is that we both have experience of dealing with these types of cases in the family courts and the children’s social care system. We have seen at first hand the extreme pressure on those who take part in those proceedings—particularly those who have been victims of domestic abuse, whether as children or adults.

I have been involved in many contact cases, injunctions, non-molestation orders, occupation orders and finding of fact hearings that have centred around the issue of domestic abuse. One thing that has always struck me is that, in some parts of society, there is the presumption that domestic violence happens only in certain homes, but it can happen anywhere and in any home. That is why, when we did a big national campaign to help people understand what the signs of abuse look like, which we hope to repeat in the new year, we made it clear that domestic violence is not the preserve of some communities; it happens in every community, class and walk of life.

We need to grasp more widely the culture change that the hon. Lady spoke about in relation to the family courts. We can have the best system, regulations and laws in place, but if beneath them there is a reluctance to engage with the reality of domestic violence—both its prevalence and the devastating impact it has on the victims—we are never going to be able to tackle it and prevent it from being a feature of so many people’s lives in the future. I fully echo many of the points that the hon. Lady made.

We need to work together collectively, both at a local level and nationally. Like many members of the Committee, I have been involved with my local Women’s Aid and other support groups, as well as with men who are victims of domestic violence, to understand the reasons behind it and what we can do, at every point where those people come into contact with the community around them, to support them. As the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, I want to ensure that we most protect children. They must never have to suffer the consequences of being involved in such violence or seeing it around them.

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The Minister is making some excellent points. Does not the argument of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston justify clause 12 and having a national panel? A wide range of professionals, not just those involved in individual cases, need to learn the lessons. The only way to do that is to have a national panel and to feed out the evidence so such cases and domestic violence are taken much more seriously.

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. She re-emphasises the purpose behind having a more systematic and comprehensive way of pulling together that knowledge and understanding for cases involving an issue of national importance and relevance, such as domestic violence. That would give all practitioners, whether they work in social work, the health service, schools or the charitable sector, access to well-researched and practical advice about how they can respond better should they find a child or a family in those circumstances. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge that we face in ensuring that we are doing all we can across society and across Government to meet the real need that is out there.

These important issues were debated in the House on 15 September in response to the publication of the Women’s Aid report entitled “Nineteen Child Homicides”, to which the hon. Member for South Shields referred. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, made clear then, it is incumbent on all of us to consider whether more can be done to prevent such tragedies.

As the hon. Lady said, the Women’s Aid report graphically underlines the need to prioritise the child’s best interest in child contact cases involving domestic abuse and to ensure that the risks are properly considered. I am happy to remind the Committee of what I said earlier, which I hope reassures the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston: the paramount consideration is always the welfare of the child in any case where they are relevant. That is the key principle that guides the decision making in any judgment made by any court.

My concern about the amendment is that it risks giving the impression that reviews undertaken by the panel could stray into matters that are properly for the independent judiciary. Given previous comments about the need for the panel to be independent, I also think there is a risk of highlighting one particular matter to the exclusion of all others. As I said earlier, the law is clear: the family court’s overriding duty is the welfare of the child. Decisions about child contact are made by the court, based on all of the evidence, and with the child’s welfare as the court’s paramount consideration. It would be constitutionally improper for the panel, as an administrative body, to seek to review such judicial decisions.

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I understand the Minister’s point about the independence of the judiciary. However, it will be difficult for the reports and reviews conducted to be meaningful if they cannot, in some way, take account of the effect of the decision-making process. How does the Minister see that tension being resolved? Does he envisage that any report by the panel would be unable to say anything about court decisions?

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If the hon. Lady was to look at any serious case review now, she would see a clear timeline setting out the facts of the case that stated what the decisions were and what lay behind them. It is up to the panel members to call those who have been part of that particular case to come forward with their evidence, in order to inform that report—subject to any medical reason that would preclude them from assisting. The purpose of the clause is to make sure that we get as full and frank disclosure within the report as possible, to inform both the panel’s recommendations and the subsequent learning that we want to spread across the system.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to practice direction 12J, which covers child arrangements and domestic violence and harm. It is judicial guidance to the family court on how to deal with allegations of domestic violence or abuse, and is issued by the president of the family division, with the agreement of Ministers and in accordance with process provided for by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

The explicit reference in a statute to such a practice direction, which the amendment would introduce, assumes a specific content for the direction. However, practice directions being made in the way I have outlined are open to amendment, revocation or replacement by further directions, so the hon. Lady’s amendment would aim at what is likely to be a moving target. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the president of the family division has already asked a senior High Court judge to review the operation of practice direction 12J in the light of some of the concerns raised by Women’s Aid. I am happy to share any further information I can glean from the Ministry of Justice and my colleagues in that Department with the hon. Lady.

Finally, I turn to amendment 42. It seeks to add to the circumstances set out in subsection 1 of clause 14, under which a local authority must make a notification to the child safeguarding practice review panel. As in my response to the previous amendment, I recognise the concerns about domestic violence and the risks that can be posed to both children and adults by potentially unsafe contact arrangements. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the risks to a particularly vulnerable group of children. Great consideration was given to defining the circumstances under which a local authority must notify the panel in order to come up with the criteria as currently set out in the Bill.

Inevitably, any such definitions cannot be exhaustive, include all circumstances or cover all settings in which children might suffer injury or harm. However, the intention has always been that all cases in which a local authority knows or suspects abuse or neglect, including cases in which factors such as those outlined by the hon. Lady are a feature, must be notified to the panel under the general duty to notify cases of death or serious harm.

With that explanation, and following the helpful debate that explored some of the wider issues around the subject—I am sure we will all want to return to that at a later date, if not in the Committee, then in the House—I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

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I thank the Minister for his response. Like me, because of personal experience he totally understands the complexity of contact between children and parents through the courts. I appreciate that this matter may need discussion with his colleague at the Ministry of Justice. I hope he will commit to that and report back to us.

The reality is that the wrong decisions are being made, and those decisions are costing lives—the lives of children and women. In this place, we should and can always do more. I hope he will give us an update in the near future on what the Government are doing in this area. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 13, page 11, line 31, leave out subsection (8).

This amendment would remove the role of the Secretary of State with regards to giving guidance on serious child safeguarding cases to be reviewed, therefore ensuring the local authority’s independence for this process.

We believe it is inappropriate for the Secretary of State to provide any guidance as to which serious cases are to be reviewed by the panel. Policy makers cannot be policy enforcers. There has to be a separation of the two to guard against policy being used to target specific local authorities. The panel will need to tread carefully in order to be seen as a constructive ally and critical friend of children’s services, and therefore political neutrality is vital.

It will be impossible for the panel to make a credible claim of political neutrality if the Secretary of State is able to choose which serious cases are subject to review. For the same reasons, the Secretary of State cannot be seen to interfere in reviews that are under way either by deciding whether a review is making adequate progress or by rubber-stamping reports as being of adequate quality. If the Department wanted to consider an annual audit of all reviews to ascertain quality and function, that would be another matter, but on a case-by-case basis this involvement of the Secretary of State cannot reasonably be deemed acceptable, and I hope the Minister agrees that it could well hinder the efficient working of the panel.

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Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her amendment, which seeks to remove clause 13(8), which enables the Secretary of State to give guidance to the panel on the circumstances in which it may be appropriate for a national child safeguarding practice review to be undertaken by the panel. I assure hon. Members that any such guidance will not undermine the panel’s independence. The Secretary of State will not be able to direct the panel to carry out a review, and the panel will have sole responsibility for deciding which cases it should review, determining whom it appoints to carry out the review and the publication of the final report.

Subsection (8) also states the Secretary of State’s ability to set out in guidance matters to be taken into account when considering whether a review is being progressed to a satisfactory timescale and is of satisfactory quality. Earlier, the hon. Lady quite rightly raised, as did I, the two issues of the variable quality of serious case reviews and the length of time many were taking before being published. There are sometimes legitimate reasons for cases not being published in a shorter timescale—for example, because there are ongoing criminal proceedings. However, there are still some unacceptable delays in publication.

We want to ensure the two aspects of the current system that have not been functioning well are kept closely under review, so that we have a better functioning system. As I set out earlier, we are committed to addressing the apparent weaknesses in the current system of serious case reviews, including the poor quality of final reports and the length of time it takes to complete and publish reports. This guidance will help the panel to avoid the deficiencies in the current arrangements, but it will not undermine the panel’s decision-making processes.

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The Minister is talking about the length of time cases can take. Will he say a little more about how he thinks the clause will change that?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for probing that point. The current panel does not have any direct power to force a publication to be completed within a period. So we are left in a situation where there is an attempt to nudge and cajole but ultimately no ability to sanction a specific end date for a report to be published.

There are circumstances in which not months but years go by before we get the learning out of a case. In some local areas, and now at national level, we may need to know much more quickly if we are to make sure that other children will not fall through the net as a consequence of similar basic practice failures that result from not publishing a report that shows where things went wrong.

The new process will permit a closer, robust way of preventing unnecessary delay in publication; clearly, we want the quality of reports to be maintained, but we want them to be produced in a timely way, so that lessons can be learned as soon as possible. I hope that that explanation reassures the Committee about the Government’s intentions.

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Forgive me, but it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify what he means by “closer” and “robust”. He has made a powerful case and I think that we would all agree that the length of time taken can be a problem. I am not clear from what he said how he thinks it will be resolved—what the close and robust process will be. How will it be different?

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First, it will be set out in the guidance that accompanies the Bill, so for the first time there will be a clear mechanism with a trigger for a report to be published by a certain date. That does not currently apply and at the moment there can be a drift, without any way to try to bring the process to an end.

The detail will be in the guidance. I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with a draft as we continue to develop it, but the underlying principle remains the same—to get a way of avoiding unnecessary delay in the publication of reports, so we can get the learning out there into the working environment as soon as possible. On that basis I ask the hon. Member for South Shields to withdraw the amendment.

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I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 14 and 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Does the Committee wish to continue?

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Yes.

Clause 16

Local arrangements for safeguarding and promoting welfare of children

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I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 16, page 13, line 11, at end insert

“, including unaccompanied refugee children once placed in the area, and unaccompanied refugee children who have been identified for resettlement in the area.”

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With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 17, in clause 22, page 17, line 5, at end insert—

“(3) Guidance given by the Secretary of State in connection with functions conferred by section 16E in relation to unaccompanied refugee children must be developed in accordance with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am delighted that the Government Whip has decided that we should press ahead with clause 16 so early on, because the issue and the amendments deserve a thorough hearing. In the short time before, I suspect, the Minister will want to get his lunch, I want to pose what seems to me a central question.

We must all wonder why two young men—two 14-year-old boys—have this week attempted to kill themselves. They attempted it because of a promise made by this country that is yet to be fulfilled. That is a promise to young, unaccompanied asylum seekers, the child refugees whom we have all seen on our television screens in the past year. Those children are the victims of conflicts not of their own making, but now they are in limbo as a direct consequence of decisions made by the Government.

The amendments are about putting right the anomalies and making sure that we can be proud that when Britain stands up and says we will look after children, we will do it for every child, and treat every child equally. The 14-year-old boys who tried to kill themselves this week are from Afghanistan. They are both young men who have spent months in refugee camps in Europe. They both got on buses to go to child protection centres around Europe on the basis of a promise that we made in this House: we would put in place a process to treat those children fairly, and to treat their application for assistance from the UK fairly. Now, a month on, however, they find themselves with little hope—so little hope that death seemed a better option. The amendments are about how we deal with that.

Forgive me, but I do not know how many Government Members have been involved in child refugee issues, so I will set out how we got to the stage of two young men feeling so much despair that death seemed a better option than the limbo we left them in. I will explain why therefore the amendments have been tabled.

Over the past year, 90,000 child refugees have been estimated to be in Europe. The Dubs amendment, which most Members are familiar with, was about taking only 3,000 of those children here in Britain. To be clear, we are not talking about Britain taking every single child refugee in Europe; we are talking only about doing our fair share, and doing it fairly.

Government Members might be aware of the Dublin children—children who have family here in the UK and therefore simply want to be reunited with someone who can look after them. After fleeing unimaginable horror in their home countries via various smuggling routes, they have ended up in places such as Calais. However, we are talking about the children who have no one. The Dubs children are those who have no one left, whether they are orphaned, or their families are in places to which they cannot return. They have no connection to anywhere else in Europe, and they have no one but us to ask for assistance. That figure of 3,000 was about those children with no one to help them.

Before we go to lunch, let me put it on the record that we have made progress in dealing with the issues over the past year, and the Government should be commended for that. About 750 children have now come to the United Kingdom through the transfer mechanism and following the concerns expressed in all parts of the House. The vast majority of those children, however, are Dublin children, children who legally under international conventions have the right to come here anyway.

The amendments that we will be debating this afternoon are about the Dubs children. Those two young boys who this week tried to kill themselves are Dubs children, children who should have a realistic expectation that we will act in their best interest to protect them. This afternoon’s debate is about how we do the best interest test because—I have to tell Conservative MPs this—the Government are moving the goalposts.

On 8 November the Government published guidance that fundamentally undermined the earlier guidance and the commitment made on 1 November by the Minister who is present in the Committee to do what we all think is the right thing: to treat refugee children just as we would any other child—to safeguard them. That safeguarding process must extend to those in Europe whom we have identified as potential Dubs children.

The guidance published on 8 November fundamentally undermines that, because it sets out a restrictive test for the children. What is the test? It is a two-step process. First, the children must be of a particular nationality, either Sudanese or Syrian. Secondly, there is a test of age—they must be under 12, as though when they hit 13 they are suddenly no longer vulnerable. A third test is that they are at risk of sexual exploitation, although how to assess that is not clarified.

Many of the children who have now been left in limbo in France are clearly at risk of exploitation and sexual exploitation through their very vulnerability—because they are on their own and have nowhere else to go. Indeed, a third of those children have now absconded from the centres, because they feel no hope. They are back in makeshift camps in France, waiting to try to get to Britain.

Before the Calais camp was demolished, 40% of the children there were from Eritrea. Most of the children were not from Syria. That is because children are running from conflicts throughout the world. The amendment, therefore, and the issue that we have to deal with in the Bill, are not about Syria; they are about all children in the world who are victims of conflicts. What happens next to them?

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Order. The hon. Lady needs to stay on the subject of those children who have been identified for resettlement, rather than expanding to include all children around the world, which is outside the scope of the Bill.

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Thank you, Mrs Main. I am sorry, but there appears to be a question of interpretation, because I was coming on to the amendment, which you can see is about children identified for resettlement and, as we know, those children have come from around the world to end up in Europe. The particular issue is about refugee children in Europe—I simply meant that they have come in and are not European children, but children from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Afghanistan or elsewhere around the world who have ended up in Europe. I apologise if that was not clear, but I hope that clarifies why I was talking about children from around the world.

There has been a mistake in some of our debates over the past year that we are talking solely about what is happening in Syria—we are not. The crucial thing about how we treat children is that it is not their nationality that matters, but their vulnerability as children.

I suspect we are about to go to lunch. I do not know for sure, but I am looking at the Government Whip, who looks hungry and seems to be contemplating the issues.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.— (Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Children and Social Work Bill [ Lords ] (Fourth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Mrs Anne Main, Phil Wilson

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Fellows, Marion (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Fernandes, Suella (Fareham) (Con)

† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)

† Kennedy, Seema (South Ribble) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

† Merriman, Huw (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)

† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)

† Syms, Mr Robert (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Timpson, Edward (Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

† Whately, Helen (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)

Farrah Bhatti, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 15 December 2016

(Afternoon)

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Clause 16

Local arrangements for safeguarding and promoting welfare of children

Amendment moved (this day): 16, in clause 16, page 13, line 11, at end insert—

“, including unaccompanied refugee children once placed in the area, and unaccompanied refugee children who have been identified for resettlement in the area.”.—(Stella Creasy.)

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I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment 17, in clause 22, page 17, line 5, at end insert—

“(3) Guidance given by the Secretary of State in connection with functions conferred by section 16E in relation to unaccompanied refugee children must be developed in accordance with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.”.

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I hope that everybody had an excellent lunch and was able to think about the question that I posed before lunch, which is at the heart of the amendments. How did we get to a place where two young men felt there was so little hope in the world that they would rather kill themselves than go on? The two young men are refugees from Afghanistan, who had been escaping the Taliban. Both of them had been victims of gangs, had ended up in Calais and had willingly got on buses to go to child protection centres around France, having been told through a leaflet that they were one step closer to getting to Britain.

The amendments speak to that question and reflect the Government’s statement of 1 November, which committed to safeguarding refugee children in Europe—not just those who end up on our shores. Many of us may have dealt with children who have arrived in Britain, perhaps through illegal routes. Today, we are talking about how the safeguarding legislation that the Government will bring in by 1 May will reflect that commitment to safe routes and address legally working with those young people.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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I will happily give way, because I was reading over lunch of the support and commitment of the hon. Gentleman when it comes to helping refugees. I am sure he is going to speak in support of the amendment.

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The hon. Lady is wrong: I am not going to support the amendment. She mentioned the ministerial statement of 1 November. Before we adjourned for lunch, she was right to give credit to the Government for the steps that they have already taken. She was right to do that because the Government have taken great steps. Does she not take comfort from that ministerial statement? Does that not cover the points she is seeking to address?

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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is here this afternoon because I will explain exactly why I am concerned that the actions of the Home Office directly undermine that statement. Those of us who were involved in drafting the second Dubs amendment to ask the Government to extend safeguarding—as I think the hon. Gentleman is agreeing is the right thing to do for these young people—were very disappointed to see, not seven days later, guidance coming out from the Home Office that we consider directly undermines that commitment. I hope I can explain to the hon. Gentleman why. I hope I can also persuade him that, if—as he has said publicly—the situation in Syria challenges him, those concerns about young people should not be defined by nationality; they should be defined by need.

We are talking about the most vulnerable young people in our world. They have come, whether legally or illegally, to Europe in need of assistance. This is about how we, as Britain, play our part to help and support them. I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman—

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And others.

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Particularly the hon. Gentleman. I understand and agree with his statement that he was deeply challenged by the situation in Syria.

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The hon. Lady is being very gracious in giving way to me twice in a matter of as many minutes. She will recognise that there is great compassion on both sides of the divide on this very point. She and her party do not hold the preserve of compassion, as she is recognising in her very generous and gracious speech. She can surely recognise the honest and honourable motives on this side of the House as well as on her side when it comes to this issue.

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Perhaps the hon. Gentleman had left early to get ahead in the lunch queue so he did not hear me saying before lunch that I absolutely commend what has happened so far. The amendments simply reinforce that. I have not yet heard a good argument from the hon. Gentleman—I am hoping to hear one from him—on why he would not want to ensure that we treat all young refugees equally and fairly, which is what the amendment would do. Let me explain why.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the situation in Syria. Let me give him some testimony from a young man from Sudan, who said, when asked why he left Sudan:

“There is war in Sudan. Lots of my family have been killed over the years. My mother was killed when I was a baby. I have been running away from the Sudanese government since I was 7 years old…In Sudan, the government pay people to kill and rape innocent people so that it does not look like they are doing it.”

That young man ended up in the Calais refugee camp. There were an estimated 2,000 unaccompanied children in that camp by the end—the kind of children who the Dubs amendment, which had support across the House, was designed to cover. As I said earlier, this is not about Britain taking every single one of those children but about how we do our fair share and ensure that we treat all children equally when we commit to safeguarding them, as the Minister did in his statement on 1 November.

That young man ended up in Calais. He then went to a child refugee centre, on the basis that he was told he would be treated fairly and given the opportunity to come to Britain. He said:

“When I heard Calais will be destroyed, we were told so many different things from the UK and the French government. We were told that all the minors will go to England. But now we are scared we will be refused by the UK. I find this so strange as we are only 1000 minors. This is nothing for a country like England…If the UK government does not hear or understand well we are telling them now: we left our country because we are dying and now once again we are dying as we hope to make it to the UK.”

His story is not unique. There are stories of Oromo children from Ethiopia and children from Afghanistan being threatened with persecution. Yes, the situation in Syria is deeply troubling, but children are caught up in conflicts in many areas around the world. Those children are running, and many of them—90,000, as we heard earlier—have ended up in Europe. The question is: what do we do to help? How do we ensure that we treat those children fairly?

Amendments 16 and 17 are important, because last Friday the Government ended the fast-track transfer scheme for the children who were in the Calais “jungle”. Although that camp has been destroyed and the children evicted, the issue of what happens to them next has not gone away. Although 750 children have come to the UK, I am sorry to report to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole that the majority of them are Dublin children—children who would have had the right to come here anyway.

The thing stopping us from helping those children, who have no one else in the world, is the guidance that says how we decide what is in their best interests. The problem that we have—

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Order. The hon. Lady is going somewhat beyond the scope of the Bill. Children who have not been identified are not within the scope of the Bill.

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It would really help me if the Chair clarified where she thinks I have talked about children who have not been identified. I have just said specifically that we are talking about children who have been identified under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016—children in the centres in France who are being assessed precisely for that purpose, which the guidance covers and the amendment deals with.

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The guidance that has been developed is not within the scope of the Bill.

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The guidance that has been developed certainly speaks to section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 for the children in Calais. Those are exactly the children identified in the safeguarding statement on 1 November and in the amendment, which deals with children who have been identified for resettlement. Those are exactly the children we are talking about. I hope that clarifies for the Chair why I have been talking about that particular group and that guidance.

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As long as the hon. Lady focuses on the safeguarding of children within the area, that is fine.

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To clarify, I am talking about amendments that deal specifically with children who are identified for resettlement. Those children are not necessarily in the UK, but they are within the scope of the Bill. Obviously, the Lords amendment was identified as being within the scope of the Bill. That was specifically about section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. I just want to be reassured that—

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May I ask the hon. Lady to pause for a moment? The Lords have different rules governing the scope of Bills. The Bill is in this House, so as long as she is talking about those children who are identified for resettlement within the area—

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Yes. I appreciate that we cannot have pieces of paper, but it might be useful for the Chair to look at the eligibility criteria, which explicitly say:

“General criteria for eligibility under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 for children in Calais”.

I am sure that the Minister would like to confirm that his 1 November statement was explicitly about children who had been identified for resettlement, and that includes these children. That is exactly why I am concerned about those criteria; I believe they actually undermine the commitment to safeguarding that the Minister made on 1 November and is the subject of the Bill. I do not know whether the Minister would like to clarify that so the Chair is satisfied. We are talking about children who have been identified in France. I will happily give way to him, because the Chair seems concerned about this matter—[Interruption.] I will take that as assent.

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No, it is not. I have not said anything—

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Order. This is a slightly combative approach. The hon. Lady has done this a lot. May I gently remind her that the Minister did not wish to take her up on that invitation? It is not for her to interpret the Minister’s response.

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Thank you. I apologise if you think I am being combative, Mrs Main. I am a little confused as to why there is a concern, given that we are talking explicitly about legislation and guidance that refers directly to that legislation. I want to ensure that everyone is clear. Obviously, if the amendments had been ruled out of order, we would not be debating them. I am concerned that there is confusion about what children we are referring to. This guidance is specifically about those young children.

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The amendments are totally within order; we would not be debating them if they were not. Some of the hon. Lady’s comments, however, seem to be straying without the scope of the Bill. I am taking guidance on this matter. It is important that we get the Bill right, including the amendments. I wish her to keep her remarks, which are very important to this debate, on track.

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Thank you. That is very helpful. I wonder whether it is also helpful for me to clarify that in the Minister’s statement on 1 November, he makes explicit reference to evaluating procedures for transferring children who would be eligible for safeguarding. He also talks explicitly about children identified for resettlement, which is reflected in the amendment. I hoped the Minister would clarify that, but perhaps that helps. People may wish to google the statement made on 1 November. I am concerned because the eligibility criteria appear to undermine the will and intent set out in that statement. I am also concerned about the reason why the second Dubs amendment, which we might have been debating today, was withdrawn from this legislation.

The statement was set out for France. We are concerned that a further statement may be put out for Greece and Italy, where there are also children. I can report to the Committee that there have been no Dubs transfers, as yet, of children from Greece and Italy, although hundreds of children have been identified as potentially eligible for that. The two-step process for France sets out a series of tests around nationality, age and high risk of sexual exploitation. It then sets a secondary test about the best interests of the children. The amendments would flip that test around, to recognise that we should always act in the best interests of all children for whom we take responsibility. There is a challenge, given the Government’s clear statement that they would take responsibility for these children.

We may well have safeguarding duties for the third of children whom the Refugee Youth Service were tracking from these centres in France who have now gone missing. As yet, we have not taken on those duties. For example, one of the groups of children excluded by the current criteria are Eritrean children. Some 87% of appeals for refugee status by Eritrean people are successful, so it is well recognised that there is a high level of persecution within Eritrea. However, as the guidance stands, those children would not be considered for transfer to the UK under the Dubs amendment. These are children who have nobody else in the world, who are fleeing persecution and whom we have said we would identify and consider for resettlement, but we are judging them on the basis of their nationality, not their need.

The concern for all of us is that there are many of these children in Greece and Italy. The Government have not yet published guidance for Greece and Italy, but if we are to be consistent in how we treat children, it is important we are consistent in putting their best interests first. That is the intention behind the amendments, and it is surely not controversial across the House.

Amendment 16 would specifically identify the children we, as a country, are assessing for assistance under the Dubs provision, which got support from across the House. Amendment 17 states that we should apply the UN convention on the rights of the child to that process. The UN convention is incredibly clear that we should not discriminate against a child on the basis of their nationality, religion or age. The eligibility criteria therefore conflict with the UN convention.

The Government said they would have regard to the UN convention in future legislation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has said that the Government should place in this Bill a duty on all public authorities to have regard to the convention on the rights of the child. The amendments simply seek to ensure we act in accordance with best practice in how we treat all children.

I hope that when Government Members look at the amendments in that context—we are saying, “Actually, we shouldn’t discriminate among the children we have agreed we have a safeguarding responsibility for. We should treat them all in terms of their best interest”—they will see that they are needed because the guidance that has been issued could undermine that. That could leave this country open to legal challenge, and it could mean that we are creating a second-class group of looked-after children—i.e. refugee children—because we are treating them differently within our system.

I hope that the Minister will rethink his opposition to the amendments—I admit I am pre-empting his opinion; I am basing that on the comments of the hon. Member for North Dorset. I hope the Minister will understand why we have raised that concern. It is important that we are consistent in how we do safeguarding as a country. When we identify children who are at risk and need to be safeguarded, we should treat them in the same way as we treat all children.

If Government Members vote against the amendments, they are essentially saying that they do not think that the UN convention on the rights of the child should be part of our safeguarding process. The way the amendments are worded ensures that that framework underpins how we treat all safeguarding in this country, whether it is done in this country or on behalf of this country for children who will come here. I hope that Government Members reflect on that and do not vote against making the UN convention on the rights of the child the framework by which to judge what is in the best interests of children, rather than their nationality or age. That is how we ended up with two children in France right now thinking that life is not worth living. We as a country made a promise to treat them fairly and equally. The UN convention on the rights of the child is the best framework for ensuring that we act in accordance with our obligations.

That is the spirit of the Kindertransport. When we look at the contribution that Lord Dubs—a Kindertransport child—has made to our country and the work he has done not just on this issue but throughout the House, we can really see what is at stake here. There has always been widespread support across the country for taking refugees. Whether in St Albans, Poole, Crewe or my own community in Walthamstow, there have always been people who have stood up and said, “Britain is better when we recognise what is at stake here.” A great inventor of the next energy source or the cure for cancer could right now be a child fleeing persecution. We as a country are better when we treat those children as we treat our own—[Interruption.] I am sad to hear the hon. Member for Lewes suggest from a sedentary position that that is outrageous.

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I absolutely disagree with the hon. Lady. A huge amount of cross-party work has been done to ensure that child refugees—not just from Calais, but from places across the world, including Syria—can come to the UK. I have been working with my local refugee group, the Lewes Group in Support of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, to welcome refugees, to ensure that the process happens quickly and to support our local authority. It is absolutely outrageous to make such statements.

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Before the hon. Member for Walthamstow resumes her remarks—it sounds like she may be coming to a close—let me say that we are not having a general debate about refugees. I ask that she goes back to talking about her amendment and any other questions she would like the Minister to answer.

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I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Lady thinks it is outrageous to suggest that we need to get this right and see the potential of those children—[Interruption.] I genuinely have not accused her. I am asking whether she wants the UN convention on the rights of the child to be the framework by which safeguarding is undertaken in this country for all children, including those who are at the moment in France, Greece or Italy and have been identified as possible candidates for the Dubs amendment. She is right that there was cross-party agreement. I am surprised that there is not cross-party agreement on this, frankly. The statement on 8 November seemed to go against that.

I am sorry that it seems to be controversial to want the UN convention on the rights of the child to be the framework by which we treat safeguarding. The Minister said on Second Reading that he would go away and look at the guidance to see whether it stood against his statement on safeguarding. I hope he will explain why the Home Office issued guidance that appears to undermine the Government’s safeguarding commitment. If he does not support these amendments, how is he going to guarantee that every child that the UK considers for safeguarding is treated equally? What else, if not the UN convention on the rights of the child, should guide us? I will happily finish now to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that Government Members will understand that this is about our passion to get this right; it is not a party political point.

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I support the amendment and want to make a plea to Conservative Members to support it. It is important for the values that we uphold in the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow for making such a passionate plea, and eloquently describing the plight of children who flee from violent homes to a land where they hope for a safe, secure home, and then find that they are no closer to home.

I have three questions for the Minister. Is he aware that the children who come to the camps are now at a 46% higher risk of being smuggled and of sexual exploitation than they were last year? Is he aware that the British Association of Social Workers has pointed out an inbuilt 50% shortfall in current funding on full cost recovery for services to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—the children to whom the amendment relates?

Finally, the British Association of Social Workers also has concerns in relation to the Government’s support for the original Dubs amendment, which has been mentioned many times: only a tiny proportion of the children in mainland Europe have arrived in the UK.

I make a plea to Conservative Members: if we are honest about what we want to achieve in the House and we want to protect the most vulnerable, we must make sure we provide support for them. Of course we want to provide support for all children, but those to whom the amendment relates are at the bottom of the ranks.

I ask the Government and Conservative Members to show their support. The point is not a party political one; it is about what we uphold in the House, in an era when the children in question are demonised in the press, when we talk about checking their teeth to find out how old they really are, and there is open hostility to them. It is our duty to support an amendment that will give them some comfort and show that someone in the world is looking out for them.

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It is a pleasure to support the amendment. Amendments 16 and 17 will ensure that safeguarding partners safeguard and promote the welfare of unaccompanied refugee children, and that any guidance given by the Secretary of State must be developed in accordance with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. They will help to protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable and unprotected children.

Every child, whatever their circumstances and background, deserves the support that they need to get a good start in life, and to succeed in their education and in life. I am sure that the Minister agrees, in view of the corporate parenting principles in the Bill. However, we have too often failed in that obligation to unaccompanied refugee children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow outlined.

Unaccompanied refugee children are perhaps the most vulnerable young people in society. They have fled humanitarian disasters, wars, and horrors that none of us could begin to imagine. If they arrive in this country we have a moral duty to ensure that they receive the support they need; otherwise there is a risk that they will fall through the cracks and face a danger of being exploited. They have fled from terrible things and we must do all that we can to ensure that they get a better life here. That is no less than any of us would want for a child of our own. By ensuring that safeguarding partners have regard to unaccompanied refugee children, amendment 16 will go some way to ensuring that we rise to our moral duty. I am honoured to support my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will lend their support to amendment 17. After all, I cannot imagine that they would object to any of the rights set out in the convention on the rights of the child. If they will not support the amendment, perhaps they will explain which of those rights they believe should not be extended to every child in the country.

I gently remind the Minister that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its findings on the Government’s compliance this year, and they are failing in many areas. Accepting the amendments would go some way towards repairing that terrible record.

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I am grateful to hon. Members for the amendments, which I recognise seek to ensure the best interests of this very vulnerable group of children, and I assure the Committee that I appreciate the good will and passion that sits behind them.

I turn first to amendment 16. Under section 16E of the Children Act 2004, which will be inserted by clause 16, safeguarding partners will be required to make arrangements for themselves and any relevant agencies that they consider appropriate to work together for the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in the local area. I assure hon. Members that, when making those arrangements, safeguarding partners will be required to take account of the needs of unaccompanied refugee children. That will be the case even in areas where the numbers of such children are small.

In addition, we have also announced our plans to publish a safeguarding strategy for that particular group of children by 1 May 2017, as called for by Lord Dubs in the other place. The Government strategy will seek to ensure the utmost protection for unaccompanied, asylum-seeking and refugee children in this country, as well as those who are being transferred here from Europe, whether they are reunited with family members or become looked after by a local authority.

As part of the strategy, we will set out plans to increase foster care capacity for those looked after children, and will consider what further action can be taken to prevent them from going missing. We will also review what information is communicated to those children about their rights and entitlements; revise statutory guidance for local authorities on how to support and care for them; and regularly review the level of funding provided to local authorities for the care and support of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. As this point was raised earlier in the debate, let me say that local authorities were asked to submit their costs of caring for that group. Current funding is higher than 50% of local authorities’ costs, and we will keep that under review to ensure that their needs are being met. Those commitments are already being progressed in consultation with others, including local authorities and non-governmental organisations.

The safeguarding responsibility for those children who have been identified for transfer but are yet to arrive lies with the member state where the children currently reside, not the local authority in which they will ultimately reside. We have supported the French in their efforts to move all children from the Calais camp to safe alternative accommodation across France. While they remain in France, their welfare and safety is a matter for the French authorities.

Since the Home Secretary’s statement to Parliament in October, when the French operation to clear the Calais camp started, teams of specialist staff have been working in France, in close liaison with the French authorities, to ensure that children eligible to come to the UK continue to be transferred as quickly as possible. We continue to work in partnership with the French authorities to transfer children to the UK with close family here—who qualify under the Dublin regulation—and those children who meet the criteria of section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. To date, around 200 children have been brought to this country under such arrangements. I can tell the hon. Member for Walthamstow that more eligible children will be transferred from Europe, in line with the terms of the Immigration Act, and we will continue to meet our obligations under Dublin II. We will announce the number of children to be transferred to the UK under the terms of the Immigration Act in due course.

I think it is worth making it explicit to the Committee that the guidance of 8 November applies only to the Calais operation, which is now complete, but that the Dubs process has not ended. More eligible children will be transferred, and I know the Home Office will make a further announcement on how that process will take place. I will undertake to make sure that all of the points raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow in this debate and on Second Reading are made clear to the Home Office and the Ministers there, so that they are fully aware of those issues as they develop the next iteration of that process. The hon. Lady has undertaken stoic work in trying to make sure that all of those points are understood.

On amendment 17, the Government are committed to children’s rights, and we are determined to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children—including unaccompanied refugee children. We are equally committed to giving due consideration to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child when making new policies and legislation, and when developing guidance for local agencies. In fact, another written ministerial statement that I laid before Parliament—I have had a habit of creating them in recent weeks—set out our commitment to do so right across Government, making sure that every Department is playing its part. I know that the permanent secretary in my Department is speaking with his counterparts in every other Department to ensure that that is followed through within the civil service.

One of the commitments in our safeguarding strategy will be to publish a revised version of the statutory guidance for local authorities on the care of unaccompanied and trafficked children. The guidance we have is good, but it needs updating to reflect the new circumstances that we find ourselves in as well as the diverse nature of the group of children that we are talking about to ensure that local authorities are aware of the duties they must undertake to support and promote the best interests of these children.

The focus of the amendment is confined to unaccompanied refugee children, but in fact in this country we make no distinction between their rights and the rights of all children. Our statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children,” was developed in the light of the UNCRC articles and applies to all children whatever their status. It also applies to all those who work with children, not just the safeguarding partners and relevant agencies referred to in proposed new section 16F. We will revise “Working together” next year to reflect the changes brought about by the Bill.

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Does my hon. Friend not think that, notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, it is better for the rules, regulations and requirements to be effectively “colour blind” rather than to segregate and segment our children on where they have come from and their circumstances? That, rather than segmentation and being siloed, is much more likely to lead to a comprehensive and cohesive approach.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the approach we have taken. There is some commonality that goes back to the heart of many of the debates we have had during the passage of the Bill. Irrespective of which side of the House we are on, there is a clear desire to see a system—whether a safeguarding system or a health system—based on need. If we can get that right and not try to differentiate on children or children’s rights but work to strengthen those rights further and reflect them through the UNCRC, we should do that to underpin those principles in the work we carry out.

I am happy to reiterate the commitment that Lord Nash made in the other place: we will ensure that the review of “Working together” looks again at the underpinning principles and how they can be further strengthened to reflect children’s rights as reflected in the UNCRC. We believe that the forthcoming safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied and refugee children and the robust safeguarding arrangements proposed in the Bill for all children are the best approach to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of these vulnerable children.

These are difficult issues, and everyone is working hard to try to do the best that they can for these children, who are extremely exposed and vulnerable. There are often heartbreaking situations that we wish we could do all we were able to do to prevent, but we think we have a good, strong system in place, and we will keep that under close review. The hon. Lady has heard from me today that the Home Office is considering how we move on to the next stage, post-Calais, to ensure that we capture the children who have a genuine refugee status recognised through the international convention, concentrating our efforts on helping them to seek refuge in the UK.

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I agree with the Minister; I think there is common ground. However, the case he is making is for the guidance that the Home Office has issued to date not to be compatible with the principles he is setting out. Does he think it is right to put nationality or age ahead of need, as that guidance does? If he does not, we need to understand what he will do to protect children in Europe who we have identified for resettlement from such discrimination in future.

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I would say two things. On a factual point, the guidance that has been the subject of discussion is, as I said, in relation to Calais only. Therefore, as regards where we go on the further decisions to be made for children who have come to the UK under refugee status, it is no longer valid. There is however still a point at which the current guidance is relevant, which is in how it is constructed. We can only base decisions on which children to bring over if they meet the definition of a refugee set out by the 1951 refugee convention. We cannot bring over children who do not have that status because they will not qualify for local authority support or accommodation. They must have a realistic prospect of meeting that definition.

Our criteria are intended to ensure that we focus on the most vulnerable, by virtue of age or because they are assessed as at high risk of sexual exploitation, and the youngest of the children most likely to qualify for refugee status. We are considering those nationalities with an initial asylum grant rate of 75% or higher in the year ending June 2016. We have said we will focus on those nationalities most likely to qualify for refugee status in the UK.

If they do not have refugee status, they will not be able to come to the UK and receive the support that we all want to give them. That criterion is not in conflict with the best-interest criterion. The criterion is designed to identify refugee children and bring them here where it is in their best interest.

It is not in their best interest to come to the UK if there is no local authority place or if they are returned at 18 as they do not meet the criteria to be a refugee. We have to set some criteria that reflect that situation, which is actually defined by international law, and we believe we have that balance right.

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The guidance is explicit about a first preliminary stage that excludes on the basis of nationality, ahead of the best-interest assessment. That is not what the Minister is saying, but the guidance is explicit. That is why Eritrean children, for whom 87% of appeals for refugee status are successful, are explicitly cut out by this guidance. Does the Minister believe that that accords with the conventions that he wants to apply to safeguarding? It is a two-step process and the first step excludes children who would qualify under the second step.

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I did fear at the beginning of this debate that, although we would have some agreement, there would ultimately be disagreement because the Government’s position is clearly set out in the guidance and the safeguarding strategy. Focusing on those most likely to qualify for refugee status is not just the UK’s approach. It reflects the approach taken across Europe, for example, under the EU’s relocation programme to transfer asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other European countries. It is right to give priority to those likely to qualify for refugee status, as well as the most vulnerable, regardless of their nationality.

The hon. Lady mentioned Eritrea. Without straying too far from the clause and the amendment, we look across the world and see all sorts of war-torn areas and countries going through instability and devastation and we need to ensure that we do what we can to respond. However, we have to look at those countries with a greater likelihood of eligibility for refugee status. The truth is that Sudanese and Syrian refugees are more likely to be eligible than those from other countries. We must have a system in place to provide identification to ensure that we have refugee status clearly defined. We will have a greater prospect of ensuring that they meet the criteria and, therefore, that we will be able to help them in this country.

As I said, we have moved on from the Calais operation. We still have our commitments under the Dubs amendment and we will continue to work hard to identify those children who are the most vulnerable and who also qualify under the internationally recognised definition of a refugee. I know that it is hard; these are not easy decisions. We must do all we can to bring about the best possible outcome for those children but we must also be realistic about how we define that in a way that makes it practically possible for us to help them and ensure they do not fall foul of the law and end up not getting the support that they need. On that basis, I hope hon. Members are sufficiently reassured to withdraw the amendment.

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I thank the Minister for his comments but he is on, if he is honest, what he might call a sticky wicket. He might have moved on from Calais but those kids have not. There are 1,000 children in centres around France who got on buses from Calais on the promise that they would be treated fairly by the British authorities, and that when they were assessed by the Home Office to be identified for resettlement in the UK they would be treated fairly. The Minister has just had to justify a system that is not fair, that sees not the child’s needs but their nationality, that discriminates against a group with a high prospect of refugee status—Eritrean children—and that leads to 14-year-old Afghan boys thinking their only hope is to kill themselves or to get here illegally, on the back of a lorry. We are back to square one with this guidance.

I sense in what the Minister said that we might see different guidance for Italy and Greece. I very much hope so, but words mean nothing if they are not backed up by actions. I will press the amendment to a vote, because I want to see Government Members voting against putting the UN convention on the rights of the child at the heart of our safeguarding process; I want to see that commitment.

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indicated assent:

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The hon. Member for Lewes shakes her head. Perhaps she needs to explain to people why she does not think young Eritrean people are worthy of that kind of protection. The problem with what the Minister says is that there are 1,000 children facing a very uncertain future in France right now, and we have a responsibility. We made that commitment to them.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 9

15 December 2016

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 6
Noes: 8

Question accordingly negatived.

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On a point of order, Mrs Main. I want to raise very briefly one additional point about clause 16 that is not related to child refugees.

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We are about to consider it. The hon. Gentleman may make his remarks in the clause stand part debate.

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We want to hear them.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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It is always great when someone clarifies the situation. I am grateful, Mrs Main.

I notice that clause 16 specifies the partners for the local safeguarding arrangements as being the local authority, the police and the clinical commissioning group. Will the Minister briefly say why the clause limits it to those partners? Did he consider a role for education? If so, why did he decide not to pursue that? I realise that the partners are entitled to bring in other people they regard as appropriate, but I wonder what the reasoning is for limiting the specified partners to the local authority, the police and the clinical commissioning group.

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I am happy to clarify that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the list is not limited to those three core members, as the legislation allows for other agencies to be involved in those arrangements.

As I said earlier, we asked Alan Wood to do an independent review of local safeguarding arrangements, and his recommendation was that three core agencies—the police, the local authority and the clinical commissioning group, on behalf of the health service—needed to be at the centre of that body and that decision-making process, as they envelope a large proportion of the contact children have with safeguarding services.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the education arena has clear reasons to be involved in those arrangements. I would be surprised if it was not, bearing in mind the role it has through “Keeping children safe in education” guidance and needing to have a safeguarding officer within schools. The education arena needs to be involved and subsumed into wider safeguarding discussions, to ensure the overall strategy is effective. However, the main reason for giving those three core agencies statutory responsibility for safeguarding in their local area is that we accepted the recommendation and rationale from Alan Wood.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Local child safeguarding practice reviews

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I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 17, page 14, line 12, leave out subsection (6).

This amendment would remove the role of the Secretary of State in determining certain arrangements for the working practices of safeguarding partners, ensuring that they remain locally accountable.

The spirit of the amendment is much the same as that of previous amendments concerning the child safeguarding practice review panel. It relates to unacceptable levels of involvement by the Secretary of State, this time in local child safeguarding reviews. Improvements in local safeguarding reviews are much needed.

There is huge variability in the quality and usefulness of serious case reviews, and there are questions about the suitability of board members and their closeness to those who might have a role in a serious case being scrutinised. However, the fact remains that a top-down approach whereby the Secretary of State advises each local authority—familiarity with which he or she cannot possibly be expected to have—about the criteria being taken into account, the choice of reviewers and, in particular, the content of the review cannot be either wise or a productive use of the DFE’s time or the local board’s time.

If serious case reviews are to have the desired effect of improving practice and procedure in response to tragedies, it is crucial that the review be locally accountable and locally owned. The purpose should be for those involved to reflect on possible mistakes and propose ways in which they can improve. Will the Minister explain why the Government feel there is a need for the Secretary of State to have such heavy involvement in these issues?

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Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the amendment. Clause 17 sets out the requirement on safeguarding partners for a local authority area to identify and, where appropriate, carry out local child safeguarding practice reviews. Subsection (6) of proposed section 16F of the Children Act 2004, inserted by clause 17, sets out a list of provisions on which the Secretary of State may make regulations in order to assist local safeguarding partners to identify appropriate cases and carry out reviews where they consider appropriate, as set out in subsection (1).

It is important that the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations to help safeguarding partners in the process of local reviews. Subsection (6)(a) will enable the setting of criteria to be taken into account by the safeguarding partners in determining which cases raise issues of importance in relation to the area. That will not remove or reduce the local accountability of the safeguarding partners to make decisions. It will promote a more even and balanced consideration of the issues across the country, so that we get consistency.

The safeguarding partners will be responsible for appointing the reviewer for each review they commission. They will also be responsible for removing the reviewer if need be. Subsection (6)(b) will enable the regulations to provide for reviewers to be appointed from a list provided by the Secretary of State.

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Can the Secretary of State then override the local decisions?

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No.

If such a list was provided, safeguarding partners would still be accountable for decisions taken on whom to appoint, taking into account the experience of the reviewer concerned and their independence from the local area, among other factors. The aim of a list will be to improve the overall quality of reviews, given that many have acknowledged that as being deficient in the current serious case review system, as have Members on both sides of the Committee today.

Subsection (6)(c) allows for regulations to specify when a report should be provided to the Secretary of State or the child safeguarding practice review panel and published. In receiving copies of all local reviews, the panel would be in an ideal position to review both the quality and timeliness of reports and the learning that emerges from them. Regulations would enable timescales to be set for that process.

Subsection (6)(d) refers to the procedure for a review, which may include the establishment of terms of reference. Finally, subsection (6)(e) allows regulations to make provision about the form and content of the reports. It should be noted that such provisions would not be unduly prescriptive as they would be entirely about promoting the overall quality of reviews.

I want to reassure hon. Members that, in making regulations, we will consult on their content widely before bringing them before Parliament, which will give the hon. Lady an opportunity to scrutinise them in more detail. Indeed, we have already begun to talk to a range of interested parties about some of these important issues. I hope that, with those clarifications, the hon. Lady feels able to withdraw her amendment.

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I do feel able, thank you, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 18 to 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Guidance by Secretary of State

Amendment proposed: 17, in clause 22, page 17, line 5, at end insert—

“(3) Guidance given by the Secretary of State in connection with functions conferred by section 16E in relation to unaccompanied refugee children must be developed in accordance with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.”—(Stella Creasy.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 10

15 December 2016

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 6
Noes: 8

Question accordingly negatived.

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Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 23 to 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31

Pre-employment protection of whistle-blowers

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I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 31, page 20, leave out line 4.

This amendment would retain reference to the Health Service in the Employment Rights Act 1996.

This brief amendment would retain reference to the health service in the Employment Rights Act 1996. Social workers and others in the sector have been pleased to see that whistleblowing arrangements have been included in the Bill, but we query why child protection and other children’s social workers employed by the health service have been omitted from the whistleblowing provisions, given how many there are. Why are children’s social workers employed in hospitals and other areas omitted? It would be a shame, especially in the wake of what we know of institutional abuse in certain hospitals, if such employees were not accorded the same whistleblower protections as their peers employed privately or by local authorities.

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I apologise for my earlier error, Mrs Main.

The Scottish Government acknowledge and respect the need for whistleblowing and believe that procedures should be in place across the public and private sectors to support staff in raising any concerns in order to ensure that people can work in a safe and secure environment. Without whistleblowers, serious concerns may take longer to be noticed and rectified. Any proposals that strengthen whistleblowing procedures and help protect employees and service users across the public sector are welcome.

Robust whistleblowing procedures are in place across Scotland, including in our NHS, but the Scottish Government and the SNP support further reforms to protect and embed an honest and open reporting culture in which all staff have the confidence to speak up without fear and in the knowledge that any genuine concern will be treated seriously and investigated properly. All children and young people have the right to be cared for and protected from harm. The amendment will help with that and we support it.

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As we have heard, the clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations to prohibit relevant employers who carry out children’s social care functions from discriminating against those applying for roles in the children’s social care sector on the basis that it appears to the employer that the applicant has made a protected disclosure. This includes when the employer refuses the application or in some other way treats the applicant less favourably than it treats others for the same application. I am pleased that we were able to work so productively with Lord Wills in the other place over the summer to produce these important protections.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for South Shields, let me clarify that social workers employed in the NHS are already covered by the 2006 provisions and will be captured in the relevant regulations, with the consultation due in the new year. That is another consultation that I suspect she will want to keep a close eye on, and to which she might wish to contribute.

The Government are clear that those working with the most vulnerable must be able to report their concerns. They deserve effective protection when they make a protected disclosure. Workers with such concerns can already make a disclosure to their employer or the prescribed bodies for child protection and wellbeing social workers. We agreed with Lord Wills’s proposals that, in addition, we should protect those seeking employment with specified bodies in roles relating to local authorities’ children’s social care functions. We are delighted to have worked with him to produce a suitable amendment.

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I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32

Chapter 2: consequential amendments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss Government motion to transfer clause 32 to the end of line 39 on page 19.

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I will be brief. The clause introduces a second set of consequential changes to legislation contained in schedule 1 to the Bill and relating to the provisions in chapter 2. The motion to transfer is another administrative exercise to tidy up this chapter into three smaller chapters.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 32 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered,

That clause 32 be transferred to the end of line 39 on page 19.—(Edward Timpson.)

The consequential amendments introduced by clause 32 are in Part 2 of Schedule 1. They replace or remove references to Local Safeguarding Children Boards (abolished by clause 30). Transferring clause 32 would enable it to appear in the new Chapter relating to the safeguarding of children (see the explanatory statement for the motion to transfer clause 11).

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 33

Social Work England

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Regulation clauses in part 2 of the Bill deal with the establishment of a new regulator for both children’s and adults’ social work across all specialisms. It will be called Social Work England. The Department for Education and the Department of Health, without any prior consultation or dialogue with the social work profession, propose to end regulation by the Health and Social Care Professionals Council and to replace it with an inevitably much more costly bespoke regulatory system.

In recent years there has been a lot of flux in relation to social work regulation. There was the General Social Care Council, the college and then the Health and Care Professionals Council, and now we will have Social Work England. I hope that the Minister will confirm that this ever-changing landscape is going to cease and that we will not be debating another regulator in another year or so, because all that this change does is create constant disruption in the profession.

I profess to being relieved to be speaking to this clause without having to battle against the Government on their initial proposal that the new regulator be established as an executive agency of the Department for Education. The fact that that was proposed at all is disgraceful. State-run regulation is something that none of us ever wants to see. Indeed, a survey by Unison in August found that around 90% of social workers thought the profession should be regulated by an independent body and not by Government. I congratulate the noble Lord Watson and Lord Warner for their tireless work on this section of the Bill in the other place. They were successful in getting a number of concessions on the regulator to make it independent from Government.

Although I am pleased that I do not have to stand here and talk about a state-run regulator, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what the Government were planning to do, because it indicates their true feelings towards the profession. This would have had a hugely negative impact on the extent to which social workers feel ownership of improvement initiatives, and it would have stifled the development of the profession—[Interruption.] I will shorten my comments.

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What might have been done is somewhat off what is being done.

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I appreciate that.

Even with the amendments to the clause, the original proposition was outrageous. It has left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the sector, and distrust and scepticism behind the whole idea of the new regulator. What assurances can the Minister give that will ensure that social work regulation has the appropriate autonomy and distance from prevailing Government policy, and that it focuses on public protection, which is the proper priority of regulation? Will he tell us why social work is always treated differently from other health and social care professions?

Regulation of all professions should focus on assuring fitness to practise and public protection. All other professions are regulated to ensure consistent and safe practice. That arrangement provides continuity through the changes that inevitably come from successive policy developments under different Governments. Given that there is little cross-party consensus on children’s social care policy at the moment, and that subsequent Governments could take a different path, this is particularly worrying.

Although the amended proposals for a non-departmental public body regulatory body suggest more independence than was first proposed, a NDPB can mean a wide range of governance and independence options. We are challenging the detail of current proposals that intend for the Government to directly appoint the leadership of the organisation. We expect that the key roles of chair and chief executive officer, as well as the board, will be appointed without political control of process and decision making. Current Government proposals mean that the Secretary of State for Education controls those appointments.

It would be better for regulatory standards to be set out through a profession-led process. The British Association of Social Workers and its partners should drive that; BASW has always supported and campaigned for regulation to ensure high standards and to protect the public. If independence from Government control is not instituted in these new arrangements, that will detract from the profession developing its own standards and setting capabilities and a culture of responsibility for excellence at every single level.

We are also concerned that the proposals risk fostering resistance to regulation and might lead to social workers choosing to deregister if a new regulator focuses on delivering current Government policy and sets requirements for registration that inappropriately narrow down the options for how social workers can demonstrate their fitness to practise. That risk is exacerbated by the probability of significantly increased fees for social workers from an expensive and bespoke regulator. There has recently been a decline in the number of social workers being trained. There is a further risk of decline with proposed changes to training bursaries disincentivising good candidates from the profession. Problems in retention persist. The profession and our public services cannot withstand the further risk of a drain of talent and capacity from the registered workforce. I hope that the Minister understands that and will sum it up in his comments.

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Clause 33 underpins our ambition to improve the practice of social work and raise the status of the profession. It establishes a new body corporate, Social Work England, which will be a new, bespoke regulator for this vital and unique profession.

First, I will set out the case and motivation for reform. In many ways, the easiest thing would be to do nothing and not prioritise social work as a key plank of the Government’s efforts to transform children’s social care. I think we all agree that high-quality social work can transform lives and that social workers play a critical role in our society. They deliver a range of vital services, from safeguarding the most vulnerable to supporting those with complex needs to live life to the full. Every day, social workers deal with complex and fraught situations that require a great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. When social workers are not able to fulfil their role competently the consequences can be catastrophic, which is why the Government have developed a significant reform programme to improve the quality of social work and of the systems that support social workers. That includes investing £750 million since 2010 in supporting both traditional and fast-track routes into the profession and investing £100 million to date in the children’s social care innovation programme, so that local authorities and others can evidence how to reform services and practice to be more effective.

More is needed. To underpin the reforms, social work needs a regulatory system that meets the needs of this unique profession. Such a regulatory system will help to improve public safety and promote the status and standing of social work. The need for an improved system of regulation for the social work profession in England has been highlighted in recent independent reviews.

The hon. Lady asked why the social work profession should have a different regulator from the health profession. The approach of the current regulator, the Health and Care Professions Council, is designed to maintain minimum standards of public safety and initial education across a range of professions, rather than to drive up standards in any one profession. Driving up standards is vital for a profession in which the safety of our most vulnerable people is inextricably linked to the highest standards of practice. I would argue also that social work is a distinct and highly skilled profession and that its practitioners manage complex risks and work with vulnerable children and adults on a daily basis. A new specialist regulator for social work reflects that reality and will be able to focus on the unique nature of social work practice and on the education and training needed to support it in a way that is, unfortunately, not currently possible.

Clause 33 provides for the establishment of a new regulator for the social work profession in England. It makes it clear that our intention is to set up a regulator that is a separate legal entity at arm’s length from Government. It is important to maintain appropriate distance between the new regulator and Government, and I make it clear that it has never been our intention to give Government the power to make decisions about the fitness to practise of individual social workers.

The clause also introduces schedule 2, which sets out the new body’s governance and accountability arrangements. We may want to discuss that in more detail later, but our ambition in establishing a new bespoke, independent regulator for social work is to continue improving the practice of social work and raising the status of the profession.

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I thought it might be better to intervene now rather than take up time later. On the financing of the regulator, the Minister will be familiar with the experience of the College of Social Work, for which the start-up cost included about £5 million of Government money. The college only ever reached half its anticipated registration figure, and it eventually had to close because it did not have sufficient funds to continue.

I have three specific questions. First, is the Minister confident that the regulator will be financially self-sustaining without the cost being prohibitive enough to cause a problem with registration? Secondly, will individuals have to register as individuals, or will it be possible for an employer or local authority to register them? That happened under the College of Social Work, but of course that was part of its undoing. Finally, the regulator appears to be taking on some of the functions that were previously associated with the College of Social Work and the former Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, including education and training. Is he confident that the combination of setting the standards, approving the qualifying training and regulating the practice of individuals is compatible with having a single organisation? I recognise that he has made a lot of changes since the original proposals, so I am not criticising what he is trying to do. I am trying to be clear about how the regulator will work, given past experiences of efforts in this direction that have not exactly been that successful.

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That was a substantial intervention.

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I am always happy to talk with the hon. Gentleman at any time about the details of policies and their implementation, and this is no exception. Despite the short time I have had to prepare an answer, I will do my best to give him the details that he seeks.

The Government will significantly support the establishment of Social Work England as a regulator in terms of the set-up costs. We anticipate that about £10 million will be provided by the Government from the Department of Health. The Government will also contribute up to £16 million over the rest of this Parliament to support the running costs of Social Work England. We anticipate that it will become a self-sustaining model. For the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out, we want to ensure that, during that period, that is exactly what we work towards.

The administration and workings of the new regulator will be overseen by the Professional Standards Authority, which will be keeping a close eye on its ability to be sustainable. At the moment, we are looking at individual registration, but I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman said about whether there are other mechanisms. The important thing is that we are confident that every person who is meeting the necessary standards is doing so as an individual, as opposed to as part of a team. It is that person’s professional capacity that we are most interested in.

The regulator is not an improvement body; it is purely a regulator. One point I will pick up on for the hon. Member for South Shields is that we want to work with the various professional bodies that support social workers so that we have a single body that can help social workers with their improvement journey through their career, so that they feel supported in the process.

We have established an advisory group that includes the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the British Association of Social Workers, Unison, the Local Government Association and the PSA, which will act as our critical friend and provide effective challenge to help us to develop the detail and the practical delivery of the new regulator. The first meeting took place on 9 December. The intention is that the group will meet every six weeks to discuss the challenges that the changes will have for the wider social workforce, and to help support the development and detail of Social Work England. There are requirements in the Bill for Social Work England to consult on its standards, so there is another opportunity to look at those more closely. On that basis, I hope that the clause stands part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clauses 34 to 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44

Fees

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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There are concerns that the new regulator, Social Work England, has been developed without any prior consultation or dialogue with the profession. There is a worry that it is likely to have cost implications for social workers in the form of high registration fees. I hope that the Minister can today confirm that that will not be the case, and that the Government can protect already practising social workers and require that fees for the new regulator’s initial five years of existence be set no higher than the projected fees over that time for the existing regulator.

Social workers are already grossly underpaid for the work they do. The job is done seven days a week. It involves great personal and financial sacrifices and affects their mental and physical health. They should not have to bear the burden of paying for a new regulator that they never asked for.

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Clause 44 enables the Secretary of State, through regulations, to confer power on the regulator to charge fees in relation to registration or continued registration in the register provided for in clause 36; assessing whether a person meets a professional standard relating to proficiency, under clause 38(4); and the approval or continued approval of education and training courses in accordance with a scheme provided for in clause 39. Social workers currently pay £180 every two years to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. Those fees enable the HCPC to carry out its functions effectively. Clause 44 will enable Social Work England to have a power similar to the one that already exists.

Our vision is to create a confident and highly capable social work profession with the right knowledge and skills. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that that is worth pursuing, but to support that vision we need to invest in the profession by putting in place a new, bespoke regulator that focuses on practice excellence from initial education through to post-qualification specialism.

The clause is clear that before the regulator can determine the level of the fee, it must consult those persons whom it considers appropriate and must gain approval from the Secretary of State. That is a very significant part of the clause. Although it is right and proper that the regulator has appropriate freedoms and flexibilities, we want to ensure that any potential increase in fees is proportionate. I assure hon. Members that there is no intention that this will involve any element of profit making. The powers in respect of fees simply allow flexibility in the use of funding, thereby allowing cross-subsidisation. They would allow, for example, newly qualified social workers to pay a reduced fee for the first two years of registration as they do now.

The clause also enables the Secretary of State to confer power on the regulator to charge for the approval or continued approval of education and training courses. Again, that happens in other professions, but not currently in social work.

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I just want this to be clear. Is it the Minister’s intention that anyone working for any organisation in England whose job could reasonably be described as that of a social worker will have to be registered with the regulator to continue to do that job?

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This is in relation to a children and families social worker. There are other roles that people can have within children’s social care, but if someone wants to qualify and be accredited as a social worker in that respect, the regulator is there for them. Of course it also incorporates adult social work and the regulation of that profession, but for any social worker there is a generic part to the degree, which the hon. Gentleman will be aware of. We want to ensure that there is consistency of approach to how we ensure that we know who meets the necessary standard, and that is reflected in the detail set out in subsequent clauses and the regulations that will follow.

Under the current regime, the cost is met from the registration fees paid by individual social workers. Again, it is right to make provision to enable the regulator at least to consider that option, but the clause is clear that it would need to consult before determining the level of any fee in order to understand any potential impact. The clause will also enable the new regulator to charge for assessing whether a person meets a professional standard relating to proficiency. Under clause 38(4), the Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about arrangements for such assessments.

The Government are keen to promote the development of post-qualification specialist practice, and we firmly believe that Social Work England can play a positive role in that, albeit as a regulator. In the first instance, it will take on functions relating to best interest assessors and approved mental health professionals. Over time, it may have a role in supporting efforts to develop post-qualifying specialisms for accredited child and family practitioners. The power under clause 38 for regulations to make provision about arrangements for the regulator to assess proficiency and the power dealt with in clause 44 for regulations to make provision for the regulator to charge a fee in respect of such assessments are included to support this future possibility. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is sensible in not tying the regulator’s hands to the extent of potentially affecting sustainability in the long term.

Before exercise of the powers, including determination of the level of any such fee, regulations must be made through the affirmative procedure and the regulator must consult any persons whom they consider appropriate. That ensures that the appropriate safeguards are in place and addresses the issues raised by the hon. Lady. I hope that on that basis, the Committee will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 44 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 45 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 51 to 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 10 January 2017 at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

CSWB 09 Women's Aid

CSWB 10 Women Against Rape (WAR)

CSWB 11 Equality and Human Rights Commission

CSWB 12 Anonymous

CSWB 13 Independent Children's Homes Association

CSWB 14 Mary J Flores AKA Mary Moss