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Contracting Out (Functions In Relationto The Provision Of Guardians Ad Litemand Reporting Officers Panels)Order 1996

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 14 March 1996

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8.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health
(Baroness Cumberlege)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 61.h February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order is made under the powers of Section 70 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It enables local authorities to contract out the provision of the guardian ad litem and reporting officer service under the Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Panels) Regulations 1991. The order-making power is subject to affirmative resolution.

Guardians ad litem and reporting officers, usually referred to by the rather unattractive acronym, GALROs, are appointed by courts under the Children Act 1989. Their functions are to report to the court on the child's wishes and feelings, to instruct a solicitor to act on behalf of the child and to examine the powers available to the court that will best promote the child's welfare. In adoption proceedings there is a similar duty on guardians to report to the court on matters relating to the application.

A particular feature of the GALRO service is that it has to operate at arm's length from the local authority. It has to be seen by the families and the court as offering impartial and independent professional advice. Courts may appoint only GALROs who are panel members. The proposed order does not alter who may act as guardians, only how the GALRO service is organised. There are restrictions on who can practise as a guardian. There are about 920 guardians in England. They work exclusively on guardian matters and the court rules debar them from acting in the case if they have been directly concerned in arrangements relating to the care, accommodation or welfare of the child during the five years prior to the commencement of the proceedings.

Nearly 13,000 cases involving nearly 19,000 children were dealt with by the GALRO service in England in 1994–95.

The GALRO service in England is administered through 54 panels. In some areas a single local authority or a consortium of local authorities has arranged for the GALRO service to be provided by a voluntary organisation. There are five panels and between them they cover 30 local authorities in England. However, these arrangements appear in some instances to exceed the legal powers in the Local Government Act 1972. In effect, the local authorities have entered into a contract of service and have delegated the local authority responsibility beyond what is legally permissible. I should perhaps stress that there is no criticism of the voluntary childcare organisations currently involved. All are held in high regard. Guidance issued in 1991 by the Department of Health may have been misleading in s6 far as it could be read to suggest. that all such arrangements were legally permissible.

This statutory instrument enables local authorities to contract out the GALRO service. The instrument also modifies the 1991 panel regulations, so that where the local authority has contracted out any of its functions under these regulations, the membership of the complaints board for that authority is modified. It cannot include the person to whom the function has been contracted out or an employee of that person. Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, local authorities retain the responsibility for ensuring that the GALRO service is provided, even where the service is contracted out. The effect of the order Rill be to extend the choice available to local authorities in the provision of the service.

It will be entirely up to the local authority to decide which type of arrangements it wishes to have in place. The order enables the local authority to contract out to a voluntary organisation or other organisation which the authority considers appropriate. If it chooses to contract out, it may determine the extent to which some or all of the functions under the panel regulations are retained or contracted out.

Local authorities are responsible for the costs of the GALRO service, which, in 1994–95, were estimated at …18.6 million. Since 1992, there has been a specific grant administered by the Department of Health. That is …6.2 million in the current year. Any contracted-out arrangements will be paid for by the local authorities from within their existing financial resources. The specific grant will continue to be paid to local authorities for as long as the specific grant continues.

Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, the proposals have to be the subject of consultation. The Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils have each confirmed that they are content with this proposal. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th February be approved [ 9th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Baroness Cumberlege.)

My Lords, the noble Baroness explained very clearly the purpose of the order. As she said, it is an enabling procedure, giving a legal framework to a practice which is already in operation and, in general, so far as I am aware, functioning effectively. I am pleased that in her final sentence she mentioned that the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils are happy with the order.I am quite sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, if she were with us, would, for once, vote with the Government on this measure.

One could say that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils were happy with the order. They would he, wouldn't they? It endorses what they already do. For the sake of speed, I shall call the subject of the order GALROs, even though it is not a very nice word, as the noble Baroness said. They are very important people who need wisdom and tact to do their job well. Can the noble Baroness tell the House whether she is satisfied that enough people of the right calibre are coming forward? They are appointed by the responsible local authority social services department in most cases, but are they able to be sufficiently independent to criticise that authority if need be?

I wonder whether the Minister could expand a little on whether the order will change anything in financial terms. That is not quite clear to me. If she can help me with those few points, we on this side of the House will have no objection to what is, in effect, a tidying up piece of legislation.

My Lords, we too would like to thank the noble Baroness for her explanation of the order. Concern can be caused by a brief order such as this one, with an even briefer explanatory note, providing for contracting out the provision of something so important as a panel of guardians ad litem. The noble Baroness provided some reassurance.

One of the major improvements brought about by the Children Act 1989 was the enhancement of the role of the guardian ad litem in a variety of cases. The guardian provides objectivity, critical analysis and appraisal when dealing with sometimes very hurt and bewildered children. More recently, the guardian ad litem may also be required to co-ordinate expert evidence for pending litigation. I understand that the order is intended in part to regularise what happens in practice with the use by local authorities of the voluntary sector, and there can be no possible objection to that.

So far as the order may allow for contracting out the provision of panels as more conventionally provided by local authorities, I am not aware of any particular disquiet, although at first sight it may appear to cause some concern. My observation in practice is that guardians, while having a good working relationship with local authority social services, are anxious to assert their independence and detachment from the local authority. That is quite right, not just because the guardian provides independent representation for children but also because of the weight usually given by the court to the guardian's views.

The only concern, therefore, that one might have about how the order may work in practice is that there should be machinery to maintain standards. What responsibility in practice will local authorities retain over contracted-out panels and what monitoring in practice will there be to ensure that standards are maintained?

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Meston, for their support for the modest proposal that is before us. Perhaps I may just pick up one or two points that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Rea. He was concerned that the right calibre of people should come forward for the very difficult role played by guardians. We know that in nearly all parts of the country at least 90 per cent. of guardians can be appointed within 24 hours of a request from a court. We believe therefore that there are sufficient numbers around.

Independence is a very important point. Indeed, courts throughout the country have expressed complete satisfaction with that aspect of the guardian service. Most social services departments have also found that guardians were able to form an independent judgment and report to the court accordingly. However, I know that research published in 1994 by the Family Rights Group and around the same time by the socio-legal centre in Bristol, showed that certain parents may perceive guardians as not being independent. In their view, all social workers stick together. All those criticisms of a guardian's perceived lack of independence must be balanced by the same research by parents who came to the opposite conclusion. Our conclusions therefore are that they do a good job and remain independent.

The financial aspect of the new proposals is something that local authorities will need to take into consideration when looking at bids for contracting out. It is difficult for us at the moment to quantify the possible savings or perhaps additional costs which can separately be attributed to whether or not the guardian service is contracted out. Most costs will be the same because they relate to the number of cases referred by the courts which require a guardian and the length and complexity of each case. There may be some marginal savings in senior management time in the local authority, which will be less involved in the service. But those too will need to be set against any cost of setting up and monitoring of the contract.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, was anxious to know that the contracts will be properly monitored. I am sure that they will. Local authorities will want to ensure, as they still hold that responsibility, that it is being carried out appropriately. Indeed, the legal responsibility on guardians remains the same. The framework and national standards of the guardian service were published in October 1995. That also continues to apply, however the service is organised locally.

We believe that it is a good service and that the proposals before your Lordships tonight will give a little more choice to local authorities. The service enjoys a high reputation for skilled and effective work in the courts and the order offers sensible clarification of legal powers to contract out the provision which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, was saying, many local authorities are already doing. It increases the choice of options available to local authorities which wish to provide the service to a high standard and in as economical a way as possible. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.