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Children: Child Care

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 26 July 2007

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Bridget Prentice) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

In agreement with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan) and the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh Assembly Government (Gwenda Thomas), I am pleased to be able to inform the House of the progress we are making towards improving the child care proceedings system in England and Wales.

The Government set out the strategy for all children in England in the consultation paper Every Child Matters: Change for Children, published in September 2003. In this paper, we identified five key outcomes for children, which are universal ambitions for all children, whatever their background or circumstances. Our aim is for every child to be healthy; stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; and, achieve economic well-being. In Wales, Rights to Action, published in April 2004, set out policies within the framework of seven outcome-based aims founded on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We believe that the outcomes set out in these policies are particularly important in the case of children who are the subject of care proceedings.

We know that more can and must be done to improve the child care proceedings system, and contribute to better and more positive outcomes for children. Currently, a care or supervision application takes an average of 51 weeks in care centres and 42 weeks in family proceedings courts from the time of application to the point of disposal. Many cases take much longer. We believe that there is much that can be done to reduce this period of uncertainty in the lives of these children and their families.

Recognising this, the former Department for Constitutional Affairs and the former Department for Education and Skills, with input from the Welsh Assembly Government and a wide range of stakeholders, jointly undertook a review of child care proceedings and the findings were published in May 2006. The Review of the Child Care Proceedings System in England and Wales set out a number of proposals to improve the child care proceedings system. Implementing the “immediate” recommendations of the review is a key priority for both our departments and I am pleased to announce a detailed timetable relating to two of the key recommendations of the review.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families in England and the Welsh Assembly Government in Wales are consulting on proposals to issue revised statutory guidance to local authorities under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. The consultation commenced in England on 29 June 2007 and will last for 13 weeks. The revised statutory guidance will be published in England in November 2007. In Wales, the guidance will be issued to all local authorities shortly for consultation to broadly similar timescales. The revision to the guidance will put greater emphasis on the work undertaken by local authorities before care proceedings can be commenced.  In particular, they will be required to notify parents of their intention to make an application to the court and to set out the basis of their concerns and an outline of their future plans for the child. On receipt of this, parents will be able to have immediate access to publicly funded legal help from a solicitor, funded by the Legal Services Commission.

In conjunction with the Judicial Office for England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice is consulting stakeholders during summer 2007 on a revision of Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases, to be entitled Public Law Outline. Testing of the outline in 10 centres from June 2007 will be followed by implementation in England and Wales from April 2008. The outline will underpin the revised statutory guidance by promoting compliance with the pre-proceedings requirements. It will be contained in a practice direction from the president of the Family Division, to be issued with the concurrence of the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. The practice direction will prescribe and timetable the steps to be taken by parties, and the directions to be made by the court for the timely disposal of care applications.