It is very unlikely, but if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 1 [Power to enter into arrangements for discharge of care functions]:
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, at end insert “but only after sufficient provision has been made for early intervention to prevent a child from being taken into care”
The noble Baroness said: I begin by wishing everybody a very happy new year. In speaking to Amendments Nos. 1 and 18, I repeat the overwhelming sentiment of Second Reading that we broadly welcome this very important Bill. I look forward to debating the amendments, many of which can only make it better.
The purpose of the Bill is to improve the provision of care for children and young persons and to ensure that children in care have the same opportunity as all other children and young people. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that providing the support that the Bill seeks to offer can happen in many cases without a child ever having to go into care. While the aim to improve care services is certainly laudable and necessary, we must remember that when it is in the best interests of the child, every effort should be made to keep families together and prevent children going into care in the first place. Of course this is, sadly, not always possible. However, the amendments place a duty on the local authority to make sufficient provision to intervene before the rest of the Bill’s provisions kick in. Having this duty is important for a number of reasons: success in early intervention provides relief for the care system, saving money and allowing the limited resources to be used more effectively. Sometimes problems that could have been resolved by counselling or family group conferences result in a vulnerable child being taken from their home and spending their entire youth in care. We have always welcomed any serious attempt by local authorities to intervene early enough to prevent children being taken into care, and I have often cited the example of Kent County Council, where early intervention and family group counselling have created a virtuous circle.
Everyone we interviewed for our social workers commission said that they would like to see more emphasis placed on proactive work. When the Government issued their Green Paper, Care Matters, we held a number of hearings from those involved in the care sector. A common theme was that the current threshold for intervention into the lives of families on the edge of care is too high. That leads to a very costly process—costly to the lives of those children and costly to the state. Research from the NCH Sheffield Hallam report indicated that early intervention could save £250,000 within one family.
The other amendments in the group outline the specific manner in which we see early intervention being addressed, namely with family group conferences. Such conferences and our specific amendments are supported by a number of children and family lobby groups, including the Family Rights Group and Every Disabled Child Matters. Family group conferences offer a way in which children and their families have the opportunity to have a professionally mediated way of addressing problems and coming up with a plan of resolving them in a manner appropriate to the specific family’s needs. Does the Minister agree that it is vital to take the steps necessary to see that families are not broken up in the first place, and that if problems can be fixed early, they should be?
I understand that a weakness in my amendment could be the term “as appropriate”, and this could be an excuse not to refer in authorities where they are not confident of the model. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that the amendments are a genuine attempt to put some anchor points into a Bill that will require a great deal of best practice and good will. I beg to move.
I will speak to Amendment No. 26 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and also to Amendment No. 27, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley.
Amendment No. 26 is very similar to Amendment No. 18, which has already been spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. It differs slightly in that it seeks to promote a family group conference before a child is committed into care and puts a duty on the local authority to undertake a family group conference when there is a strong likelihood of the child being committed into care and to offer the opportunity of a family conference to develop the care plan for the child. It is important to emphasise that point, because even when a child is taken into care, a family group conference is useful so that the family can understand what the plan for the child is, participate, be involved and to some extent have ownership of that plan. I emphasise the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that such early intervention and thinking forward is a very important part of the process.
Family group conferences are a proven mechanism to enable partnership between the state and families at all key decision-making points for the child, including as a means of engaging the family to identify and support care arrangements for vulnerable children and their parents and as a way of identifying alternative care arrangements within the family when the parent cannot continue to look after the child, including identifying necessary support packages to avoid the child being received into care prior to legal action being undertaken, other than in emergencies.
Recent research has found that family and friends placements were initiated by social workers in only 4 per cent of cases, with the vast majority of placements initiated by relatives and friends. There is therefore clear scope to improve practice and to increase the number of family and friends placements. Family group conferences are a very effective way of engaging family members to come forward to care for a child if a child cannot live at home. The number of family group conferences taking place in England and Wales is increasing, and we welcome the commitment in the White Paper Care Matters: Time for Change to developing the capacity to deliver family group conferences. Nevertheless, whether a family is offered a family group conference is currently dependent on where they live and whether the social worker is inclined to support it. In other words, it is something of a postcode lottery. We believe that it should be the right of every child to know that it has not been removed from his or her family without the state fully exploring all the options for the child to remain within the wider family network. It is worth noting that it is a legal requirement in New Zealand that there should be a family group conference before a child is taken into care.
We have also added our names to Amendment No. 27, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. It deals with the provision of mental health and other services that might support the child and his family, which we discussed extensively at Second Reading. I am very grateful to the Minister for the letter that he sent after that debate, which spoke, among other things, of the statutory guidance that will be issued in the coming year on promoting health for looked-after children and which will make it clear that child and adolescent mental health services should be providing targeted and dedicated provision that prioritises children in care. That is certainly not the case at the moment. We should be delighted to see that guidance made explicit to PCTs and to child and adolescent mental health services.
The Minister also talked about two projects where pilots are being run aimed at providing additional support for vulnerable children and their families; the multi-systemic therapy intervention, which gives the child cognitive behavioural therapy strategies with a range of family support services, and the family drug and alcohol court developments, which are being piloted and developed. Both of those are very promising developments. We are delighted to see that they are taking place but other forms of therapy might be piloted and I hope that the Minister will say a little more about that.
I support Amendment No. 18, to which I have added my name. I also support much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has just said. I start with an unscripted bit about how very challenging and encouraging it is to be in a room where so many people are focused in a non-party political way on the welfare of children. Many noble Lords present are members of the all-party parliamentary group which I chair. This strong grouping, including the observers, clearly indicates that if we support people who care for children, we support children themselves. That is the focus of our deliberations. The welfare of the child, as always, should remain paramount.
I want to say two things. First, the amendment supports the notion of consulting with children, which is evident in much recent government policy. Secondly, it also ties in with some of my later amendments on kinship care. Family group conferences genuinely seek to engage the family in identifying support care arrangements for vulnerable children, alternative care and support packages. They also provide pathways to planning and a means for the child to see members of their family and return home to the family from state care whenever possible. I support the amendment which has already been spoken to.
I, too, support the amendments and even more so in the light of the comments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris, Lady Sharp and Lady Massey, with which I strongly agree. My interventions will be wholly benevolent because I believe that this Bill is needed and I support it very much. I would like potential changes to follow the spirit in which the Government have presented the Bill to make a Bill which gives the best hope for improving the conditions of looked-after children and young persons.
I support both the key elements in this group of amendments. The first is early intervention, raised in Amendments Nos. 1 and 18, which is an underlying point of real importance. I shall not argue at great length that it must be built into the Bill but it is extremely important and if we can get it in the Bill, all the better. Early intervention is really important as regards all these issues.
The second element is family conferences and family therapy, which are not quite the same thing. Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 do not cover exactly the same ground but they are close to it. Both those elements are very helpful and, as some noble Lords said, we all know that there is strong pressure towards using more family therapy where there is a mental health problem. I have seen it in action and I very much support it. I support all four amendments in the group.
I support Amendment No. 26, to which my name is attached, and the general principle behind these amendments. It reminds me of the joint chief inspector’s report on safeguarding children published two years ago now. One of its most troubling and important findings was that the thresholds for interventions with families were too often too low to ensure that children were protected from harm and were also often too low when a child was being abused to enable social services to intervene to get them out of that situation. That is very important and the resources, particularly social workers, must be available to deliver early support to families. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that when a child is fostered by his or her extended family in such circumstances, the outcome is likely to be better, which is a very good reason to support them. There also will be amendments concerning the importance of grandparents and the need to give them more support.
Last year, I attended a seminar sponsored by Family Law UK, with representation from the Family Rights Group, which looked at family group conferencing, in particular. Evidence strongly points to the success of this approach, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said, there seems to be some reluctance by local authorities to implement it. The noble Baroness said that this approach is used in only 4 per cent of circumstances. Can the Minister confirm whether there is such apparent reluctance on the part of local authorities? Perhaps he would write to me. What might be the reason? Perhaps it is the cost of setting up a meeting in the first instance. What does the Minister consider to be the problem? I welcome the measures to prioritise placement with a family. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I, too, welcome the Bill, despite what I said at Second Reading, to which I shall return from time to time. Let me add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said. For those of us who have sat through previous children’s legislation, where two or three people met and hoped that someone almighty was with us, it is wonderful to see so many people taking an interest.
No one who has been involved with social work for as long as I have can disagree with the tenor of any of these amendments. Clearly, the content is crucial. However, I question whether they need to be in legislation. On how the amendments would be incorporated, it would be interesting to hear whether the guidance and workforce planning going on answers some of the issues. We should remember that Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 already places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Within that duty, they are able to provide most things described in the amendments. The problem with Section 17 is the phrase, “who are in need” and the way in which local authorities have closely and tightly defined children in need to the exclusion of vast rafts of children who have needs that are not being met. Therefore, unless we get that clear, none of these amendments will improve the lot of children. We simply will be repeating previous legislation and not taking it forward.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, good prevention is good practice. We have heard the Government saying that about health services recently. We hope that they will pay the same attention to children as they have paid to adults in preventive health services. But all that depends on resources, skills and training, rather than legislation.
Family group conferencing is a very good preventive measure, but we must be extremely careful if we include it in legislation. It is equally important sometimes to provide in-depth, psychiatric and therapeutic help. It might be equally important to provide a washing machine to prevent children coming into local authority care of one form or another.
Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, needs one too.
I go back to family group conferencing. The issue that I have with including it in legislation is that, having been involved with family groups and knowing the dynamics of families at times of trauma and difficulty, I know that that can be just the time not to bring some families together but to do good individual work until families can come together. In my work in CAFCASS, it is noticeable that the families who come before the court are increasingly more complex, with deeper and deeper difficulties, which may be why fewer children are being placed in extended families—as Members of the Committee will know, I am a keen exponent of placing with families, and especially of encouraging grandparents.
We have to be careful and remember that these are not your next-door-neighbour families, on the whole; these are families with extreme difficulties. Family group conferencing has been shown by research to be extremely positive when it works, but needs to be carried out with skill.
The Committee will know that I am a family case worker and therapist by background and my other anxiety is the level of skill that is available. I know that work is under way on workforce development. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about that in terms of skills development, so that we know that the services that could and should be provided will be provided in future. I repeat, Section 1 of the 1963 Act—it goes back that far—now incorporated in Section 17 of the Children Act, while not referring directly to family group conferencing, gives the capacity to provide all those services. Section 17(10) includes support for the child's family.
If anything, I am inclined to support any new clause on the basis that something more might happen in children's services to make it move forward.
I start by saying how sad I was not to be present for Second Reading; I was obliged to be elsewhere. I very much support the concept of the Bill. In principle, I support the amendments. We need to have a specific requirement, where appropriate, for family conferencing or family intervention. One can always deal with it by saying, “where appropriate”, to cover the situation that my noble friend Lady Howarth, has rightly raised. Of course, to bring some families into the same room is a recipe for the police.
My experience as a family judge trying care cases—I am certain that my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan will have had exactly the same experience—is that halfway through the case, you find that the parents say that they were never given the chance to take part. In some cases, that was true; in others it was not. Perhaps more importantly, that required the judge to ask social services whether they had looked at the wider family. I have to tell the Committee that, during I cannot remember how many years as a family judge, there were numerous examples where social services had gone rushing ahead and had never looked for the aunt, the cousin or the grandparent who was the obvious person to have the child.
My feeling is that with no specific requirement, whether in primary legislation, in a statutory instrument or in guidance backed by a requirement, and unless the local authority is told that it must consider a family conferencing early intervention, that is a recipe, I am sorry to say, for a large number of local authorities not to act. Somewhere, either in legislation or in guidance, there must be that requirement. It is very important that that is part of the Bill, in whichever form is thought appropriate. It is very important that parents are not given the opportunity to tell the judge or the magistrates that they were not consulted and that the wider family is considered with a great deal of care before we put the child into a wholly new family.
Over the years that I have been doing these cases there have been many where there would have been a cost implication of enormous value to a local authority, and therefore to the state, in getting hold of a family member early so that there are not the long, drawn-out and extremely expensive care proceedings, bitterly fought to the end, in which the child is in limbo for 12 to 18 months—and probably moved four or five times or more under short-term arrangements. The family really must be considered.
I am interested in Clause 27 on the need for intensive family therapy. The Cassel Hospital in west London is a unique family therapy unit. It is not only unique, it is outstanding—and it is expensive. It is in grave danger of having to close. Since a decision of the House of Lords Judicial Committee, it has basically been unnecessary for a local authority to send a child there for assessment if the assessment includes therapy. If we recognised that intensive family therapy at a very early stage would probably send a child back to the family in a certain percentage of cases, we would save the cost of the foster parent for the next 10 or 12 years. This splendid Bill has behind it intentions such as local authorities continuing to pay for these families through university education, so we are talking far beyond 10 or 12 years.
I strongly support intensive family therapy. Tied to that, please do not let the Cassel fail and shut down. If we do, the best place in the country will be gone and there will be nowhere else quite as good.
I follow on from that point. I also did not speak at Second Reading, for which I apologise, but have followed with great interest, and listened carefully to, the debates involving the mental health aspect. I sound a note of caution. I strongly support our strong feelings and commitment to early intervention for children and their families; there are certainly many cases where intensive family therapy can be effective. Unfortunately we do not currently really know what type or proportion of families can benefit.
I add a note in support of the comments of my noble friend Lady Howarth that we must indicate to local authorities that they should explore what facilities might be appropriate for individuals. I do not know how this is best done, but I know that it is too early in our understanding and knowledge of how these things can work to put it in statute sensibly. We must do a lot more practical research on what works before we can say that. Of course, family conferencing is important and should be encouraged, but family therapy in particular probably only works when the whole family is ready for it. It can be quite destructive at times.
So I sound a note of caution about putting mental health interventions in statute. Let us explore it, encourage people to develop ideas and do more research on what really works. But let us not put it in statute in quite this form at this moment.
I, too, wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. It is a progressive and imaginative piece of legislation. On my attitude to the matters before the Committee, I wholeheartedly agree with every word of my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss. As one who was a circuit judge dealing with family work for many years, I and all my colleagues have immense admiration for my noble and learned friend for the supreme and splendid leadership she gave as president of the Family Division, and for many years before that as a senior judge.
The Bill in its entirety is an accomplishment for those who have thought deeply and considered the needs of the community in this regard. It can be improved in many radical ways. It may well be argued that this is perhaps not the vehicle for all those possible improvements—that vehicular defence is always raised in respect of any radical legislation—but we should remember that we may not go along this way again for quite some time. It is unlikely that we will see another children’s Bill for many years. Where one is in doubt about whether a particular matter should be mentioned in the context of the Bill, it might be better to err on the side of inclusion rather than stay silent about the possibilities.
I wholeheartedly agree with the proposition that even contemplating the application for a care order on the part of a local authority should be regarded as a policy of last resort. When you consider all the sanctions that the courts have with regard to the criminal law, still one of the most impactive and significant orders dealing with human liberty that a court can ever contemplate making is a care order. I am sure that every court that has ever been seized of that jurisdiction is aware of that responsibility. That means that a local authority should consider applying for a care order only when it is convinced that it has exhausted all the other practical possibilities, as so many Members of the Committee have already mentioned. Even then, of course, it has to consider under Section 31 of the Act whether the basic criteria have been satisfied, and even then, in the light of those tests having been successfully passed, whether it is appropriate, in relation to the needs of that particular child, to make a care order. A judge has to be satisfied not only that those tests have been successfully proven but that the care plan has been imaginatively and thoroughly put together.
A great deal depends on each circumstance, but I am afraid a great deal also depends upon the financial and human resources of a local authority. I speak with regard to certain local authorities in Wales. The latest local government reorganisation in Wales allowed Wales to go back to a scheme of 22 counties. Many revelled in that; I was glad to see my ancient county of Cardigan reinstated in its full local government sovereignty. The reorganisation means, however, that many of those counties are extremely weak in financial terms. I have often thought that it might have been better, in relation to certain matters, for there to be an amalgamation of services, and children’s services might have been at the front of the queue for consideration. The poverty of many of those local authorities makes it difficult for them to commit all the resources, human and financial, that they would wish to commit to children in many circumstances, with the result that care plans are put forward, with the best will in the world, with inadequate examination and incomplete consideration. That means that often a care order will have been made in circumstances where it is not absolutely necessary—where there has been no detailed examination, as my noble and learned friend has said, with regard to all the family members who might be adequate to assist in the matter. I am not sure how one goes about that.
I salute Amendment No. 1 for everything that it represents, although it would probably never achieve its aims because it deals with children who are the subject of Clause 1 and Clause 1 deals with children who are already looked after. Most of those looked-after children will be the subject of a care order already and one has to intervene at a much earlier point. Other children who are not the subject of a care order will be looked after under the other provisions of the Children Act 1989.
Clearly, it has to be inculcated in the minds of all concerned with the care of children that one should resort to this scheme—a care order—only when all other possibilities have been exhausted. To my mind, that can never be over-endorsed or over-supported in financial and human terms. If these amendments do no more than concentrate the mind on such matters, they will have succeeded. However, I may be wrong and it may be possible for there to be a specific piece of statutory precept included which will operate at an appropriate time for the childcare case and for children who do not actually go into care.
I offer my profound apologies for not being able to be here when the debate began. There has also been a change in the groupings so I was not aware of how wrong it was that I was not present for the beginning of the debate. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I speak briefly to Amendment No. 27, which, as I am sure others have mentioned, would place a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient culturally sensitive short-term placements and family therapy services to meet the needs of looked-after children where a court has determined that that would be helpful.
This is a probing amendment and I hope that it will begin a debate about the Care Matters recommendation that we should concentrate our efforts on avoiding the need for care—early intervention—rather than waiting years to pick up the pieces when children or young people arrive in prison. Having trained and worked with a number of therapy modalities many years ago, I am aware of the incredible power of family therapy, almost over and above the other therapies with which I have worked. I refer to an example from 30 years ago which sticks in my mind. Two children in a family were repeatedly admitted to hospital with acute asthma—they were blue and at death's door. This had gone on for a number of years and a highly skilled family therapist in the hospital where I worked at the time decided to take on this family. They were given only six sessions of family therapy, and the children never returned. I was told that their asthma disappeared. For me that was extraordinary. I was relatively young and fairly green and it was very striking. Those children had a particular sematic response to the very profound problems within the family. As we know, the great majority of children illustrate the problems of their parents through emotional, behavioural and mental health problems.
My noble friend Lady Murphy said that we do not yet know who can be helped by family therapy. The NICE guidelines are quite good on family therapy. They recommend it alongside CBT as one of the most effective interventions with specific problems, including problems such as depression and anxiety. Many parents and families have those kinds of problems and there is evidence to support the fact that family therapy works. I very rarely disagree with my noble friend Lady Murphy but on this occasion I feel that I am on reasonably firm ground. It is certainly no surprise to me that the NCH claims that, on average, in four out of five referrals to their intensive family therapy services the children do not end up in care, although that appears to be a dramatic statement.
I am sure that the intensive family work done by the NCH will be peculiarly helpful for those severely disturbed families. The sort of work that I was doing was much less intensive. Obviously, the Government will be concerned about the cost, but the NCH evidence on cost is just a no-brainer: the tiny cost of £6,000 or £7,000 for family therapy spread over those children whom it benefits as well as those whom it does not. Every child who goes into care costs £36,000 a year, or something of that kind, quite apart from all the long-term costs of youth justice courts, prisons—you name it.
Bearing in mind the Government’s commitment in their document to that sort of approach, I hope that the Minister will take the amendment very seriously and take it on board as his own.
I support the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I say at the outset, because it is early in our proceedings, that, having been a profound sceptic about the whole process of a Committee stage in the Moses Room, I have been converted. As a hard-nosed politician, as I like to think of myself professionally, I used to feel that the trouble with the Moses Room procedure was that it was nothing: you had a lot of talk but you did not take things to a vote; what did that really add to the whole legislative cause? I have now come to see that it has a very great potential value as a kind of pre-legislative consultation. It gives my noble friends who are Ministers the opportunity to take very seriously the arguments put forward— they have been brought forward with great experience and effectiveness this afternoon—take them away and think: if there is a valid point, how can it best be met? That is a very sane approach to legislation and I hope that we will make full use of it. We know what sort of people my noble friends are, so I am sure that they will respond in that spirit.
The second thing that I want to say about our work in general, which starts with the amendments, is that, as has already been said, there are considerable resource implications to an awful lot of what we are talking about: human resource and cost resource implications. We all know that local authorities are under incredible pressure on expenditure. That is a real challenge that we see repeatedly in social policy: because of our failure to give priority and finance to the strategic things that need to be done, we are using vast amounts of public expenditure to deal tactically with the consequences of that failure. In the long term, it is therefore a totally illusory saving. It is counterproductive; it actually increases the cost.
However, although those financial implications are very important for us all and need to be thought about, we in this Committee are all primarily concerned with the children. Here, I want to make just two points in support, however inadequate, of what the noble Baroness said. The first thing that troubles me about so much of our social work, in whatever dimension it is taking place, is that so often we are dealing with the symptom of the real social issue. I hope that the great champions of children will not mind my saying that sometimes we have not only to see children as children—which is crucial—but to see the predicament in which they find themselves as a symptom of something more profound. In that sense, the great strength of the approach in this amendment, and others, is that it allows us to look at how to address a total situation and deal with the root causes rather than simply the symptoms.
Finally, some very telling points have been made. For a child with an already disturbed life, it is right that we should avoid a feeling, a sense, by the child, however inarticulately expressed, that he or she is somehow being systematised and being handed over to a system—however enlightened and committed, and no one doubts the enlightenment, dedication and commitment—for dealing with such children; as distinct from, in the best sense, a more spontaneous, emotional situation in which he or she still can feel that they belong and are a part of the situation. From that standpoint, these amendments have to be taken very seriously. I am certain that my noble friends will give them that degree of priority.
I have the instinct that perhaps we are coming to the end of this pre-legislative part of the Bill and will move on in more detail. As another of those who, sadly, could not take part at Second Reading, although I was there for quite a lot of the time, I also want to say how much I welcome almost everything in the Bill. One big thing is that at last there will be the opportunity to hear the children’s voice itself or through an advocate.
I was particularly struck by what my noble friend Lady Meacher said. That side of preventive work, where there is a necessity for expertise and therapy, can be very useful. Above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, there should be early intervention in almost every way before making a care order, which returns to what was said on the first amendment. On that basis, I hope to take part in the debate on some of the amendments, very much in the spirit of trying to improve things, and for a little more detailed thinking to go on before any amendment is agreed.
As someone who is to take part in the audiology debate later today, I am hugely impressed, sitting here, by the improvement in the hearing aid facilities in this Room. Instead of straining like mad to hear what is being said, for the first time in a long time I can hear every word. For different reasons, I am very much in favour of all these amendments, particularly early intervention because of the social and financial costs. I agree entirely with the need to deal with that. I was at a meeting with my noble friend Lord Listowel where the point was made that you have to look at prevention because of the social and financial costs. But, at the same time, because you have failed—and we have failed—you also have to take action and do your best for those who have been failed.
Along with my comments in praise of what Members of the Committee have said, I should also say that I have quite a lot more sympathy than I had at the time when I listened to the comments of my noble friend Lady Howarth. Above all, it often can be solved by a practical intervention, which we might think is silly and stupid, such as having a washing machine. The pressures can be so tough on some families.
I had not intended to speak on these amendments, but the mention of washing machines on two occasions by my noble friends reminds me that many years ago, in the 1980s and onwards, I was part of a charity called “The Knights’ SUN Fund”, the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor Special Unmet Needs Fund. I remember literally hundreds of letters coming to us—and I imagine that that continues to this day—from social workers saying that urine-soaked blankets, sheets and so on were incapable of being washed because of the lack of a washing machine.
I suspect that, in practical terms, for many struggling parents—particularly single parents; young mothers, in the case of quite a number of children— the inadequacy of the practical support they can get from local social services means that it is still extremely difficult to obtain that support. I am sure we will accept the spirit of the amendments, but something should be put in saying that the family should receive support early on for the more practical problems that arise in enabling the family to stay together.
I ask my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss to tell Members of the Committee a little more about the closure of the specialist hospital. It is really dangerous to shut some of these facilities. These children fall between health, social services, education and mental health. I served for many years at a young offenders’ institution, and saw thousands of young people with problems. We should take seriously the prevention of these people becoming criminals and going to prison. It is a dangerous situation and they need all the support they can get, as do their parents. I would be grateful if my noble and learned friend would tell us more about that hospital. Something should be done to stop these facilities from closing.
Would Members allow me to do so in three sentences? I do not want to take up the Committee’s time. The Cassel takes in the entire family, the children and both parents—if there are two parents—for up to three months, if necessary. My noble friend Lady Howarth will probably know rather more about it even than I do. I have been involved with the hospital for a number of years. Countess Mountbatten is its president.
The hospital does not fit in very well with the National Health Service. What it offers is national but it is run by, as one would imagine, a regional set of NHS trusts. It is therefore out on a limb. Over the years that I have known it—now 25, I suppose—it has been at the point of closure three or four times. I had an agonised letter from it just before Christmas, which I passed on to my noble friend Lord Listowel, and I believe he has been in touch with one of the Ministers about it. It is difficult to know how to help the organisation. It needs support from individuals and organisations, but it needs government funding as well. If the Cassel fails, there will be more children in the criminal system than there are now. I will happily discuss this elsewhere, perhaps over coffee.
First, I reciprocate the new year good wishes offered by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and extend them to all Members of the Committee. I also echo the remarks of my noble friend Lady Massey in thanking so many noble Lords for assisting us in our debates on this important Bill. There is no more vulnerable group in society than looked-after children. They deserve the fullest attention of Parliament and it is good to see that attention being given in such full measure this afternoon.
Speaking from this position, I also greatly welcome the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, that his interest in the Bill was wholly benevolent. I strongly favour wholly benevolent interest in government legislation. I was slightly worried at Second Reading that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, was minded to be less than wholly benevolent. I am glad to see that she is coming back into the fold. She can be relied upon to challenge us, as appropriate, where she thinks that we are departing from the cause of good policy.
I entirely agree with all that has been said by Members of the Committee on the importance of early intervention and taking every possible step to avoid the need for children to go into care in the first place. As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, so rightly said, care orders are regarded by the courts as an absolute last resort. It is therefore all the more important that the proper support services are in place to ensure that this step does not need to be taken.
Helping children to stay with their families is an important part of the Care Matters White Paper referred to by many noble Lords. Most of chapter 2 sets out how we intend to promote the capacity for families to sustain relationships with children through times of turbulence and stress, through the increased provision of support for the most vulnerable children on the edge of care. I particularly draw attention to the plans set out in chapter 2 for multi-systemic therapy on page 37, and the new family drug and alcohol court described on page 36—which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned, and which has just been launched as part of Wells Street magistrates’ court in central London—and an expansion of family group conferencing to make it more widely available.
In October 2006, we published guidance to local authorities which emphasises the importance of support being available to families at the earliest point at which it is needed. As part of this, we encouraged them to develop better support services for families. Specific new services include family intervention projects to reduce anti-social behaviour, and pilots of nurse-family partnerships aimed at vulnerable new mothers.
On the statutory framework, Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 already contains a wide duty on local authorities to provide a range of services to promote and safeguard the welfare of children in need, and a duty under Section 17(1)(b) of that Act to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, defined as:
“any person who has parental responsibility for the child and any other person with whom he has been living”.
It is therefore currently framed in a wide way. This broad legislative framework is satisfactory. Rather, we are addressing the actual services which local authorities provide, which in part—as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said—support the work of the courts to ensure that children do not need to be taken into care, in pursuit of the duties that local authorities already have under the Children Act.
I shall address the specific amendments—as my noble friend Lord Judd acknowledged I always seek to do—in a spirit of constructive engagement. The Government will of course reflect on all the points made in the debate to see whether it is right for us to make further changes before Report.
Amendment No. 1 of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, relates specifically to the duties of local authorities over children placed within social work practices. This relates to the following debate, but I stress that, under the social work practice model, local authorities will retain the responsibility for providing services to children in need who live at home with their parents under Section 17 of the Children Act. Social work practices will have no role in relation to such children who have never had any contact with the care system. They can be involved only after the local authority has decided to apply to the court for an interim care order and the court has granted that order and where the child has become a looked-after child on a voluntary basis.
Those powers and duties apply equally to looked-after children to whom, in addition, the local authority owes an express duty to make arrangements to enable the child to live with his parents. That includes, as I said, a relative, friend or other person connected with him under the 1989 Act.
Perhaps I can ask the Minister for clarification on that point. Many local authorities work with voluntary and other organisations in dealing with children who are not in care but who are in danger of being placed in care. I am thinking of the Family Welfare Association, which is now joined with other organisations and with NSPCC projects. I assume that what the Minister is saying will not prevent that work continuing. The implication was that all the work—this is only to do with private practices—that is carried out by the voluntary sector at the moment would not happen.
That is my understanding. If there is anything I need to clarify further, I will do so.
In addition, before making any decision with respect either to a child they are looking after or one they are proposing to look after, local authorities have a duty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child, his parents, any other person with parental responsibility and any other relevant person.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 26 specifically mention family group conferencing. The evidence that we have is that it can have a positive effect. I echo the remarks made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Murphy, that it needs to be used in a sensitive and skilful manner, and we need to be very careful about new legislative provision in this area.
Page 33 of the White Paper Care Matters showcases a very good example of how a family group conference has been used to generate a preventative package to enable a very vulnerable young girl to stay at home. Noble Lords who have experience in this area will be able to supplement that. A family group conference is a complex service to provide and it requires high levels of skill and competence. For that reason, we announced in the Care Matters White Paper that we would fund a programme of regional training events to equip managers and practitioners with the necessary skills to develop and sustain the family group conference model. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that of course that integrally involves social workers. This follows a successful national conference in November 2006.
We have also responded to concerns from stakeholders that there is a lack of skill and knowledge available in the field to deliver effective family group conference services. In November 2006, a toolkit funded by my department was published, aimed both at supporting existing family group conference projects to sustain the projects and to assist new agencies to set up a service where none currently exists. In December 2006, we also funded the publication of a family group conferencing reader, containing a wide range of essays on research, policy and practice perspectives. That is available to practitioners in the field.
The potential benefits of family group conferencing are highlighted in Working Together to Safeguard Children, published in 2006, which is the statutory guidance to be followed by all agencies where there are concerns about a child’s safety. The guidance states at paragraph 10.2:
“Family group conferences may be appropriate in a number of contexts where there is a plan or decision to be made … for example, for children in need, in a range of circumstances where a plan is required for the child’s future welfare”.
We also intend to include a reference to family group conferences in the revised statutory guidance on the Children Act court orders to be published this month. The revised guidance will set out a “gateway approach” to decision-making for children, which ensures that family and friends care is considered at each stage in the process.
On Amendment No. 27 and the remarks made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Meacher, the courts do not have the power that the amendment suggests to order intensive family therapy or the provision of any other specific services. Furthermore, it is not clear whether it is envisaged under the amendment that those services should be provided to children who are looked after to enable a speedy return home, or to children on the edge of care to avoid looked-after status, or both.
However, the Government entirely share the concern expressed by Members of the Committee regarding the provision of services that are culturally sensitive. As part of our implementation of the Care Matters White Paper, we will be encouraging local authorities to analyse and manage their care populations more proactively, which will include an understanding of the racial and cultural profile of children in need in their area, as well as the differing needs of long and short stayers in the care system. That should enable local authorities to take a more sophisticated approach to commissioning services, ensuring a better match between the range of services offered and the cultural profile of the local population.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked whether the outcomes for children placed with family and friends are better than those placed with strangers. I am told that the evidence shows that disruption rates are broadly similar between family and friends foster placements and those foster placements made with strangers. Family and friends carers receive considerably less support, and children tend to speak positively about being with the wider family, so that context has to be taken into account when taking decisions. We recognise that in respect of arrangements instigated by local authorities with family and friends the practice varies and, in response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Earl, it probably varies too much. Care Matters sets out our commitment to establish a more consistent approach to considering extended family and friends carers at every stage.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked whether the children “in need” definition in Section 17 of the Children Act was adequate. I will reflect on her points, but we believe that it is adequate. It provides a definition of children in need that makes it clear that local authorities should intervene where necessary if a child is unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health and development, or where the child is at risk of suffering a significant impairment without the provision of services.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred to funding. I have responsibility only for the situation in England, so I have immediately to hand only the statistics for England. Spending on children’s social care in England has increased from £2.1 billion in 1996 to £5 billion in 2007, which is a real terms increase of 88 per cent in 10 years. There has been a substantial increase in resources available to local authorities. There is always the issue of trade-offs that local authorities must consider, but they are doing so in the context of a significantly enhanced resource. The White Paper Care Matters is being funded in England to the tune of £300 million over a four-year period. I cannot speak for the position either generally in Wales or specifically for Cardiganshire, but the grants made available to Wales as a whole will have increased in line with those for England.
In respect of the Cassel hospital at Ham in Surrey, to which the noble and learned Baroness referred, I am informed that it has seen a significant reduction in referrals to its family unit following the case of RG, which the noble and learned Baroness could probably tell us more about than I can. The funding issues are a matter for the Department of Health, but I will write to Members of the Committee to set out the department’s view. I hope that I have been able to deal with most of the issues raised.
The Minister seemed to indicate earlier that the 1989 Act provides for local authorities to have general duties to care for these families and children, but it sounded very general. Will the Minister consider the proposition in the amendment—not necessarily the exact words—that there should be more definition and clarity about the duties of the authorities to provide early intervention family work to try to avoid children going into care? It seems to me that there is great potential here if one can get the wording right.
I am happy to consider the issue further but the Government’s view is that the provisions in Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 are both strong and fairly specific in terms of the requirements on local authorities. While it is true that Section 17(1) states:
“It shall be the general duty of every local authority … (a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and (b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs”,
Section 17(10) states:
“For the purposes of this Part a child shall be taken to be in need if—(a) he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority … (b) his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or (c) he is disabled”.
Those are strong duties on local authorities and we would need to be persuaded that the insertion of new duties over and above that was a wise proceeding before we took any step in that direction.
The reason there are fewer referrals to the Cassel hospital, or, indeed, to any other family therapy that might be needed, is that local authorities are not paying for that, as I am sure the Minister, and certainly his department, will be aware.
I will, of course, bear that point in mind. I have just been passed a note that states that there is no suggestion that Cassel hospital is to be closed. I am told that there is work under way to explore whether the closing Henderson hospital can work with Cassel to sustain the expertise of both units more fully in the future, but, as I said to the noble and learned Baroness, I shall write to Members of the Committee setting out the position more fully.
With the Minister’s indulgence, I return to Section 17 of the Children Act, which I believe is clear. The difficulty is that local authorities across the country define differently the specifics that the Minister read out. Could we look at defining “in need” more clearly to prevent a postcode lottery, because if you travel the country you find that there is a postcode lottery with some local authorities working magnificently and bringing about change in children’s lives and developing preventive services while others still have a crisis with their care services? That might be the way forward as regards some of the issues that have been raised.
I make a fairly obvious point in urging my noble friend, in considering what has been said to these amendments, to take on board the fact that if everything was adequate in existing legislation, there would not be the concern which has led to these amendments being tabled. The amendments have been tabled because clearly things are not working as they should be in the experience of those on the front line. Therefore, when we are looking at new legislation, there is a need to consider whether there is some way that we can put that right. I urge my noble friend to consider this point very seriously indeed.
May I make a point of crushing simplicity to which I should have referred in the rather rambling remarks that I made earlier? Very often the difficulties arise because social services departments have to work as if they were totally in isolation as compared with other limbs of local government. In other words, had there been a measure of co-operation and understanding between social services, the education authorities, the health authorities and the housing authorities, then, indeed, in many cases the family would not have split up. It is a matter of total simplicity and of total significance. Of course, there will be situations where legislation is necessary but this has nothing to do with legislation at all; it has a lot to do with knocking people’s heads together. Departments that have a brittle relationship with each other sometimes have to be made to co-operate.
I thank the Minister for his thorough explanation and his customary constructive engagement. I thank all noble Lords for what has been an excellent debate at the beginning of our Committee stage. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, is quite right to point out the deficiencies of Amendment No. 1. We tabled this to start a debate on early intervention as it is so important. The Minister is right to say that it talks only about social work practices, but we wanted to talk about the whole aspect of early intervention. I realise that objections could be raised to it lacking specificity, but much of the frustration expressed particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, at Second Reading, was on how one drives forward the laudable aims of the Bill and all the other Bills that have gone before it which have sought to do good work for children in care. How does one encourage that best practice? How do we stop, as Henry Kissinger would say, the urgent from overtaking the important? Social workers have to deal with that all the time.
I was interested to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that family group conferencing before a child is taken into care is a statutory recommendation in New Zealand. As there is such resistance to the use of that mechanism—I take on board everything that has been said about the workforce not being trained properly—and very low take-up of family group conferencing, it simply becomes another postcode lottery which we must avoid at all costs. I take on board the caveats mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, but as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, says, the words “where appropriate” should deal with that. As we have discussed this for a long time, I shall read what the Minister has said in Hansard with care, and for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?
I have a very benevolent view of this Bill, although I have two principal complaints. One is that it does not go far enough and the other is the introduction of social work practices and my concern that that should not hinder the much-needed social work reform. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to highlight the urgency and the need for change.
Much great work has been done by the Government since 1997 in improving the outcomes for children in care. Thanks to the Children (Leaving Care) Act, the number of care leavers at the age of 19 who are in employment, education or training, has increased by 8 per cent and there have been many other very welcome innovations, but we started from an extremely low base. My noble friend Lady Masham of Ilton made the point that too many of these children are ending up in custody not just through their own actions, but often because we have failed them. Fairly recently, Members of your Lordships’ House heard of a 23 year-old who spoke of how she began her prison career at the age of 13. She had been in a good children's home placement for 12 months and one day, out of the blue, she was taken out of that placement. She and the staff were not alerted beforehand and she says that her criminal career began at that point because of her resentment. She could have been settled in that comfortable placement with people whom she knew but she was just ripped out of it at the last moment.
Such things continue to happen although the situation has improved somewhat. We urgently need to do much more to improve the lives of such children. We have higher levels of custody for children in this country than our neighbours, and those high levels lead to a high turnover of children—a high level of churn— which leads to poor relationships between prison officers and young people in custody, which leads to excessive use of physical restraint. There is now a call from the Prison Officers’ Association for batons in children’s and young people's settings. We must address these matters with the utmost urgency. I commend the Government for bringing forward this important piece of legislation.
On social work practices, I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues for creating a multidisciplinary team of such eminence to consider how the notion of independent social work practices might be taken forward so that children in care should receive greater continuity of care. Paul Fallon, director of Barnet social services, who is very well respected, was a member of that team and the academic on the team was from the London School of Economics, a world-renowned institution. The report produced by the committee recognised the strong differences of opinions of its members and provided a helpful rationale for the proposed independent practices.
The Bill proposes pilots. Can these limited pilots, perhaps only two years in length, really provide us with the information we need to understand the impact such practices will have on social services? I think not, and many others share my doubts. On the other hand, the Prime Minister was recently speaking with enthusiasm about extending the market in social care. The political priority being given to this innovation is implied by its taking pride of place in this Bill. Once this juggernaut gets going it may be hard to see how it can be stopped. The production of a shiny new initiative, a fix for social work, is likely to be overwhelmingly seductive to any Administration that holds office when the pilots terminate. The question of whether social work is ripe for such change is likely to take second place to the need for something to be seen to be done. This has been the experience at local authority level for decades as each new broom has introduced its new structures and social workers have torn their hair out seeking to adjust.
I share the view expressed at Second Reading by my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland, a former director of social services. We need to focus on what is most important. The problem, of raising the status of social work, of improving the retention of social workers, and of ensuring the professional and continuous care of our children, is complex. Its solution hinges on providing the right professional framework for social workers. The Government's White Paper Options for Excellence laid out what that framework should be. While there has been some progress in the 14 months since that White Paper hit our desks, it has been slow. I would appreciate the Minister laying out what steps have been taken in response to that White Paper since it was put forward. I know there were welcome steps: for example, the need for qualified social work practitioners.
There are many obstacles. Children's services have been separated from adult services, splitting responsibility for social workers between two different departments. The fusion of health and social care risks diluting the voice of social work further. There are several regional skills councils—the Children's Workforce Development Council and the Children's Workforce Network—with input into the evolution of social work. Social work falls between more and more stools. The Children's Workforce Development Council is very well respected but has a huge work programme. The new children’s services are led predominantly by educationalists and there is the concern that this new leadership may not have the experience to know what social workers on the front line and children in care or in need may require.
Is it really advisable to introduce another level of complexity with these practices? Can the Minister say what the response of the British Association of Social Workers has been to the proposed practices? Is the Association of Directors of Social Services enthusiastic in its support? How far is the workforce on side? All-important will be the establishment of good contracts between the new providers and local authorities. However, in the past such commissioning has historically been poor. It may lead to a significant increase in the cost of the provision made by the new independent practices. The practices may cherry pick their clients leaving a Cinderella service outside the practices to deal with those they exclude. I fear we risk creating a fragmented service which will benefit some children at the cost of others. There is a danger that social service departments may become even more incoherent than they often already are.
Some local authorities are already making significant improvements in the continuity of care for their children. Barnet has created smaller social work teams and has motivated experienced practitioners to stay at the front line supporting their less experienced colleagues by creative new social work roles, such as senior practitioners. Hackney is developing smaller teams with intense integral therapeutic support. Each team has half-time support from a mental health professional. This is beginning to show fruits in terms of retention.
I continually hear that social work needs to benefit from the same efforts that the noble Lord and his colleagues have put into reforming education. I know that what is proposed is done with the best of intentions and seems likely to benefit the children in the proposed practices. However, I am concerned that this may be at the cost of wider consistent implementation of reforms which will make social work the respected, professional institution that our children’s needs dictate that it must become. I seek the Minister’s reassurance on this matter.
I have kept my powder dry up to this point, if not my paper handkerchiefs. I enthusiastically welcome this Bill and wish this very large Committee a happy new year. Members of the Committee will have noticed that we on these Benches have tabled quite a large number of amendments, which fall into two groups. Some are probing and others are what I like to think of as Oliver Twist amendments; in other words, “Thank you very much. That’s very nice, but can we please have some more?”.
These are probing amendments to Clause 1 stand part and all the clauses in Part 1. Obviously, without Clause 1 none of the others is any use. We have tabled these amendments, not because we have any problem in principle with this idea, but because we do not believe that the proposed arrangements will necessarily provide a solution to the problems identified with the current arrangements for caring for looked-after children. Neither do we believe that the proposals or the arrangements for the pilots have been thoroughly thought through by the Government. Finally, we have great concerns about the knock-on effects of these proposed arrangements on the existing local authority provision and the workforce. Of course, underpinning all our concerns is our worry about the outcomes and welfare of children in care. That is what matters most. It is really immaterial how their care is provided as long as it is of high quality and gives them the best possible second chance in life—their first chance having gone horribly wrong or they would not be in care in the first place.
It seems to me that the proposals in Part 1 are made in response to three problems: first, the lack of stability and quality of relationships between the child and the social workers; secondly, the frustration of the social workers that they cannot give the quality of care they would like because of an increasingly bureaucratic and managerial style of structure and lack of resources, leading to high caseloads, et cetera; and, thirdly, the difficulties of local authorities due to the high turnover of social workers, which, according to the paper, Consistent Care Matters, by Professor Julian Le Grand and his working party, is around 12 per cent on average, with places such as London having it as high as 15 per cent.
We now have to ask whether the proposals for private social work practices will solve these problems or whether paying more attention to the existing structures would do it better. To give him his due, Professor Le Grand does not claim that social work practices are the answer to everything. However, his paper and his recommendations raise a number of serious issues.
First, there is a fundamental problem with his comparison of social work practices with GP practices. Primary health care, like education, is the universal service. GP practices serve the whole community with non-acute services, while acute cases are referred to specialists and hospitals. The 60,000 children in care represent 0.001 per cent of the population and are the most needy, most acute cases. Given that GP practices have great difficulty in providing 24/7 cover to their patients, my first question for the Minister is, how does he think that groups of six to 10 people, not all of whom will be registered social workers, will be able to provide 24/7 care to their child clients? Our worry is that, given this difficulty, those practices will only contract for the easier end of the spectrum and will leave the most difficult cases to the local authority social services departments. If that were to happen, it would be easy to see how, eventually, the social work practices would be able to cream off the best social workers locally.
Clause 2(5) says that the local authority must secure that the functions are carried out by, or supervised by, a GSCC-registered social worker. Can the Minister confirm that only registered social workers in the social work practices will carry out those functions which would be carried out only by registered social workers in the local authority?
On resources, given recommendation 11 in Professor Le Grand’s paper that these groups are given pump-priming funding, it is clear that they will not be working on a level playing field with the local authority department. Would the Minister consider that a fairer way of making a real comparison between a new social work practice and a local authority department would be to give the local authority department the same sort of pump-priming funding to enable it to address some of the problems that I outlined earlier? Will this difference in funding be taken into account in the evaluation of the pilots?
One of the problems that I mentioned earlier is the stability of staffing and the continuity of the relationship between the social worker and the child. Could the Minister explain how that matter is likely to be improved by contracting out services? Surely the monitoring and contractual arrangements between the authority and the social work practice will hive off funding from the coalface that could have been spent on ensuring greater continuity. It is also difficult to see how these new arrangements are going to “reduce bureaucracy”, as has been claimed. Indeed, it looks to me as if it will be increased.
Moving on to other issues relating to the pilots, I am concerned about the supervision of the social work practices during the pilot period. According to Clause 6(1)(b)(i), Ofsted’s supervision of providers of social work does not kick in until after the end of the pilot period. Who will be registering and inspecting these bodies during the pilot period? How will the Government receive independent advice about whether the pilots are working well and whether the evaluation before any rollout is considered will be independent?
Professor Le Grand’s working party recommended that the contract between the local authority and the social work practice should be outcome-based. Presumably the assessment of the success or otherwise of the arrangements will also be based on outcomes. In that case, it is essential that we compare apples with apples and not apples with pears. In other words, how will the Government ensure that comparisons are really being made between two organisations with exactly comparable client caseloads and resources? It is interesting that recommendation 3 of the working party was that information should be gathered about the real full costs of providing local authority children’s services to help inform the setting of the budgets for the new social work practices. It is surprising to me that the real costs of such services are not already known to the Government. Many local authorities that are determined to provide a good, high-quality service have to top up what they receive from the Government from their own resources to do so.
The working group recommends that there should be an evaluation strategy for assessing the impact of social work practice pilots. It stated that this should include comparisons with control groups of the average and the best authorities. If the Government accept that recommendation, will the Minister undertake to make use of the information so gathered about the characteristics of the best local authorities and put the same effort into disseminating best practice among those public authorities as they are now proposing to put into the new contracting-out arrangements?
In this regard, I made particular note of recommendation 2 of the working group report, which calls for greater attention in the social work training curriculum to the importance of stability and continuity in services for children and their implication for social workers’ professional development. Will the Government pick up this recommendation in relation to all social workers, wherever they are employed?
The overarching concern is that the proposals fit in with the Every Child Matters agenda and the delivery of integrated services. There seems to me to be a disconnect between the Government’s recent activities in this regard and the current proposals. The establishment of the children’s services authority and the appointment of a director of children's services and a lead member on the councils was a direct and appropriate response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. Indeed, within the past six months we have had the setting up of the Department for Children, Schools and Families in order further to integrate all matters relating to children. Against these developments, which we on this side of the Committee support, the contracting out of social work practice appears to be going into reverse. I hope that the Minister can allay some of our concerns in his reply and convince us that the power to set up these pilots will indeed advance the cause of better care for our most vulnerable children.
As I said at Second Reading, it is vital for children and young people to know their social worker and to have a real relationship that develops over time. If this new model of social work practices can go some way to providing that, we welcome it, although we think that the pilot should run for a sufficient length of time and in a diverse range of local authorities.
Like many Members of the Committee, I received a pamphlet from Chris Waterman, director of the Institute for Research in Integrated Strategies, entitled “Motivation in agency and social work practices: Of halos and horns, paupers and princes”. It was a labour of love, as it was, I understand, written over the Christmas holidays. Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, it raises genuine concerns. For those of us who would like to see these social work practices work, it is important that the Government address those concerns.
I shall speak only briefly because I said a great deal of what I want to say at Second Reading, but I must at least say something. Social work has been bedevilled by change for change’s sake. Every time one child has died, there has been a review and the suggestion of legislation. If this had happened so often in the health service, it would be even more topsy-turvy than it feels it is at present. But it has happened in social work.
I ask the Minister what the real rationale is for these changes. I can see no reason why the present structure, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has so clearly outlined, cannot be reduced in bureaucracy—in fact, that was in the Climbié report—why the kinds of structures required to give social workers the support they need cannot be improved and why some of the services cannot be developed with other groupings, as already happens. That was the point of my intervention: some local authorities already use voluntary organisations to work with some families and children in care on a deferred basis. Why can these not be developed properly to get some stability? Not only children in care need stability, but the workers need some in their work.
That could be said to be resisting change for its own sake. I am certainly not resistant to change. If convinced by the Minister that this would really be in the interests of children in care, I will give it all my support. My great anxiety, as clearly outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is that it would be yet one more diversion and hitch, which will mean that good professional development will not happen. Good professional development ends up as good social work services for children.
I shall speak briefly on this important amendment. I very much support the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I am very worried about these pilots, which seem to be set up to succeed in a sense, even though they may not be the right way forward. I would question very seriously whether they are the right way forward. On reading the report by Professor Le Grand and other things, it seems that there are four issues that these social work practices might presume to resolve. The first issue is staff turnover and the second is the rather strange division of responsibilities within social services departments so that children have to move through at least four teams—therefore, four different social workers—even before you start worrying about changes of social workers. The system creates four social workers, then there are the changes on top of that. The third issue is the excessive caseloads, form filling, bureaucracy and all that. The fourth issue is, partly because of that, that managerial decision-making has taken over completely from professional decision-making.
Will social work practices resolve these four problems? The first two do not need this new, separate stand-alone unit of social workers. Certainly, as regards staff turnover, good social work managements already have massively improved staff recruitment and retention. It can be done: we just need good regulatory authorities to make sure that it is done. We do not need social work practices for that. On the divisions of responsibilities, again, good regulatory authorities should come in and say, “Come on, you have to organise yourselves so that children have continuity”. All the evidence tells us that children need continuity. It is so obvious and does not need social work practices.
Julian Le Grand points to the elimination of a third set of problems as the big plus for these social work practices. He argues that the big advantage of these practices would be the absence of the need to report continuously to a managerial hierarchy and the other bureaucratic demands of a large organisation. But on page 24, Le Grand recognises that social work practices would not escape the bureaucratic demands of the system. How then can he claim that social work practices will have little or no hierarchy and that decisions would remain firmly at the social worker level? This is the essence of the loss of rationale for these pilots. It is set out that these pilots will get rid of this bureaucracy, but they will not. Even Julian Le Grand, whom I know well as a good friend and who is a very able man, admits that it cannot do that and that it will not do that. Of course, these pilots cannot do that because of the government regulations and guidance that we are all so familiar with, which have arisen understandably as a result of Victoria Climbié and earlier tragedies.
The reality is that whether the bureaucracy shifts into the social work practices or remains in the local authorities, it will be there. The difficulty for the Government—I really sympathise with them on this because it is terribly difficult—is whether they bite the bullet and say, “We have got to move away from zero risk or something very close to zero risk. We will take away a lot of this bureaucracy, a lot of these forms and lot of this stuff. We will take away managerial decision making and return the decision-making to social workers, so that they can feel professional again, can have job satisfaction again and will really be able to deal with the interests and needs of the child again”, which they used to do rather more effectively. Of course, there may then be something like a 2 per cent greater risk of another tragedy. There will always be a risk, but dare you risk increasing that risk by, say, 2 per cent? That is a very difficult issue for the Government. But, rather than addressing the real issue of whether the balance is right, the Government are throwing, or perhaps grasping, these social work practice pilots as something that will look as though they may resolve the problem. I honestly think that all of us in this room know that it does not feel very likely that they will.
So this is where we are. Dare a Government bite this bullet or is it really just all too difficult? A London borough recently contracted out its elder services. Shortly after that, an elderly person was mistreated by a carer in a stand-alone unit. It was very embarrassing and there was a big to-do in the local press. But if a social worker in a social work practice mistreated a child, it would be in all the national press, and yet the local authority may have difficulty dealing with that contracted-out service. However, if we hold on to all the bureaucracy that we have now, it would be able to deal with it. That is the dilemma with which we are stuck.
One of Laming’s main findings was that one of the most significant causes of breakdown and tragedy was the difficulty of communicating across different organisations involved with a child. That was one of his main findings. Is it a good idea to create more separate organisations and therefore increase the likelihood of communication problems, which Laming says is the one big thing we have to avoid? Will the Minister consider commissioning a piece of work to examine the impact on the services and the costs of government regulations and guidance affecting social work with looked-after children? Would he be willing to commission a piece of work to look at what we are doing with all this bureaucracy, regulation and guidance? What is it doing to the services on the ground? If we really understood that, it would be very helpful. I put that to the Minister.
My second point to the Minister, which is a little similar to that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is whether he would consider piloting and evaluating within a group of local authorities all the administrative changes envisaged for social work practices but within the social services department so that one could see whether, with the additional pump-priming funding, a real focus on some of the administrative issues and getting the decision-making where it needs to be, one could generate the improvements that we all, including Ministers—I absolutely know that is the case—want to see. I hope that we all speak from the same side on this. We all know where we want to go. I will welcome hearing the Minister’s comments on that.
Speaking as a complete layman in these matters, I support the anxieties that have been expressed about these first six clauses. I therefore invite the Minister to reflect on issues such as the following. First, to what extent is the turnover of social workers responsible for at least some of the breakdowns in foster placements, especially in London and other high-cost areas? When I talk about high-cost areas, I particularly mean areas which have high housing costs. Secondly, will the current turnover of social workers be improved by contracting out? Is there any evidence to show that it really will be? Thirdly, to what extent will the proposed pilots be representative of conditions across the whole of the country and, indeed, across Wales, so that sound conclusions are capable of being drawn from the experience of the pilots? Then, thinking about things from the point of view of voluntary organisations providing children’s services, will the proposed contracts be sufficiently long term so that voluntary organisations can plan their personnel, resources and finances? Those are rather important considerations.
Briefly, I echo the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I will quote one example to illustrate my concern about the involvement of the privatisation of some of this work. Noble Lords may have heard of a local authority secure home called Orchard Lodge, which is near Crystal Palace, and which focused on the problems of young people with serious mental health disturbances. It was run exceptionally well for many years by Southwark Council. One of the things about it was the fact that the staff had an average length of stay of 11 years, and it told in the fact that not only were the children able to establish long-term relationships with people, but over time the staff developed a confidence in the use of techniques which meant that they did not have to resort to some of the restraint and seclusion that has been the subject of other debates in your Lordships’ House.
Sadly, the Orchard Lodge contract was let to privatisation, and the immediate result was the exodus of good staff and the reduction of people who were prepared to stay for a time. The terrible thing that one finds most in private sector prisons and young offender establishments is staff turnover. They just do not stay. Therefore, I echo the point, when we are considering what is done, that the relationship that is established between staff and children is so crucial to any development that we should not do anything to undermine that.
May I make one comment on what my noble friend Lady Meacher said about bureaucracy? To my mind, trying to understand the history of social work and the history of social care, one asks why all these reams of bureaucracy have been introduced. One might say that it is because there have been tragedies to do with children, but why have there been such tragedies? Partly, it is because of the way in which the media responds, but it is also because of the gradual de-professionalisation of social workers. Who would want to be a social worker today? More people are wishing to be social workers because of some of the steps that the Government are taking, but it really has become an unattractive job. I welcome the fact that pay has been increased in recent years by the Government, but historically the pay that has been given to this job, where individuals are responsible for vulnerable and difficult families, has not reflected in any way the degree of responsibility that is entailed.
I put it to my noble friend that this bureaucracy has arisen in part because of failures, which have been in turn the result of the failure to support and give a proper professional framework to social workers. It has happened in education that the more we develop that framework, the better our schools have become, the less we have needed to inspect them and the more we have moved toward them assessing their own performance. There is a way forward, and it fits with what my noble friend Lady Howarth said. If we concentrate on the professional expertise of front-line social workers, that will do so much to improve the circumstances that we are currently in and the outcome for children.
That point is very much reflected in residential care in children’s homes. There, we have had terrible disasters with children, which have made the profession very unattractive. On the continent, in Denmark and Germany, 50 per cent of looked-after children are in residential care. In Denmark, 90 per cent of the staff in children’s homes have a degree-level qualification. Comparative research highlights the fact that staff there are so much freer to interact with the children. They can hug, they can kiss, they can go into the child’s bedroom at night; whereas we are bound by regulation after regulation because we put people who were never equipped to work with those vulnerable children. Disasters have happened, and we have put down layers of administrative red tape. I hope that is a helpful observation.
I agree with the noble Earl that social work is a challenging and difficult job. That has never been adequately recognised over the years; the noble Earl has already addressed the pay issue. One could turn it around the other way, however, and say that social workers in general have done a rather good job if there is one tragedy with social workers involved every three or four years and one relates that to the numbers of children with whom social workers are involved year by year. These families are chaotic, if I may put it that way. They are difficult. They do not answer the door and so on; it is sometimes difficult to make contact. These are not easy situations to work with, but we live in a blame culture.
I happen to work in mental health. Occasionally, one of our patients commits a homicide. There have been terrible headlines about a homicide in my trust. But the fact is that homicides on the part of people with mental health problems have remained static over 50 years; homicides among the rest of the populations have increased markedly. You would never dream that from the press. I am sorry to raise something outside the debate, but it is related because the blame culture of the tabloid press is the problem. I am afraid that we are all affected by it. I feel for any Government dealing with legislation in the difficult areas of social services and mental health. One tragedy: headlines, pressure, reports, bureaucracy; that is what happens and what has happened in this field. All I am asking is whether we, as a legislature, can perhaps encourage our Government to sit back and say, “Let’s ensure that we are getting the balance right”. But I completely agree with the noble Earl about professionalism and adequate pay.
I thank my noble friend. I was just reflecting on the experience in the prison system, where there have been no suicides of children in local authority secure units, but there have been in larger, less specialist provision. Both points have some weight; my noble friend’s probably has more than mine. I absolutely take her point.
This has been an extremely useful debate on social work practices. I hope that I am able to provide the reassurance that the noble Earl seeks. I do so in no small part by addressing the crux of the debate: when the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to the proposal for social work practices. I stress that there is no government proposal for social work practices: there are proposals for pilots of social work practices. To get this debate in perspective, I stress that we are talking about six to nine pilots—a small number—within a large social work profession and local authority system. The issue to be addressed by the Committee, to which the Government have applied their mind, is whether, given the scale of the challenges we face in social work—so well set out by the noble Earl and other Members of the Committee—it is sensible for a Government who are seriously undertaking their responsibilities to see that we provide the best possible standards of care, to pilot—and I stress pilot—one possible approach which, alongside others, may have a beneficial role to play as part of the wider system.
Almost all the points raised in the debate are addressed in the 75-page Consistent Care Matters report by the committee chaired by Professor Le Grand. His response to them is precisely to bottom out the effects of many of the elements which might be involved in social work practices, and that the sensible way to proceed is to introduce a pilot and evaluate that pilot. Then, of course, it would be for local authorities to decide whether, on the basis of that evaluation and advice which the Government may give at that stage, it would be sensible to take the idea further. If it were to be taken further, local authorities would commission and pay for social work practices—not us. Local authorities would proceed after the pilot only if they were persuaded that it was an advantageous course to follow to provide for some part of their social work obligations. I stress all of that because, on that basis, the onus is on those who are against even looking at what could be a promising idea to allow pilots to proceed. The judgment of the Government is that it would not be sensible to stifle even the possibility of these arrangements being piloted when they could have beneficial effects.
I have the feeling that I am speaking for others, too, but I am not against the idea of pilots. I am very concerned about whether those pilots will be on a level playing field and whether the pump-priming moneys, and so on, may lead to a false outcome that could lead to the wrong kind of development of services.
I am reassured by the noble Baroness's remark that she is not opposed to the pilot schemes. I took that to be the tenor of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, but I thought that we were in danger of getting into a debate where there was an acceptance that pilots might be a good idea, but that, after all, we do not think that it is a good idea even to pilot because of the concerns being raised.
I have just checked my notes, and I referred at the beginning, the end and several times in the middle to the power to set up pilots. Much of the thrust of my speech was about the arrangements for the evaluation of the pilots and concern that they should be evaluated independently and on a level playing field and that any good that came out of that should be referred back to local authority social services departments.
The noble Baroness made several references; one of them was to the proposal for social work practices and I accept that others were to arrangements for piloting them. To take legislative powers to pilot anything is of course a big step for a Government to take. Why have we taken that step? Precisely because of the definition of the problem set out on page 5 of the report of the group chaired by Professor Le Grand, which sets out in stark terms the nature of the challenge that we face—I know that this has been strongly supported by Members of the Committee. It states:
“A key problem for looked after children is the lack of continuity in their relationship with the local authority social worker. Whilst some children have a strong relationship the majority have little or none. They have had too many social workers and have seen too little of those they have had”.
That is within the existing local authority system, a system that is funded by the Government to the tune of £5 billion a year, so the resources are there for local authorities that want to pilot new arrangements. There is very little that the Government are doing to stop local authorities taking forward innovative approaches if they want to do so. The question on social work practices is whether we give them powers to take still more innovative pilots forward.
I think that Members of the Committee accept the definition of the challenge facing us. I accept in turn that the overwhelmingly important response that we should make is within the existing local authority system, because we are talking about six to nine pilots. That will be a very small part of overall provision. That is the whole emphasis of the Care Matters paper, in which we set out our priorities for the social care workforce, addressing many of the concerns that the noble Earl raised in his remarks on Second Reading. In the Children's Plan, we set out specific proposals for piloting a newly qualified social work status, developing a professional framework for social workers, including a much stronger professional development provision, a wider ranging recruitment campaign and a fast-track programme to attract mature graduates into social work.
I will certainly seriously consider the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in respect of the bureaucratic burdens on local authorities. I will study her remarks carefully to see whether we should make some response to the concerns that she raised. Shortly in the New Year, we will be publishing our workforce action plan, which will say more about our proposals for improving training and accelerating the pace of remodelling. So we will have a great deal more to say and are taking forward reforms that meet the issues at large. I direct the Committee to the question of whether, on the basis of the work that has been done by Professor Le Grand and his group, it is a sensible course to pilot social work practices. Our judgment is that it is, for the reasons set out.
I should stress that Professor Le Grand’s group includes many eminent leaders within the social work profession. It included Lynne Berry, the former chief executive of the General Social Care Council, Paul Fallon, the former head of children's services and the director of social services in Barnet, Moira Gibb, the chief executive of Camden Council, and Alistair Pettigrew, the director of children’s services in Lewisham. Alistair Pettigrew is also part of the Social Work Practices Expert Group, which is taking forward the work on the design of the pilots, which also includes Jane Haywood of the Local Government Association and Alan Wood, the director of children's services in the London Borough of Hackney, who is on the group as a representative of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
So these are not ideas that are being foisted from outside on the profession and on local government, they are being developed in very close collaboration with the leaders of local authorities and the directors of children’s services and rely on advice given by eminent figures in both the local authority and the social work world.
Perhaps I can make one more point before the noble Lord continues. Clause 4 ends the piloting period and therefore makes the social work practices introduced by Clause 1 permanent. In fact, it pre-empts the outcome of the pilots by providing for powers to institute regulation and registration of providers. It would ensure that, if the pilots were rolled out across the country, regulations would be in place for them. In a way, Clause 4 pre-empts the result of the pilots, which is why we have given notice of our intention to oppose not just Clause 1 stand part but every clause in Part 1.
And on the basis that local authorities would themselves have to undertake the commissioning. So this would not be a step imposed on local authorities by the Government; it would be in response to local authorities being persuaded that it was a sensible course.
The potential gains from social work practices—I stress potential gains, because the whole purpose of piloting is to see whether those gains can be realised—are set out at length in Chapter 5 of Consistent Care Matters. They are gains which, if they could be secured, would be valuable in the support offered to looked-after children. The potential gains relate to enhancement of continuity, of professionalisation and of relationships between children. They have been recognised by a number of experts as gains which, if they could indeed be secured by social work practices, would be valuable, which is why the Children’s Commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, has said that he supports careful piloting and evaluation of a social care practice model, and why other organisations, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have also welcomed our approach to piloting of social work practices.
I am sure that it is in the Printed Paper Office, but because I am always anxious to provide the maximum possible support to Members of the Committee, I have a box of copies of the report with me. I thought that Members of the Committee might find it useful to read the whole report for themselves and, on the basis of what is said in the report, to consider carefully the arguments made. As I said, the argument is made for potential gains addressing a real and fundamental problem that we face in providing properly for children in care. The question that we then face is: on the basis of that report on those potential gains, which are suggested by an eminent group including directors of social services and other experts, is it sensible for Parliament to enable the policy to be piloted? On the basis of the report, we believe that it is.
Many of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, are addressed in that report, but I shall deal with one or two of the specific points that were raised. As regards how an inspection would be carried forward under the pilots, I can tell the noble Baroness that social work practices will be within the scope of annual assessment by inspectorates, including the chief inspector, from 2009 through the new comprehensive area assessments and through programmed inspections of services for looked-after children.
I did not fully follow the noble Baroness’s remarks about pump-primed funding and whether this would create a playing field that was not level. That point was raised also by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. The reason I do not follow it is that the scale of the support provided in terms of activities is so vastly different in the two cases. We are talking about funding for social work pilots over the spending review period 2008-11 at an average of £2 million per annum, some of which will be used to enable local authorities themselves to meet the costs of commissioning and managing contracts. So we are talking about very small levels of central support which are being provided to enable these pilots to happen. As I say, this stands against the £5 billion provided to local authorities in respect of children’s social care, so we do not believe that there is an issue of a playing field that is not level. A local authority that wished to use its resources to provide similar support to that provided in social work practices for its own social workers in the way that it recruits them, manages or trains them, would be entirely at liberty to do so. Local authorities have very large budgets with which to do that.
Because that support varies between authorities depending on how much they choose to spend on it, I cannot give the noble Baroness the answer that she seeks. The issue is whether it is sensible for us to provide this very small sum, in comparative terms, to enable these pilots to take place. I contrast the minnow of social work practices with the whale of the social work supported by local authorities and suggest that there is no unlevel playing field in respect of social work practices.
The thing that continues to concern me, and perhaps some of my colleagues, is exactly how much of the money allocated by central government to local authorities is in fact spent on this area of work. The Minister gave the relevant figure. As a former director of social services, I know that local authorities get their allocation but the money is not necessarily spent on the service that central government wish because the latter is not in favour of ring fencing but of local authorities establishing their own definitions. That is where the contrast and comparisons might arise.
Perhaps I sound as if I am against pilots but I am not. I am against some of the issues not being clarified in relation to the level playing field of funding—the question I have just asked illustrates that—and the way in which local authorities will set contracts. We know from present practice that there are serious issues both in the private and voluntary sectors about the setting of contracts, poor contracting practice and the central understanding about there being a uniformity across the pilots. That is what gives rise to much of the concern. Although we hear what the Minister says and have huge trust in him, and value the reassurance that he has given, he may not be in office tomorrow, and in three years’ time there may be a different view unless some of these things are clarified in discussion and later in guidance. Those are some of the issues that are causing us concern rather than our being totally resistant to pilots.
I entirely accept the noble Baroness’s point—not about my not being a Minister tomorrow; it is only six and a quarter hours away and I fully intend to last that long at any rate—about the fact that so much local authority action depends on the decisions taken by those authorities. That is the nature of local democracy. These decisions should be taken at local level. I meet this debate all the time in schools. If part of the justification for having local authorities is to enhance local decision-making and the capacity of localities to do things differently if they wish, it is very difficult for a Minister to say that we think that there is only one way to do things and to seek to determine precisely how much money should be spent on it. There are two sides to this. I accept that local authorities are free to spend some of these resources in different ways, but that is in the nature of local democracy, which we hope will have other beneficial effects, including a greater emphasis than we would otherwise have on local experimentation and innovation to address the sort of issues that the Committee is grappling with this afternoon.
Not only is the funding that we are talking about a very small part of the overall funding given to local authorities for children’s social care, but it is also a very small part of the £300 million that I mentioned earlier, announced with the White Paper for the implementation of its proposals in the Comprehensive Spending Review period. Only a very small fraction of that £300 million will go on social work practices. The great majority will support the other measures set out in the White Paper.
I want to raise a point of clarification. The Minister said that the money is a very small amount in relation to total budgets for children. Is he talking about £2 million for each social work practice pilot of six to 10 social workers? If so, that is quite a lot of money. My trust has had pilots on something else and we had £1.5 million from the Government. That was big money in terms of what we were trying to do, but rather similar. It is important to understand what this £2 million is. Secondly, if £2 million for a social work practice is the idea, will the local authority have the freedom to devote that money to another kind of pilot within their own area to develop administrative changes as I was suggesting earlier?
To clarify the first point, it is £2 million for all the pilots each year. We are talking about £6 million for the whole piloting exercise in respect of social work practices over the three years. To put those figures in perspective, that is £6 million out of the £300 million that is being allocated to implement the White Paper and it is £6 million compared with the £5 billion that I was talking about, which is the sum available to local authorities in respect of children’s social care at large.
If a local authority wishes to pilot other approaches, within the law, to developing social work and recruiting social workers, it is entirely at liberty to do so. Nothing that my department or the Government are doing, within the law, will prevent it being able to do so. It is entirely at the discretion of the local authority whether it chooses to engage in such pilots. It is therefore reasonable that the funding specifically intended for social work pilots should be spent on social work pilots.
I beg the Minister’s pardon for intervening at this point, but I should like further clarification. The concept of pilots is mentioned only once in the White Paper—a minor reference in chapter 7 proposing that perhaps there might be legislation to establish a variety of two-year pilots. It is slightly surprising that these pilots come up in Clauses 1 to 6 and are given Part 1 of the Bill. The most important part of a Bill is usually bang at the front. If the money involved is only £6 million, as the Minister rightly says, of the £300 million that is being spent, one wonders why it is given such prominence in the Bill.
It happens to be the opening clauses. Perhaps I should apologise to the Committee for the fact that we did not put it at the back. If we had put it in the last six clauses rather than the first six, perhaps it would attract the level of attention that it deserves. This is important, because Parliament is giving new powers in respect of social work practices, but I stress again, coming back to the point made by the noble Earl, that in respect of the vast majority of children in care and those approaching the care system, it is the work of local authorities apart from the pilots that is going to matter. It will be the enhanced status of the social work profession that will matter. All those other measures set out in the Care Matters White Paper will apply.
However, the Committee needs to be reassured that we are not asking Parliament to take powers in respect even of pilots where we do not believe that there is a proper case for piloting. As I have said, the 75-page report by the committee chaired by Professor Le Grand, which includes eminent leaders of local authorities and of the social work profession, more than meets the threshold to persuade us that this is a correct course to undertake on piloting.
I should like to make a narrow but significant point. I was very much taken aback when the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned that the coming into force of Clause 4 would automatically foreclose the piloting system. That is true in one sense and not true in another. Clause 6 says:
“The piloting period—
(a) begins on the day on which section 1(1) comes into force; and
(b) ends on the earlier of—
(i) the day on which section 4 comes into force; or
(ii) the end of the period of five years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed”.
There are two limbs to it.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for those remarks, but before I conclude I should like to deal with two other questions raised by the noble Baroness. First, she asked whether functions currently carried out by social workers in local authorities would still be carried out by social workers in social work practices. That would be the case. We intend the situation to be broadly comparable. Local authorities’ social work functions can be carried out at the moment by or under the supervision of registered social workers. The same regime will apply in respect of social work practices.
The noble Baroness also asked a specific question about social work practices providing an out-of-hours service for children in care. There is no question of children supported by social work practices not having access to out-of-hours support, whether from the social work practice or from the local authority. However, we see no reason why social work practices would not devise creative ways of providing out-of hours services to the children they support in a way that delivers consistency and stability. For example, social work practices could arrange for their social workers to take turns to be on call or pay their staff a premium for working out of hours.
On that basis I hope that the Committee will think it sensible to allow the pilots to proceed. As I have said, I will make available copies of the report of Professor Le Grand’s committee, which addresses many of the specific points that were raised in the debate.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that detailed response to these concerns raised by me and other Members of the Committee. I am particularly reassured by his point that it will be the local authorities that decide whether to extend the pilots.
It seems to me that the Government have underestimated the effort required to improve outcomes for looked-after children. From 1997 they were determined to improve the lives of these children. They recognise that they have been poorly treated by society, but the inputs that they have made have not given the outputs that they wanted. The previous Prime Minister recognised that we have not done enough for these children. We as a society have underestimated the job that social workers have taken on. We have underestimated the demands of doing this job. I remember what Paul Fallon, a member of the eminent group that Professor Le Grand pulled together, said about his success in reducing the vacancy rate for social workers in Barnet from 30 per cent to 3 per cent in three years. Every day, the first thing he thought about was, “What am I doing for my social workers? What am I doing today to make the lives of my social workers better?”. I spoke to the publisher of Compass magazine, a recruitment magazine for social workers. He commented on Paul Fallon’s approach to recruiting new social workers. He said, “This man is quite amazing. He will find new recruits and say, ‘Come around, let me give you dinner and I’ll talk to you about social work’”. As soon as anybody expresses an interest in social work, he is there to encourage and incentivise that interest. It requires such dedication and commitment to make these things happen.
I recognise that there was a very eminent group working on this, and I welcome that. My concern is that the political impetus to making these pilots happen will be great. This project of extending the diverse market to all areas of public services has been very much at the heart of the Labour Government over the past 10 years. My concern is that this minnow will turn into a very large fish, and it will be difficult to stop that motion forward because of the political investment in it and because it fits so well with the Government’s philosophy.
Debates like this are very helpful in gaining some reassurance and some notion of how the pilots will work. I hope that my fears will not be realised. It is very important to concentrate on the basics and get them right. I thank the Minister for his response to these concerns.
Clause 1 agreed to.
Clause 2 [Restrictions on arrangements under section 1]:
2: Clause 2, page 3, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) A local authority must not enter into arrangements under section 1 until it has discharged all of its duties, responsibilities and liabilities under the Transfer of Undertakings (protection of Employment) Regulations 2006.”
The noble Baroness said: I need not delay noble Lords long on this amendment, because having had the debate about social work practices this is a fairly straightforward debate about TUPE or the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, which provide employment rights to employees when their employer changes as a result of the transfer of an undertaking. That includes service provision changes, and cases where services are outsourced, insourced or assigned by a client to a new contractor.
Clause 1(1) would mean a form of contracting out of services, because it allows local authorities to delegate their functions in relation to looked-after children to providers of social work. As a result, the purpose behind the amendment is to probe whether the Government have considered the application of the TUPE regulations in this instance, as that would be a form of contracting out and therefore TUPE should apply. That means that the staff employed in the local authority would automatically transfer, or those who were transferred over to the private undertaking and the terms and conditions of contractual rights that they have would be protected. It has major implications for the business models of contractors that may be interested in setting up social work practices.
I raise the issue because, as the Government know, there has been considerable experience of contracting out of various aspects of other services, including, for example, education services, where groups of officers from a local education authority had been moved en bloc into private providers, which had then, somewhat to their surprise, found themselves taking on TUPE obligations, for example in relation to pensions. The question behind the amendment is essentially probing. Have the Government considered these issues and the implications that they may have on the costs involved, even in relation to the pilot exercises, let alone in the long run, should the pilots suggest that the model be extended? I beg to move.
I hope that, in this instance, I can give the noble Baroness the complete reassurance that she seeks. TUPE legislation will apply automatically to the social work practice arrangements without the need for additional provision in the Bill. That means that relevant staff will transfer from the local authority to the provider of social work services and will remain employed on the same terms and conditions. The relevant staff are those assigned by the local authority to the functions that will be discharged by the provider of social work services.
In addition, the duties which fall on the transferring employer under TUPE to inform and consult employee representatives about the transfer will bite automatically on local authorities contracting with social work practices. There is a right under TUPE for the employee to go to an employment tribunal if the transferring employer does not inform and consult. In addition, when we are drawing up statutory guidance for local authorities about making arrangements for social work practices, we will include guidance about staff transfers and about compliance with TUPE to ensure minimal disruption for staff, as well as children and families. I hope that that gives the noble Baroness the reassurance that she seeks.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that reply, which gives us the reassurance that we were looking for. It is very useful to have that on the record. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed to.
Clause 3 [Effect of arrangements under section 1]:
3: Clause 3, page 3, line 27, at end insert—
“(1A) Any provider of social work services with whom arrangements are made under or by virtue of section 1(1) for the performance of the functions under section 1(2) shall, in the discharge of those functions, be treated as a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42).
(1B) For the avoidance of doubt it is hereby declared that nothing in this section affects the meaning of “public authority” in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42) (acts of public authorities) or the determination of whether functions, other than those referred to in subsection (1A) above, are functions of a public nature for the purposes of section 6.”
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of Amendment No. 3 is to ensure that children receiving social work services from private and voluntary sector providers—should the pilots be concluded and the rollout happen—would be able to seek redress under the Human Rights Act from the relevant social work service provider and the relevant local authority. Indeed, they need those rights even during the pilot.
As the Committee will know, direct enforcement of rights contained in the Human Rights Act can be achieved in the UK courts only against a public authority. Section 6(3)(b) provides that a private body may be a public authority for this purpose where it is carrying out a function of a public nature, but not where it is carrying out a function of a private nature. Those are known as functional public authorities. A series of court judgments have given a narrow interpretation of,
“functions of a public nature”,
with the result that individuals receiving services from private and voluntary sector providers under arrangements with local authorities have, on occasion, been unable to rely on their convention rights.
The Government recognise that that has led to individuals receiving contracted-out services being unable to rely on their convention rights and have expressed their commitment to seeking clarification of the meaning of “public authority”. Rather than seeking to address that discrepancy through an amendment to the Human Rights Act—there are legitimate concerns about taking such a course—or ad hoc legislative provision for individual areas of service provision, the Government have, up to this point, relied on interventions in court proceedings, seeking to persuade the courts to adopt a broader interpretation of “public function” in line with the original intention behind the Human Rights Act.
Unfortunately, those efforts have so far been unsuccessful. The House of Lords, concluded in the recent case of YL v Birmingham City Council that the provision of care and accommodation by a privately run care home to an elderly woman, although arranged and paid for by Birmingham City Council under its statutory powers and duties under Sections 21 and 26 of the National Assistance Act 1948, did not constitute a function of a public nature. The Lords commented that if the Government thought it desirable that residents in privately owned care homes should be given convention rights against proprietors, they should amend legislation to make that clear. That is why, by laying this amendment, we seek to amend legislation in this case. If the Government's policy intention is that children receiving services under arrangements under Clause 1 should be able to enforce their convention rights against both the relevant local authority and the social work service provider, I hope that the Minister will accept our amendment.
We understand that, through Clause 3(1), the Government seek to provide that the relevant local authority will be liable for acts of omission by providers of social work services exercising functions under Clause 1. In Clause 3(2)(b), the Government seek to exclude liability for local authorities where providers of social work services are exercising functions of a private nature. This apparently is intended to ensure that the local authority will not be liable for incidental matters, such as treatment of employees by providers of social services. But the Government’s policy intention will be achieved only if their view that a provider of social work services, in discharging the functions of the local authority, will be exercising functions of a pubic nature can be relied on with certainty on the basis that social work service provision for children, under Clause 1, is distinguishable from the position of the YL v Birmingham City Council case, to which I referred earlier. I believe that this is an area of legal uncertainty. This amendment would achieve significantly better certainty and better protection of children’s convention rights where social work services are contracted out by local authorities.
In addition, perhaps I may make one more point which has come to me from the Every Disabled Child Matters lobby group, which seeks assurance that bodies discharging the care functions of a local authority under Clause 1 would also be treated as public bodies for the purpose of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as amended, and would be subject to all those duties in that Act, including the disability equality duties. I would be most grateful if the Minister could confirm that. I beg to move.
I hope that I can give a complete reassurance to the noble Baroness on this issue. The view of the Government is clear. Social work practices will be functional public authorities for the purposes of Section 6(3)(b) of the Human Rights Act. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, concern about the status of social work practices under the Human Rights Act arises from the litigation in the case of YL v Birmingham City Council concerning a private care home and the recent judgment of your Lordships’ House on the question of whether such an organisation is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act. However, the Government consider that arrangements with social work practices are fundamentally different from the arrangements in question in the YL case. In the YL case, it was concluded that a private care home was not exercising functions of a public nature. But in reaching that conclusion, their Lordships laid great emphasis on the fact that the private care home was not exercising any delegated statutory functions. The authority’s statutory duty was to make arrangements for the provision of care and accommodation and that duty had not been contracted-out or delegated to the care home.
By contrast, the functions that will be the subject of arrangements under Clause 1 will be functions of the local authority itself. Those functions are imposed by primary and secondary legislation and the discharge of the functions will be funded by the local authority. For these reasons, the Government are clear that social work practices will discharge functions of a public nature and will, automatically, be public authorities for the purposes of Section 6(3)(b) of the Human Rights Act. We also believe that they will be fully covered by the duties laid down by the Disability Discrimination Act.
I support the amendment. I am sure that I am speaking out of turn, so I am very grateful to the Minister for his statement on the Government’s clear intention and their analysis of the situation. We all have to take seriously the difference underlined in that analysis from the YL case. But there is a lot of uncertainty and where human rights are concerned there should not be uncertainty. It should not be necessary for people to have to resort to all sorts of special initiatives to find out exactly what their rights are, how they apply and why the Government’s interpretation prevails. I hope that my noble friend will therefore understand that among the agencies working in the front line with children there is a strong desire to seize this opportunity to make the situation more explicit in law. I hope that my noble friend will consider doing this.
I should perhaps say to the Committee that when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights it was extremely exercised by that situation. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that it goes to great lengths not to find itself in contention with the Law Lords but it was deeply disappointed by their decision on this issue because it did not find it helpful in fulfilling the spirit of the Human Rights Act. Be that as it may, we have a situation here which needs to be clarified. One of the points that I would have made on this in our internal discussions in the Joint Committee is that surely there should at least be some provision in the Bill that makes it clear beyond doubt that when a local authority is making a contract with an organisation to provide services it should be stated firmly and beyond question that part of that contract concerns the fulfilment of obligations under the Human Rights Act. As I understand it, I do not believe that is universally applicable and I think that it should be made applicable. Can my noble friend reassure us on that point?
I support the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Although the intentions of government, particularly in relation to this Bill, are excellent, there is at least the possibility that this matter would be taken to court and, if so, the possibility that it would go through to the Judicial Committee of this House, which would be a very expensive and unnecessary procedure. So perhaps it could be made absolutely clear that either the social services department remains the public body or the provider becomes the public body. It does not matter which so long as it is clear that the child is protected in the event of a human rights failure. Otherwise, you risk the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Bill not being compatible with the convention rights.
We should take very seriously indeed anything said about the law by the noble and learned Baroness, and I do so. However, as a Minister, I know that trying to persuade parliamentary counsel to legislate in areas where they are certain what the law is in their view is a Herculean task. The advice that they have given us is that the legal position is not in any way unclear; it is, in fact, very clear. For the reasons I set out in my opening remarks, the factors that led to the decision of your Lordships' House in respect of YL do not apply. That is the view of the Government and of parliamentary counsel. Therefore, I am sure that I shall be told that for us to legislate would be in vain and would not add to existing legislation. However, I undertake to study carefully the noble and learned Baroness’s remarks and to respond further.
I am most grateful to the Minister, to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for their support for the amendment. I am particularly grateful for the clarity and firmness of the Minister’s reassurances. He will be aware of the significance of his statements from the Dispatch Box should such a case come to court. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I very much hope that this situation will not need to be tried in the courts. However, I ask the noble Lord to consider what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said about the long-windedness of such a case having to be tested in the courts against his statements from the Dispatch Box. It really would be better, albeit it may be duplication, for this matter to be clarified in the Bill. That would be highly desirable because, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, we need to be very clear about what our rights are under the Human Rights Act. If there is any doubt whatever, it would be a very simple matter for the Minister to accept our amendment and clarify the position in the Bill.
We shall consider carefully what the noble Lord said, take further advice and consult with each other before Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
4: Clause 3, page 3, line 33, leave out “which is” and insert “if the act is one”
The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 4, 8, 57, 91 and 99 are minor and technical drafting amendments, but are important to the clarity of the Bill. I shall say a few brief words about each of them.
On Amendment No. 4, providers of social work services will exercise functions of a public nature and will therefore be functional public authorities, as I have just set out, under Section 6(3)(b) of the Human Rights Act. Section 6(5) of that Act provides that, in relation to a particular act, a person is not a public authority by virtue of Section 6(3)(b) if the nature of the act is private. We have realised that the words “of a private nature” in Clause 3(2)(b) might be taken as referring to the provider of social work services rather than to the act in question. This amendment puts the matter beyond doubt by making it clear that the reference is to acts of a private nature, as in Section 6(5) of the Human Rights Act.
On Amendment No. 8, in Clause 5 we intend the power of a local authority to enter into arrangements with a provider of social work services to be a social services function for the purposes of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. This means that the Secretary of State would be able to issue guidance and direction to local authorities under that Act about the exercise of that power. Clause 5 covers making arrangements for the discharge of social services functions in relation to certain children and young people, whereas Clause 1 permits arrangements to be made only in relation to “relevant care functions”, which means those relating to looked-after children and care leavers. It is more appropriate for Clause 5 to reflect the definition in Clause 1.
Amendment No. 57 is necessary as it enables different commencement arrangements to apply to new Sections 25A and 25B on the one hand and new Section 25C on the other. All these sections are set out in Clause 11 and relate to independent reviewing officers. New Sections 25A and 25B deal with matters that are entirely devolved and will be commenced by Welsh Ministers without reference to Westminster, in line with the devolution settlement. This amendment combined with Amendment No. 104 will provide for different commencement arrangements for the provisions in Section 25C, since the power to extend functions regarding the officers of CAFCASS in relation to Wales is not devolved and is exercisable only by the Lord Chancellor.
On Amendment No. 91, the Children Act 2004 established local safeguarding children boards in England and Wales. Section 13 relates to them being established in England and Section 31 relates to their establishment in Wales. By removing the reference to Section 13 in this clause, it will apply to both England and Wales without further amendment.
Finally, Amendment No. 99 is a minor technical amendment to correct the terminology used in Clause 30(7) so that it is consistent with the terminology used in Section 12 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and not with the terminology in Clause 29(3), although the effect is the same. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
5: Clause 3, page 3, line 47, at end insert—
“( ) The provider of social work services shall have a duty to co-operate with other agencies in line with the provisions under Section 10 of the Children Act 2004.”
The noble Baroness said: We come back to an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in the earlier discussion on social work practices: the degree to which they will be required to co-operate with other agencies under the Every Child Matters agenda.
I have to admit that it seems rather odd to those of us on these Benches that within a month of the publication of the Bill the Government should also have published, on 11 December, their Children’s Plan, launched by no fewer than five Ministers and carrying forward the integrated programme, and the integrated services foreseen in that programme, of the Every Child Matters agenda. The establishment of the children’s services authority and the appointment in every local authority of a lead member and a director of children’s services was the Government’s direct response to the failures of co-ordination highlighted in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, following the death of Victoria Climbié.
The whole structure of the Every Child Matters agenda, which underpins not only the Children Act 2004, but much of the education legislation that we have subsequently considered in this House, is predicated on co-operation between the different arms of government, and above all local government, dealing with children. It underlies the logic of the present Prime Minister’s decision to create a Department for Children, Schools and Families.
It therefore seems slightly odd for the Government to be coming forward at this juncture with these proposals for social work practices. It is almost as if they have switched into reverse gear by mistake. We are worried by the fact that the new providers of social work proposed by the Bill would fragment social service provision and run counter to the drive for multidisciplinary teams from health, social services and other agencies to work flexibly across organisational and professional boundaries.
In addition, the proposal fragments the child’s journey through the care system and works against continuity, meaning in effect that a local authority social worker would hand over a child to new staff within a private practice at the conclusion of care proceedings.
The amendment is intended to ensure that the new providers abide by the provisions under Section 10 of the Children Act 2004, which sets out the statutory framework for local co-operation between local authorities, key partner agencies and other relevant bodies, including the voluntary and community sector, to improve the well-being of children in the area. We see this as an essential element of any future structures that incorporate social work practices. They will have to conform to the partnership model that is all too slowly beginning to develop on children’s services.
At a later stage—although we have already touched on this—we shall look at the provision of mental health services to young people and consider how difficult it has been to achieve the full integration of the PCTs and the children and adolescent mental health services into the Every Child Matters agenda. It will be vital to ensure that any development, such as social work practices, which effectively fragments the system is kept within the integrated framework. I beg to move.
I warmly support the amendment and I again hope that my noble friend will be able to take its spirit very seriously. I imagine that he may argue very plausibly that it is an important sentiment that should be there in all that is being undertaken, but it is not really appropriate to have it in the Bill, because it can be covered in guidance. I understand that argument, which is not to be dismissed. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, agrees that we would have that reasonable approach ourselves.
Having said that, I should like to put a nuance on what the noble Baroness has said from the Opposition Benches. I am speaking as a supporter of the Government. I am very positively disposed towards the Bill; I just want to take every opportunity to strengthen it.
This is an ideal opportunity to give substance to the spirit of the recently published national Children’s Plan. I do not want to carp about whether we should be going through with the Bill. The amendment is important not simply for the work and the people covered by this Bill. It also brings home that others have responsibility for children. Success in all that we are seeking to do for children cannot be achieved simply by social workers. They can be effective only if other people recognise that co-operation is a two-way business. Therefore, if we have this provision in the Bill, even in the crude conversations that sometimes take place in the course of front-line work, it is possible for social workers to say, “Look, we are expected to co-operate with you, now you must co-operate with us”. That would be a very important weapon to have to hand. I hope that my noble friend will be willing to consider the spirit of what is being said.
I, too, support the amendment. I am one of the people who was unable to attend Second Reading, and I was enormously grateful to the Minister for his letter of 3 December, which he copied to me, in which he commented on various things that were said. However, I was interested to note, on reading the Second Reading debate—he will not be surprised that I am interested in the children who end up in custody—that 10 of the 16 speakers mentioned the problem of children in custody, but, unfortunately, the Minister did not. It was not mentioned in the opening or the winding-up speech.
I was therefore, frankly, disturbed by the second paragraph of his letter of 3 December, which states:
“However, we believe that children should only be brought into care where it is necessary to protect them from harm. It is important to ensure that young people in custody are safeguarded and protected from harm, but we do not accept that this requires them to be looked after and the state to assume a formal parenting role for them”.
I wonder whether, on reflection, the Minister believes that that is actually the Government’s position. I hope that it is not, because if ever there was a group of people who need to be looked after and to have formal parenting roles assumed for them by the state, it is those in care who go into custody who, without that provision, will have none of it. I was therefore extremely concerned.
This debate is not the time or place to cover the issues of custody, which we will come to in later amendments that I have tabled, but I cannot help being concerned that here, at an early stage, we are talking about co-operation and insisting that it must be there, because only if there is that co-operation will those wretched people in custody receive the care that the state must give them.
Although I agree absolutely with my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, that was not the point that I was going to make at this moment, as we will come to that later. I simply wanted to point out that if we include the amendment, we should have a whole list of other people in the Bill with whom there should be co-operation. I do not think that we should single out one group. However, they need to be included in the Working Together document and arrangements, with which I am not absolutely up-to-date these days, but which I believe talk about working together with the voluntary and private sectors. No doubt private practices could be properly included. I think that it has enshrined all those groups since 2006 and before and, I hope, will continue to do so.
I should like to ask the Minister a question that arose about TUPE, although I did not think that I was going to speak about it because I did not think that I had anything to say. The Minister’s answer caused me some concern, which relates to Working Together. In his reply, he mentioned that groups of social workers might well be transferred to private practices, or the new pilots. I had never conceptualised it like that; perhaps I need to read the document again. I had assumed that private or voluntary organisations would set up those practices and that people would apply for posts in them, so that their conditions of service would be set by whichever organisation. TUPE would not necessarily occur unless they were seconded from the local authority, which is not beyond the bounds of innovation and has happened in other voluntary and private organisations. I am sorry to go back to that, but it caused me some concern, because it has implications for how the whole programme works.
There is much merit in the idea that social work services co-operate with other agencies where it is beneficial to the provision of their services and the promotion of the well-being and the health of the child. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 places the duty on agencies to make arrangements merely to promote co-operation between them. If this amendment is in keeping with the idea that co-operation between agencies and bodies involved in the promotion of child welfare can produce better results, we would certainly support the amendment. However, the wording seems too prescriptive and to go beyond the idea of making arrangements to promote co-operation and enshrine in law an obligation, although I may just be misinterpreting it. I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, could clarify that.
I agree that, as the wording stands, it shall be a duty. We have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness says. The words “to promote” might cover the ground. On the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, of course, not just one agency is involved in Section 10, as she knows perfectly well. A whole group is involved, so it is not a case of just picking out co-operation with one particular group. As the noble Baroness knows, it has been a long process of trying to mould co-operation and gain co-operation from all these agencies. It would be very sad to see this thrown away.
If the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will forgive me, I shall deal with the custody issues when we come to the relevant amendments. I am sorry that I was not able to deal with those points at Second Reading. It was simply because I was trying to keep my winding-up remarks within half an hour. I shall deal with those issues fully at the appropriate stage in Committee. In respect of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, on TUPE, whether or not social workers with existing contracts transfer will depend entirely on decisions by the local authority. They may transfer if that is a decision that a local authority takes, but a local authority could wish to see a social work practice be developed without staff transferring. But where staff do transfer, TUPE will apply. The noble Baroness’s suggestion in respect of the Working Together guidance is good. We will look at that further and I will respond before Report on whether we should make changes in the spirit that she suggested.
We entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that social work practices must build close and effective relationships with other services. The noble Baroness said that the intended effect of her amendment is to require providers of social work services to participate in children’s trust arrangements made under Section 10 of the Children Act 2004. We agreed that providers of social work services will need to be part of a multi-agency framework, but we do not believe that it is appropriate to elevate the provider to the status of a relevant partner for the purposes of Section10 of the Children Act 2004. The involvement of providers of social work services in multi-agency working can be provided for in other ways.
On this occasion, as in so many others, my noble friend Lord Judd has entirely anticipated my response. We believe that the entirely laudable objectives can be secured without further provisions in legislation. But I shall give him the response that I always give: I shall study his remarks to see whether there are further changes that we should consider.
The duty of Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 to co-operate with children’s trust-style arrangements is intended to operate at a strategic level. This means that the duty applies to strategic-level bodies, such as the police, health, YOTs, and the Learning and Skills Council, which are involved in assessing need, developing overarching plans and commissioning services.
Social work practices will be delivery-focused bodies, whose work will need to be informed by priorities set by the children’s trust arrangements. They will also need to report into children’s trust arrangements in relation to delivery and on specific policy issues. Section 10(1)(c) of the Children Act 2004 already allows local authorities to include,
“such other persons or bodies as the local authority considers appropriate”,
in children’s trust arrangements. In some areas, a representative of the social work practice may be asked to attend key partnership meetings for this purpose, while in others, they may be represented by the local authority.
Social work practices will need good working relationships with other agencies at individual child level. They will need to build a rapport with teachers, health professionals and others involved in the lives of the children they support which is consistent with their role of lead professional. Working closely with other agencies is not the only way that social work practices can ensure that the whole range of children’s needs are being met. Social work practices may offer most benefit through engaging multidisciplinary teams to support children, including therapists and learning mentors alongside social workers and social work assistants.
The task is to promote relationships that reinforce the development of strong multidisciplinary relationships. As, over the next six months, we develop a model contract for local authorities to use when contracting with social work practices, we will include provisions to require effective multi-agency working. We will make it clear in statutory guidance to local authorities, issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 on the making of arrangements under Part 1 of this Bill, that they should use the contract to ensure that social work practices work within a multi-agency, multidisciplinary framework. I hope, on that basis, that the noble Baroness will be reassured.
I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity of his reply. I accept that it is perhaps not appropriate that this appears directly in the Bill. On the other hand, if that is so, it would be appropriate that it appears in guidance of one sort or another. Effectively, in so far as you are laying down contract conditions, this perhaps becomes guidance.
Often, these contract conditions are held as “commercial in confidence”. One sees it with the academies, for example, where contracts with them effectively form the conditions under which they may operate, but are sometimes held back and not available to the public. It is important, in so far as it is explicit—the Minister has made it fairly explicit just now—that it should be open and in the public domain. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 4 agreed to.
6: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Social work: employment contracts
(1) This section applies to a provider of social work services in relation to the exercise of a function which is the subject of arrangements under section 1.
(2) The provider must specify in any job description or employment contract relating to a social worker which it employs or proposes to employ—
(a) the minimum level of individual supervision;(b) the minimum level of supervised peer group discussion; and(c) the maximum level of caseload;that that social worker can expect to have.(3) The provider must specify in any job description or employment contract relating to a newly qualified social worker which it employs or proposes to employ—
(a) what additional support if offers to that employee;(b) what additional entitlement to individual supervision and supervised peer group discussion it offers to that employee over and above that offered to experienced social workers;(c) what reduced level of caseload it offers to that employee.(4) The Secretary of State must make regulations prescribing the meaning of—
(a) “individual supervision”;(b) supervised peer group discussion”; and(c) “caseload”.”
The noble Earl said: The purpose of the amendment is to strengthen the professional framework within which social workers operate. By doing so, I hope that it will improve continuity in the care of children. I shall deal first with qualified social workers, and then with the newly qualified social workers.
Historically, as we have heard, the media has always leapt on the faults of social workers, and failed generally to note their successes. However, too often, social workers have been ill equipped and ill supported to meet their responsibilities. One should never forget the lack of supervision and unrealistic caseloads that my noble friend Lord Laming highlighted in the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. Failure to ensure manageable caseloads and adequate supervision continues to make child deaths of this kind only too likely. When such deaths occur, they are also public relations disasters for social work. I ask the Minister what steps the General Social Care Council takes to ensure that employers know their duties to their employees; perhaps he could write to me on that.
The Government’s social care White Paper, Options for Excellence, and the Scottish Executive’s 21st century review of social work highlighted the need for social workers to work through the relationships they build with their clients if they are to be the key to successful social work. Fundamental to making and keeping those relationships with such troubled and troubling clients is a capacity on the social worker’s part for reflection. There is nothing more important to good-quality social work than the good supervision that ensures social workers keep to task and have space to reflect on what they are doing. Nothing is more important, perhaps, except having the manageable caseloads that permit time for reflection.
I refer to discussion groups in my amendment. The habit of reflection has seeped from much social supervision over the years, and social work has declined to some extent. Self-work discussion groups are sometimes used in children’s homes, schools and nurseries. A staff member presents a particular client, and his peers and the supervisor can help him reflect on his practice. Perhaps a nursery might have one evening a month with a two-hour late stay, and the key worker of a particular child can say, “Bob has had certain difficulties recently. This is what I have been trying to improve the matter”. Then he can have the input from his peers and they can say, “Well this seems like a good idea”. If one is doing the right thing, one often needs to be told that to do it with confidence. That is an example.
I recently spoke to a legal professional, both of whose parents are social workers; her mother worked in child protection. I asked her if she had ever considered being a social worker. She replied that she had never dreamed of it; she was too mindful of the immense stress her mother was exposed to. If the Minister wishes to continue to encourage more applicants of the highest calibre into social work, and for them to stay there, then I hope that he will give a sympathetic response to the amendment. After all, this would simply be a duty on local authorities to be as transparent as possible to prospective social workers about how much support they will receive.
Briefly, on the newly qualified social workers, the Government are already successfully recruiting more new social workers and we must ensure that their practice is safe. The Government have increased the standard qualification for social work from a two-year diploma to a three-year degree. They have registered social work, thus raising its status as a profession. As I say, numbers are rising. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what the latest figures for applicant numbers are; perhaps he could write to me on that.
Options for Excellence recommended the creation of a newly qualified social work status, and we have already heard from the Minister that the White Paper Care Matters: Time for Change made application of that to child and family social workers. That entails reduced caseloads and increased supervision in the first year of practice. Money has been announced for this in the Comprehensive Spending Review; that is welcome news.
Can the Minister remind me of the timing of the implementation of these pilots? How soon can we realistically expect this to be applied, first, to child and family social workers across the board, and then to all social workers? It is important that this support for newly qualified social workers is put in place.
The amendment is simply intended to encourage local authorities to bring forward such protections for newly qualified social workers, as some already do, as soon as possible. Not so long ago, I heard an 18 year-old care leaver speak. Many young people from care want to go into either social work or youth work. I think they probably want to improve the lives of others because of their own experiences; of course, this is a field that they know from personal experience. We must ensure that all local authorities give such new social workers appropriate support as a matter of urgency. This is necessary if we are to retain them and their practice is to be safe for children.
I hope that the Minister can give the proposal some sort of sympathetic response. I apologise for tabling the amendment rather late. I think that the new year break gives time for reflection, so I understand that the Minister may prefer to write to me on much of this, rather than responding now.
In the spirit of solidarity which, as we know, reigns among the independent Cross-Bench Peers in the House of Lords, the points raised in the amendment are important: the extent to which we specify the level of supervision, or to which it is specified, the maximum level of caseload and other elements which we know from past experience were—as in the Victoria Climbié case—at the centre of the problem. As so often happens in Committee, we must consider whether this should be built into the Bill or encouraged in other ways. I emphasise that we are dealing with a serious point. The extent to which we can achieve what is set out in the amendment, by this means or others, is important to the effective operation of the system we are trying to encourage in the Bill. I support the amendment. I do not necessarily ask that it go into the Bill, but I would like to have the sort of assurances which the noble Earl has asked for in introducing it.
First, I acknowledge the work of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in pressing the cause of social workers. As a social worker, I could not have done it better myself. We owe him a great deal. I would be the first to acknowledge the important intent behind the amendment. Again, however, as I said at Second Reading, good practice does not depend on legislation but on implementation. Indeed, to put this into legislation or contracts would be detrimental to change and the ability to move forward. I say this from my recent experience in trying to unpick similar contractual arrangements in another organisation. It is obviously the job of unions to ensure that contractual arrangements are adhered to, which can lead to inflexibility and lack of change—real difficulties can ensue.
That does not mean that there cannot be other ways to drive this forward. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said earlier, my great wish is to find drivers to ensure that these things happen. Legislation would not make this happen, but would make it more difficult. I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how the workforce planning and some of the guidance might help local authorities to move some of these issues forward.
While I am speaking I make one other point, about bureaucracy, which has been raised on a number of occasions. The Climbié inquiry made it clear, because it made an analysis of some of the bureaucracy, that it can be cut significantly. However, there is a difference between bureaucracy and good management, and we should be careful not to confuse the two. Young social workers on the job need help, management and supervision. That is what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, points out in the amendment. We must not say that they need that and then say that it is bureaucracy. We must be clear about what we are moving forward on.
I, too, very much welcome the sentiments which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has highlighted in his amendment. However, I agree with previous speakers that it may not be appropriate to put it in legislation. It may perhaps be more appropriate in guidance, but I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that it would be inappropriate to put it in a contract. I say that because I draw a parallel between the newly qualified social worker and the newly qualified teacher. I recall, when I was a newly qualified teacher, feeling rather like a learner driver, not having quite enough hands and feet to control the car and being extremely grateful that I had only a half timetable. The reduced workload and increased supervision given to me as a newly qualified teacher is also appropriate for newly qualified social workers, particularly in the light of cases like that of Victoria Climbié. So it must be laid down somewhere, but I agree that the Bill is perhaps not the appropriate place. However, I absolutely agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Earl.
What is being expressed here is clearly crucially important. It underlines some of the previously outlined problems of just how overvalued, overused and unsupported social workers feel. Although I would agree with those who have expressed the view that the Bill is not necessarily the right place for this, it would be good to have some real assurance from the Minister that this will be done and taken into account with regard to the workload. Good management should certainly be rewarded in itself, but it should not be reflected in bureaucracy.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, knows that this is a matter close to our heart and one that we gave great thought to in our commission on social workers. I have one copy of the report; I do not have a box of them, but I could arrange to get one for our next day in Committee. I am sure that you would all find it fascinating and excellent reading.
I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who is a tremendous spokesman for social workers. I applaud the intention behind the amendment, but I fear that it is unnecessarily prescriptive and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, has said, it could be detrimental. I understand how important it is to have provisions and protections in the employment contracts of social workers. It is a difficult job and is often a labour of love. It still requires a lot of labour, often with a small financial reward. To maintain a strong and well trained social work force, attention must be paid to their conditions of employment, but we have some concerns about this amendment, which seems to place a greater requirement for specifications in a contract for social work services than those that exist in local authorities. Social work services must be allowed at least equal flexibility in employment to local authority social workers and must be able to offer a diversity of care arrangements.
Secondly, there is a specific problem with having a contractual cap on a social worker’s caseload. If one social worker becomes ill, a colleague might know about the unique situation of a particular child and be able to provide temporary care helpfully and efficiently. If there was a contractual caseload cap, would the care provider be forced to find someone else, perhaps less knowledgeable about the situation, to fill in? Surely mechanisms need to be in place to allow for the flexibility necessary to deal with problems arising. Even if the scenario that I have just sketched is not exhaustively persuasive, central prescription runs the risk of harming care provision more than strengthening it, although I absolutely understand the premise of the amendment.
The noble Earl need make no apology for raising this important issue, which is central to everything that we are seeking to do in providing better for children in care or those at risk of going into care. I cannot answer all his points—those that I cannot answer I shall deal with in correspondence—but I can answer quite a number of them. He asked about the number applying to go into the profession. The latest numbers that we have are for 2005-06, when 5,553 students in England registered with the GSCC for pre and post-qualifying training. That was a welcome 16 per cent rise on the 4,770 in 2004-05. I am seeking to ascertain whether we have the figures for 2006-07 and I shall let him know whether we do.
Those figures reinforce another similarly welcome upward trend. In 2006 there were 20,200 social workers in children’s services, which was a 21 per cent increase in the number of whole-time equivalent social workers since 1995 and an increase of 3 per cent since 2004. So although it is true that vacancy rates are very high—the noble Earl mentioned this big ongoing issue earlier—that needs to be set against the fact that numbers are rising significantly in the profession. The problem is that the workload is increasing and therefore the requirement for social workers has been increasing.
Part of the success we have had in attracting social workers—again this relates to the point about investment raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and others—is on the back of significant increases in pay for social workers. Average pay for newly qualified social workers in children’s social care increased from £24,565 in 2001 to £29,892 in 2005—a 21.7 per cent increase. The significant resources that I referred to earlier have gone very substantially into recruiting more social workers and paying them better, which I think is what the Committee would wish. The issues that we have in terms of the recruitment challenge need to be set in that context.
We entirely agree with the noble Earl that there is an issue of overload and burnout, particularly among newly qualified social work staff. Care Matters made recommendations to improve the capacity, knowledge and skills of the social care workforce. Next month, we intend to publish a children’s workforce strategy action plan, which follows on from Care Matters and the Children’s Plan. This will set out next steps, including worked-up proposals for introducing a newly qualified social worker status, giving social workers additional supervision while they develop confidence in their role, as well as providing a guaranteed year of induction support and appraisal to promote quality standards, as applies in the case of newly qualified teachers.
The noble Earl asked about the timescale. Pilots of the programme to support this newly qualified social worker status will start in the coming financial year, following the action plan. The pilots will include additional training and support for supervisors, which will benefit not only newly qualifying social workers but the leadership of the profession as a whole. The Children’s Workforce Development Council will later this month conduct workshops with supervisors and with newly qualified social workers to prepare the way for pilots. My officials will be very happy to brief the noble Earl more fully on this important work and how we intend to take forward the pilots.
We also have planned a comprehensive recruitment campaign and a work-based mature graduate entry route into the social work profession, which again will mirror the changes that we have made that have had such success in attracting more people into the teaching profession. We believe that they will encourage people from a wide range of professional backgrounds to enter social work. My officials will be happy to brief the noble Earl on the steps that we are taking in that regard too.
We will be testing new ways of organising the social care workforce, building on the remodelling work that is already being carried out in many local areas. In partnership with the Children’s Workforce Development Council, we are establishing a number of remodelling pilot sites in local areas, which will test out different approaches to social work practice, management and systems. That is wholly in addition to the piloting of the social work practices that I referred to in our earlier discussions. While I fully accept that we have a great deal more to do if we are to get the social work profession we need for the future, the trends are largely encouraging. In the action plan that we will publish next month, we will set out concrete next steps to promote better practice and better support, not least in the support on offer to supervisors and to newly qualifying social workers.
I thank the Minister most sincerely for the good news that he has given on the progress of the reform and improvements of support for social workers. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has been a helpful opportunity to look at the progress in developing support for newly qualified social workers and other social workers. The point was raised with me by a psychiatrist who has worked for many years with social workers. Part of her concern was that the job description provided to social workers did not include a description of how many hours of supervision they would receive and details of such support. I wonder whether that might be looked at as well. I am sure that in the Minister’s discussion with his officials it will come out how far that might be improved. As a clinician, the psychiatrist was obliged to have so much supervision on a regular basis, and she felt that the social workers who she worked with were not getting that quality of supervision.
May I say how very welcome the Conservative document, No More Blame Game, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is. I found it very helpful, and I look forward to receiving a hardback copy rather than the print-out that I have had so far. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
7: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Social work providers: university partnerships
A provider of social work services must seek to establish a partnership with an appropriately located university with a view to—
(a) providing placements for student social workers with the provider;(b) providing opportunities for continuing professional development for qualified social workers.”
The noble Earl said: This amendment is on social work providers forming partnerships with universities. Thankfully, I have found my notes for this. The purpose of the amendment is to probe Her Majesty’s Government on whether they are taking steps to promote partnerships between local authorities and universities to raise the quality of degree placements and post-qualifying training. There has long been concern at the quality of degree placements. In the past, I have heard of a student having one of her placements at ChildLine, so having no direct contact with children in that part of her course.
I am told that the most important experience is placement in an actual local authority social services department, but that can be the hardest to find. I understand that there have been improvements in the quality of placements, and I know that the Government have been working on that. I was most grateful to the chief executive of the General Social Care Council for writing to me following Second Reading to lay out the range of experience that is required.
On a recent visit to a social services department in London, we were told by the deputy director that he very much wanted to provide placements for students, but that it was difficult to do so given the pressures on his service. He suggested that securing relationships with universities would be of benefit. Is that already being considered? What role might central government play in promoting such partnerships?
I remember visiting a Centrepoint hostel for young homeless people, Buffy House in Olympia, nine years ago. The institution had a close relationship with the Tavistock Clinic, part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in north London. The staff and manager were supported by weekly consultations with a clinician. All the staff had undertaken qualifications with the Tavistock, and the manager was doing an MA there. Buffy House had the most needy and challenging clients that Centrepoint dealt with, yet it had the lowest sickness absence rate in the whole Centrepoint organisation. It had an excellent reputation for success among the rough sleeper outreach workers, who were keen on sending their young people to that particular place because they felt it likely that they would remain there and not return to the streets.
Research indicates that outcomes for children’s homes improve where the staff and the children’s home share a common philosophy of practice. Partnership with universities would tend to support such a common philosophy in social work departments. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to hearing what work is going on there or what might be possible.
I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of the West of England, which teaches a considerable number of would-be social workers. As I understand it, we are reasonably successful in placing student social workers with appropriate providers in the Bristol area. We also provide postgraduate training for continuing professional development. I would be extremely interested to know what is going on and the extent to which there is a degree of commitment between universities and central government. I did not appreciate that this was a probing amendment, though, and I would have been concerned to see it actually in the Bill. It would not be at all appropriate. However, close relationships between universities providing this sort of service and central government departments would be enormously helpful.
I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of East London. Does the Minister believe that subsection (7B) as it stands at the moment could possibly fall foul of the new part-time funding that will take place in the near future with regard to universities?
I declare some sort of interest. Up to a few weeks ago, I was president of the University of Wales at Aberystwyth and had been so for about 10 years. It is laudable that a great deal of thought should be given to the tremendous role that university education plays in the context of the training and education of social workers. Clearly, that is something that will grow and should be encouraged at every stage. On the other hand, it might well be impractical for a local authority to seek a form of partnership with a university, if only because few universities could at the drop of a hat say, “Yes, we shall be very glad to extend our envelope in this way. We are perfectly prepared to provide the necessary funding for this”. A few can do that, but most cannot.
In most cases, universities are underfunded year by year, so that there is effectively a cut in the finances that they have at their disposal. The annual funding is normally about half actual academic inflation—this is inevitable inflation, mainly brought about by increased salaries—so that one has the problem that unless the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales take a decision in principle in relation to this, it might be difficult for many institutions to be able to do exactly what they wish in this context.
I strongly commend the amendment. I agree that it may not be altogether appropriate to insert it in the Bill, but it makes a very important point because we should encourage reflection and the development of quality in the profession all the time. I declare an interest, because I do a small amount of professional advisory work with the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at De Montfort University, and I am involved in the governance of other universities. In all of them, I have seen evidence of the important contribution that can be made in this area. However, the point that has just been made is terribly important; if they are to do this work well, it is not just a matter of fixing up ad hoc contracts but of being able to plan ahead to put the right people in place to have the human and resource structures to be able to provide a quality service. It would be wonderful if a united message could go out from all sides of the Committee on this point, saying that this is a good thing and that the resources ought to be put in place to make it possible.
I support this concept, although I agree that it should not be in the Bill. The huge support that universities can give to the whole approach to social work and in terms of all sorts of degree qualifications or part qualifications can be considerable. The funding issue is crucial, and I very much agree with the point about the part-time courses, because we all know that the Open University, Birkbeck and others are under a severe disadvantage, and we need to look at this very carefully. We shall need to think of different forms of funding.
I declare an interest, because I have an American granddaughter-in-law who came over here and is a scientist by training but has no right, of course, to practise. She is married to my grandson and she is acting as an administrator in a school for a year while she gets her teaching qualification approved. It will not cost her anything, as no doubt the school is paying for it. From that moment onwards it will be accepted that she will be able to teach science. We should be grateful for that, given how short we are of science teachers. That is just one example of where the local university could do an extremely important job in regard to people who might wish to change careers and come into social work. We are going to need all these forms of encouragement and the raising of standards and status that we have heard are so necessary, so I hope that consideration will be given to this, although it may be being done already.
Perhaps I may add my support for this idea, although I do not know that it necessarily should be in the Bill. Perhaps I may cite two things. There are parallels in this with the Probation Service and how much probation has benefited from the contact that it has had with the university courses run for probation officers, which could be developed. I declare an interest as having an honorary doctorate from the Portland Clinic. Over the years, the Portland Clinic has run events for youth offender teams. There is no doubt that the youth offender teams and managers who come together under the leadership of the Portland Clinic have benefited hugely from the experience. That is another aspect which could be explored in development rather than necessarily put in the Bill.
I support the amendment from this side of the Committee. Last night, we had an effective debate on apprenticeships. One issue that arose was the fact that the Government are very anxious to see the public sector playing a much bigger role in providing apprenticeships for vocational education or vocational training. It seems to me that this is another form of vocational training. We are perhaps not looking at apprenticeships at a lower level, but at a higher level. There used to be a “sandwich degree” when people spent a year out in industry or, often, in public services, which have sadly disappeared. Nevertheless, the co-operation required here means that universities need to think again. I suspect that the Minister will say, “Yes, it is not right that this should be in the Bill, but there is nothing stopping local authorities and universities from getting together and co-operating”.
The point has been raised by various Members of the Committee, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, that at the moment neither local authorities nor universities, particularly those training social workers, have the spare resources to put into making effective such apprenticeships. The Government want to put money into apprenticeships. It would be lovely to see them thinking in those terms.
I wish to add a postscript to what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. He referred to studying the effective work being done in the Probation Service in this context. Very interesting work also is being done with the new generation of police officers in the same sort of way. The universities can play a very important role and I hope that my noble friend will take it seriously.
I had not intended to speak on this, but I cannot resist the gauntlet laid down by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that there should be cross-party support. It is rather straightforward to make arguments for this amendment. If we are to have a first-rate social workforce, it is undoubtedly a good thing to provide continued training and support to social workers. Still further, continued training works to increase the profile of social workers and creates demand for better and better qualified care providers. Thus, I have great sympathy with this idea.
I feel the need to point out that social work led some of these issues in the 1970s, and that we have lost it. During the 1970s and 1980s, one of my first jobs in a local authority was as assistant training officer looking after the apprentice social workers, the untrained social workers, in Lambeth social services department. They were sent off as trainees to the universities with which we had strong relationships. In exchange, the universities provided extra courses for our social workers and we provided placements for social workers on courses. Some of those relationships continue today, so we should not forget that social work has a strong reputation in working jointly with universities, and long may that continue.
Relationships between social work employers and universities are critical, especially, but not only, in relation to initial training. I endorse everything said by the noble Earl and by subsequent speakers in this debate, including the remarks made by the noble Baroness in terms of the long traditions of highly effective collaborative working between employers and universities in this field.
Universities are responsible for identifying places for practice learning and involving employers in social work programme design, the provision of practice and design of placements, student selection, teaching and learning provision, quality assurance and preparation for practice learning. Employers of social workers are expected to contribute to the provision of social care and social work education and training, including effective workplace assessment and practice learning, through the provisions of the GSCC code of practice.
To support and promote good relationships between universities and employers, as well as in relation to continuing professional development, the Government have funded learning resource networks in partnership with the Local Government Association and Department of Health. There are nine such networks, which were launched in 2003, and the work of the networks is divided into regional consortiums. They work on three main areas: building and supporting sustainable partnerships between universities and employers; increasing the supply and quality of practice placements; and on the collation of data on practice placements. The scope of the work that these networks do is currently under review. The CWDC and Skills for Care are preparing for both departments to review this work. However, the core of the work, to support practice placements and relationships between universities and local authorities, will continue to be central to the work. I will of course ensure that those undertaking the review are made aware of the remarks that have been made in this extremely useful short debate.
I thank the Minister for his helpful response. I am sure that we all look forward to receiving that information. I thank all those who have spoken in this debate. My father always used to say that what he enjoyed about the House of Lords was that every day was an education. I look forward to reading Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 [Functions under this Part to be social services functions]:
8: Clause 5, page 4, line 31, column 2, leave out “social services” and insert “relevant care”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 6 [Piloting and expiry of arrangements under this Part]:
9: Clause 6, page 5, line 1, leave out “five” and insert “three”
The noble Baroness said: I will speak also to Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12. The Bill enables, through Clause 6, the piloting of arrangements for the new social work practices for a period of up to five years, with the intention to pilot the arrangements in a number of local authorities. It does not offer the opportunity for any other models for new arrangements of social workers to receive similar legislative backing. As has already been indicated on these Benches, we have some scepticism as to whether the establishment of private social work practices will address the issues that the Government are concerned about, such as the need to free up social workers from bureaucracy to focus on direct work with children. Instead, we are concerned that they might have a negative impact on partnership working and on the journey of the child through the care system, while at the same time failing to improve the recruitment and retention of social workers.
Importantly, the option of social work practices is not the only way to ensure that the Government’s aims are met. Other pilots to address some of those aims are under way. For example, the Children’s Workforce Development Council is currently seeking bids to trial new arrangements for social workers in 18 local authorities. The new trials are intended to remodel social work teams to improve the recruitment and retention of social workers and other social care staff, to involve more early intervention work and to tackle bureaucracy. It is also worth bearing in mind that the trials are going on alongside other developments in the education and care sectors that are seeking, through counsellors and mentors, to provide children with longer-term, stable support and help from adults outside the home. It may be that these experiments also prove to be an alternative to the social work practice model. The amendments proposed for this part of the Bill aim to ensure that the move from piloting to social work practices and making the model permanent is not seen as the necessary outcome.
We propose two mechanisms through this group of amendments. First, Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11 would shorten the length of time in which local authorities are given the opportunity to pilot the social work practices. This is aimed at ensuring that it is not seen as the only model of delivery for the provision of care for looked-after children and that other potential models are also given adequate opportunity to be trialled by local authorities. It is intended as a probing amendment to gain further understanding of the extent to which the Government are committed to the pilots and whether they are genuine pilots or whether the Government are open to running other schemes simultaneously.
Amendment No. 12 is more substantive. The aim is to ensure that a rigorous evaluation of the pilots of social work practices takes place before the model becomes permanent. The assurance given on Second Reading that the results of the pilots would be published and that by implication they would be given no further rollout until after publication and consideration of the results is reassuring. The Minister a short while back again reassured us that the pilots would not be rolled out until the evaluation was complete.
That does not detract from the fact that the criteria for judging the success or otherwise of the pilots must be rigorous. They will need to be judged in terms of the required improvements in services offered to children in care, their broader impact on the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of children’s social services and the general delivery of personal social services. That is why in proposed new subsection (8) we are asking that they be judged against the delivery of the Every Child Matters agenda, the local authority’s responsibilities as a corporate parent, the impact on local authority resources and the general stability of the care system, as well as the specific impacts on the children in care services and the recruitment and retention of social workers.
Finally, proposed new subsection (7) puts in the Bill the Minister’s pledge that the social work practice pilots would not be rolled out more generally until the evaluations have been completed and considered by Parliament. I find myself really rather unclear on what triggers Clause 4. As we discussed earlier, Clause 4 effectively ends the period of piloting and introduces social work practices, as suggested in Clause 1(1). Looking at Clause 6, the piloting period begins on the date when Clause 1(1) comes into force and ends on the earlier of the two: the date when Clause 4 comes into force or the end of the period of five years, beginning with the date on which the Act is passed. I read that to say that, unless Clause 4 is brought into force, there is a five-year pilot and after five years the whole thing falls.
I am not clear on Clause 6(2):
“An order bringing section 1 into force may do so by reference to particular local authorities or local authorities of a particular description”.
I take it that that means you could roll out the pilots more generally in either a particular local authority or a group of local authorities. Someone has to declare the day on which Clause 4 comes into force. I am not clear from the Bill what triggers that. Can the Minister clarify that? The aim of Amendment No. 7 would be that an order from the Secretary of State bringing Clause 4 into force would not be made until an evaluation of the pilots had been completed. We are clear in our minds that this is what we would like, but I am not clear what would trigger Clause 4. I beg to move.
I found this clause rather incomprehensible, so I am reassured that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, with her sharpness, also finds it difficult. My problem was that I could not understand whether this was to do with the technical start and end of the process or the length of time for which this might happen; the five years.
If that is so in operational terms, the anxiety that I have at that point is that a contract—I disagree with the noble Baroness on this—of less than five years to set up these practices would cause considerable difficulties. Anyone who sets up operational services on the ground knows that it is six months from the start date of the contract before you are really going, it is a year before you can begin to really assess how you are doing, and if the limit is three years you are winding down half-way through before any hope of a service. If you are going to have the practices, you will need them for five years, and hopefully the local authorities will set their contracts for that good time, because as noble Lords know there has been a great deal of criticism of short-termism in local authority contracts. I may be under a complete misunderstanding as to what this clause means and whether it is more technical.
It may not be necessary for me to intervene here but it seems to me that there is a simple answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. Clause 39(1) relates to Wales, and subsection (2) states:
“Otherwise the provisions of Parts 1 to 4, section 37 and the Schedule come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint”.
So what triggers the operation of the clause is the Order in Council.
I hope that I can provide crystal clear illumination on the question of dates. Clause 6(2) allows for Clause 1 to be brought into force by reference to a particular local authority or local authorities. This will enable the selection of local authorities to pilot the social work practice model. However, unless Clause 4 is brought into force within five years of Royal Assent—the five years begin with Royal Assent—Clauses 1 to 5 will cease to have effect. That means that we must establish the pilots, allow them to run and evaluate them in time to decide before the end of that five-year period whether to roll out the power to make arrangements under Clause 1 more widely. I hope that clarifies the position about the five years.
Why have we gone for five years? For exactly the reason that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, set out. We believe that it is an appropriate period when you take into account all the preparatory and evaluation stages that will need to be gone through. It may help the Committee if I set out the rough timetable for activity that we foresee. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, we will run a competition for local authorities to take part in the pilots, with a view to identifying three to six successful candidates in autumn this year. At the same time, we will also be putting the finishing touches to the model contract and funding systems to support effective operation of the pilots.
Pilot local authorities would then begin commissioning social work practices in autumn this year. Leaving time for a full and proper commissioning process, we anticipate that the successful social work practices should have been chosen by early 2009. In the first quarter of 2009, detailed contract negotiations will need to take place, social work practices will need to get themselves set up in offices, and practical arrangements for transferring cases will need to be put in place.
The aim is to have social work practices up and running, with full caseloads, at Easter 2009, roughly a year after Royal Assent. The intention is that they should then run until Easter 2011. During that two-year period, evaluation evidence will be gathered. In the fourth year, from Easter 2011 to Easter 2012, the evaluation of the pilots will take place. The evaluation will be independent, and we will ensure that the evaluation report is made public and that there is full and proper consultation before the model is made available to all local authorities, if this is indeed a desired option.
Year 5 would then be a period of transition. If a decision is taken to make the social work practice model available more widely, we will need to take time to get the regulation regime right. We will want to design and consult on national minimum standards for social work practices and give the chief inspector time to prepare inspection arrangements. Those local authorities which had operated the pilots would also need to commission social work practices for the post-pilot period, and they will need time to do that.
Taking account of the timetable that I have set out, I hope that the Committee will consider that a five-year period is reasonable and that the date of commencement arrangements is now clear.
I got completely confused—I hope that I am the only person who did. What will happen to the pilot local authorities after the second year? If in years 2 and 3, they are operating, will they continue in years 4 and 5, or will years 4 and 5 be a period of limbo, after which, in year 6, if it is a good idea, they will start again? If I may say so, that was not at all clear from what was otherwise an excellent review by the Minister.
On a point of information, we managed in the previous debate to reach an understanding that the total cost of the powers would be £6 million. When we talk about the powers being ongoing for five years, does the Minister agree that it would be very helpful to allocate a similar, small amount of money, £6 million, to generate control groups, control pilots in other local authorities where we would do exactly the same thing in terms of administrative change but within the local authority? We got halfway through that discussion, but it might be helpful if we could clarify it further in this context.
My point is the same as the one that I made in response to the noble Baroness earlier: there is nothing stopping local authorities themselves from setting up any control that they want tomorrow. It does not require the Government to provide funding for local authorities to establish a control against which, if they so wish, they can test the effectiveness of the social work practice pilots.
There is just the small matter of money. Although the Minister said that local authorities have huge budgets, my understanding is that local authorities are unbelievably pressed and have huge demands on them and never enough money to meet them. If the Government want to have proper controlled studies, proper pilots where we are comparing like with like, I have a feeling that the only way to achieve that is if the Government generate what the Minister rightly said is an extremely small amount of money—£6 million in government terms is absolutely nothing—to ensure that there is proper evaluation of a control study.
I fear that we are going slightly round in circles. Because it is an extremely small sum, as the noble Baroness said, we do not believe that local authorities would have any difficulty finding it if they want to conduct control programmes with which to compare the success or otherwise of the social work practice pilots.
The noble Baroness raises precisely the point that I was going to raise with the Minister. I raised three issues. The first was that of timing. I must say that I very much agree with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the Minister that we need a longer period for a pilot. We tabled the amendments, which came from UNISON, because we generally agreed with them but, on thinking about it, I know all too well how long it takes to set up a proper pilot, so I agree that the five-year period is required if we are going to include the evaluation in it.
What the Minister did not answer but has now begun to is the point that I made about the need to have control experiments—that there are other ways to do these things. The difficulty faced by local authorities is that it takes time to set up a trial or a pilot. That is recognised, because the Government are putting aside £6 million—a very small sum, but nevertheless enough to help the pilots forward. The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, was making is that if there are to be other pilots, there needs to be a little bit of money in the system to help them forward. It might be appropriate that other experiments should be carried forward to see what might be best practice.
My second point was on the whole process of the evaluation. Amendment No. 12 was the substantive amendment, rather than Amendments Nos. 9, 10 or 11, and it concerns two matters. First, the evaluation should be reported back before an order is made by the Secretary of State putting Clause 4 into effect. The evaluation should be considered by Parliament rather than just as an order. Secondly, the evaluation should look at a number of specific issues. The Minister did not reply to that point.
Perhaps I should say a little more about evaluation and controls. On pages 48 and 49 of Consistent Care Matters, the report by the group chaired by Professor Le Grand, evaluation is addressed, as is the control group against which the pilots will be compared. The report says:
“The group considers that a thorough and robust evaluation of the pilots is essential and that this should involve a comparison of the pilots’ performance with those of selected local authorities acting as ‘controls’.”
That is not the Government funding them to be controls, but simply looking at their performance. The report’s recommendation is that the performance of social work practices should be compared against the performance of three controls: first, the pilot authority; secondly, the performance of a best practice local authority; and, thirdly, the performance of an average local authority, to provide a fair assessment of its impact.
I entirely disagree with that point. There is nothing to stop one of the more successful local authorities, or a local authority running a social work practice pilot, providing funding to ensure comparable levels of recruitment, incentive or whatever is the particular area of reform that it wishes to compare between traditional local authority managed services and the social work practice pilots. Pages 48 and 49 of the report set out the basis on which a comparison would be made. The Government believe that that is an entirely fair basis.
Perhaps I may press the Minister further. It is not the local authorities that seek to pilot this programme to examine the effectiveness of the new social work practices in improving continuity for children in care. It is the Government who are doing so. I cannot see why local authorities would wish to spend extra money just to prove whether the Government’s initiative works or does not work. Surely the onus should be on the Government, if they want to be scrupulous in terms of testing this approach, to inject a similar amount of money into the control local authorities to test whether the approach is making as much difference as the Government hope—and, indeed, we all hope.
With great respect to the noble Earl, we will be running a competition for engagement in the pilots, so we are dealing only with willing local authorities. This is not the Government piloting a course of action which local authorities do not want pursued. On the contrary, we will be dealing with local authorities that want to engage in the pilot because they believe that it could be a beneficial way to improve social work provision in their area. If they see social work pilots as one way to improve it, they may see other measures with which they wish to compare it as a good way of proceeding. The Government are not obliging local authorities to engage in the pilots. They will be willing partners who have chosen to engage. If they wish to engage in other measures against which they can compare the pilots, we would be happy for them to do so.
There is going to be a competition. How are the Government going to ensure that the range of local authorities represented within the pilots covers all the bases—all kinds, sizes and natures of local authorities? What if some kinds of local authorities do not apply? What will happen then?
I am afraid that we are dependent on those who apply. We are talking about a small number of pilots, so I certainly cannot say that they will be representative of the whole generality of local authorities in every respect. But the whole purpose of pilots is that you must make allowance for the conditions within which you are working, and your evaluation must take account of them.
In view of the time, we have probably been around this one for long enough. But, actually, the Minister is not quite right. If any local authority is open to set up a pilot in anything and does not need any extra funding for it, it does not need any funding to set up pilots in social work practices. If they want to have, or try out, social work practices, they could have a pilot. There is no need for extra money to encourage them to undertake one. There should be, as we were suggesting earlier, a level playing field on this issue.
The Minister has still not responded to the final points I made about the content of the evaluation. He pointed out that the evaluation will be rigorous, detailed and all the rest of it. But there are particular things which must be looked at, including the delivery of Every Child Matters, the role of the local authority as a corporate parent, the resources available to local authorities, the access for children in care to other local authorities and wider local authority services, the recruitment, retention, pay and conditions of social workers and the stability of the care system as a whole—the wider environment which we were looking at in the points we made.
I am delighted to hear that, but we are currently not totally satisfied with the answers we have had on this and will probably come back to it on Report. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 10 to 12 not moved.]
Clause 6 agreed to.
The Committee stands adjourned until Monday 14 January at 3.30 pm.
The Committee adjourned at 7.42 pm.