I remind the Committee that if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, which is not unlikely, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bell sounds and will resume after 10 minutes.
[Amendment No. 13 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
14: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Welfare for child immigrantsImmigration service: welfare of children
After section 11(1)(m) of the Children Act 2004 (c. 31) (arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare) insert—
“(n) a regional office of the National Asylum Support Service;(o) the centre manager of an immigration removal centre;(p) the Chief Immigration Officer at a port of entry.””
The noble Lord said: The passage of the UK Borders Bill into an Act has meant that the wording for this amendment should be different.
But it is still on the Marshalled List in my name. I thank the noble Baroness for her request for guidance. I intended to speak to the spirit of the amendment and explain that, because of the nature of the change in legislation, I was not going to press it to a Division at any stage. It would be ridiculous to do so because the wording has changed, but perhaps I will reserve my remarks until later in our proceedings. Therefore, at this stage, I do not intend to move Amendment No. 14.
[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]
15: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Local care commitmentsLocal authority charter
(1) Local authorities must prepare a charter of aims, standards and practices for child care services in their area.
(2) In preparing the charter the local authority must consult with children in care and care-leavers.
(3) The local authority must publish the charter and take all reasonable steps to ensure its wide availability to the public.”
The noble Baroness said: This amendment would place a duty on local authorities to produce a charter of aims, standards and practices that constituted their particular approach to the care of looked-after children in their area. We developed the amendment following discussions with the What Makes the Difference project, which has been supporting Warwickshire County Council in developing a pledge to all the children and young people in the county who are in care or are care leavers. This has formed part of the partnership between What Makes the Difference and Warwickshire in taking forward a corporate parenting agenda. The development of the pledge was a joint venture between elected members, officers and children and young people. Particular consideration was given to how all parties could work together on an equal footing and without children and young people being disempowered in the process. This is an excellent example of good practice and should, we feel, be extended to all children in the care of the state.
Among the benefits of this proposal is increased transparency. The idea is to promote a wider understanding of what children and young people who are in care or who are care leavers can expect from their local authority and to detail services and support that meet their specific needs, rather than an unspecified statement of values and principles. Local authority charters could also have the knock-on effect of raising awareness of a social service that is often not understood or is neglected in the wider community.
Local authority charters institutionalise good practice, and successful authorities can draw on their experience to set standards to ensure that that continues. Similarly, the process of developing a charter forces those local authorities that are underperforming to identify priorities. It makes it easier to see what is going wrong and what needs to be done to deliver effective outcomes.
I want to take a moment to underscore the importance of the local aspect of these charters. This is not a top-down mandate. The idea is that these are developed locally and with sensitivity to the priorities of particular areas. The needs of local authorities and the challenges that they face vary, because of a multitude of factors, from demography to geography. Thus it is important that charters are developed locally and by those who best understand the priorities of looked-after children in the area and their specific requirements and goals. Highlighting the local aspect of the development of these charters is not an attempt to shirk national minimum standards. The underlying assumption of the amendment is that the aims, standards and practices developed organically and tailored by local authorities are more likely to be effective than a top-down approach.
Another point that needs to be mentioned is that the amendment would require local authorities in preparing the charter to,
“consult with children in care and care-leavers”.
That would lend the charter an added sense of legitimacy. Not only would the charter arise from the professionals engaged in providing care but it would come out of those with the experience of being in care.
Essentially, this is a way of giving more power, freedom and flexibility to local authorities while maintaining an emphasis on robust standards of care. I beg to move.
In the spirit of constructive dialogue that I am sure the Minister would agree has characterised this Committee stage, I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to look seriously at this amendment with his colleagues. All my experience in community work, both in this country and abroad, has demonstrated to me beyond doubt that where aspirations and intentions are to be fulfilled—where goals are to be achieved—it is essential for those involved and affected to identify with the task in hand and with the arrangements that have been made to fulfil that task. The wider the internalisation of the commitment, the greater the success.
Legislation is sometimes not as effective as it might be because of the feeling that, once you have it on the statute book, it is the law and everybody will work to it. In a sense that is true, but the spirit of the law is very much more important. As I was saying over lunch to some of those outside Parliament who are working with us on the Bill, we all need to remember that legislation and institutions are inanimate; they provide frameworks and opportunities and underline what is appropriate, but effectiveness in policy depends on identification and commitment to that policy. I think that the amendment is sensible and I hope that my noble friend will assure us that he will consider it seriously.
My Amendment No. 52 is part of this group. Its aim, like that of the noble Baroness’s amendment, is to ensure that there is a body to take responsibility for a number of things, perhaps the most important of which is that the child is involved in all the processes. That applies to the individual child’s involvement in their particular circumstances—accommodation or whatever—in the care of the local authority and to the services generally that the local authority provides. There must visibly be a body with responsibility for those things.
We shall have to wait and see whether that makes sense in the long term, given the way in which everything is being reframed. However, my impression is that almost everything in the social service world is being interconnected—at least, that appears to be the aim. There will be an important duty to keep one another informed about the different aspects of the work that is going on.
Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children the right to be consulted. However, as I understand it, our Government are not one of those who are regarded as having consulted children sufficiently.
I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Care Matters, both the Green and White Papers, had some encouraging references to the participation of children in care and included an expectation that every local authority would develop, if they had not already done so, the opportunity for children to have their voices heard and to influence the work of the authority at a high strategic level through a new children in care council. The idea is that not only are children’s voices heard about decisions relating to their own care but the voices of a range of children in care are heard in policy making, assessing the quality of the services that the local authority is delivering and putting forward ideas about how that service could be improved.
We are disappointed that that provision has not been put in the Bill, despite the fact that Care Matters specifically said that every local authority would be expected to set up a children in care council in its area. If that is really to happen in every local authority, as children rightly expect it to, the legislation should make provision for it. In a recent consultation with 300 children living away from home, the Children’s Rights Director found that they thought that their right to have their say about things that mattered to them, and for that to be taken seriously at the highest level, was just about okay. That was as good as it got.
The Bill is a perfect opportunity to strengthen children’s influence in strategic decision-making and service delivery. The amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, would substantially strengthen the accountability of the corporate parent to children in care and ensure that the views of children were heard at the highest level.
Let me say a word of support to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. One of the most attractive elements of her amendment is transparency. Its third subsection says that the policy has to be published.
I want to make two points in support of both amendments. I recognise that local authorities have to produce children’s plans that will contain many of these elements. If the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is not to be included in the Bill, it would be valuable if it were enshrined somewhere in the form of guidance, simply because it gives a specific way of looking at standards. I am always encouraged when there is a good example of practice to give direction, and that is what she is giving.
I hope that we can get something into the Bill about the voice of the child being heard. I say that because I have been somewhat disappointed, in talking with a variety of people in social work, about the continued difficulty that people have in hearing children. They may think that they are listening, but the Children’s Rights Director will tell you time and again that children say that they do not feel that they are being heard. The idea for children in care councils came out of Care Matters and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I expected that something would appear in the Bill. Some reference to them would be extremely helpful in order to ensure that councils have to set up such bodies and listen to children. That would mean that they had to set up mechanisms for children who are in their care and accommodated by them to be encompassed in those bodies and therefore heard.
I shall follow on by speaking to Amendment No. 88 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. We must listen to the experience of those who have been in care, because lessons learnt are hugely important. It would be good if that were included in the Bill as a reminder to people not to leave out that particular constituent in thinking about what needs to be done.
The Government are deeply committed to ensuring that looked-after children and care leavers are properly consulted on the services that they receive and are involved in helping to shape and improve them. That is a major theme of the Care Matters White Paper. A set of proposals is set out on page 22 of that document.
I am responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the basis that I assume from her remarks that Amendment No. 15 intends to enshrine in legislation the proposal set out in the White Paper for every local authority to develop a pledge to the children in its care. The intention behind the White Paper’s proposal is that looked-after children should be made aware of the services that are available to them. The pledge proposal is a central part of our overall strategy for improving corporate parenting and it has been widely welcomed, particularly by young people. However, we do not consider that further primary legislation is required to achieve these aims. We have provided local authorities with funding to help them to develop pledges and we will, in the revised Children Act 1989 statutory guidance, set out our expectation that all authorities should have developed a pledge by the end of 2009.
As the noble Baroness said, many local areas are already developing pledges, working in some cases with voluntary sector partners. Others are working collaboratively across regions to ensure a consistent approach. We intend to provide some good practice examples in the Care Matters implementation plan, which we are due to publish shortly and which we hope will encourage all local authorities to aspire rapidly to best practice in this area. However, I stress, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that these pledges are intended not to set the standards by which services will be regulated but to meet the need for children to have clear expectations of the services that they receive and to involve those children in developing the services. Standards for service provision in relation to fostering and residential care for looked-after children are set out in the regulations and national minimum standards that are underpinned by the Care Standards Act.
Amendment No. 52, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and Amendment No. 88, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, are concerned with establishing a collective mechanism to ensure that children and young people who are looked after are able to put their experiences of the care system directly to those responsible for service delivery. This important priority is already enshrined in legislation. For example, there are requirements under the Children Act 2004 to consult children and young people generally, which includes looked-after children and care leavers, about service provision in their area. The Children and Young People’s Plan (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 also include a specific requirement to consult children and young persons when the plan is developed and a more general duty to consult when the plan is reviewed. Local authorities are, of course, already required to take account of the wishes and feelings of looked-after children when planning for their care at an individual level.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we are building on these requirements by taking forward the proposal in the Care Matters White Paper to spell out in statutory guidance our expectation that every local authority should have a children in care council or equivalent structure. We intend to set out the requirements in guidance that representation on children in care councils will not be limited to looked-after children but will also include care leavers, who of course have an enormous contribution to make from their own experience to the shaping of services for looked-after children. In this respect, our requirements will go wider than the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, contemplates in Amendment No. 52.
While we believe that it is right to focus on ensuring that children in care councils are representative of the children who are currently looked after, we also believe that it is right to consult those young adults who have left care about the services that they received while they were looked after, as their contribution will help to improve the experience of those who come after them. I hope that in all these respects we are meeting the ambitions set out by the noble Baronesses.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am in no doubt that the Government are deeply committed to these issues. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his support for the amendments, as well as all other noble Lords for their constructive comments and support. I acknowledge the rolling-out of the pledge; we just felt that we needed to build more on this. Will the pledge have to be published? Will people be aware of it?
So people beyond those involved in the care will know what is going on. This service is not understood; people really do not know what wonderful work is going on in their areas and how they could be involved. If people were more aware of it, that might bring in volunteers to help with all sorts of other things. That is very important. I thank the Minister for his reply. I will take the matter away and think about it and I will read again what he said in Hansard. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
16: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Reviews for social worker turnover
A local authority must conduct a review of a child’s experience of care if, during a child’s time in care, he or she has been looked after by three or more different social workers during the course of one single year.”
The noble Baroness said: The amendment was inspired by the Minister’s speech at Second Reading. He noted that some children see as many as 30 different social workers and go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. The amendment places a cap on the number of social workers who may look after a child in a year. If the child has more than three social workers, the local authority is obliged to review the situation.
This amendment would create a mechanism by which a disproportionately high rate of turnover could be checked, investigated and, I hope, stopped. The rate of turnover might be perfectly explicable, but it might be a symptom of a yet unidentified problem with a child or, indeed, the local authority’s provision of service.
[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 3.51 to 4.01 pm.]
As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted by the Climate Change Bill, the rate of turnover might be perfectly explicable, but it might be a symptom of a yet unidentified problem with the child or with the local authority’s service provision. Elsewhere in the Bill are provisions for more regular independent reviews of care. This is much more straightforward. Does the Minister think appropriate this kind of trigger for an internal review of a child’s experience of care? It is essential to a child’s experience of care to be able to forge meaningful relationships without fear of having them repeatedly broken off. This is the underlying motivation of the amendment. The number we have chosen may be impractical, but I hope that the Minister will be willing to work with us on the amendment to stem the tide of constant turnover. I beg to move.
I offer my strongest support to the amendment and have attached my name to it. I was grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling it. It goes to the heart of the concerns of the Government and of us all about ensuring continuity of care, which we have failed to do in the past. High turnover of staff is a continually expressed concern of young people in care who visit Parliament. It is a bane also for families of children with disabilities. Those families are often most concerned that their child should continue to receive adequate services as they reach the age of 18 and move into the sphere of adult services. Their social worker should be their child’s strongest and most effective advocate for services. Often, however, their child will have a number of different social workers, whose effectiveness is distinctly compromised as they are insufficiently familiar with the case in question.
I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, that children in public care are often traumatised because of their problematic relationships with the significant adults in their lives. For some of them, changes in social worker will be profoundly painful and may cause them further harm, possibly undermining their ability to make the intimate relationships that could be helpful to their recovery from their early experiences. I re-emphasise how important are good supervision, supported reflection and manageable workloads to retaining social workers. I hope that any review of the kind proposed in the amendment would look carefully at the professional framework in which the child’s social worker operates.
How is turnover of social workers monitored? What figures on individual local authorities can the Minister provide? Does he find widely varying rates of turnover between similar local authorities? What action can be taken when that is the case? I would understand it if he preferred to write to me than to reply to those questions at this time.
I put my name to this amendment because we are dealing with children whose lives are by definition acutely disrupted. The last thing that they need is further disruption in their lives. With the best will in the world and whatever the intention, if a whole string of social workers deals with them, the process can be very disruptive. There are too many powerful stories of young people who make it explicitly clear that the one thing that they yearn for is somebody who can be their confidant, to whom they relate and who is central to the working out of their lives. Continuity is tremendously important. Of course, any reasonable person understands the incredible demands that we put on social services and the difficulties in meeting the ideal, but the amendment spells out a real issue that needs to be addressed. I hope that my noble friend will find ways in which to work with the sponsors of the amendment to meet the observation. I am sure that I am not alone, but I am deeply upset that, even with positive commitment in legislation, because of the way in which the legislation is tackled the whole purpose can in effect be negated. That is a disaster. We need to ensure that the issue is given priority.
I support the amendment. I passionately believe that stability of care and social workers is important, not only for a child social worker in the field but for residential care in particular. One of the principal lacks of the sort of distressed and damaged children who tend to be in care is an experience of secure attachment to a responsible adult who they believe cares about them. The problem is that, unless we put into legislation something of this sort, local authorities will cut corners, because they are always short of money. So it is essential that such a provision should be somewhere in the legislation.
I respect and sympathise with the principles behind the amendment. It is obvious that the element of continuity is of priceless worth in relation to the children whom we are discussing. Their lives have been so bedevilled by upheavals already and all manner of turmoil that they require greater continuity than the ordinary child might. That continuity must be at all levels in so far as that can be achieved: there should be judicial continuity with regard to the judges who supervise a particular case; there should be continuity of residence, in so far as that can possibly be achieved; and there should most certainly be continuity in the social workers charged with caring for and befriending those children.
Having said that, I believe that there is another side to the coin, although it does not defeat anything that has been said or any aspiration that has been exhibited in relation to the amendment. I refer to the question of resources. I spoke in Committee last week about poor counties—the ones that I dealt with when I sat as a judge in north Wales. I am thinking of the four or five counties stretching from Anglesey all the way across to Flintshire. Their problems are very much the same: they have small teams of social workers and if one social worker is ill, another is away on a course and another has left employment for, perhaps, another local authority, while a fourth is on maternity leave, there is a limit to how much they can shake the pack. I have no doubt that in most cases they are racking their brains for how they can achieve as much continuity as is humanly possible in the difficulties of that case.
Without hazarding a guess as to what exactly might be done or what the fine point of balance might be, will the Minister consider the advantages of making the principle of continuity even clearer by perhaps mentioning it in the Bill as well as considering the danger of adding an unnecessary wheel to the coach and making life more difficult for local authorities in this regard? If the review is a fairly cursory one, it hardly justifies a specific statutory precept. On the other hand, if it is deep-seated and deeply penetrative, it may bring about the very bureaucratic burden that local authorities are already not in a position to deal with.
When I read the amendment, I jumped for joy. I thought that it was something I would like to see, even knowing what I do about the context. A number of different indicators and drivers will need to be looked at in the review. I have some quarrel with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about an internal review. The review needs to be external—hence the independent reviewing officer—because it would be very easy to say, “Yes, but we only had this because we could not recruit enough social workers”. That could appear on a number of occasions.
What is it in a local authority that triggers things such as the further involvement of the independent reviewing officer? Perhaps in the guidance we should look at those kinds of triggers. After a child has had more than three social workers in a year, perhaps someone should appoint an independent advocate for that child, to look with the child at what is happening in their life. A number of issues could be looked at around this, in recognition that it may not be the one issue. After all, the child’s real contact might be with their residential staff and their residential social worker and, if there is continuity there, they are not as fussed as when they have no continuity anywhere. We need to look at the issue holistically; we need to consider the triggers and the services that might be brought to bear when this kind of thing happens.
I support the amendment but also the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth—this might not be the best way of dealing with the matter after three social workers. I support Clause 13, which concerns visiting. However, visiting will be completely useless if a social worker visits a number of children without the individual social worker giving the continuity that a child wants. I have had, as I am sure has the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, a large number of children come through my hands who have had multiple movements. Twenty movements for a child in two years is not, I regret to say, all that unusual with some local authorities. The worst I have come across was 40 moves, and it was no surprise that that child ended up in the Caldecott therapeutic centre.
I know how difficult it is for social workers—I totally take on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said—but if you keep changing the social worker, as noble Lords have said, the child will be disrupted by not knowing who is the person to turn to. There has to be someone. I would like to see a trigger in primary or secondary legislation that reminds local authorities that they have to do something about this. I can understand what happens in the small and difficult-to-manage local authorities of north Wales, but it also happens in large local authorities that ought to know better. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that we should be looking round this point, but it certainly should be there somewhere.
I was not planning to speak to this amendment but perhaps I may make one point. Speaking as someone who works in health and, in the old days, in social services, I am conscious of the different systems that can lead to changes in social workers. I do not think that those at the top of these organisations give enough attention to these implications when they are planning systems. I am also conscious that organisations, including my own, do not like reviews or their time-consuming developments. I strongly support the amendment simply because it would be a signal to social services that, if they did not sort out their systems and keep down their turnover and changes of social workers, they would have endless reviews. That would be difficult, expensive and embarrassing, so they should do something about it. For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will support the amendment.
Before the Minister rises, perhaps I may mention that I was interested in the document presented to me, too, by Chris Waterman about social work practices, in which he mentions the role of personal mentors. I have experience as the patron of a charity involved with the personal mentoring of children in care. Providing continuity is precisely the sort of role that a personal mentor can play, in addition to the role of being an independent support. Also, that mentor, when taking on that role, should be given guidance that one of their roles is to monitor whether there is continuity in the services being provided. So, rather than there being a set of triggers, the mentor could provide the trigger for some sort of review, because their relationship gives them the insight into whether there is a need for a review of what is being done on behalf of the child. I press the point that the mentoring role could assist with this set of problems.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for coming up with this ingenious idea, which I commend to the Minister. I hope that he will respond in a constructive way to the concerns that have been expressed. When he does so, will he ensure that the pilot social work practices are put on a level playing field with local authorities when they are being held to account for the turnover of social workers? If that is not done during the pilots, the evaluation will not be fair.
The issue that we are discussing is important and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, I referred to it in my Second Reading speech. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me for some statistics. They are, indeed, of great concern. They show that in 2005, the last year for which we have figures, there was an average vacancy rate of 11 per cent for field social workers in respect of children across England, but with very wide regional variations. The lowest regional vacancy rate is 8 per cent, in the eastern region, but the rate is nearly twice that in London, at 15.1 per cent. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the use of agency staff should be highest in London, where, in 2005, the figure for agency staff stood at 20.8 per cent, compared with an average of 11.6 per cent in the rest of England. That is still a high percentage, even as an average. This is a serious issue.
We do not believe that the amendment is necessary, however, because the care plan for every child in care must in any event be reviewed on a regular basis in accordance with the statutory framework established under Section 26 of the Children Act 1989. Regulations under that section require the child’s case to be first reviewed at least within the first four weeks of the child becoming looked after; the second review must take place within three months and, thereafter, reviews must take place at least every six months, although the independent reviewing officer can direct more frequent reviews. The Bill will strengthen the role of the independent reviewing officer, who is responsible for convening reviews, scrutinising care plans and ensuring that children’s views are taken account of in the care planning process. The IRO will of course be expected to take full account of changes in social workers in reviewing the quality of support provided to a child and to make any appropriate recommendations.
While I absolutely share the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness and other speakers, we do not believe that a process of independent reviews in addition to those that already take place under the auspices of the independent reviewing officer would add anything. We expect those reviews to look at, among the other things that the IRO looks at, the impact of changes of social workers and to make any appropriate recommendations.
I have a supplementary question. The intention of the social work practices is to address exactly this point on social work turnover. Perhaps I might briefly allude to that, given that the Minister kindly wrote to us all on various matters since our previous day in Committee, including at length on social work practices. These social work practices hold good prospects for securing greater continuity of care for looked-after children. The greater autonomy that they grant to social workers should make the work more attractive and, to an extent, offer a refuge from the bureaucracy of local authorities. So I can see the benefits in principle. In his letter, the Minister outlined concerns, which I have also expressed and which he recognises as legitimate, about the impact on the wider workforce. I shall not go into details at this point, but perhaps the Minister can clarify a further point. Once the pilots have reported and the evaluation has been made, the Secretary of State will have the power to decide whether local authorities can implement the pilots, but will a statutory instrument be brought before Parliament?
One thing that concerned us greatly during our social workers commission was the retention and turnover of staff. The turnover of social workers appeared to be an issue everywhere. While I absolutely take on board what the Minister said about the independent reviewing officer and how there will be consistent and constant reviews that would pick up on an individual child’s problems, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, referred to a hatred of reviews. She said that, if something was enshrined in statute and authorities found that this was happening, they would have to look at their wider procedures.
When we took evidence, it became clear that little bits of bad practice that might seem good business practice, such as hot-desking, do not work. We were told that hot-desking is now used in many offices and that this is adding to social workers’ stress. It may be cost-effective in the use of space while social workers are out on visits, but it cuts them off from their support networks and their colleagues; it isolates them and prevents them from sharing knowledge, input and cover. This kind of thing can lead to them leaving and going elsewhere. I am not too sure whether these things would be picked up by the IRO, but they might be if there was something in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, the element of continuity is of priceless worth and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, unless we put it in legislation, local authorities will cut corners.
At a meeting of a number of our Conservative leads in children’s services, it became clear that they do not know how they are going to carry out a great deal of what is in the Bill, because they do not know whether they are going to have the money to do it. With all the good will in the world, they may turn a blind eye to some of the things that would make a huge difference.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, referred to something that is close to my heart—mentoring. We tried to table an amendment on mentoring but were told that it was beyond the scope of the Bill. I am not sure why and we may try to do something on Report. Mentors offer a tremendous continuity over the years, wherever the child may end up or whenever their circumstances change. We need to look closely at what mentoring can do to help in this.
I thank the Minister and all noble Lords who have spoken. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
17: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Contact with siblings and close family
A local authority must allow a child in care the opportunity to have contact with siblings and close family members if to do so would be in the interest of the welfare of that child.”
The noble Baroness said: We now start a series of amendments on a subject that is near and dear to the hearts of many of us: contact with siblings and families. The process of entering or living in care, even for short periods, can destroy relationships between siblings. Stable relationships that reinforce a sense of belonging, trust and even dependence are among the rarest and often most necessary features of the experience of a child in care. Contact with siblings fosters these kinds of relationships.
Reams of expert opinion and consultations with children in care echo this sentiment. In the response to its Care Matters Green Paper, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that keeping siblings together is vital. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned, the Children’s Rights Director for England, Dr Roger Morgan, published the views of 433 children on improving care standards. Designing placements so that brothers and sisters can stay together was the fourth main recommendation from the children. A National Voice, the excellent organisation run by and for young people in care, found in a recent survey that 83 per cent of children and young people who do not live with their birth siblings would like to see more of them. I need not further rehearse the significance of that.
Provisions in the 1989 Act should ensure that siblings are kept together wherever possible, but this is a probing amendment, designed to reignite that debate. Will the Minister explain what specific steps have been taken to keep siblings together? Is he willing to comment on the success of those attempts? Does he agree that more needs to be done? Is he willing to give undertakings that further measures will be taken to ensure that siblings are, wherever possible and when it is in their best interests, kept together? I beg to move.
I support Amendment No. 17 and shall speak to Amendments Nos. 53 and 71, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley. I shall speak also to Amendment No. 32, which should have been grouped with these amendments, since it fits in with this issue more than with Amendment No. 28, with which it has been grouped.
Amendments Nos. 17, 53 and 71 would strengthen the duty on local authorities to facilitate sibling contact, unless it is inconsistent with the child’s welfare or a child with sufficient understanding objects to it. Amendment No. 53 spells that out at slightly greater length than Amendment No. 17, proposing to add a new section, Section 34A, to the Children Act 1989. Amendment No. 71 would simply amend the wording of that Act.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, explained, the Bill misses a golden opportunity to increase the placing together of siblings. Children enter care largely as a result of the actions or inaction of adults, yet the process of entering and living in care, even for short periods, can destroy relationships with siblings and take away identity, shared memories, companionship and love at a time when they are most needed. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reported in its summary of responses to the Care Matters Green Paper consultation:
“Many of the children and young people we have spoken to thought that it was vital to keep siblings together wherever possible. Where this is not possible, maintaining contact with siblings is very important to young people”.
On Amendment No. 53, Clause 8 repeats the provisions of the Children Act 1989 that relate to the duty of local authorities to accommodate together siblings wherever it is reasonably practicable and consistent with the welfare of the child. Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 requires the local authority to allow reasonable contact between a child in care and his or her parents, guardians and those who formerly had residence. Paragraph 15 in Part II of Schedule 2 to the 1989 Act makes provision for contact between the child and “any relative”. However, no explicit provision is made for sibling contact. The local authority is required to promote rather than to facilitate contact, though there is provision for covering travel expenses.
Amendment No. 32 relates to proposed new subsection (7E) of the 1989 Act. It would delete the words “reasonably practicable and” from proposed new paragraph (b), which relates to the duties laid on the local authority to try to ensure that looked-after children are placed in accommodation in the area where their family lives and, under proposed new subsection (7D), with siblings if they are also looked after by the local authority. The problem with words such as “reasonably practicable” is that they are too often used as a let-out for not making much effort to pursue that duty. This amendment to the 1984 Act would therefore remove the considerable and unjustified discretion given to local authorities for providing accommodation for looked-after children, while maintaining the appropriate duty to act in a manner that is consistent with the child’s welfare.
Amendment No. 53 offers an alternative formulation to Amendment No. 17. It makes it clear that, where it is not consistent with the child’s welfare to be placed with his sibling, there should be an explicit duty on local authorities to support sibling contact, unless that is also not consistent with the child’s welfare or with the child having sufficient understanding of the objects of such contact. Both amendments are crucial if we are to come closer to having a system that cherishes children’s relationships with one another.
Amendment No. 71 offers an alternative formulation, although it fails to stress the importance of contact being consistent with the child’s welfare and of the child itself wishing to have such contact. For that reason, such a formulation would need to be accompanied by new guidance emphasising the importance of contact with siblings and other significant family members to looked-after children. Not only Amendment No. 17 but also our Amendment No. 53 spell the issue out in more detail. The preferred amendment of these Benches is Amendment No. 53.
I have put my name to Amendment No. 17 and therefore perhaps I may be forgiven for speaking at this juncture. I simply say that we need to get our commitments straight. All sides of the Committee emphasise the importance of family, but what has often happened is that in some respects the family does not exist or has broken down, which is why children are in care.
In the absence of the full family, brothers and sisters—we call them “siblings” for the purpose of our debate, but let us spell them out in human terms—can become emotionally tremendously important to the person concerned. It is important that, wherever it can be done and the children so want it, every muscle should be stretched to ensure that the siblings can stay together. If that is impossible, not to have generous and practical arrangements for contact is a pretty sad state of affairs. It can also have very costly consequences.
I heard the other day about a group of siblings who were separated. I will not go into all the details, but every one of them in follow-up discussions made it absolutely clear that nothing mattered more to them than being in touch with their brothers and sisters, and how distressed they were that they had been separated. One of them had been showing great promise. He was settling down to studies and was very successfully playing rugby; it looked as though he had a considerable future in rugby. However, when the children were separated, he withdrew completely into himself. He gave up his commitment to sport and his improved performance at school, and he ended up in an alcoholic, homeless and distressed situation. This is the foolishness of not giving enough priority to these emotional needs at the right moment. The cost later, not only in human but in economic terms, can be ongoing and considerable.
These amendments are, therefore, not just important but crucial. We all draw on our experience. Mine is not directly and specifically related to children, but I look back at my time as director of Oxfam; that was a completely different setting but, by God, we dealt with children there. One of my reflections on my years there—this was one of the most important learning experiences in my life—was that if you are trying to stand by those who are excluded, deprived or in need, perhaps the most important form of support that you can provide is advocacy: making sure that children do not become just objects and do not feel that they are pushed around by a system. That can sometimes be an extremely sad situation, because there are often dedicated people working within the system, but sometimes that is the overall perspective of the child. Children matter as individuals and they need to be heard. Therefore, Amendment No. 71 is terribly important in this context, too. I hope—I know—that my noble friend will not only recognise the force of these arguments but see whether specific arrangements can be put in place to meet their objectives.
We seem to have covered quite a range of amendments, which are scattered all over the agenda, but I certainly very much support these three amendments and Amendment No. 32, which has been alluded to. The passion that has been expressed about families, which is also shown in a later amendment on the importance of grandparents, shows the extent to which we are waking up to the importance of the family. I am not talking about every single family contact, because, as we all know, some would not be remotely desirable, even if the individual was passionate about that particular person. None the less, the family is an extra resource and provides a feeling of identity. We have heard on many occasions how appalling and chaotic the lives of children in these sorts of situations are, so the more help, outside support and outside role models they can have, the better.
The purpose of this probing amendment is to strengthen the duty of local authorities and encourage and facilitate sibling contact. I very much hope that the Government will accept the amendment. We have heard about the number of Acts that mention the importance of families being placed together and that say that, if they cannot be placed together and there are reasonable grounds for not doing so, visits should be facilitated and so on. But this is not just important for those reasons; the children themselves say that they want it to happen. A National Voice, for example, which is run by and for young people in care, found in a recent survey that 83 per cent of children and young people who did not live with their siblings would like to see more of them. An NSPCC survey that consulted children about their experiences of family proceedings since the 1989 Act showed that four in every 10—a huge percentage—said that they did not have enough contact with their siblings.
The need to keep siblings together has been stressed absolutely by the Department for Children, Schools and Families—and I am sure that we will hear from the Minister or the noble Baroness that they are very much in favour of it—in the summary of responses to the Care Matters Green Paper consultation and in the recent report by Dr Roger Morgan, the Children’s Rights Director for England. Following a survey of 433 children on how to improve care standards, he made the need to keep siblings together in care proceedings his fourth main recommendation, which I think says quite a lot. Therefore, I very much support the amendments and the comments of all other noble Lords who have spoken.
I support the amendments in principle. Clearly, it is very important to keep children together if one can. If that cannot happen, it is very important that they see each other if—I hope that I shall not be accused of being unduly legalistic here—it is in the interests of the welfare of the child and siblings. There are cases where a child is extremely keen to see other children in the family but it is not in his or her interests to do so, and there are also cases where the other children do not want to be involved. Therefore, one has to be a trifle cautious in that regard.
I support all that has been said, as I do the principle behind the amendments. However, there must be a clear understanding that when a child is in a placement together with two or three other children over several years, although those other children may not be blood kin, they can be as important as any sibling. Therefore, the extent of the relationship that children have with one another is important, and that must be respected. Earlier today, I was with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and heard that some children who had been placed together for many years and were very attached to one another were given just one week’s notice that they were to be separated. If the approach by the local authority is too legalistic and it says, “Well, these children are not blood kin, so we do not need to apply this law”, that will not be helpful. It needs to be made clear, perhaps in guidance, that that is the intention.
I confess to feeling a degree of exasperation, as I am just sorry that these amendments need to be tabled at all. I believe that from 1948 onwards it has been practice, under legislation, for siblings to be placed together wherever possible, although I take my noble and learned friend’s point about that happening only where, following assessment, it is deemed appropriate for all the siblings. It seems to me that this is all to do with there being sufficient placements, about which later amendments have been tabled. Therefore, again this is a question of resource and the way in which the structure is put in place to provide the necessary expertise and skill. I take the point made by my noble friend Lady Murphy in that regard. Those making the assessments must have sufficient expertise and skill to understand the nature of the relationships. I should like the Minister to take on board the point made by my noble friend Lord Listowel—that children may be linked by affinity and not by blood. That is extraordinarily important, bearing in mind the Welsh case that we heard about. I would support the amendments if I thought that there were not enough legislation already on the statute book, but I should like to hear what the Minister says about ensuring that children have the right to contact by affinity as well as by blood.
Perhaps I may begin by clarifying the remarks that I made a moment ago in response to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about social work practice. After nearly three years in the job, I am still learning the hazards of giving a simple answer to a simple question as a Minister. It is almost always the wrong thing to do.
The noble Earl asked me what the statutory arrangements would be for the rollout of social work practices. Perhaps I may give him the fuller response that I should have given earlier. Any statutory instrument made in pursuance of the powers in Part 1 of the Bill, particularly under Clause 4, will be by negative resolution. However, the exercise of powers in Clause 1, under which the Secretary of State can change the nature of functions that can be delegated to a social work practice or the bodies with which a local authority can contract, must be by affirmative order. Therefore, there is proper provision for parliamentary oversight, but the arrangements vary depending on the nature of the powers being invoked.
I now move on to the issue of children living away from home and maintaining links with parents, brothers, sisters and others who are important in their lives. Of course, we believe that, where that is conducive to their welfare, it is important that it should take place. Legislation currently provides for it, as does practical guidance and support. If I set out how that is done, perhaps it would meet the concerns raised by noble Lords.
Paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989 contains provisions for the promotion of maintenance of contact between child and family. It requires the local authority,
“unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare”,
“endeavour to promote contact between the child and … any relative, friend or other person connected with him”.
Siblings can also apply for contact orders under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989.
The contact requirement is reinforced in the schedule to the Arrangement for Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991, which requires local authorities to consider arrangements for contact and whether there is any need for changes in the care plan to promote contact that is consistent with the child’s welfare. Contact must also, by regulation, be one of the matters considered at the regular, six-monthly reviews of the child’s case. The accompanying guidance to the Children Act stresses the importance of contact between the child and all those connected with him where it is conducive to his welfare. Section 105 of the Children Act provides a definition of “relative” that includes not only brothers and sisters of the full blood, but also half-siblings and those related by marriage or civil partnership.
We recognise, however, that practice may often fall short of these legal requirements. It is for precisely this reason that we have ensured that the requirements for contact are reflected in the child’s care plan and placement plan within the integrated children’s system, which provides a conceptual framework and practice tool for undertaking the key processes of assessment, planning, intervention and review for all children in need, including looked-after children. All local authorities in England are required to have in place an ICS system that is compliant with the business requirements issued by my department.
Within the ICS care plan and placement information records, practitioners are required to record contact arrangements with siblings, including step-siblings and half-siblings, and the practicalities as to how this will happen. Guidance notes within the records emphasise the importance of this contact. We fully accept the points raised by noble Lords, but we believe that they are provided for in existing arrangements.
As the Minister noted, there is within the clause the let-out of what is “reasonably practicable”. Time and again, that is used by local authorities to escape the duties that he has just told us about. That is the problem. In practice, there should be good contact with siblings, but it sometimes goes by the board because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, it comes down to there just not being the resources to find enough placements to make it easy to place children close by or to put two siblings together, which creates all the problems that we have been talking about.
The noble Baroness identifies a problem that also concerned me when we were considering the previous amendment. Does the Minister agree that there are simply not enough resources to hire enough people to do the job that the Government are committed to doing?
I reinforce my noble friend’s point. The Government have of course significantly increased resources in this area over several years, which is most welcome, but a report produced by the British Association for Adoption & Fostering and the Fostering Network in 2005, The Cost of Foster Care, identified that, to make the necessary improvement to the lives of children in care, one would need to invest an extra £500 million a year—I will check on that. The whole sum for the implementation of Care Matters is £300 million over a number of years, so resources must be significantly increased if a choice of placement for children is to be made a reality.
I thank the Minister for his reply and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Perhaps I may pick up on the story told by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Some time ago, I spoke to a young man who had been in care before he was adopted. The adoption had broken down and he had been taken back into care. He became a friend of our family and said that one of the things that troubled him most was that he knew what a difficult time he was having and worried greatly about what was happening to his younger brothers and sisters. The fact that he did not have the contact that he needed was, he thought, one of the reasons why he found his placements so difficult. He thought that, if only he could have been reassured that his brothers and sisters were fine, he would have found life much easier. A lawyer who was meeting the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said to me earlier today that if the Children Act 1989 were properly applied, much of what we are discussing today would be unnecessary, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said.
This probing amendment was proposed to stimulate debate and represents yet another attempt to find those drivers, because, although the requirement has been on the statute book since 1989, it is still not being implemented in the way in which many children and young people in care would like to see. The Minister said that practice falls short of the legal requirement, although he went on to explain at length what was happening. I like the idea that it will be a requirement to record contact arrangements. I am most grateful to everybody for their participation in this short debate and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 18 not moved.]
19: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of appropriate placements
In section 23 of the 1989 Act (provision of accommodation and maintenance by local authority for children whom they are looking after), after subsection (2A) insert—
“(2B) A local authority must provide a sufficient and diverse provision of appropriate placements within their local area.””
The noble Earl said: On page 48 of their White Paper, Care Matters: Time for Change, Her Majesty’s Government promised in bold, black letters that they would,
“impose a statutory duty on local authorities to secure a sufficient and diverse provision of quality placements within their local area”.
Yet nowhere in the Bill can one find such a duty. The amendment would allow Her Majesty’s Government to fulfil that undertaking. I am grateful to the Fostering Network and the British Association for Adoption & Fostering for advice in preparing the amendment.
At Second Reading, the Minister said that the duty was implied by the Bill. I regret to say that, unless it is made explicit, it is unlikely that it will be respected. If children are to be placed locally as far as possible, it has to follow that an explicit duty is placed on local authorities to make sufficient appropriate placements available. If there are no funds now to implement this, we should put in place the necessary empowering clause so that the duty can be introduced as soon as the resources are available. If the duty is implied in the Bill, one must ask where in the regulatory impact assessment provision is made for the huge increase in funds that would make all those new foster care places available. I am afraid that we just do not find them. How is the commitment to be fulfilled if the resources are not being made available to make it happen?
As I said under a previous amendment, the BAAF and the Fostering Network’s report, The Cost of Foster Care, published in 2005, made clear the situation. Commenting on the report, the chief inspector at the Commission for Social Care Inspection, David Behan, said:
“Our inspections have revealed that just under 40% of fostering providers are still not meeting the standard required on matching, which is key to achieving stability for these children. It is essential that there is an increase in the choice of foster carers for children and young people which will lead to a real improvement in outcomes, with the right placement for the right child at the right time”.
The report highlighted a shortfall of 10,000 foster carers across the UK. Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, said that it was a call to the UK Government to invest a further £748 million in foster care each year. Rather than the £500 million that I mentioned, £748 million should be invested in foster care each year. This call is reinforced by a report from the Children’s Rights Director, which states:
“A very common message from children is that when they’re being moved, there should be a choice of at least two alternative suitable placements and the child should have a real say in the choice between them”.
Perhaps I may also quote some foster carers:
“There is a lot of pressure put on foster carers to accommodate children not on their approval status and to take in more children than their quota … Fostering is a very stressful occupation but foster carers are expected to carry on regardless of situations they find themselves in ... It is not just a need to recruit more foster carers, there is a need to keep them”.
Another foster carer says:
“There is often an air of desperation that surrounds placements. No efforts are made to ensure suitability and/or compatibility. Three years ago, I accepted a child on an emergency basis. The child remains in our family. I am now being pressurised to take the child’s siblings, which I have declined because the child does not want this. I am so disenchanted with my situation, I would give it up tomorrow were it not for the commitment I have made to this young child”.
The Government are to be congratulated on meeting some of the needs identified by that report. They have now set minimum allowances for foster carers and, I believe, are considering minimum fees for them. The Bill, even unchanged, will contribute to improving the situation, yet we remain far behind as regards the incentives offered to foster carers by our continental neighbours. I recognise that some of your Lordships may blanch at the idea of paying a large sum per child to each foster carer, but the situation clearly demands such an approach, given the shortage of foster carers.
I have already discussed the impact statement relating to the Bill. Funding to local authorities for social services is not ring-fenced, as was said previously. There are many conflicting pressures on local authority budgets, and currently local authorities are facing huge, unexpected expenditure on payments to women who in the past have not received equal pay for equal work. Care for the elderly will be an ever-increasing expenditure, and there will always be the public’s and the local electorate’s abiding priorities of roads and waste to consider. Unless an explicit duty is laid on local authorities, some will inevitably raid their social service budgets to meet other priorities. I hope that the Minister will think about this matter and that he can accept the amendment. I look forward to his response. I beg to move.
I have Amendment No. 30 in this group but, first, I want to say that I very much support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. It is very disappointing that the commitment in Care Matters has not resulted in an explicit duty in the Bill to provide diverse accommodation.
Amendment No. 30 relates to the duty in relation to disabled children in particular. It would add to the duty to secure accommodation the further duty to secure enough accommodation that is,
“consistent with the welfare of all children including disabled children”.
It would require local authorities to demonstrate that they were increasing the supply of suitable accommodation for such children in their area rather than simply relying on the provision in the Bill not to place a child locally if there was no accommodation consistent with their particular needs.
I have been asked to table this amendment by Every Disabled Child Matters, which speaks particularly for the disabled child. It welcomes the Bill’s provision in Clause 8 to increase the number of looked-after children placed locally but has major concerns about how disabled children will fare under the Bill. The Bill has the potential to transform the experiences of a lot of disabled children, many of whom are placed a long way from home because their special needs can be met only in an authority some miles away.
We do not want to see local authorities relying on the necessary provision in the Bill not to place a child locally if there is no accommodation consistent with their welfare; instead, we want local authorities to build up enough appropriate places in each local authority to take care of such children. There is a tendency to place children a long way away, and these distances increase the safeguarding concerns because there is no one whom the child knows, such as a member of the family or a friend, to keep an eye on them. That makes it difficult for family and friends simply to stay in touch and to keep their relationship going. It also adds to the sense of isolation that many disabled children feel anyway because they are just a little bit different from their peers.
Amendment No. 30 would impose a duty on local authorities to demonstrate that they are building capacity for future placements for children and young people with disabilities. Without this amendment, we are concerned that the most vulnerable looked-after children—those with disabilities—will not benefit from the improved outcomes of being placed near to home from which other children will benefit.
I support Amendment No. 30. I put my name down to this amendment when it was alone and palely loitering and prepared three pages of speech to make to it, but I fear that they are no longer required. The important thing is that the amendment refers specifically to disabled children; it is the only one in this grouping that does so, which from my point of view makes it the most important of the four amendments.
The amendment would require local authorities to increase the supply of suitable accommodation available locally in line with local need and to ensure that the overall aim of Clause 8—that children looked after by a local authority stay in their local area—is properly met. It would therefore ensure that the capacity for suitable accommodation was developed over time. Out-of-area placements are of course sometimes necessary but they are expensive and disruptive and they increase children’s vulnerability. By accepting the amendment, the Government could reduce the need for out-of-area placements and increase the welfare of disabled children and all children who need accommodation to be provided by their local authority. I hope that the Minister will agree to support the amendment and, possibly, the other amendments, too.
I strongly support Amendment No. 19. I am sure that I would also support Amendment No. 30, but my comments are directed to Amendment No. 19, requiring that the local authority provides,
“a sufficient and diverse provision of appropriate placements within their local area”.
Other noble Lords have spoken about the disadvantages for children of being placed hundreds of miles from home—and we know that that happens an awful lot. The precise wording of the amendment is important. I know only too well from my work in east London that boroughs such as Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney simply cannot provide sufficient fostering placements or other placements within the borough. I am sure that that applies also to a lot of other inner-city areas. Therefore, the term “local area” is important, as it adds the required flexibility to achieve the desired result.
The key point is that boroughs need to negotiate with the boroughs next door to provide sufficient local placements so that the children can maintain contact with their families and schools; one hopes that they can attend the same school as they went to before, and so forth. I very much agree with the British Association for Adoption & Fostering that focusing on local authority boundaries could be clumsy and work against the interests of children in some cases, particularly if the nearest placement was on the other side of the borough, when going over the border into a neighbouring borough would produce a much better outcome.
The focus on the local area therefore makes a huge amount of sense from a number of points of view. The aim to have sufficient provision in each area except in exceptional circumstances is also important. The Children’s Services Development Group makes a powerful case for out-of-area placements for children with acute or complex needs, for whom it would be unrealistic to replicate services locally; I am sure that all noble Lords are familiar with that point. The sufficiency of local provision would take account of the proportion of children who will anyway need to be placed out of area, so I do not think that that is an issue.
The organisation National Children’s Homes expressed concern that local authorities may have an incentive to place children locally, if they have sufficient places locally, even when that might not be in the child’s best interests. NCH has a point, as local authorities would certainly be tempted to try to place as many children as possible in their local area, or certainly within their local borough, if they could do so, even when that might not be in the best interests of the child. However, I would like the Minister’s assurance that that issue could be dealt with through guidance or perhaps even regulations.
Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I draw the Government’s attention to their commitment in Care Matters,
“to drive improvements in local authority commissioning ensuring a sufficient provision of local suitable and stable placements”.
They also pledged to legislate for that. Along with the noble Earl, I do not believe that the wording in the Bill makes that commitment. The purpose of the amendment therefore is to honour the Government’s commitment. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will support it.
The case for these amendments has been put very well by those who have spoken to them. I support this group, but we would probably like to repeat during our deliberations our view that this is a good Bill that has been warmly received for its intentions. Therefore, it would be a shame if in historical perspective it did not achieve its objectives because it had not been specific enough about how they should be achieved. That is tremendously important when there is an intention to spell out exactly who is responsible and who must make the provision.
Reference has been made to the resource issue; that is an inescapable argument, which has to be taken seriously. However, if we somehow mask the issue by not spelling out specifically enough what has to be done, revealing what the required resources will be, we are making a mistake. If my noble friend can take the amendments on board and find some way to respond to them by Report, it will be an altogether good thing.
I begin by commending the Department for Children, Schools and Families for its work in setting standards in this area. I refer particularly to setting minimum standards in relation to fostering allowances. It is, however, appalling that 17 local authorities in England are still not paying the national minimum standard. As one who has brought up children, I do not think that I could bring one up for £102 or £151 a week. Foster carers are out of their own pocket paying for a lot of extras for those children, so that they can have equal care. It is important that we do all that we can to ensure that all those local authorities come up to standard.
I particularly wanted to speak on the issue of commissioning, since it has not been mentioned. I am not sure whether my noble friend is going to speak about this, but this discussion gives me the opportunity to raise the issue and to say why there is considerable difficulty in this area. Most of us who have been involved in children’s services will know that many of the very good placements provided mostly by the voluntary children’s sector that are now closed have been closed because they could not be maintained under present commissioning arrangements. That means that no local authority was prepared to pay consistently the appropriate fee for the child’s placement or to ensure that they paid for vacancies or voids during the time when a child was being moved from one place to another or when a placement might be held for a child who might need to come back. There was no way in which all that could be maintained. That has caused a huge reduction in good placements for children. Unless practical ways are found through commissioning, we will not be able to do anything about that.
Also on commissioning, when services are being sought by local authorities in this way, it is crucial that the practice is improved substantially. Many organisations continuing to provide services of one sort or another—I have said this to the Minister many times before, publicly—will tell you that short-term contracts militate against good services. Local authorities are employers and would not take on staff on the same basis as they would expect their voluntary services partners to do, which is on short-term moneys. Not only that but, sometimes only weeks before the contract is due to run out, you do not know whether the contract will be renewed—another such case has arisen today. Redundancy notices have to be issued to staff in time, so that if you do not get your grant you have some way out as a voluntary organisation. Good commissioning is terribly important right across the sector for all sorts of placement services.
I wanted to reinforce the point that, important as local area networks are, there are some children for whom specialist provision needs maintaining. I declare an interest as the chair of Grooms-Shaftesbury, which provides specialist school placements for very disabled children. Unless some way is found of maintaining those kinds of placements, the children do not end up going into normal education, because often they are not the kind of children who can be contained in ordinary education. They have severe and complex disabilities and end up living with their parents at home in considerable difficulties without the capacity to learn what they could learn with skilled help. So it is not always appropriate for a placement to be in a local area, although for the mainstream of children it clearly is.
I beg the forgiveness of the Grand Committee, as I omitted to speak to Amendments Nos. 20, 22B and 22C. Amendment No. 20 relates to supported accommodation; its purpose is to ensure that there is an adequate supply of such accommodation for care leavers. The National Leaving Care Advisory Service at Rainer helped me with developing the amendment and I am grateful for its advice.
In many areas, housing of any kind is in desperately short supply. In that regard, I warmly welcome the Government’s Housing Bill and the promise of 3 million affordable new homes. I declare my interest as a landlord. Unsurprisingly, good-quality supported housing is also in short supply. In 2007, 25 per cent of those leaving care were aged 16; those in residential care, often the most vulnerable, are most likely to leave at 16, compared with the average age at leaving home of 24. Clearly, many of those young people will require accommodation with built-in assistance and advice available from a responsible adult, such as foyers, hostels, training flats and flat-shares with live-in volunteers. One young care leaver said:
“You need to live your childhood rather than become an adult before you should”.
“I wasn’t prepared in any way for independent living. I knew there was so much I couldn’t do”.
Yet another said:
“The biggest issue for me was the loneliness”.
You were suddenly on your own at the age of 16, very often having had dreadful family experiences before entering care.
In one study, 36 per cent of young people reported being homeless at some time in the year after leaving care. In another study, more than one-third—35 per cent—of young people had experienced homelessness at some stage after leaving care. That seems a remarkably high figure, but it is consistent with findings from care leavers in Scotland. Since the introduction of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the percentage of 19 year-old care leavers in training and employment has increased by 8 per cent, but if this Bill is successfully to address the improved transition of young people from care, which is very much its intention and the intention of the whole Care Matters project, it must address supported accommodation. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this point. If he would prefer to write to me, as I tabled the amendment rather late, I would certainly be grateful for a letter.
Amendment No. 22B is about the quality and regulation of supported accommodation. As someone who has worked as a volunteer in such accommodation over several years, I am well aware that these young people and the staff who support them deserve far better. There are insufficient guidelines on how supported accommodation is staffed and on the level of qualification and skills base of staff to support care leavers. In addition, there are no guidelines about the level of support provided to care leavers and how it is monitored. As a consequence, the quality of supported accommodation varies across local authorities. Can the Minister say how he will ensure that there is better planning for supported accommodation by local authorities, what plans he has to introduce guidance in this area and how regulation will be strengthened? Again, I apologise for not giving notice of these questions. Perhaps he will be good enough to write to me. I am not a great expert in this area, but I am very much surprised that there is no guidance of this kind. However, the advice that I have received is that there is none. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Finally, Amendment No. 22C is on commissioning. I have heard my noble friend Lord Laming refer to this matter many times. I was grateful for the reinforcement offered by my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland. Will the Minister give careful consideration to the recommendation of my noble friend Lord Laming that there should be a commissioning strategy for each local authority? Recommendation 23 of the placements working group, an offshoot of the Care Matters White Paper, states:
“Every local authority must have a commissioning strategy based on the assessment of the needs of the children in their area”.
Such a strategy is fundamental to the success of the Bill in improving outcomes for looked-after children.
Currently the driver for commissioning is often cost and not quality. We need to know the needs of the children in each area, as my amendment would provide, and to take account of those needs. What response have Her Majesty’s Government made to that part of the report of my noble friend Lord Laming? How does the Minister intend to take forward the other plans set out in Care Matters relating to the local commissioning of care placements? Will he take steps to ensure that commissioning strategies and practice are based on an assessment of local need, provision of high-quality care and value for money? There needs to be a clear audit of what is available and what is needed. Regrettably, I am advised that there is not and I would be most grateful for an opportunity to meet the Minister prior to Report, along with some of the stakeholders, to discuss the implementation of my noble friend’s recommendation. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
The sentiment of these amendments is undoubtedly sound. If we intend to keep children in care near their homes, it would make economic sense to have good local provision. However, what does “sufficient and diverse” mean and how would you achieve it or know that you had achieved it? The needs of many children and young people are highly complex.
If there were the resources, we would wholeheartedly support these amendments, because we would like nothing more than local authorities to be equipped to provide sufficient care for every child in care. The child’s welfare, not cost, should always be the driver of decision-making with regard to care. However, there are instances, such as when children have complex disabilities, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, when the potential cost is genuinely limitless. Although we applaud the spirit of the amendment, we regret that we cannot support it—if I did, the wrath of the shadow Treasury team would come raining down on my head.
This will not have escaped the Committee’s attention, but I am developing something of a standard refrain in reply to these debates, which goes as follows. I absolutely agree with the sentiments being expressed but existing legislation and/or regulations and/or guidance already provide for it or will do so once we have revised the said regulations or guidance. As I look through the pages of my speaking note, I fear that that is precisely what I shall say in response to these amendments.
We entirely agree with the need to ensure that local authorities provide sufficient accommodation for looked-after children, which is the purpose of the noble Earl’s Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 and Amendment No. 30 proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. However, new subsection (7A) in Clause 8(2) of the Bill would prevent local authorities from using a lack of provision in their area as an excuse to place children out of it. If they did so, they would not be acting reasonably to fulfil their obligations under this duty.
In addition, local authorities are already under a general duty to secure a range and level of services, which clearly includes accommodation appropriate to the needs of children, including disabled children, in their area through Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Moreover, Section 23(8) ensures that accommodation provided by a local authority to a disabled looked-after child should not be unsuitable to their particular needs. We have committed in Care Matters to developing the detail in guidance to help to secure the improvements in local authority commissioning and placement supply, which is dealt with by Amendment No. 22C, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on commissioning.
We are entirely supportive of the view set out powerfully, also, by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that effective commissioning lies at the heart of improving services for children and young people. My department, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government are working together to put in place the right framework to ensure that there is effective joint commissioning. There is already a range of obligations on health and local authorities, including a duty to undertake joint strategic needs assessments and a requirement to produce a children and young people’s plan. In addition, we are currently consulting on statutory guidance covering the role of the local authority as commissioner, including services for looked-after children; the consultation is due to close in March.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked about local authorities that are still paying below the national minimum allowances. As she knows, we have the legal power to enforce those allowances and we are working with Ofsted to ensure that we have accurate information about the allowance levels paid by all fostering providers. We will look closely at that information as it becomes available in deciding whether to enforce our national minimum allowance rates.
Amendment No. 22B refers to accommodation for children leaving care. As part of our wider Care Matters programme, we will be revising the regulations and guidance to the Children Act. This will include revision of the children leaving care guidance. We will use this opportunity to emphasise the responsibilities that local authority leaving care services will have to children whom they have placed in unregulated supported accommodation. These responsibilities will necessarily include ensuring that children are properly safeguarded, and so are not to be expected to live in unsafe places, and that the services commissioned to support them in any unregulated accommodation are the most appropriate in responding to the full range of their needs. I hope that that goes some way towards meeting the points raised by the noble Earl.
The Minister suggested that Clause 8(2) would be inconsistent with Amendment No. 19. The amendment states:
“A local authority must provide sufficient and diverse provision of appropriate placements”.
Clause 8(2) states:
“Accommodation provided by a local authority for a child … must be within the area of that authority”.
However, if accommodation is not consistent with the child’s welfare, one can go outside the area. With a little careful rewording, those two proposals are not necessarily incompatible. I appreciate that the Minister said that he was advised that the amendment was incompatible with the clause, but I do not think that that need be the case.
With great respect to the noble and learned Baroness, I was arguing that the amendment was unnecessary rather than incompatible. In order to meet the obligations under subsection (7A), to be inserted by Clause 8, a local authority would need to provide sufficient accommodation within its own locality.
I thank all those who spoke in this debate and the Minister for his reply. I shall look carefully at what he said. On the resourcing of the sufficiency and supply of foster placements, the Minister did not have an opportunity to respond; perhaps he would like to write to me on that. As I said, the 2005 report identified that an annual increase of more than £700 million a year would be necessary to make placements available. Will he look at that figure and consider why he feels that a significantly greater sum does not need to be attached to the Bill to make the range of placements possible?
I will look further at the noble Earl’s remarks, but a significant increase in resources has been made available to local authorities and I expect that the reply that I give him will point to that increase and say that we believe that local authorities have adequate resources to make the provision that they need to make.
21: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Support services for family and friends
(1) After section 17B of the 1989 Act (vouchers for persons with parental responsibility for disabled children), insert—
“17C Support services for family and friends
(1) For the purposes of this section and sections 17D and 17E, a family member is a person who is related to a child, whether by blood or affinity, who is not a parent of that child.
(2) A local authority must make arrangements for the provision within their area of support services for family members and friends caring for a child for a period which is, or is intended to be, for 28 days or more.
(3) In this section “support services” means—
(a) the giving of counselling, advice and information;(b) such other services as may be prescribed in regulations.(4) The power to make regulations under subsection (3)(b) is to be exercised so as to secure that a local authority provides financial support.
17D Support services: assessment
(1) A local authority must carry out an assessment of the need for support services for family members and friends at the request of any of the following—
(a) a child being cared for by family members or friends for a period which is, or is intended to be, for 28 days or more;(b) a family member or friend who is caring for a child who is not their own for a period which is, or is intended to be, for 28 days or more; (c) a parent;(d) any other person falling within a prescribed description.(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that an assessment under this section must be carried out if—
(a) a person falls within a prescribed description;(b) a case falls within a prescribed description; or(c) both a person and his case fall within a prescribed description.(3) A local authority may, at the request of any other person, carry out an assessment of that person’s need for family and friends support services.
(4) A local authority may carry out an assessment of the needs of any person for the purposes of this section at the same time as an assessment of his needs is made under any other provision of this Act or under any other enactment.
17E Support services: provision
(1) Where, as a result of an assessment carried out under section 17D, a local authority decide that a person has a need for family and friends support services, they must decide whether to provide any such services to that person.
(a) the local authority decide to provide any family and friends support services to a person, and(b) the circumstances of the particular case fall within a prescribed description,the local authority must prepare a plan in accordance with which family and friends support services are to be provided to him, and must keep the plan under review.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about—
(a) the carrying out of assessments;(b) the preparation and reviewing of plans;(c) the provision of family and friends support services in accordance with plans;(d) the reviewing of the provision of family and friends support services.(4) Regulations under subsection (3) may, in particular, make provision—
(a) about the type of assessment which is to be carried out, or the way in which an assessment is to be carried out;(b) about the way in which a plan is to be prepared;(c) about the way in which, and the time at which, a plan or the provision of family and friends support services is to be reviewed;(d) about the considerations to which a local authority are to have regard in carrying out an assessment or review or in preparing a plan;(e) as to the circumstances in which a local authority may provide family and friends support services subject to conditions (including conditions as to payment for the support or the repayment of financial support);(f) as to the consequences of conditions imposed by virtue of paragraph (e) not being met (including the recovery of financial support provided);(g) as to the circumstances in which this section may apply to a local authority in respect of persons who are outside that authority’s area;(h) as to the circumstances in which a local authority may recover from another local authority the expenses of providing family and friends support services to any person.(5) A local authority may provide family and friends support services (or any part of them) by securing their provision by—
(a) another local authority; or(b) a person within a description prescribed in regulations; and may also arrange with any such authority or person for that other authority or person to carry out the local authority’s functions in relation to assessments under section 17D.
(6) Section 27 (co-operation between authorities) applies in relation to the exercise of functions of a local authority under sections 17C, 17D and this section as it applies in relation to the exercise of the functions of a local authority under Part 3.”
(2) In Schedule 2 to the 1989 Act, in paragraph 1(2)(a)(i) for “17” substitute “14F, 17, 17B, 17C, 17D, 17E”.
The noble Baroness said: Someone said that this amendment was the longest in history, but I shall try not to make the longest speech in history. However, I crave the Committee’s indulgence to go over some issues that have a bearing on other amendments, in particular my later amendment on grandparents. If I speak comprehensively now, it should cut down the need to speak at length later and thereby assist my colleagues.
I am grateful to the Family Rights Group and the National Children’s Bureau, among others, for their detailed support on this amendment, which seeks to include a new duty in the Children Act 1989 to provide a framework for family and friends carers. It recommends an assessment of the need for support services and the preparation of a plan of support if those services are recommended. In addition, it would give the Secretary of State the duty to make certain provisions—for example, about the type of assessment, a review of any plan, and provisions as to the circumstances in which a local authority may recover costs of providing support services.
Amendment No. 86 would clarify the definition of children in need; it would ensure that any child in care could be considered as a child in need. This issue was raised by several noble Lords last week, and I think that it will come up again later. Last week, many noble Lords spoke of practical support for families and of therapeutic support. I was pleased to hear this, as families under stress, in poverty or in other difficulties often need support in order to benefit children, who are, after all, the focus of our deliberations. Without such support, many placements are under great strain and some will break down, with the result that children will end up in the care system after all.
Research on kinship care commissioned by the former DfES and carried out by Elaine Farmer and Sue Moyers tells us that children in family and friends placements have similar difficulties to those living with unrelated foster carers but that the outcomes of children settled with families are often better. We heard horrendous stories earlier about some children in care. However, family and friends carers are significantly more impoverished, more likely to be living in overcrowded accommodation and more likely to be in worse health than unrelated foster carers. I shall dwell on this more when I speak of grandparents as carers.
Despite the vulnerability of both children and carers, many of these families receive no adequate financial or practical support. They are more likely to be left alone to cope—for example, in managing contact arrangements and in balancing financial needs. I want to distinguish between two kinds of family and friends carers support: immediate short-term needs, where a carer takes charge of a child in an emergency to prevent the child from going into care; and longer-term needs, where family or friends take on the care of a child or children on a long-term or permanent basis, as local authority foster carers, under a residence or special guardianship order or by private arrangement.
Let me first look at the immediate emergency type of care, which can happen because of a crisis in the parental home, perhaps in the context of child protection inquiries. If suitable care cannot be found in the family network, the child will almost inevitably be taken into care either with parental agreement or under an emergency protection or interim care order. Such emergency placements frequently cause enormous financial and other pressures, particularly where the carer takes on a group of siblings who may have suffered trauma, neglect or abuse. Such support may include cash to buy clothes or specialist mental health or behaviour support.
If the child is treated as being in the care of the local authority, as in the recent Southwark case, the carer will be a local authority foster carer and will receive a fostering allowance and support to care for the child. In practice, however, only a small minority of family and friends carers are treated as local authority carers because, even in a child protection context, those carers agree directly with the parents to take on the care of the child, whether through direct negotiations or in the context of a family group conference. Thus the local authority is not directly involved in making the placement or, despite the ruling in the Southwark case, the local authority refuses to accept that the child was looked after when placed with the carer and hence refuses to pay the carer financial and other support. In these situations, the carers do not receive a fostering allowance and can receive support from the local authority only if the child is considered in need. Is everyone still with me? This is very complex.
The provisions in Clause 21 of the Bill that remove the reference to “exceptional circumstances” are helpful, yet such carers will still have great difficulty in accessing support because, even though the children will have undergone some degree of trauma to no longer live with the parents, they are frequently denied an assessment for their need for support—and without such an assessment they are not categorised as being “in need” for accessing the specialist support that they require. We talked about assessment earlier. My Amendment No. 86 would help those family and friends carers who are not treated as local authority foster carers to have the child’s needs assessed without having to argue the case that those children should be treated as being in need. They would therefore have access to support services.
Let me move on to meeting needs where family or friends take on the care of a child on a long-term or permanent basis. The amendment to Clause 7 would insert a new duty into the Children Act 1989 to provide a support framework. Currently, the only way in which family and friends carers can be guaranteed access to their support needs is for the child to be a looked-after child in the state system. Yet there may be no other good reason why the child should be in care. In order that children do not remain in state care unnecessarily, I am seeking a new duty to be placed on local authorities to provide a family and friends care support service for those who have an established caring arrangement.
The service would mirror the framework for special guardianship support services. It would be available to family and friends carers who are not local authority carers but are family members or friends who are taking charge of a child for 28 days or more, either where there is a residence order or where there is no order in place. The amendment would mean that the local authority would have a duty to establish family and friends care support services, including commissioning services from the voluntary sector. The duty would be consistent with the duties introduced under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 in respect of adoption and special guardianship. It would mirror those specified in the Special Guardianship Regulations 2005, which include support groups for carers to combat isolation; support for contact arrangements where appropriate; respite care; therapeutic support; an assessment of need and access to support provision; improved communication between agencies such as CAMHS, housing, police and children’s services; and cash help.
In law, at least, relatives and friends are not financially liable for the children whom they are raising. It therefore follows that the core financial needs of caring for such children should, where they cannot be met by parents, be met by central government. There is a moral argument at least that financial support should be available to anyone caring for a child who is not their own. There should be a national non-means-tested financial allowance, tax credit or benefit to cover the real costs of raising a child, which should be paid to relatives or other persons already connected to the child who take on the care of a child for more than 28 days continuously in the following circumstances: where there has been a Section 47 child protection inquiry; as a result of a Section 37 investigation; or where a carer has secured a residence order or special guardianship order and there is professional evidence of the parents’ inability to look after the child and/or there is a residence order or special guardianship order arising out of care proceedings, or the carer has those orders following the accommodation of a child. That would avoid the child being a looked-after child. Thus the financial allowance would be received only if the carer were raising the child and the parent had been shown to be incapable of raising the child.
These are complex but incredibly important issues. There are moral, emotional and financial reasons for looking at the amendments and I hope that at the very least we may get an inquiry into the imperative and the practical implications of providing a national financial allowance and other support to family and friends carers. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
It would be difficult to add anything to what my noble friend Lady Massey has just said. She has so much knowledge and experience that her argument has to be taken seriously. Perhaps in the absence of my noble friend Lady Thornton I might add a few words on Amendments Nos. 35 and 36, which are grouped with this amendment.
When a child or young person leaves care and is reunited with their family, that can obviously be a difficult time of transition with regard to their mental health and emotional well-being. Amendment No. 35 is intended to ensure that an assessment of need is made to make certain that access to the necessary support is provided and that the health and well-being of the child is thereby better safeguarded. Amendment No. 36 would simply introduce measures to provide the necessary assessment of need and the associated support for children and young people who are at risk of entering care. These are preventive measures, which we hope would assist in addressing the causes of the challenge that confronts us.
I shall speak to Amendment No. 87 in my name, which is grouped with the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. Whereas her amendments refer to support for family and friends carers after 28 days, my amendment is designed to meet the immediate short-term urgent needs of children and family and friends carers. It would do so by adding to the definition of a child in need under Section 17(10) of the Children Act those children who are being cared for by family members or friends.
The current situation is that many relatives and friends take on the care of children without any warning at very short notice, often in an emergency because there is a crisis in the parental home. That often arises in the context of child protection inquiries, as well, in which the children are in fact in danger. If suitable care cannot be found in the family network, the child will almost certainly be taken into care, with or without parental agreement.
The lack of planning for such placements, which is in their very nature, often creates enormous financial and other pressures on family and friends carers, particularly where the carer takes on a group of siblings, as often happens, who are traumatised by their previous experience. Such support may include cash to purchase suitable clothing or bedding—or even beds, if family and friends do not have quite enough beds in the house. Specialist mental health or behaviour support may be needed, or help with transport arrangements to enable the children to keep contact with their parents or to get to school or to other services that they need. Without that support, there is a risk that such placements may break down at a later date, or even quite early. That is not desirable at all.
Where the child is treated as being looked after by a local authority, their carer will receive a fostering allowance and support to care for the child. Unfortunately, in practice only a small minority of family and friends carers in the situation that I have just described are treated as local authority foster carers, either because they agreed the arrangement directly with the parents to take on care of the child or because the local authority refuses to accept that the child was looked after when placed with the carer. Often that is done at night or at the weekend, when there is no local authority person there to take on that responsibility.
In these situations, carers do not receive any fostering allowance and receive support from the local authority only if the child is considered to be in need. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, in relation to the group to which she referred, indicated the difficulty of proving that the child is in need and going through some kind of trauma. The amendment would assist those family and friends carers who are not treated as local authority carers to have the child’s needs assessed without having to argue the case for them to be treated as being in need, because the statute would already define them as such. The support services would then be provided for them and they could get the amount of support that they needed, as determined by the outcome of an independent assessment of that need.
I am pleased to register my support for the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and I appreciate her addressing this vital issue. We strongly support the assistance for family and friends care for vulnerable children and young people. I find it extraordinary that we are not making far better use of extended family members when children are, for whatever reason, unable to stay with their birth parents. Our position on these Benches has always been to try to find ways in which children can be looked after in the most continuous and stable way possible; kinship care offers that. By every measure, kinship carers have proven to offer a far greater chance of a stable alternative placement, even when there has not been the full support of the local authority.
It is time that we gave family and friends carers better support. There is an estimated shortage of 10,000 foster carers in this country. Surely this makes the need to extend support to extended families and friends willing to look after a child even more acute. It is particularly important if we consider children with uniquely complex needs and older, more challenging, children for whom stability and a sense of continuity are key. When extended families are given the right support from social services or voluntary organisations, there is a far greater chance of making a success of a foster placement or, ultimately, adoption by family members. What is necessary, and what I am pleased to see addressed in the amendment, is a holistic approach that allows family and friends access to counselling and support that would enable them to be prepared, both practically and emotionally, to look after their relatives.
Of course, there might be scenarios where this will not be appropriate—I am thinking of instances of family breakdown where what is necessary for the child’s welfare is a clean break from their previous situation. However, it is difficult to imagine that it would not be appropriate for very many more children than those who now have had a second chance with another family member.
One authority that has a wonderful track record of kinship care is Hampshire. It puts great emphasis on research findings that show that children in kinship care feel loved—they feel that that they belong—and that such care helps them to maintain their identity and their family ties. Kinship care in Hampshire has, as the outcomes show, offered the children a high level of stability. Yet kinship care is not one of the key indicators and so its success is not marked. Indeed, the converse happens, because the authority’s fostering and adoption placements are down. Will the Minister look urgently at how this crucial service can be valued and recognised?
I support all these amendments for a particular personal reason. I have a friend who was, some months ago, asked to take over the care of a little girl whose mother patently cannot care for her because of drink and drugs problems. The mother agreed that she should take over the care; otherwise, the child would have gone into local authority care. The local authority was told by my friend that she was prepared to be considered as a foster mother, but she was very much discouraged from going down that route. She was asked to apply to have a residence order. She was given a certain amount of money—most of it in arrears and only a part of what was due to her—while the child was informally with her through the local authority. At the moment when, with local authority support, she made the application to have a residence order and take over the care of the child formally, she was told that in future the authority would not pay a penny. She was therefore discouraged from the idea of becoming a foster carer.
Clause 21 is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, extremely helpful, but it needs some teeth, because it applies only in circumstances where a local authority chooses to make payment. This friend of mine is not asking for a foster carer’s payment, but she wants some practical support to enable the child to be with a childminder while she completes her job. She will have 10 or 15 years of caring for this child on a long-term basis and she is told that she will get no money. That is outrageous. Clause 21 takes us part of the way, but not far enough. Consequently, I strongly support the amendments.
I rise to support the amendments but not at length, as my noble friend Lady Massey has set them out very clearly. I have numerous examples in this regard, but one in particular is of a woman who died, leaving her child in the care of her neighbour, who had cared for that child on and off for years. The local authority, though it came and said that it would make an assessment, thought that the child was adequately cared for, and for weeks that family looked after the child without a single penny and with minimal support, until another organisation intervened fairly seriously about the implications. Local authorities tend to think, “This child is safe and sound. We have other priorities. Let the families get on with it”. A large number of people are prepared to do this caring.
I want to talk about support for children reunited with family or friends. The point that has not yet been made in the debate—I do not have the figures, but the Minister should be able to tell me—is that a huge number of children pass through the care system in short-term placements. Because I did not know that I was going to speak on this, I do not have that number to hand. The flaw in our services is that those children, when they come out of care after a short-term placement, often do not have the continuous care that would underpin their rehabilitation, and therefore we find them back in care. It is those “turntable children” who often become the most disturbed. I hope that we can do something about that issue, which is well known structurally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, has said.
As my name is attached to at least one of these amendments, I wish to say in the briefest possible way how impressed I have been by all the speeches, especially that of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on this subject. It occurs to me that there must be savings in the long-term for local authorities in this area, when you think of the added trauma that there could be for children who are in and out, unhappy in their placements and so on. We must do as much as we can to ensure that these kinship carers, or whatever we are going to call them, are available—friends or kin, genuine people who want these children to be part of their family. We must encourage them. It has to be in the long-term interests both of the economics of what we spend in this area and of the children concerned, as well as our long-term preventive aims.
It is hardly necessary for me to add my voice to those who have already supported the amendments. They are of the utmost merit and I support them fervently, particularly in the light of the matters referred to by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I had been tempted to make this point about Amendment No. 19, but I believe that it applies equally in this case: when we talk about the provision of accommodation by local authorities, we are not talking about something that local authorities can do directly in the sense of a cause-and-effect situation. In other words, no one suggests that local authorities can designate A, B and C as potential carers and then exercise some draconian statutory powers to force them into that position, almost in the way that during the Second World War people were forced to billet children who were evacuees from bombed cities. You have to rely on—this point is relevant to much of what we are discussing in many amendments—the capacity of government, whether local or central, to create a situation in which it is likely that more rather than fewer persons will come forward to care.
There is a reason of the utmost sensitivity why one should concentrate on family and friends in the first instance before one has to look further afield. However, to be able to do so, local authorities must be prepared to pay, honourably and realistically, for that service. Indeed, it may be that one is talking about the efforts not only of local government bodies but also of central government. It may be that a campaign of television advertising should be launched, perhaps not dissimilar to the blood donor campaign that has been taken up most excellently. Every support should be given to entice people to come along, most of whom will have an idea more of vocation than of occupation. Be that as it may, not only should this be socially acceptable and have the approbation of society, but it should have adequate and realistic financial support.
Everyone has made the arguments very forcefully. I have before me the speech made by my noble friend Lady Massey. We know there will be those who will immediately see these amendments as having the potential for abuse and as a risk to public moneys. It will be claimed that arrangements will be made, conveniently, to look after the children of others in order to access public funds. I can well imagine the kinds of headlines we may see in some newspapers about these recommendations.
The emphasis should be on the fact that such a financial allowance would be received by a carer only where it was clear that the parents were incapable of raising the child themselves. My noble friend Lady Massey has made the point, but I reinforce it because there is always a great deal of debate around the issue of the abuse of public funds. This has to be seen in the context of the moral obligations of parents to care for and bring up their own children, and to take responsibility for them. We have had the debate often, around absent fathers particularly.
But there is also the issue of our moral obligation as a society to keep children within kinship relationships and to provide them with proper care. There is a very real need to make this argument publicly in a way that makes it clear that the first obligation is on parents to bring up their own children and to take financial responsibility for them.
I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and all noble Lords have said on these amendments. In response to what my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan said, I think of what the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has achieved over many years. I believe the organisation Carers UK is pushing the point of providing financial support to family carers and, if I correctly read the Sunday Times over the weekend, I understand that the Government are now seriously considering giving far more financial support to informal carers. I hope that will apply to these children as well.
Listening to the debate, it occurs to me that when foster carers are well supported by social workers they feel far better able to do their job. I imagine the same applies to families as well. If they get good professional support, good CAMHS and good social work support, it will make a big difference to their lives. It is probably not just about money.
In that case, we need to think again about the impact of social work practices. Again, I am grateful that the Minister in his letter recognised the need to think through very carefully what impact social work practices would have on those working on the margins of care and supporting families to keep children in their extended family. As he recognises, the social work practices could be so attractive, could be such a honey pot for social workers, that they would be pulled out of what has always been the Cinderella area of supporting families before children come into care. He said, either at Second Reading or in Committee, that children who can be cared for within social work practices must have a care order attached to them first.
Therefore, I should be grateful for clarification of when exactly social work practices could start interacting with families and children. Once the child had a care order and he returned to his family—the point has been made that children often move back and forth from and into care—one would think that, even when the care order had been removed, the social work practice would keep in contact with the family and provide support. How far can social work practices go in supporting families such as these?
I should like to take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, about the responsibility that parents have to look after their own children. I also draw attention to the fact that my Amendment No. 102—it comes right at the end of the Marshalled List, so I am not sure when we will come to it—is on the subject of parents’ responsibilities. It is a fact that there is no clear statement in English law on the responsibility of parents towards their children, but it seems to me that that basic piece of information is fundamental to all the discussions that we are having.
Amendment No. 21 in the name of my noble friend Lady Massey raises the vital issue of relatives and friends who take on the care of children. My other role in these debates will be that of chief fact-provider. Placements with family and friends currently account for about 12 per cent—that is, 7,500—of all looked-after children, but, of course, on top of that 7,500 are a vast number of arrangements in respect of children who are not looked after but whose support by family and friends is indispensable to them not needing to be looked after or to enabling parents to fulfil their obligations more effectively than they might otherwise do. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, short-term placements account for a very high proportion of all placements. The latest figures show that 37 per cent of children leave care in under six months and 50 per cent leave care within a year, so the role of family and friends also needs to be seen in that context.
We place great emphasis on children in need being cared for wherever possible by their families, including their wider families. We have demonstrated that commitment in chapter 2 of the Care Matters White Paper, which sets out how we intend to provide additional support for parents, including pilots of new evidence-based intensive parenting programmes for children and families with the highest levels of need, as well as increased support for relative carers and the promotion of family group conferences.
We are also aware of the difficulties that some relatives may face in taking on their responsibilities, and the Care Matters White Paper sets out a strong agenda for improving the range and quality of support and services available to them. We have committed ourselves to developing a new framework for family and friends care, which is to be issued as part of the Children Act 1989 statutory guidance, under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, to address the issues of unacceptable variations in levels of support and services between authorities, the lack of policy frameworks and the need for transparency and equity in relation to services and support for family and friends carers. All those issues were raised by my noble friend Lady Massey, and I can tell her that the new statutory guidance will cover the content of an appropriate policy framework, expectations of an effective support service linked to commissioning, wider support, including financial benefits to which carers may be entitled, and an appropriate assessment process where a relative is to be approved as a foster carer. We will, of course, consult our stakeholders on this new framework to ensure that we get it right, and we will consider all the points that have been made so eloquently in this debate.
Turning to some of the specific elements of my noble friend’s amendment, we believe that it would be inconsistent with the widely framed general duty to children under Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act to identify a particular group of adults in particular circumstances and to provide a statutory right to an assessment which we do not give to any other group of adults, including birth parents, as part of the Section 17 duty. The amendment proposes a wide range of people who may request an assessment on behalf of a family and friends carer, which is a departure from other provisions in the Children Act 1989.
The current assessment process for children in need requires the local authority to understand the child’s developmental needs and their parents’ or carers’ capacity to respond to these needs in the context of their wider families and communities. Any specific needs of carers will therefore be picked up as part of this process. Indeed, a local authority would need to provide an assessment of the child and family in order to know that the child was on the edge of care to provide the appropriate services as a result of that assessment.
I can tell my noble friend that we are making one important improvement to the 1989 Act in the Bill. Clause 21 would amend Section 17(6), which restricts the making of payments to “exceptional circumstances”. The change will give local authorities a wider discretion and will enable them to provide financial support on a longer term basis where they are satisfied that doing so would safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. However, it must be very clear that it is not the role of local authorities to provide income maintenance for families, nor are they resourced to do so. My department is committed to working with the other relevant government departments to ensure that family and friends carers are able to make maximum use of the financial benefits available to them.
New section 17E in my noble friend’s Amendment No. 21 proposes that, in prescribed circumstances, where the local authority has decided to provide services, a plan must be made for the provision of support services. I can tell my noble friend that it is already a requirement within the integrated children’s system—to which I referred earlier—that, where services are being provided under Section 17 of the 1989 Act, there must be a child in need plan and review. This requirement will be reinforced in the revised care planning and review guidance which we proposed in the White Paper. The assessment model is set out in Section 7 guidance in the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families issued in 2000. We therefore believe it is unnecessary for any new regulations about assessment, planning and review in this context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, specifically asked me about the value placed on family care in the performance framework. She is correct that it is not an indicator in the new national indicator set. However, alongside the new comprehensive area assessments, Ofsted will be undertaking a rolling inspection programme of services for looked-after children. We will ask it to ensure that this also considers services for children on the edge of care, which will include services for those in family and friends care.
My noble friend’s Amendment No. 86 and Amendment No. 87 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, seek to define all children being cared for by family or friends as “in need” for the purposes of Section 17, without an assessment. As they will be aware, if such a child is “in need” of services to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development, they are already covered by Section 17.
The only group of children who at the moment are automatically defined as “in need” is disabled children, and it is obvious why they are included. The identification of other children who may be in need arises following an assessment of their needs for local authority services in order to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development. We believe that it would be inappropriate to designate a child as ‘in need’ simply because they are being cared for by their family or friends when they do not need services in order to achieve reasonable health and development.
There is an important point of principle here. The Children Act 1989 focuses on the needs of the child, rather than who cares for him. We believe that that is correct. Children living with family or friends are a diverse group. In many cases, they are living away from their parents because of a perfectly acceptable private arrangement and have no additional needs. A balance is to be struck between ensuring that children are safeguarded while minimising state interference in private family matters. We must ensure that the law allows identification of children who are genuinely in need, without unnecessarily interfering in families where this is not the case. We believe that the current Children Act duty in Section 17 does this by focusing on the child’s needs, regardless of who cares for him.
My noble friend Lady Thornton told me in advance that she would be unable to be in her place today. Her Amendment No. 35 refers to children returning from care or accommodation to live with family and friends. The issues raised by my noble friend’s amendment are also addressed in Care Matters in recognition of the particular needs and vulnerabilities of all children returning to birth parents and wider family following a period in care. In the White Paper we set out our commitment to use the revised Children Act 1989 guidance to address the need for effective care planning to ensure that work continues with the child’s family while he is in care and that appropriate services are delivered to support his return home.
I will of course read carefully my noble friend’s speech to see if there are further points to which I should respond, but I hope that I have given a fairly comprehensive response to her points.
I thank the Minister in his role as chief purveyor of facts, as well as his many other talents, for that response. I think there is probably some good news in there, but I need to read what he said in order to be sure that there is.
Of course we are all aware of the Care Matters White Paper, but sometimes people just need money and not various other forms of support. I thank other noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. We have had a thorough discussion of this, as I said earlier, very complex issue.
I am very glad that some people provided anecdotes. There are thousands of anecdotes about deprivation and suffering regarding family and friends who care for children. There is also a fair bit of research on it, to which I have also referred. One of the things that worries me is that local authorities may differ so much in what they do for family and friends who are carers and how they do it. That always needs to be regulated. As has been pointed out today, there must be long-term savings by having children not going into care. Dire consequences can result from children going into care—poor achievement, substance misuse, teenage pregnancy and ending up in custody, with all that that costs. Of course there must be potential savings if we support carers and the children who are in care. I wish someone would work out what that saving could be. Maybe someone on the back row could do that little task.
I shall read carefully the whole debate and what the Minister has said. We might come up with some simpler composite amendment at a later stage. Perhaps the Government might do so. We need to keep the matter on board and to look at it again. In the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
22: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Guardians for children with special protection needs
(1) As soon as a child under 18 who is separated from both his parents and is not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom has responsibility to do so makes an asylum claim or a human rights claim or is identified as a victim of trafficking, a local authority must ensure that a legal guardian is appointed to represent that child.
(2) The following expressions have the same meaning in this section as in section 113 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41)—
(a) “asylum claim”;(b) “human rights claim”.(3) “Trafficking” means the arrangement or facilitation of the arrival in, entry into, travel within, or departure from the United Kingdom for the purposes of exploitation as defined in section 4(4) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 (c. 19) (trafficking people for exploitation).”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 22 is about guardians for children with special protection needs. By that we mean children who are separated from their parents and who come to the UK and seek asylum, or children who have been trafficked. Each year 3,000 such children come to the UK and claim asylum. The Refugee Children’s Consortium has repeatedly called for a system of guardianship for these children, most recently during the passage of the Children Act 2004. The continued denial of full statutory safeguards to be placed on the Border and Immigration Agency under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, and the proposals to introduce fundamental changes to the system of support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, means that the need for a children’s guardian has now become urgent.
There is no systematic provision of independent oversight on matters involving separated children who are subject to immigration control. Children may go unrepresented in their asylum application; they may be placed in inappropriate accommodation with inadequate support; and may not understand the implications of their asylum application. In particular, the long-term solutions for each child may not be fully explored.
In the current system, separated children seeking asylum—some as young as eight years old—have to instruct their own solicitors. I have difficulty instructing a solicitor, let alone an eight year-old child. The question of a child’s competence to be party to legal proceedings is addressed in various jurisdictions, but not before the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. Citizen children who go through similar court proceedings are recognised as needing independent advice and support to represent their best interests. This is provided through CAFCASS, a non-departmental public body accountable to Parliament through the Chancellor. It is independent of the courts, social services, education and health authorities and all similar agencies. Children’s guardians represent the interest of a child in court during cases in which social services have become involved in the child’s case.
Even a child going to a police station to give evidence about something which he or she may or may not have been involved with has the right to have an appropriate adult with them. Under Code C, Section 1 of PACE, if the police think that a person coming to the police station is under 17 years-old they have to act under Code C, paragraph 11.15, which provides that a vulnerable person,
“must not be interviewed … or asked to provide or sign a written statement … in the absence of an appropriate adult”.
In the Code C notes for guidance, paragraph 11C states that it is important to remember that:
“Although juveniles or people who are mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable are often capable of providing reliable evidence, they may, without knowing or wishing to do so, be particularly prone in certain circumstances to provide information which is unreliable, misleading or self incriminating. Special care should always be taken when questioning such a person, and the appropriate adult should be involved if there is any doubt about a person’s age, mental state or capacity. Because of the risk of unreliable evidence it is also important to obtain corroboration of any facts admitted whenever possible”.
The attendance of the appropriate adult is an essential prerequisite for a lawful interview. Without it the interview is likely to be held as inadmissible by the court.
The appropriate adult is not just an observer and their role is to advise the detainee and to observe the interview and whether or not it is being conducted properly and fairly. It is also their role to facilitate communication with the person being interviewed. That is the sort of support that is given to a child who is a citizen of this country, but no such support is provided for separated asylum-seeking and trafficked children, who, in addition, are increasingly unable to access the specialist legal advice needed to ensure that they are properly supported and receive a timely decision on their asylum application. The Home Office consultation paper, Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, outlines plans to disperse these children, which raises even greater concerns about the provision of adequate legal advice and other support services.
The case for guardianship is even more compelling in the light of the changes made to the Immigration Rules in December 2007, which state that all children over the age of 12 who make their own asylum application will be interviewed. We would not interview a citizen child without an appropriate adult speaking for them and ensuring that they get fair play, so why should we do that for the most vulnerable children who come to our shores in great need?
Also of great concern is the high number of separated children who go missing from local authority care. Two different pieces of research on child trafficking in England found that in well over half of the cases examined the child identified had gone missing. Based on that evidence, UNICEF UK—I declare an interest as a trustee of that body—recommended that a guardian is appointed for trafficked children as soon as a child victim is identified or there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child is a victim. We have international obligations in this respect but I shall not go into all of them now.
The Government have claimed in the past that the children’s panel of the Refugee Council provides what is needed here. But, although the children’s panel is able to help a large number of unaccompanied children to access legal representation, it is by no means guaranteed for all children seeking asylum on their own. The panel’s role is not a statutory one, although it is funded by the Home Office. There is no obligation on children’s services to work together with the panel of advisers or vice-versa. It has no mandate to report, to make recommendations or to ascertain the feelings of the child. It does not act as an “appropriate adult”, as I described it a few minutes ago, and it does not act as a litigation friend or a CAFCASS court welfare officer.
NGO agencies such as the Refugee Council Children’s Panel, valuable though they are, are no substitute for statutory guardianship. I hope that the Minister will pick up this case and heed the needs of these most vulnerable children and give them at least the same sort of protection that we give to citizen children who find themselves tied up with these serious legal matters. I beg to move.
I cannot think of a more important amendment for our deliberations than this one. I was previously a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and both in our examination of legislation and its practice in the context of UK immigration policy—and more specifically and more recently in our examination of the UK Borders Bill, now Act—I do not misrepresent the situation in saying that we, as a committee, became disturbed by the predicament of children.
Children in that situation have sometimes been through unimaginably traumatic experiences. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has put the issue so well: if certain principles apply to children in our own immediate society, those principles should apply at least as much to children in this kind of predicament.
I toyed with whether I should make this point because it is seen within the internal politics of my own party—no more widely—that perhaps I am trying to score points: I am not. I was very moved in the autumn when the Prime Minister made his remarks in his speech to conference about children. He said that he wanted to live in a society in which all children were included in the provisions to be made, not some children. I do not believe that this legislation, as proposed, meets the Prime Minister’s passionate pronouncement on that issue. For that reason, if for no other, I urge my noble friend to consider how he can turn the Prime Minister’s personal commitment and passion into a specific reality on the face of the Bill.
In our deliberations in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we began to fear that children would be seen primarily as part of the immigration problem. Children are children; everything else is secondary. They are children and, as such, what we as a civilised society have spelt out as appropriate conduct and support for children must apply to those to whom the amendment refers. I express my profound gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for having moved the amendment. I sincerely hope that my noble friend can respond to it.
I strongly support the amendment. I was grateful to the Minister for his helpful letter following Second Reading. However, I was not clear about one point. He wrote that most unaccompanied asylum seekers will have looked-after status as they have no parent by definition. Surely all unaccompanied asylum seekers should have looked-after status as they have no parent by definition. Will the Minister explain why some might not have a social worker? I regret that some seem to be without, whether or not they are entitled to one. Perhaps that is as much to do with the shortage of social workers in some areas as anything else.
I make the point because it speaks to the amendment’s proposal for a guardian for every unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. Although concern is felt that some children will not have a social worker or, as we have heard many times today and on previous days in Committee, that the turnover of social workers is so high that several may be without consistent contact and understanding of their case, I say that if they have a guardian, they will have someone who, one hopes, will stick with them for as long as they need their help, and a better outcome for them could be expected. They need a strong advocate to access legal services—which, as we have heard, are in short supply—and education, health and social services. Many of the young people about whom we are speaking can do very well in education and then make an important contribution in this country or in their own when they return. It would be a great pity if any of their potential was wasted for lack of an effective advocate. The amendment would be a helpful step forward, and what it proposes has, I understand, been demonstrated to be so in several other countries. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am conscious that the Minister is in difficulty here because other government departments have an interest in these matters. When the Children Bill was going through this House—it was after the Victoria Climbié case—I remember thinking what wonderful legislation it was and how content I was that here was something on which I could agree with my Government at a rather painful time when I had to disagree with them on a number of other matters. Here was something with which I could be completely content. I felt happy that I was going to be able, with great willingness, to go through the Lobbies in support.
Then, one evening, I came into the House and took my place on my Government’s Benches. I was shocked to hear an amendment being moved by the Minister that would keep out of the great advances being included in the legislation the children of immigrants. Child asylum seekers would not have the protection that the Children Bill would provide to others. I heard Bishops and a number of other lone voices in a quite empty House speak about the horror of some children being deprived of the protection and the human rights for which we were aching for the children of this country. We have the opportunity to right a wrong. Through my practice and through other human rights lawyers at the Bar dealing with the issues of asylum and immigration, I have seen very closely the suffering that children experience as a result of their not having the same protections as we would expect for the other children of this country. We should not be making those differences between the children who are citizens and those who are not. I hope that the Minister can provide us with some solace.
When the Children Act was passed, I met some colleagues from the other place at a social gathering and expressed my horror that we had exempted the children of asylum seekers from the great protections of the Act, and they told me that they were completely unaware of that. It is the nature of politics in our current system that often the small print is rushed through these Houses and it misses the kind of examination that it should have. I think that many people did not realise the terrible wrong that was being created in the Act when we excluded those children. I warmly support the amendments. This is an opportunity for us to put right something that should not have happened.
For all the reasons mentioned this afternoon, I support the amendment. It is staggering to think that every year 3,000 children separated from both parents arrive in the UK. Some—we do not know how many—have been trafficked, and I suggest that most, if not all, will have had traumas of many kinds. That seems to me enough to demonstrate that we urgently need some system of guardianship. Although I welcome much of the Bill because it strengthens the care and protection of children in the care of the state, it could do a lot more—and this amendment is a case in point. It gives the Government a chance to provide better care for one of the most vulnerable of all groups in our society—unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
How we treat and care for the most vulnerable people, whether they be the youngest or oldest in our society, is a real test of what kind of nation we are. How, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, can we expect some young and very vulnerable children to instruct their own solicitor? Surely it is right to provide the kind of statutory legal support that a guardian could give. I fear that the Minister will reply that the role of such a person as a statutory guardian is unclear or that such children are already receiving sufficient help from social workers, as well as other bodies or groups. They may or may not be, but neither of those responses would be good enough. I hope that the Minister will give us—and, much more importantly, give that vulnerable group of young people—some hope and statutory support by accepting the amendment.
The right reverend Prelate made a very powerful intervention, in which he emphasised the vulnerability of these children. We need to relate our considerations here to some of our wider preoccupations in this Committee and our society as a whole. We live in an extremely volatile and unstable age in which predator extremists are waiting all the time to groom and recruit those who have had bad experiences and have become alienated. Do we want these children to become fodder for extremists or do we want to demonstrate to them by their own experience what we keep prattling away about as the values of our society? Believe you me, central to the problem that I have just described is what is seen as hypocrisy. If people see a society that talks about its values in one context but totally fails to apply them in their personal experience, we are asking for trouble and, I dare say, we almost deserve it. This argument also has to be taken seriously in that sense simply because of children’s vulnerability.
I declare an interest as a member of the Independent Asylum Commission, which is due to report later this year. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the coverage that she has given to many aspects of this hugely important issue. I commend, too, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the seriousness that he has attached to it, and I agree with everything that has been said.
I wish to draw attention to two groups, both of which have been covered. The first is the group that the noble Baroness referred to as “the missing”. It was mentioned during the study of the inspectors’ second report on safeguarding children. We do not know precisely how many of these children there are, but no one has responsibility for finding out how many there are or where they are or for doing anything about them. At the time of that debate, it was suggested that this matter should be delegated to local authorities, which should have to conduct a census in their areas and do something about them.
The second group that worries me is the children whom we do know about and for whom these guardians are being appointed, because there is currently a huge difference in the ways in which they are treated in different parts of the country. In some areas they are merely dumped into bed and breakfast accommodation with nothing else being done for them, in some areas they are fostered and in some they are extremely well looked after. I hope that, in agreeing that they should all be given a guardian of some kind, some attempt will be made to produce a series of standards on how these children should be looked after so that consistency can be restored. The inconsistency results from the fact that, instead of putting them in the care of the authority in the area in which they surface, they are allocated around the country in a sort of “fair’s fair” arrangement so that everyone has a group to look after. That does not seem to be very sensible, however equitable it may seem to the authorities.
I have no expectation of any positive response from the Minister on this. I am sad when I say that because I think that his heart may well be with us on this but for the policy of his Government, who have exemptions from the Convention on Human Rights in relation to the two key areas of immigration and children in custody. Set in that frame, the Minister might find it difficult to agree.
However, I support the amendment substantially. I declare an interest as the deputy chair of CAFCASS, and, in any event, we have enough work to keep us going. If these children were indigenous to this country, there would be an outcry, but, because this matter is linked to immigration, we have no hope of gaining media support for this group of extraordinarily vulnerable young people and children. I had not intended to speak on this issue but, having spoken on the others, I felt that that would be going against my principles. These are the children who disappear into child-abusive situations—into prostitution and ghettos. Young prostitutes whom you meet on the streets often started their lives in this way.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said all the other things that I wanted to say about inconsistency. We know that some local authorities have grasped this nettle and, therefore, we have examples of good practice where something can be done. There are other areas where children disappear, never to be seen again, and everyone is grateful that they do not have to worry any more. Consistency in standards would make a huge difference. I know that the Government are trying to work in that direction but I hope that they will do even more in terms of these vulnerable youngsters.
Under Article 19 of the EU reception directive, the Government must ensure that unaccompanied minors are represented. This was underlined in the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ 10th report and Article 19 specifies that representation must be either by a legal guardian—the course recommended by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—by an organisation responsible for the child’s care and well-being, or by other appropriate representation. I can tell the Committee that the Government’s view is that we comply fully with this and with the other requirements of Article 19. All unaccompanied minors who apply for asylum, including in age-disputed cases, are referred to the Children’s Panel of the Refugee Council within 24 hours of the claim being lodged. The Children’s Panel, which is funded, as the noble Baroness said, by central government, provides appropriate guidance and signposts asylum-seeking children to the appropriate services they need. The panel also ensures that the child is aware of his or her rights and the services to which he or she is entitled throughout the asylum process. The panel does not offer legal advice, but it can refer the child to a legal representative if he or she needs one. The legal representative will assist with the person’s asylum claim and be funded by the Legal Services Commission.
So while the noble Baroness is right that the Children’s Panel is an NGO, it is only one part of the picture of support provided. It signposts children to the services that they need, including legal services funded, as they need to be, by the state, and ensures that local authorities make an assessment of need and make services available.
In respect of some of the other services to which the noble Baroness referred, entitlement to representation by CAFCASS officers in family and related proceedings does not depend on immigration status. Similarly, if asylum-seeking children are involved in criminal proceedings, which were also mentioned by the noble Baroness, they will be protected by the code of practice to which she referred as much as citizen children would be. Furthermore, the UK Borders Act 2007 introduced a requirement for the Border and Immigration Agency to have regard to a code of practice set out by the Secretary of State designed to ensure that, in exercising its functions in the UK, the BIA takes appropriate steps to ensure that children are safe from harm. We are drawing up that code of practice and, as a minimum, the immigration procedures to be covered by that code of practice will include checking documents and confirming identity, checking the bona fides of accompanying adults and destination address, interviewing children, caring for children during enforcement activities, paying greater attention to the needs of children who are detained in immigration premises, caring for children during escort and transfer activities, applying child-specific standards to contractors and other commissioned services and there will be provisions about the need to be vigilant for trafficked children and children who have gone missing—who were also referred to by the noble Baroness.
The Border and Immigration Authority refers all lone children with no parent or carer to children’s social care. Local authorities then make an assessment of needs in accordance with the statutory guidance set out in the Framework for the Assessment for Children in Need and Their Families. Local authorities have a statutory duty that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children, under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, regardless of their immigration status. The children that this amendment seeks to target would almost certainly be “children in need” as defined by Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and most are likely to meet the criteria under Section 20(1) of that Act, requiring the local authority to accommodate them and so they become looked after.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me why most, but not all, asylum-seeking children are classified as looked after. The answer is that it depends on whether or not they need to be provided with accommodation. Some asylum-seeking children are cared for by relatives or family friends who are established here and, therefore, may not have looked-after status. However, if they need accommodation they will be looked after and they will have a social worker. Our statutory guidance to local authorities in Local Authority Circular (2003) 13 makes it clear that there is a presumption that any child who has no parent or guardian in this country should be accommodated under Section 20 of the 1989 Act. The recent High Court decision of Mr Justice Holman in cases involving the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Hackney and Islington concerning the status of young asylum seekers confirmed that where an asylum-seeking child needs to be provided with accommodation, the local authority should provide it and the child should be looked after.
We recognise that unaccompanied children and those who have been trafficked can be particularly vulnerable. In addition to Working Together, we have published supplementary guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children who may have been Trafficked, and launched the NSPCC Child Trafficking Advice and Information Line to assist local agencies in addressing the specific safety and welfare needs of children who have been trafficked.
Assessment plans and interventions for children are already subject to external scrutiny through a number of statutory routes. For example, the care plan of looked-after children must be regularly reviewed at meetings chaired by the independent reviewing officer, as I mentioned earlier. These officers have powers to refer individual cases to CAFCASS for consideration of legal representation and we are taking steps through the Bill to strengthen the role of the IRO to ensure that this is implemented consistently and effectively.
The courts already have power to make an order in specified family proceedings to appoint a CAFCASS officer to be the children’s guardian. This arrangement continues until the court determines that it is no longer necessary. In addition to that scrutiny of whether their care plans are being implemented, any child in need who has a complaint or wishes to make a representation about the services that they receive is entitled to independent advocacy support, under Section 26A of the Children Act 1989.
Article 10 of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, requires that as soon as an unaccompanied child is identified as a victim each party shall provide for representation of the child by a legal guardian, organisation or authority which shall act in the best interests of that child; take the necessary steps to establish his or her identity and nationality; and make every effort to locate his or her family when this is in the best interests of the child. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering the changes needed to comply with the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. In doing that, the Home Office will consult with a range of stakeholders, including our established non-governmental organisation stakeholder group. This will include an assessment of all the options for improvement to the arrangements for all trafficked children.
In concluding this rather technical response to the specific points raised, perhaps I may say in more general terms that of course we recognise that some services for looked-after children have not always been of the highest quality. It is a fundamental purpose of this Bill to improve those services precisely to meet the objectives that my noble friend Lord Judd set out. It is also why we are taking forward the full range of reforms described in the Care Matters White Paper, which has been broadly welcomed by the Committee, that apply to all looked-after children, regardless of immigration status. But, as we have discussed often during our consideration of the Bill, much of the inconsistency in provision is not in fact a matter for primary legislation, but a matter of improving the skills of the workforce, reducing staff turnover, improving the quality of services and sharing best practice to bring up the quality of services everywhere to the level of the best.
We do not believe it is necessary to create an additional demand in terms of statutory entitlement to a guardian in every case that merely duplicates existing statutory requirements. Therefore, we do not support the amendment, but believe that the whole range of improvements to provision for children in care, which will be brought about by Care Matters and this Bill, will affect those children also.
I thank the Minister for his reply and I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment. I would say to the noble Lord that, listening to his reply, it struck me that there is a whole hotchpotch of bits of protection here and bits of protection there, but the one thing that would ensure that there was someone—an adult who knew what they were talking about—on that child’s side when they were trying to find their way through the morass of rules regarding asylum is the one thing that the Government will not do. That would be a catch-all to make quite sure that the child actually made use of all these various bits of protection that the Minister mentioned. It is a bit like rolling a dice; you either come up with a one or a six; you either land on Park Lane or Go to Jail. It sounds like an awful mess to me, but I am a lay person.
Perhaps I may mention one or two specific matters in relation to the Minister’s reply. He slightly mistook me when I referred to the PACE code of practice. I was not suggesting that a child who is an asylum seeker finding himself in a police station would not have the same right to an appropriate adult as a citizen child. I was trying to draw a parallel between that provision when a child might be suspected of committing a minor offence and the protection that the child does not have when addressing the legal system on a life-changing matter such as that child’s asylum status.
The Minister mentioned the local authority; it is not adequately resourced to fulfil the effective functions of a guardian, as set out by the UNHCR and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Besides, the guidance to that convention states that,
“agencies or individuals whose interest could potentially be in conflict with those of the child’s should not be eligible for guardianship”.
Indeed, there is a potential conflict of interest for local authorities, particularly in carrying out age determinations of young people, because there will be resource implications if it is determined that someone is a child and if the child is in need of other services from the local authority.
It is clear that we are not getting anywhere with the Minister, perhaps because of the constraints that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, hinted at earlier. This matter is of great concern and of passionate interest to other Members of this Committee as well as me. Although I will of course withdraw the amendment for the moment, I would not be at all surprised if we heard more about it.
22A: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Welfare for child immigrantsImmigration Service: welfare of children
After section 11(1)(m) of the Children Act 2004 (c. 31) (arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare) insert—
“(n) the Borders and Immigration Agency;”.”
The noble Baroness said: I return to some of the passionate topics that we have just been debating. This is an important amendment that would place on the Border and Immigration Agency a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said in the debate on the previous amendment, no such duty exists. Having an obligation is necessary because of the uniquely difficult situation of asylum-seeker children, many of whom arrive unaccompanied.
Their narrative is starkly different even from that of some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children that are taken into care. We must try to ensure as far as possible that not just their immigration status receives attention, but their welfare. A duty is needed to ensure, to guarantee, that they do not fall through the cracks and that their welfare and safety is promoted to the fullest possible extent. Section 11 of the Children Act 2000 excludes the immigration services from an otherwise comprehensive list of those to which a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children applies.
In the debate on the UK Borders Bill, the Government argued that an amendment placing a duty on immigration services to promote child welfare would restrict the primary function of the Immigration Service; but this section of the Act would include many other government agencies with other primary functions—such as the police. The amendment is simply designed to ensure that, alongside the normal functions of the Immigration Service, the promotion of child welfare is considered.
The UK Borders Bill brought in a requirement for the Home Secretary to publish a code of practice, to which the Minister has already referred, on how the Border and Immigration Agency helps to keep children safe from harm and have regard to that code when carrying out its functions. However, this simply does not go far enough to safeguard the interests and welfare of the child. The code of practice was a welcome step in the right direction but I hope that your Lordships will agree that, if we are to take seriously the interests, welfare and safety of these children, we need to ensure that a statutory duty is placed on the immigration services to promote their welfare. I beg to move.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, for having moved this amendment, because it is much needed. There is a reference to the Children Act 2004. I do not think that it is something that we normally do in Committee but I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I take the opportunity to spell out in some detail exactly what we are referring to in the Children Act 2004, rather than just express it in general terms.
First, perhaps I may turn to the Explanatory Notes on the Act, as published by the Government. I find it significant that referring to this part of the Act they say:
“This section imposes a duty on specified agencies to make arrangements to ensure that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.
Noble Lords should note that they do not simply say “the welfare of children” but that they use the word “promote”. I hope that that word was not used lightly, as it contains a significant emphasis. Having spelt out a little more, the Explanatory Notes go on to say:
“This duty is intended to ensure that agencies are conscious of the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare in the course of executing their normal functions”.
Then, the Act specifically names the agencies as,
“a children’s services authority in England … a district council which is not such an authority … a Strategic Health Authority … a Special Health Authority … a Primary Care Trust… an NHS trust all or most of whose hospitals, establishments and facilities are situated in England … an NHS foundation trust … the police authority and chief officer of police for a police area in England … the British Transport Police Authority … a local probation board … a youth offending team … the governor of a prison or secure training centre in England … any person to the extent that he is providing services under section 114 of the Learning and Skills Act … Each person and body to whom this section applies must make arrangements for ensuring that … their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children; and … any services provided by another person pursuant to arrangements made by the person or body in the discharge of their functions are provided having regard to that need”.
We have just had a major debate in this Committee on the issues surrounding these provisions. To leave out the border authority at this juncture almost specifically indicates that somehow all this does not apply to that body.
My noble friend very genuinely gave us a very full reply in which he spelt out how he believed our anxieties were being met. I ask him to see that there is a yawning gap in that respect. Apart from anything else, there are codes of practice laid down by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act which apply to the police and other bodies and are referred to in this Bill. The same codes do not apply to the border authority. We are told that certain guidelines will be given about how it should behave but in the Joint Committee on Human Rights we were very anxious about that point. We thought that if the agency was exercising what were in effect police powers, the codes of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act should apply to them. So there is a real grey area here, just when all of us need to be satisfied that we have belt and braces in place to ensure that the needs of children are being met. Frankly, the amendment is, therefore, absolutely indispensable in meeting our objectives for children and I hope that my noble friend can respond to it.
I put my name to Amendment No. 14, which was withdrawn in favour of Amendment No. 22A, so of course I support it. I do not intend to take the Committee’s time repeating all the important points made by the two previous speakers, but we support the amendment.
Having worked on previous immigration Bills and particularly on this matter, I also offer my support for this amendment. I recognise the Minister’s concerns about the dangers of judicial review of cases, which, I know, he is concerned might occur following the introduction of this duty, but I seek to reassure him that the Human Rights Act already provides ample opportunities for children to go to judicial review. That process has been tightened up recently. It is really unhelpful to discriminate against those among all other children in this country. It is most welcome that the Government have come forward with their own code in this area, but to treat those children differently from all other children sends out quite the wrong message. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Having been reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, of our discussions on this point when the Bill was going through, I become increasingly uneasy. When you look at the figures of the number of children who have disappeared in this country, which could not be more determined to do the best for children, despite all that, somehow they are slipping through our laws or our agreement to comply with certain sections of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and so on. I am concerned about this, as are all other noble Lords who have spoken, and we will hear from the group of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on this matter. The longer that we put off facing this issue, the worse it will become. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
I appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue, but I am bound to point out that this precise proposal was debated at length by the Chamber only three months ago as an amendment to the Third Reading of the UK Borders Bill, when the Chamber voted not to accept the amendment. I fear that all I can do is to rehearse precisely the arguments made by the Government on that occasion, which were debated and decided on by the House.
Amendment No. 22A proposes an extension of the duty in Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 to the Border and Immigration Agency. Instead of extending the Section 11 duty, the UK Borders Act 2007 introduced a requirement for the Border and Immigration Agency to have regard to a code of practice designed to ensure that, in exercising its functions in the UK, the Border and Immigration Agency takes appropriate steps to ensure that children are safe from harm.
The code of practice is currently being prepared and the intention is to begin a period of public consultation on the content of the code shortly. We will consult widely, both in drafting the code and the operational instructions flowing from it. As part of the development, we will work with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the children’s commissioners, officials in the devolved Administrations, the Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and others who have expressed their willingness to work with us on the development of this code.
While the code is not yet finalised for consultation I can outline in general terms what it will cover. As I said in reply to the previous amendment, our intention is to ensure that specific immigration procedures are properly responsive to the needs of children. As a minimum, these are—I repeat what I said earlier because it is directly relevant to the amendment—checking documents and confirming identity, checking the bona fides of accompanying adults and destination address, interviewing children, caring for children during enforcement activities, greater attention to the needs of children who are detained in immigration premises, caring for children during escort and transfer activities, applying child-specific standards to contractors and other commissioned services, and provisions about the need to be vigilant for trafficked children and for children who have gone missing.
Where conditions defined in the code suggesting trafficking or other harm are met, a referral will be made to a body with statutory care responsibilities. In a similar way, if a child fails to meet an immigration appointment and appears to have gone missing, the Border and Immigration Agency will make a formal referral to a statutory body with relevant responsibilities.
The UK Borders Act also created the role of chief inspector of the agency and its immigration functions, and the chief inspector will have an active role in reviewing the agency’s performance in relation to children. The Border and Immigration Agency is, furthermore, taking the necessary steps to ensure that staff realise how they safeguard children from harm and are more responsive to the needs of children in the work they are carrying out, while not overriding the purpose of that work.
The code of practice to which I have referred is not and will not be a token document. It is a commitment on behalf of the Government and the agency to a culture change on children’s issues that those who have proposed the amendment wish to see. I know that will not satisfy noble Lords who have spoken, but the position of the Government has not in other respects changed in the past three months.
I thank all noble Lords for supporting this important amendment. The Minister said that this issue came before the House three months ago and he is right. At that time my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns said that we would take every opportunity we could to press this amendment, and that is exactly what we are doing. We shall continue to do so until the Government accept it.
I can understand other departments being more wary but this, after all, is the Department for Children, Schools and Families, where the interests of all children should be paramount. It does not matter where a child has come from, how they got here or where they may eventually end up; while they are here they should be afforded the value, care and love we so happily give to our own children. The amendment sends out an important message, a visible sign, that these children matter. I urge the Minister to give the matter careful consideration before Report stage. As Arnie Schwarzenegger said, “We will be back”. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 22B and 22C not moved.]
Clause 7 [Support for children placed with family or friends]:
23: Clause 7, page 5, line 24, after “after)” insert “—
“(a) after subsection (2) insert—“(2ZA) Where a child is placed under subsection (2) with a grandparent or grandparents (“G”) as sole carer, the local authority must provide G with the same financial and other support as that authority makes available to foster carers.”;(b)”
The noble Baroness said: This amendment follows on directly from that on the subject of support for family and friends caring for children. However, it is at least morally and practically different. It seeks to ensure better support for grandparents, and I shall put their special case. I thank my noble friends for supporting the amendment. My noble friend Lady Hollis is here in spirit, if not in body, because she has to be at another meeting.
The issue of grandparents as carers has been around for a long time. I am grateful for parliamentary support for grandparent carers—my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, in particular, has shown an interest—and I was glad to see in the new Children’s Plan a reference to family needs. I quote from page 19:
“Different families will need different things at different times and in different circumstances. The challenge is to provide services which are flexible and meet the needs of all families, in whatever shape or form. Our family policy will support families with whatever level of information and support they need, when they need it. This will include lone parent families, step families and families where children are being brought up by their grandparents”.
When grandparents take over, it is because the parent or parents are incapable of looking after the child or children. The grandparents become substitute parents but they are older than parents normally are. Grandparents are sometimes an overlooked group who do not make too much noise because they are struggling with the circumstances of bringing up children, often in difficult circumstances. They often take on all grandchildren, and I know of several who have taken charge of three siblings. We talked earlier about siblings.
The grandparents whom I meet are mainly those who have taken on the care of children because the parents are dead, in prison or addicted to drugs or alcohol. I have hundreds of letters and case histories which testify to the problems encountered. The grandparents are dealing with children who may be grieving or they may be grieving themselves due to the loss of a son or daughter. They take on their grandchildren because they desperately do not want them to go into care, yet they report horrendous problems in trying to get support and failing because the system is unsympathetic and not geared up to help. We must change this. Grandparents suffer physical, emotional and financial hardship. They are a special case because they are older people. Some have given up jobs and some have poor health and poor economic circumstances, yet they save the state millions of pounds by caring for their grandchildren. They probably save even more in the long term. As I said earlier, children who are settled with a family have more positive outcomes than those in care.
This situation is unfair and unacceptable. There is confusion about what help is available. Grandparents cite particular difficulties as being those of residence orders, financial concerns, aftercare and isolation. I have just read a new document by Ed Miliband on families at risk, which talks of some families being seriously disadvantaged and of the fact that systems and services have to be made to work for them. I suggest that most grandparents as carers fall into this category. Where is the help for them?
The Children Act 1989 gives local authorities the power to determine financial arrangements. Unfortunately, despite this being clear, there is good evidence that grandparents who care do not receive the same payments as other foster carers. There is case history on this, which I have here. In Manchester, a case came up concerning whether the local authority policy of paying family and friends who were short-term carers significantly less in relation to the child’s maintenance than would be paid to other carers was lawful. It is known as the Munby case. Mr Justice Munby, who heard the case, granted judicial review and declared the policy to be unlawful on the basis that it was irrational and discriminatory against both the adult and children concerned, the level of payments failed to meet the welfare requirements of the child, and the limits placed on the amount paid to relatives was arbitrary and inflexible. It was a pretty strong judgment.
In addition, recent research has shown that family and friend carers receive far less practical support in caring for a child than an unrelated foster carer. They are—I hear this a lot—left to manage all arrangements, including complex care, on their own. This places a strain on everyone, including the children. Those of us who occasionally look after grandchildren know that it is a delight but it is also very wearing. Let us imagine those grandparents for whom this is a 24-hour a day job with no respite and little support.
Outcomes for children are the central theme of the Bill. If those outcomes are to be improved, we need to look at and repair the anomalies present in the system. If, in practice, a case can be ruled unlawful in one local authority, surely it is unlawful everywhere. I am not a lawyer but that seems to be the implication. The amendment, and those that came before it, must be addressed as a matter of urgency if we are not to compound an already confused situation and if we are not to leave some carers seriously deprived. I beg to move.
I support this important amendment and I have put my name to it. I do so partly as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Grandparents and Extended Kin.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 grandparents in the UK have their grandchildren living with them—not just staying for part of the time or being looked after part time, but living with them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, many of those children have very severe and special needs; many are disabled; and many have parents who are in circumstances which have made life very difficult indeed for them. It is essential that these carers receive adequate support, both financial and in other respects, to support the dependants for whom they are caring.
I read an article a couple of days ago which stated that each year more than £50 billion is spent by grandparents on family care. This is not grandparents buying Christmas presents; this is family care. That is a huge amount of money. In the course of chairing the all-party group I have met numerous people doing this job who spend so much of their personal money that they cannot afford it and are living under extreme difficulty.
We know that the discretion available to social services departments sometimes results in grossly unfair treatment of grandparents or members of the child’s extended kin who provide exactly the same amount of care as foster parents. The law allows this unfair treatment, or even discrimination, against grandparents simply because they are relatives. One example is that from time to time—I think this is the practice; it has happened too many times for it to be just a one off—late on a Sunday night, or late at night, a grandchild is brought round to the grandparents and they are asked “Will you take this child?” That is the last the grandparents see of social services; they do not come back. It is safe for them to say that social services are stretched, they have very little money, “but we have managed that case and so we do not have to worry any more”. This is not acceptable and something needs to be done. The law needs to be changed so that people doing the same job are treated in the same way, otherwise we cannot talk about equality of treatment.
My name is on the amendment and I am the rather unlikely original sponsor of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Grandparents. I was immensely grateful when the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, a more conventional leader, took over the chair of that group. I helped that group set up the tremendous support that it gives to many children in this country. Coming from the north country, where most of the people in my kind of community looked after their grandchildren, I knew what that emotional support was about.
There is an issue with our amendment which seems to imply that every grandparent who takes over the care of their grandchildren wants a payment. I know from working with the Grandparents’ Association that that is not necessarily so. Many grandparents wish to take on that care; they know what has happened to their own children and want to provide surrogate parenting because that is what is needed in the family. But they need all kinds of other things and many of them need financial support. What irks them—and this is rather scandalous—is when children are taken into foster care in an emergency and then, with good kinship care programmes, placed with the grandparents, and finance is given to the original foster parents but no finance is given to the grandparents, who then have a terrible struggle. Not only that, there is very little help and advice about how to access the other financial supports which are available in the system.
I have spoken to a number of grandparents who have taken on difficult adolescents—I have lots of surrogate grandchildren and the joy about grandchildren is that you can give them back—who need support as they get older and have to struggle with the adolescent’s emotional needs. It is very interesting that grandparents, like many other members of the community, are not anti-social services. They are not frightened that social services are going to come and take the children away—indeed, they know they will not take them away—but they want local authorities to give them advice and support and sometimes a break. Occasionally a bit of respite care is needed to keep the situation going.
I recognise that this comes into kinship care but these grandparents, as a group, underpin our society. I hope the Government will look at their special needs and at how to help them to do the task they are undertaking.
When I was young there was a group called the “Hell’s Grannies”. Under the amendment—which I support—we are talking about “Heaven’s Grannies”. It is important to recognise that what is proposed here is not in relation to any old informal arrangement but in relation to cases where a child is placed with a sole carer. This can be clearly defined from the point of view of finance and support and we know what we are talking about.
I support the principle that finance should follow the logic. If the logic is that this is the best way to do it, I cannot understand why we do not follow it up with the kind of finance and support that we make available to foster carers. I support the amendments and I am sure the logic of what we are saying will influence the Minister, who will jump to his feet and give us a friendly reply before dinner.
I have already spoken about grandparents and I support everything that has been said. The issue is crucial. However, this is not only about the financial side but about all the additional support that should be available. For example, where a grandparent is ageing a bit, if you could arrange for the child to be taken to school and back, that would open up opportunities for many more grandparents to play this role. I warmly support the amendment, just as I did the kinship care amendment—but this is even more important.
This falls in line with what I said on kinship care. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, more than 200,000 grandparents and extended family members are already raising their grandchildren because their children cannot do so. We need to harness the dedication and love that extended family members have for the younger generation in their families. At the moment local authorities are too often missing a trick by not tapping into it more readily, but it is the children who are missing out most of all. We support the amendment’s attempt to utilise and appreciate this valuable resource.
I fully endorse all that my noble friend Lady Massey and other noble Lords have said about the important role played by family members, including grandparents, who take care of children who cannot be brought up by their parents.
The Bill addresses concerns that some local authorities have considered placement of a child within their extended family to mean that the child is no longer looked after. Clause 7 of the Bill will ensure that if a grandparent or other relative agrees to care for a child at the local authority’s request, this will be a placement under Section 23(2) of the Children Act 1989 and the local authority will continue to be responsible for the accommodation and the maintenance of the child as a looked-after child.
All individuals who care for looked-after children must be approved as a local authority foster parent within six weeks of the child being placed with them by the local authority, unless they are a parent of, or someone who has parental responsibility for, the child, or, if the child is the subject of a care order—unless they had a residence order for the child immediately before the care order was made.
The requirement to be approved as a foster carer applies equally to related carers and stranger carers. All foster carers should be paid at least the national minimum allowance for foster carers at the rate set by the Government and be eligible to receive any additional fees or allowances paid by the local authority concerned in accordance with the authority’s policies, which should not discriminate against carers who are related to the looked-after child. No foster carer, including those who are grandparents, should be out of pocket because of their foster-caring responsibilities.
I am aware that concerns have been expressed about some local authorities that pay foster carers who are grandparents at a lower rate than other foster carers, but as my noble friend Lady Massey said, that is unlawful. The judgment of Mr Justice Munby in the case of R (L and others) v Manchester City Council, R (R and another) v Manchester City Council makes it clear that the criteria applied when determining the appropriate level of support to be paid to a foster carer must not discriminate between stranger and related carers. Case law in this area is, therefore, clear, and the amendment is unnecessary. However, we will address the issue when we revise the Children Act statutory guidance to ensure that all local authorities are aware of their legal responsibilities. In addition, to ensure that all foster carers are aware of the criteria that will be used to assess their support package, the statutory guidance will also place a responsibility on local authorities to publish clear and transparent policies on the support they provide to all relatives who care for children, including those approved as foster carers. I hope that, on that basis, my noble friend will think that we are meeting the concerns that she raised.
I thank the Minister for that response and much appreciate his words. His reply was very positive. However, we need to look at the matter again to make sure that we cover all the points that have been raised by previous speakers, whom I thank for reinforcing my sense of the anomaly in payments to kinship carers, particularly grandparents. I might tell my small grandson about Hell’s Grannies; it sounds like a pop group.
We need an amendment or statutory guidance on kinship care which makes the matter clear. I think that the Minister has just done that, but I need to read the debate to make sure. We all need to read it to make sure that we have covered what we wanted to cover. There is a lot of experience and expertise in the Room, including in the Minister and his team. Surely we can come up with something which reassures all of us about payments to kinship carers, especially grandparents. I am sure that we shall have much discussion before Report and perhaps come up with something that is fitting. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 agreed to.
24: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Assessment and mental health careAssessment
It is the duty of each Primary Care Trust to ensure that a holistic assessment of a looked after child’s health, development and mental health needs is undertaken as soon as a care order has been made, and to ensure that services meet those needs.”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 25. The Amendment would ensure that the mental health needs of children who are placed outside their own local borough are met. At present, local authorities are reluctant to see placements for looked-after children from other boroughs developed in their own borough, because they know that the provision of services could be considerable. Kent, for example, provides large numbers of placements for looked-after children from east London. Why should Kent foot the Bill for CAMHS for those children? We have already discussed an amendment designed to ensure sufficient local authority placements in each local area. The Minister assures us that such provision will be made even under the Bill as it stands, but, however it is done, it is likely to involve negotiation between neighbouring local authorities to provide placements for their looked-after children. Such negotiations must be based on a clear understanding of the responsibility for funding the services for those children.
The British Association for Adoption & Fostering argues the case well for these provisions. We know that 45 per cent of looked-after children aged between five and 17 are assessed as having a mental health problem. In the five to 10 year-old group, 42 per cent of looked-after children have mental health disorders compared with only 8 per cent of children in private households. The case is very strong. The mental health needs of looked-after children have been overlooked to an extraordinary degree when we consider not only the long-term consequences of neglect for the children themselves but also the consequences for the community at large, and, indeed, for the taxpayer.
In theory, we have a universal health service. We have the Department of Heath practice guidance on the health of looked-after children and the national service framework for children, young people and maternity services. However, in the 2004 report Children’s health, our future, which reports on the progress of implementing the national service framework, there is not one mention of looked-after children. Care Matters sets out an objective to publish statutory guidance on the health of looked-after children.
The British Association for Adoption & Fostering is rightly very sceptical. It takes the view that the barriers to implementation are so significant and the problems so longstanding that only with primary legislation, including our Amendment No. 24, will sufficient priority be given to addressing this considerable problem. Introducing such a duty in the Bill would put health on an equal footing with education, where a clause gives a statutory basis, as we all know, to the designated teacher role in every school. If a looked-after child needs a school place, they get to the top of the list automatically. This is not the case for mental health services. Yet, without mental health care, these children will not be able to take advantage of the education. Similarly, if a looked-after child is physically ill, they will become inpatients or go for emergency treatment and get to the top of the list for whatever their needs are.
When I raised this issue at Second Reading, the Minister responded by saying that looked-after children have a mental health assessment under present arrangements. I checked that out. My understanding is that all looked-after children have a general medical assessment undertaken by and large by a nurse, but probably not a mental health nurse. The amendment would ensure that the mental health needs of these children are identified early. I hope the Minister will accept that present arrangements are not working. The cost of our continuing failure to identify and treat the mental health problems of these looked-after children is considerable. Up to 90 per cent of young people in custody have some kind of mental health problem, including 10 per cent who manifest signs of schizophrenia. Children and young people in care are around three times more likely than other children to be cautioned or convicted of an offence while in care, and, I guess, quite a lot of that has to do with the child’s mental instability of one sort or another.
Research from the Social Services Inspectorate suggests that 23 per cent of adult prisoners had been in care at some time. About 46 per cent of young people in custody have had some experience of the care system. That shows that the Minister is not the only person providing facts to the Committee. The evidence in support of these amendments is overwhelming, I hope therefore that he will support them. I beg to move.
I happen to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that the arguments are overwhelming. I always find her arguments when she is speaking in favour of a proposition, clear, concise and extraordinarily well assembled. I really think it would be difficult to add anything to the very convincing arguments she has put forward. I only emphasise that the reason I put my name to this amendment is that it comes into the whole area of prevention rather than cure. The long-term implications for the youngsters concerned, if this sort of thing is not done effectively, are severe. The cost to society can be extraordinary because, as all of us know—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, may have something to say about this—it is true that our prisons are full of people who should never be in prison because they are basically there as a result of mental health problems. Here we are, if we do not make effective provision, aiding and abetting that extraordinarily negative process.
I warmly welcome the amendment. I am glad at the same time to express a word of support for Amendment No. 47, spelling out the responsibilities of primary care trusts, and Amendment No. 92, setting out exactly how assessment should be made. I hope that the Minister will feel able to take these points seriously. As I have said before, I do not see the point of the Moses Room process unless it is turned into a prelegislative process in which the Minister has a chance to take on board the arguments and go away and think about them before we get to what we have turned the Report stage into—a de facto Committee stage, when we actually take votes. So I hope that my noble friend will listen.
In Amendment No. 92, I seek assurance from the Government that they will fulfil their commitment set out in Care Matters to make the guidance on the health of looked-after children statutory for healthcare bodies as it is for local authorities. I also ask the Minister to provide further information regarding the Government’s plans for ensuring that local authorities and healthcare agencies work together to provide for the assessment of looked-after children’s physical, mental and emotional health needs. I am not referring here only to mental health but to the whole gamut of health needs.
The NSPCC passed me some Ofsted statistics today that showed that for the 12-month period up to September 2006 one in five children in care received no health assessment, which means that 8,888 children did not receive any assessment at all. What the figures do not show is that in a significant number of cases the assessment will be only a basic health check and will not consider the child’s emotional and mental health needs. Clearly, that system needs changing.
Looked-after children and young people are often disproportionately affected by physical and mental health problems, such as many different physical complaints, mental health disorders, high rates of self-harm or other high-risk behaviour, substance misuse and high rates of teenage conception and motherhood. This can obviously result only in them not achieving, or not achieving so well, across the five Every Child Matters outcomes of being healthy, staying safe, enjoying, achieving and making a positive contribution. I also know that some children—for example, children from black and minority ethnic groups and with disabilities—have health problems that may be more severe than those for children who do not have those disabilities.
The Comprehensive Spending Review talks about the health and well-being of children and young people overall, in PSA target 12, and improving emotional health and well-being, particularly the emotional health of children in care, which is priority 4 of the same PSA target. There is the Healthy Care programme—perhaps the Minister could say something more about this—which seeks to develop Healthy Care partnerships across England, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and developed by the NCB. The programme is rolling out across 90 local authorities via local multi-agency partnerships. That provides an excellent model for partnership working between local authorities, healthcare bodies and other partners. However, the responsibilities must be set out in legislation to ensure that looked-after children and young people experience improvements in their physical, mental and emotional health outcomes. Perhaps the Minister could give some detail on how these partnerships might work and how the Department of Health guidance, Promoting the Health of Looked After Children, can be developed on a statutory footing and revised to clarify the role of PCT chief executives in prioritising the health of looked-after children at the PCT board level. I realise that that is not his specific responsibility but I think that it overlaps with this amendment.
I wish to speak in support of Amendments Nos. 47 and 24, both of which have my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley attached to them, and of Amendments Nos. 25 and 92, to which our names are not attached. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, explained the situation very clearly. The White Paper, Care Matters: Time for Change, stated that the Government would undertake to reissue the guidance promoting the health of looked-after children and place it on a statutory footing for health agencies, but we do not see anything to that effect in the Bill.
We on these Benches are particularly concerned about the lack of assessment and treatment for mental health problems, which, as has been explained, we feel are particularly prevalent among looked-after children. Regulations are in place which state that the health assessment should have regard to mental and emotional health, but there is no requirement for assessments in these areas to take place; nor is there a requirement for assessments of emotional well-being or mental health to be conducted by individuals with training and/or expertise in the fields that they are assessing. Furthermore, there are examples where assessments have not occurred as soon as reasonably possible and where therapeutic care has not been provided due to a breakdown in communication between local authorities and the health agencies concerned. One example has been quoted in the briefings that we received of a foster parent who said in interview:
“[The child] destroys everything in his sight. He self-harms, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t get on with other members of the family, isolates himself, needs 24 hours of supervision, he pulls his hair out, pulls his finger nails off … [the child and adolescent mental health services] won’t work with him as he is not in a permanent placement. They see him to monitor his medication but do no one-to-one work”,
Some 90,000 children will pass through the care system in any one year, and there are 60,000 children in care at any one time. Approximately 37,000 of these children are in care explicitly for reasons of abuse and neglect. They will have experienced emotional trauma, often over a sustained period, and it is reasonable to assume that a high number will have had experiences which may impact on their emotional well-being. It is essential that PCTs and CAMHS pull their weight alongside other partners in children’s trusts. Evidence to date suggests that that is not happening, which is why in these various amendments we wish to give some statutory backing to the duties placed on them.
Specifically in relation to Amendment No. 47, we note that the forthcoming public service agreements for 2008-11 are consistent in setting out the health and well-being of children and young people as a government and public service priority. In particular, PSA 12, whose aim is to improve the health and well-being of children and young people, is a key area for all children’s trust partners to work towards. PSA 12 is supported by other, equally important PSAs. The aim of PSA 10 is to raise the educational achievement of children and young people; PSA 11 aims to narrow the gap in educational achievement between children from lower-income and disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers; and PSA 18 seeks to promote better health and well-being for all.
The NHS operating framework is a vital policy statement in guiding local NHS services in determining their priorities, yet the current guidance does not even mention the needs of looked-after children. That framework will be crucial in delivering the PSAs, as well as the National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services and the Every Child Matters agenda. It is therefore imperative that it should be shaped to ensure that children in care have better and priority access to the full range of NHS care and support services, so that those children and young people can overcome the many obstacles in their present and past lives and become well rounded members of our communities.
I very much support the amendments, as well as the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I have had unhappy experience of cases going through the care system where both the PCT and CAMHS have been totally inadequate. The practical problem, which in a sense the amendments highlight, is the inadequacy of the services in many areas of the country, particularly the services of CAMHS, much of which is because it seems to be inadequately resourced. There are children who do not get a first appointment for up to 18 months. That is not good enough. To have a series of amendments like this would be a wake-up call to another government department that it has to co-operate to do something for children who have been so badly treated that they have to go into care. As has been said already, many have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, or all three. They need more help, not less, but CAMHS is not there to help them. Even the PCT finds difficulty in providing even the most minimal support for these children.
I lent my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for the very reasons that my noble friend Lady Butler-Sloss has just given and because of the point highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. My experience in prison of the number of people who had not had any form of assessment or treatment while they were in care was appalling. By the time they arrived in prison, there had been far too many wasted years in their life along the way. As the brief that we have had from the NSPCC and others says, there is substantial evidence of inequality of health outcomes for looked-after children, as we have all experienced, and the current guidance has not had a persuasive impact on PCTs. Everywhere you look—this includes the whole of the mental health area—the assessment of things like speech and language therapy, which are so important to the development of relationships, are missing because they are not included in PCT plans. We see the outcomes of that when they arrive in care.
I hope that in his reply the Minister will remember his own remarks in the last statements that he made at Second Reading, quoting a remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth:
“we should regard this Bill as a wake-up call for everyone responsible for children in care and that ultimately … depends on implementation”.
I agree wholeheartedly. So do we all. There is no area where a wake-up call needs to be sent more clearly than those responsible for the healthcare, assessment and treatment of children in care.
I was surprised that there was nothing in the Bill about healthcare. That is a crucial part of the partnership, and the Government have done so well in making organisations work together. I thought this was a flaw that we might well want to look at, which is why I support the amendments.
There is a structural issue here. My attention was drawn to it particularly by the Local Government Association, which points out that councils do all they can to bring children into the services they need, with regard particularly to mental health services but also to services generally in terms of making assessments of their health. However, their partners, the primary care trusts, have to work to a set of objectives established by the NHS within which the needs of children generally, and children in care specifically, are usually not given high priority.
I quote two reinforcements for that. One is that when the Children’s Rights Director, Roger Morgan, was trying to look at the needs of children and wanted to be helpful to children in hospitals, that was a really difficult area for him to get into.
Secondly—I cannot quote the particular authority as it was a discussion under Chatham House rules—in a discussion with a chief executive of a hospital trust about how he would give priority to children’s needs and children’s issues, his answer was: “I wouldn’t do that if it actually interfered with my acute targets”. It is very clear that unless we take action children will not get the kind of service they need to promote their health, which will leave a huge gap in the Government’s policy of pulling together the partnership to make sure that the total holistic needs of the child are met. This barrier in improving the outcomes for children is not the ill will of the staff of the PCTs but because of the structure that exists, and the Government will need to intervene.
I support very strongly these two amendments put down by my noble friend Lady Meacher and the amendments put down by the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Massey. We have been very slow to recognise the importance of mental health in these difficult cases of prisoners, disturbed children, children in care and looked-after children. It is most important that we should now be specific in the Bill about the need for a proper assessment of mental health needs and have a method to ensure that those needs can be met, and make clear that there should be priority access to child and adolescent mental health services.
I am absolutely convinced that the problems that have been drawn to our attention are sufficiently serious to make it necessary to respond specifically. It is not good enough to talk about it; it is necessary to put provision in the Bill. I very much hope that the Government will agree to that. If they cannot agree it now, I hope that it will be agreed on Report.
I add my voice to those who have spoken about the need for improved mental health services. I want to talk about my perception of the practical problems. We have heard a lot about the need for CAMHS to respond positively. Certainly, I would not doubt that. I recognise that the Government since 2001 have funded a large number of very helpful initiatives to set up specialist teams for the assessment and prioritisation of looked-after children and specialist services in CAMHS. At present they work well.
There are still difficulties in other areas. The real difficulty is getting the initial health assessment appropriately carried out when a child first comes into care. The children arrive very late. Often they have already had several different placements. One of the reasons services can be reluctant is that they know the children may not stay with them very long. But the real problem is that they are not getting the primary assessment of healthcare when they first come into care. The health assessment has been a sort of “take it or leave it” one. Some children object to the assessment. They say, “Other children do not have to have an obligatory medical, why should I?”. The truth of the matter is that these children are so disadvantaged and the rate of mental disorder is so high—particularly psychosis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has already outlined—that it is crucial that we get these children and young people into treatment very early on. That means having quite a simple but well trained assessment by a nurse who is familiar with the process and the questions that need to be asked, and who understands that conduct disorder is often a symptom of very serious mental illness and should not mean the child is dismissed as a “difficult kid”. The real problem here is that we must get these children assessed.
While I accept entirely that PCTs must set up the appropriate services and have those obligations in mind, I think that really it is too late and too little. We need a proper assessment in the early days. I strongly support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in this respect.
I passed a note to my noble friend Lord Williamson because I knew he was going to speak about mental health problems. I was seeking his approval that what I was going to say was appropriate. The note states:
“I think I should stress that children with mental health problems are not learning-disabled children unless such a child has a mental health problem too, but healthcare for all disabled looked-after children must be included in these amendments as an absolute priority.”
I support these amendments. The level of conduct disorder in this group of children is extraordinarily high. I think we were all shocked when the Office for National Statistics first produced its study of these children, especially those in residential child care. I cannot remember the exact figures now but perhaps the Minister will be able to help when he replies.
What are we doing to these residential child care workers and foster carers by placing with them these children, who are so troubled because of their earlier experiences, without putting in place the right support for them? It must be one factor at least for the turnover of staff. I beg the Minister to use any influence he has to increase the level of indirect support to the carers of children in care so that they can have access to high-quality consultation. On children’s homes, for instance, the Warner report, Choosing with care, said that on the Continent it is a common practice that children’s homes are supported on a regular basis by a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist and a psychologist, the staff have a chance at a weekly meeting to discuss cases with them and that the manager gets individual support. The system works so well. I have seen it work well in children’s homes in this country but it is not universal. If the Minister can do anything in the guidance to promote that model it will assist in the retention of staff and lead to improvements in referrals of children to higher level CAMHS.
I have one final point. One could always tell care leavers in the past because of their dental condition and the way their teeth had been looked after. I know there have been improvements but this issue needs continued attention.
I shall detain the Committee for literally half a minute. The point has been made many times over, both today and on the previous occasion last week, that there must be cohesion and comprehensiveness in the services provided by a local authority for all children. Indeed, that is true also of agencies outside the local authority. It is the very failure of that cohesion in this field that amply justifies the amendment.
The Minister may say that this is catered for in A, B, C, D and other different ways, but if no such amendment is passed there is a very real danger that the present highly unsatisfactory situation will meander on in the same way. The psychological impact of the amendment would be very considerable. In the vast majority of cases one would be dealing with a care order situation, and before you can make a care order under Section 31 it is necessary to show that the child is suffering harm or is likely to suffer harm. Harm includes health, and health under Section 31 includes mental as well as physical health. So it is utterly specific, utterly central and very near to the heart, core and kernel of a high percentage of the cases with which we are dealing.
Perhaps I may start in my role as fact-provider-in-chief. The picture before us here is one of much done, but more to do. Between 2003 and 2006, there was a 78 per cent increase in the number of new cases being seen by CAMHS. The size of the CAMHS workforce has risen to its highest level: an increase of 26 per cent between 2003 and 2006. The number of children waiting to access CAMHS is reducing. Approximately 24,000 cases were waiting to be seen by specialist CAMHS at the end of 2006, which was a reduction from 29,000 cases in 2003. The number of looked-after children in social services-targeted CAMHS teams, the initiative to which the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, referred, rose from 62 in 2004 to 80 in 2006. Although my noble friend was right that not one in five but 17 per cent of looked-after children have not had their annual health assessment, the proportion who have had it rose steadily from 77.1 per cent in 2004 to 83.2 per cent in 2006. All those improvements have been made possible in part by a substantial increase in grant-funding to local authorities for CAMHS, which increased from £10 million in 1999 to £91 million in the current financial year. That grant is ring-fenced. As noble Lords will know, persuading the Treasury to ring-fence is a tough job. Funding to primary care trusts for CAMHS increased from £10 million in 1999 to £50 million in 2005-06.
I hope that the Committee will agree that improvements have been made, but there is still more to do. It is precisely for that reason that, in last month’s children’s plan, we announced an independent review of CAMHS, which will look at how we ensure that children’s services support the well-being of children and young people, and provide integrated support across the spectrum of universal and specialist services, including for looked-after children. We are in the process of setting up that independent review, which will report in the summer.
I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, anticipated entirely my response on the law. The law currently provides in most but not all respects for what is necessary. There is one important respect in which we propose to make changes and to which I shall refer in a moment. Regulation 7 of the Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) and the Review of Children’s Cases (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations already requires that,
“before making a placement, or if that is not reasonably practicable, as soon as reasonably practicable after a placement is made”,
a local authority shall,
“make arrangements for a registered medical practitioner to conduct an assessment, which may include a physical examination, of the child's state of health”.
The regulations provide also that the health assessment should have regard to the child’s,
“physical, emotional and mental health”.
This means that, unless it is not reasonably practicable—for example, it may not be possible to carry out a mental health assessment of a young baby—the assessment must cover each of these elements of a looked-after child’s health. The involvement of health services in these assessments is further underpinned by the duty in Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 for PCTs and strategic health authorities to co-operate to improve the well-being of children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned the professional status of those who conduct the health assessments. The guidance on promoting the health of looked-after children states that the medical practitioner who carries out a health assessment should,
“have training in the early identification of mental health difficulties”,
and that they,
“need a link into CAMHS for advice and consultation and a clear access route to refer children and young people who need more specialist help”.
In Amendment No. 47, the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Sharp, and my noble friend Lord Judd seek to ensure that PCTs have regard to guidance issued by the relevant national authority about the health and well-being of the children and young people who are looked after. The guidance, Promoting the Health of Looked After Children, issued in 2002, is statutory for local authorities, but has no legal status for PCTs and other healthcare bodies. As stated in Care Matters, we intend to make revised guidance statutory for healthcare bodies as well as for local authorities for the first time. That provision is not in this Bill because the statutory authority to do it is given in Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004. It is on the basis of those sections that we will make the revised statutory guidance applicable to healthcare bodies. That will be a significant change in the direction sought by Members of the Committee.
Finally, I shall deal with the issue of Healthy Care partnerships that was raised by my noble friend Lady Massey. My department and the Department of Health have funded the development of the Healthy Care programme for four years using regional and local partnerships to promote the health and well-being of looked-after children. Activities have included improving the understanding of health issues in respect of looked-after children, training for foster carers and the engagement of looked-after children in arts, music and drama programmes. I will write to Members to provide further information about that valuable programme and its future contribution in this area.
As a Grand Committee, we owe our apologies to the staff here as we have overrun very considerably. I am sure everyone will wish to join me in that.
I thank the Minister for his response. Maybe there was a hint of something that will improve what all of us who are involved with the system know is a disastrous situation with regard to mental health. Whatever appears to be there does not seem to be happening on the ground. I thank all Members for their powerful contributions on these important issues, and I thank my noble friend Lord Judd for his generous comments. On the basis that we may well want to come back on this issue on Report in view of the strength of feeling, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I can confirm what the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said. Four and half hours is the maximum that Grand Committee can sit, and you are one minute over.
[Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]