House again in Committee (on Recommitment).
[Amendment No. 9 not moved.]
10: 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: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 14. The new amendment fits in with the central tenet of our approach to this Bill; that is, to do what we can to ensure continuity of care so that meaningful relationships can be forged without fear of them being continually broken off, thus bringing an element of stability to the lives of children and young people in care. As I said in Grand Committee, the amendments are inspired by the Minister, who, at Second Reading, mentioned that some children see as many as 30 social workers and go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. Amendment No. 10 places a duty on local authorities to review a child’s experience of care if he or she is looked after by more than three social workers in one year.
Amendment No. 14 stipulates that arrangements must be based on the idea,
“that the child’s accommodation placement should be changed the fewest number of times”.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for adding his name to that amendment.
In the White Paper, Care Matters, the Government say that they want,
“children in care to have kind, understanding and committed carers—whether foster carers or residential staff—and we want to encourage that element of ‘stickability’ which research has shown to be key to the successful continuation of relationships. The more engaged carers are in all aspects of the child’s life and the greater their role in decision-making, the more likely they are to develop that close bond which will lead to a successful outcome for the child”.
That is what we all want, but one of the greatest frustrations is how that will happen.
We are fully aware that there are often good reasons for changing a social worker or moving a child. The last thing we want to do is constrain local authority provision or cause false alarms that require unnecessary reviews. Our intention is simply to have a structure whereby a significant problem in the care system—social work turnover and the number of placements—is checked.
In Grand Committee, the Minister said that he did not think it was necessary to have this in the Bill as there are already many reviews of the child’s care plan. But something must be wrong with these reviews if we still see so much instability in the system. We do not envisage that our review will simply be a cursory glance at the situation, but that it will go as deep as it needs in order to understand the reason for the turnover of social workers or why a child was moved. In Grand Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said in support of our amendment:
“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 … it would be a signal to social services that, if they did not sort out their systems … they would have endless reviews. That would be difficult, expensive and embarrassing”.—[Official Report, 14/1/08; col. GC 396.]
I was most grateful to her for her knowledgeable support.
The negative effects of the two areas our amendments seek to deal with are of such importance that we feel that they can be addressed only through a statutory duty. I beg to move.
I support the principle behind the amendments because these children have already experienced enormous turmoil in their lives. They probably have quite a number of different teachers at school, so the idea of them having to get to know social worker after social worker to deal with their very personal care needs in any particular year is outrageous. If all these amendments can do is to put pressure on local authorities to do their very best to ensure good and sustainable placements in the first place so that children do not have to keep moving, they will have done a good thing. I compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for drawing the Committee’s attention to this problem.
While I have sympathy with the intent of the amendment, I have some concerns about it. I want to free up as much social worker time as possible so that they can actually intervene on behalf of and work with children. Endless reviews with no particular objective are not necessarily the way forward. It might be useful to set it out in statutory guidance that if there were more than three changes of social worker in a year, an independent reviewing officer would have to look at the case and assess whether a special review should take place.
Social workers change for many reasons, so the most important part of this is to research into the reasons for it and what local authorities might do to change the situation. However many reviews there are—and I have lived through what feels like more than 30 years’-worth of this sort of reviewing—unless you are able to use the material from those reviews to find out why their recommendations are not properly put in place to change the system, social workers will continue to feel deeply frustrated. I have pointed out on numerous occasions in these debates that social workers do not necessarily want to change their caseloads—they have nothing but the best intentions for these children—but that often the resources they want are simply not available to enable them to implement a plan which has been made at a review. Until we make absolutely clear the links between planning, resources and implementation—I make no apology for repeating this yet again—however many reviews we have, they will not make a difference to the lives of children. It is therefore vital that we have a way of intervening in and assessing why social workers are changing frequently and that there is a way of collecting that information. However, I would not want to see this become a statutory duty because that would take valuable time away from social work provision by local authorities, which should be used to carry each child’s plan forward.
I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, for bringing this proposal back. These children are often very powerless in their early lives within their families, so their best advocate should be their social worker. That social worker should be given the professional development and support to enable them to be the most effective and efficient advocate for each child in their care. However, that aim is undermined if the individual social worker changes frequently, so this is an important point to hammer home and get sorted out.
I also support my noble friend Lady Howarth in her point about ensuring that detailed information about rates of staff turnover is published as widely as possible. Guidance on this issue should be looked at, so that if anything can be done to improve the situation, it certainly should be done. Moreover, I wonder whether anything could be done through joint area reviews, thus ensuring that inspections take into consideration the turnover rate of social workers for children, or possibly through a thematic review of the provision for children.
I was grateful for a letter from the chief inspector of Ofsted on my previous questions about the role of the inspectorates. There might be a role for them here in identifying our failures in practice and in providing support to improve and raise standards. We have often discussed the model used in Barnet of smaller social work teams with new roles. This keeps experienced people at the front line, supporting their newer colleagues, and thereby improving stability in the workforce. I hope the Minister will feel able to give the amendment some support and I look forward to his response on this question.
I, too, support the amendment. As we all know, it has arisen because there have been far too many cases where something like 30 different social workers have been involved and the outcomes have been appalling. For that reason, the issue is very high on our agenda.
There may well be a way of doing this which does not require a fully statutory commission or group to oversee these matters. My noble friend Lady Howarth is right that it may be possible not only to carry out a review if there are more than three changes, but to make it publicly available. That might or might not satisfy the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton—I do not know—but this is an important issue which is well worth bringing back again at this point.
I apologise for intervening but, for clarification—I am sure that my noble friend did not mean this—it may appear that we are implying that the individual review would be made public. Of course, neither of us meant that children’s confidential information would be made public. It is the aggregated information about why these children are in these circumstances that should be made public.
I find myself in great sympathy with and full of respect for practically everything that has been said by noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It stands to reason that there is no more vulnerable constituency of persons than children in care. If there is one principle that dominates everything else in relation to their welfare, the principle of consistency in their care must come very high on the list.
As a family judge, over the years I saw many instances of a multiplicity of officers responsible for cases. To some extent I regarded the officer as being in loco parentis, on the same level, possibly, as a carer or the matron of a home. Therefore, the uprooting effect of changing that relationship more often than you have to is at the very heart of this problem. I respect very much the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.
Exactly how one deals with the problem is another matter. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that in many cases this has nothing to do with slovenliness or a lack of appreciation for and sympathy with the situation of children; it has much more to do with maternity leave, illness, people having to attend lengthy courses, retirement and so on. Therefore, if one makes the procedure too rigid, one may well be punishing people unnecessarily in adding another wheel, as it were, to the coach. However, if one made some reference to it in statute, not of necessity on the lines of the wording of the amendment—I am sure the noble Baroness would be prepared to consider any improvement of the nature of widening it somewhat and making it less specifically prescriptive—it would have the benefit of becoming a statutory obligation. Social services, often in an impoverished country, would be able to say, “We are not able to carry out that specific statutory obligation”. That is the strength of the argument in favour of a reference in statute—but, as I say, not of necessity within the exact terms of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness.
I support the amendment. My experience of children in care is infinitely less than that of my noble friend Lady Howarth and of many Members of this House, but I have come across enough children to realise the importance for children in care, particularly those who have not had the advantage of a secure attachment in their extreme youth, of the stability and security of a relationship with a reliable and responsible adult.
To touch on the point that I think my noble friend Lady Howarth made about the shortage of resources, there is a need for a quantum increase in available resources so that there are reserves of people who can come in. There are other aspects of the matter. The career structure often moves social workers on just as they are getting to know their clients, and there is room for lateral thinking there too.
I have a brief observation: it occurs to me that sometimes it is necessary to change the social worker because the child is unsatisfied, or perhaps the social worker is not up to that particular job. This debate highlights for me the importance of the need for representative advocacy for children. I am grateful that the Government are introducing the right to an independent advocate when a child has a complaint to make, but this also suggests the need for children to have greater access to advocacy altogether. We must be careful; while we must not demonise social workers, neither should we idealise them. They are not all perfect. A child is dependent on the professionalism of the social worker who is caring for them, so there also needs to be some mechanism for that social worker to be changed if need be. I hope we can bear that in mind when we come again to discussions about advocacy for children later in these considerations.
The Government share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that have given rise to the amendment. We are all concerned about the problems of high vacancy and turnover rates for children’s social workers. These have been consistently too high and we are seeking to reduce them. The vacancy rate stood at 9.5 per cent in 2006 while the turnover rate stood at 9.6 per cent. The vacancy rate is particularly high in regions where the competition for graduates is most intense—in London, for example—and some authorities are very reliant on the use of agency staff. I made all that clear at Second Reading and in Grand Committee. The cause of difference between us is not the underlying problem but whether we should set out further requirements in primary legislation.
On reviews of individual cases, as I set out in Grand Committee, regulations already require reviews of children’s cases at regular intervals. The current legal framework provides for a minimum of three case reviews in the first year in care. After the first year, children’s cases are reviewed at least every six months, but the frequency of reviews prescribed in regulations is only the minimum. I stress that the reviews are not, as the noble Baroness suggested, intended to be cursory; they are intended to be proper reviews, taking account of all the factors that are relevant to the case in question.
Independent reviewing officers can also direct that reviews should be carried out more frequently where that is appropriate; for example, they can direct that reviews be brought forward where there are concerns about the support available to the individual child in care. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked whether we might make it clear in the guidance to independent reviewing officers that instability in the social worker provision for the child could be one of the factors to be taken into account when deciding whether reviews should be taken forward, which would go some way towards meeting the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that the reviews that take place should in any event be aligned with concerns raised about the turnover of social workers. I am prepared to look further at the guidance that we give to IROs to see whether we could make a more explicit reference to social worker changes in triggering reviews by IROs where they consider that that would be appropriate.
Regulations already require local authorities to inform IROs of any significant failure to implement decisions made during a review of the care plan and of any significant change in circumstances after a review. As I said a moment ago, we set out in statutory guidance that IROs should consider calling additional reviews in such circumstances and we are prepared to look at whether that guidance can be strengthened. Furthermore, IROs already have the power to report to senior managers where actions from a review are not being carried out, including in such circumstance where a change in social worker is delaying implementation of decisions made at review.
The Bill will require that the IRO is better equipped to challenge at review meetings poor local authority practice, including in the deployment of social workers. Clause 11, for example, provides for the first time that a named IRO be identified for each child to strengthen continuity for the child and provide better and more consistent oversight of the implementation of the care plan. The IRO will also have to ensure that any views of the child have been ascertained and given due consideration by the local authority. That would include the child’s views on, for example, the impact of changes in the social worker for his or her case.
The regime for reviews in the Bill is therefore strong—significantly stronger than that which was previously in place. It will enable us to tackle social worker turnover by process of review, which is the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. As I have said, we will look further at whether we should strengthen guidance to IROs on the circumstances in which they should call reviews, including issues of social worker turnover as one of the triggers where they believe that that is appropriate.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question to which I am sure I should know the answer. What is the cost or penalty to the local authority if the independent reviewing officer says, “You’re doing a very bad job. You’re letting this child down”? Will such a negative report from the reviewing officer have an impact on the star rating of the local authority?
IROs have the power to report to senior managers where actions from a review are not being carried out. We expect those reports to be taken seriously. If they are not, a further review could lead to action being escalated to a higher level within a local authority, which would have consequences for the managers who had failed to implement actions the first time round.
I thank the Minister for his thorough and thoughtful answer on the amendment and I thank all noble Lords for having taken part in the debate. I know that the Government share our concerns. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will look at strengthening the guidance, which could be one of the ways of addressing the matter, because we are all looking for that principle of consistency of which the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, spoke.
Far from being a review without a reason, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, said, the proposed review would have a specific reason. We would hope that it addressed problems in the system. It would easily ascertain whether it was for a perfectly understandable reason that a social worker was changed; for instance, if they were ill or on maternity leave. In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I say that the last thing that we would want would be to keep a child with a social worker with whom they were unhappy, which would be unforgivable.
I understand the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, but the amendment is our attempt to put in the Bill those anchor points that are missing. The Bill has been much improved by the Government’s changes, but it still lacks those drivers that would ensure that all our concerns are answered. The review could be one of those drivers, but only if it were a statutory duty. I would therefore like to test the opinion of the Committee.
11: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Support for family and friends carers
(1) After section 17B of the 1989 Act (vouchers for persons with parental responsibilities for disabled children) insert—
“17C Support for family and friends carers
(1) This section applies to a person (“P”) who provides full-time care and accommodation for a child but who is not—
(a) a parent of the child, or(b) a local authority foster parent.(2) A local authority shall provide P with the same financial and other support that they provide to foster parents in the following circumstances—
(a) where the child comes to live with P as a result of an order made following an enquiry under section 47;(b) where the child comes to live with P following an investigation under section 37;(c) where P has secured a residence order or special guardianship order in order to avoid the child being looked after, and there is professional evidence of impairment of the parents’ ability to care for the child;(d) where P has obtained a residence order or special guardianship order arising out of care proceedings;(e) where P is providing accommodation for the child and then secures a residence order or special guardianship order.(3) The local authority shall appoint a named person who shall have responsibility for coordinating the provision of support to persons to whom this section applies.”
(2) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 to the 1989 Act (identification of children in need and provision of information), in sub-paragraph (2)(a)(i) for “17,” substitute “14F, 17, 17C,”.”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 and refer briefly to Amendment No. 50. I thank the Minister and his team for their correspondence and for returning to these issues on the well-being of children and their care, particularly care provided by relatives and friends. I realise that this has been a bit of a trial but I think that we are getting somewhere and the Government’s approach is helpful. However, my amendments seek to make things even clearer. To illustrate the implications of the amendments, I shall set out a scenario and ask the Minister some related questions. I am to speak at the launch of a grandparents as carers association in March and, while I am not asking the Minister to write my speech, some signposts would be useful.
This scenario is hypothetical but based on fact. A grandmother—it could be a relative or a friend—takes charge of three of her daughter’s children at midnight because the daughter has died of a drug overdose. The children are aged 10, six and two. The father lives abroad and has disappeared. The grandmother has a one-bedroom flat. Her husband died three years ago. She is 59 and works as a clerical officer in a local firm. She is desperately anxious that the children should not go into care but wonders how she will cope financially and how she and the children will deal with their grief over the death of her daughter. She may be confused about child tax credit and working tax credit. She may even have to pay for childcare out of her own budget. She may have to pay for school meals. She will have to buy clothes, beds and bedding for three children. Many grandparents who take over these responsibilities fear all these things. It seems to me that the government amendment relates only to looked-after children, so would these children being taken over by the grandmother have to go into care before she could access any help? This is the crux of my concern. Would these children have to go into care?
The definition of a local authority foster parent in Section 22C(12) has its problems because a local authority foster parent must have been approved for the purposes of placement. The approval requirement is logical and welcome but approval takes time and it seems from the drafting here that a child may need to be placed elsewhere while the relative or friend is being assessed. I recognise that Section 23(3) allows a placement under the 2002 fostering regulations, which allow the placement of a child with a relative for up to six weeks with limited checks. Does the new definition imply that children being placed under Regulation 38 could not be placed under Section 22C(6)? If provision under Regulation 38 is no longer allowed, the child might have to be placed elsewhere during the assessment process, which is clearly contrary to the best interests of the child. If placement were permissible during assessment, are family and friend carers entitled to the fostering allowance? What happens to the grandmother whom I have described?
A recent ombudsman’s case in Dudley stated that kinship carers should be paid from the start of their assessment. In any case, evidence shows that six weeks is in practice a short time and few authorities manage such an assessment. Could the regulations not extend the period to 12 weeks to make the system more workable? Section 22C(5) contains the words “in their opinion”. Is this sufficiently evidence-based? Would it not be better to have, “the placement which they consider is the most appropriate, having regard to their duties”? I think that Section 22D also needs another look; I know that practitioners find this confusing. There could be a case for saying that any change of placement should be made only following a review, except in emergencies, but that is not what is here or in the government amendments.
Let me return to the grandmother whose hypothetical case I described at the beginning. All this potential confusion applies to her. She is trying to avoid the children going into care, with all that that implies. She needs financial assistance, housing assistance and emotional support. She will be distressed and concerned for the children, and the practitioners dealing with the case may be confused. All of them, but especially the grandparent, need clear and accurate information, which is what proposed new subsection (3) of my amendment asks for. Having a named person in every local authority who can co-ordinate support is essential and I know that some authorities do that. I am not seeking a full-time post, just someone who can step in from day one knowing what to do.
I have one further question: will this legislation link to the new drug strategy? I declare an interest as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. Many relative and friend carers are carers because of substance misuse and I hope that what appears in the Bill will be picked up in other government policy.
We have said before in Committee that a family group conference, as in Amendment No. 12, is essential to ensuring that the child’s best interests are looked after. Insecurity for children is a terrible thing. I know that in this House we are all trying to do the best for children, which is why we are spending so much time and effort on redrafting. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I thank him for the steps that have been taken so far. I am grateful to the Family Rights Group and to other organisations that take very seriously their concern for children. I beg to move.
I support the amendment, particularly in relation to payment for kinship care. I have had huge experience of the wide variety of practices between local authorities in determining whether certain family members should be made foster parents. There are criteria in all local authorities for their particular fostering schemes, which are obviously made for stranger foster carers. Some local authorities apply those same standards to kinship care, where there are clearly different criteria. The physical amenities may not be the same as you might be looking at in a stranger situation, but the children concerned will be used to what their grandparents are able to provide. We recognise that the emotional security that they will be given will be far greater than any material gain but what is important is that the welfare needs of the children are met. Therefore I agree with my noble friend Lady Massey—I am not sure whether I am allowed to call her my noble friend as she sits on a different Bench, but I will do so—that it is vital that we pay grandparents appropriately right from the beginning of the child’s sojourn with them.
I recognise that there is an issue about whether the state should interfere in family life and that there are certain circumstances in which families will wish to care for the children who have come into their care without necessarily being given financial or other assistance. Those families simply will not ask for it. I became the unlikely founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Grandparents and Extended Kin, simply because I listened to the stories of dozens of families who from the heart told of losing their grandchildren to stranger foster parent placements because they did not met the criteria of the local authority; and yet they cared deeply and passionately for their grandchildren. I think that the Government want to prevent that happening where they can give appropriate care, but to do so they need to make sure that there is emotional and financial support at the right time. Therefore, I support the amendment.
I too support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, because I have met so many grandparents and members of the family who are not perhaps directly blood-related but who take on this task. They sometimes do it when children are presented to them at the most inconvenient times of the day or night because they are desperately keen to look after the children and stop them being taken into care.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the Minister talked about the shortage of social workers in some areas, the fast turnover and the use of agency staff. When money is very short and the social workers are not terribly knowledgeable about the children that they are working with, there is a risk that it is very convenient just to say, “Thank goodness; these children are now with the grandparent or relative and we don’t have to bother about money here. We are okay; we can leave them with these relatives”. Stories such as the hypothetical case mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the many real cases that many of us know of, demonstrate the horrible difficulties and problems that many grandparents and relatives face, particularly with severely disabled children or children who have suffered a great deal and have had a lot of problems in their lives.
There really ought to be presumed suitability in the case of a relative, who has to be shown not to be suitable, rather than the other way round. For that reason, I strongly support the noble Baroness.
My name is on this amendment also. I should like to ask my noble friend some financial questions that I suspect he might be predicting. What financial help would be available to the grandparents, as outlined by my noble friend Lady Massey? At the point at which children come for an extended stay grandparents will need some lump-sum money for bunk beds, bedding and above all clothes and all the other things that they will not have. That should mean that they ought to have access to and be eligible for a lump-sum payment from the Social Fund—a community grant. I bet that they do not get it. They certainly should. Can my noble friend confirm whether they will be eligible? I realise that this spills over into a different department; none the less, if he cannot answer today, perhaps his officials can write to us. Are such grandparents eligible for a lump sum—£1,000, £500 or whatever—to meet the immediate financial needs of the children?
Secondly, the grandmother will probably be in her later 50s, will probably be in work and will have to stop work. What access to an income in lieu will she have if she takes on the children under the scenario of my noble friend? While she was in work national insurance payments were being made towards her pension. Since 2003, as a foster carer, she is automatically eligible for a national insurance contribution towards her pension; but by being a good grandmother and taking on these children, without that status, is she now sacrificing some of her eligibility towards a pension? I suspect that she is. She should not be and we should do something about it.
Thirdly, in terms of an income in lieu, will she get income support as well as financial support for the children? Almost certainly not, if she has a spouse who is in work, even though the children will impose an additional financial responsibility. Fourthly, will the grandparents get guardian’s allowance? That allowance was designed for physical orphans. These children may be moral orphans or semi-orphans. This is now a responsibility of HMRC. The grandparents should be eligible for such an allowance; will they get it? I doubt it, but they ought to. Will my noble friend take it up?
A fifth element of financial support should be available—the childcare tax credit—which, if those children were being cared for by the next-door neighbour, would be paid to that neighbour. If they were being looked after by the grandparent, the grandparent almost certainly would not be paid. Can my noble friend confirm that the grandparent who should get that money probably is not getting it but probably ought to?
Finally, there is the child tax credit. That is a supplement to income which normally follows the child benefit book and which may take up to six weeks to materialise. If we are dealing with a long stay with grandparents, that may be fine but if children are staying six weeks there and six weeks back with their parents until the relationship breaks down for whatever reason—addiction, poor mental health, or whatever—then childcare tax credits or child tax credits can almost never catch up with the rights and the needs of the grandparents.
Potentially, there are five or six streams of income which ought to be available to grandparents, ranging from a lump sum from the Social Fund, to national insurance protection for their pension, to guardian's allowance, to income support, to childcare tax credit and to child tax credit itself. In my view, grandparents ought to be eligible for each and every one of those, except in so far as they are overlapping benefits. I bet they do not receive any of them. Therefore, I ask my noble friend to take away the issue of financial support for grandparents, particularly in the very difficult situation where the children may fluctuate between parents and grandparents. We know that grandparents will hang on in with children who may be difficult, disturbed or challenging as a result of their parents’ experience in a way in which foster parents may not. They may be the only source of stability to see those children through to responsible adulthood.
I too strongly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. As the incoming president of the Grandparents’ Association, I support the comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Massey, about grandparents.
I want to alert the Minister to a totally different group of people. I mentioned this factual example in Grand Committee. A middle-aged woman, who has grown-up children, is a friend of a young woman who has taken to drink and drugs. Her little girl, who has been befriended by my friend, is in grave danger because of her mother's inability to cope because of drink and drugs, so my friend is asked by social services to take the child home and look after her. She is not related to the child or to the mother, but she takes on the child. She was prepared to be a foster parent but was persuaded not to be; she was persuaded to take a residence order which the local authority and the mother supported; she was persuaded not to apply to be a special guardian; and she was told a few days before the hearing that she would not receive any maintenance for the child because she did not come within the requirements of the local authority. I know that she is receiving, and has not questioned it, a relatively small sum of money to help her with childcare so that she can keep her job. The money can be stopped at any moment because she has not been told why she is getting it or for how long and it is not the foster carer’s amount.
If that can happen to her, how many other women or men in this country take on the care of a child at the request of a local authority, and are pushed down the residence route only to find that although having a residence order with the support of the local authority they will not receive a penny? That is why this amendment is so very important. It seems to me that proposed new subsection (2)(c), which states,
“where P has secured a residence order … in order to avoid the child being looked after”,
is exactly the position of my friend. Proposed new paragraph (e) states,
“where P is providing accommodation for the child and then secures a residence order”.
My friend comes under both of those proposed new paragraphs. The current government amendments, which seem to me to be admirable as far as they go—I strongly support many of the government amendments tabled which are very thoughtful—do not cope with grandparents or with those who take over the care of a child, get a residence order and are then left without support which puts them in danger of not keeping their jobs and going on to social benefit. Is that what we want? This is a very sensible amendment and I hope that the Government will consider it seriously.
I want to express the support of these Benches for Amendments Nos. 11 and 12. We have spoken at some length now on Amendment No. 11 and about grandparents. I am very pleased indeed that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has made the point that others, including family and friends, are involved here. Often in an emergency they take on responsibility for a child, take them into their homes, and look after them and because they are not officially looked-after children in the eyes of local authorities, they receive no remuneration whatever.
This is a similar amendment to one that we tabled in Grand Committee. On that occasion we were trying to extend the definition of “in need” in Section 17(10) of the Children Act 1989. This amendment is more straightforward, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has pointed out. It seems to us that proposed new subsection (2)(a) to (e) sets out very well the circumstances under which the person concerned is seen to be de facto the carer. It is a very sensible way of tackling the obvious inequality and we support the amendment.
Amendment No. 12 covers a different issue and deals with family group conferences. We discussed this at some length in Grand Committee. It fell in the very first group of amendments and we had an extensive discussion about the importance and the desirability of family placements and the value of family group conferences. The government revisions to Clauses 7 to 10, which emphasise the importance of placement with family or friends, reflect some of the discussion that we had at that time. On family group conferences, we on these Benches were much influenced by the two contributions in that debate from the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Murphy, to the effect that family group conferences, while a valuable tool, are not always the appropriate tool to use.
In his response the Minister echoed those words, making it clear that while the department was anxious to see it offered in appropriate circumstances and while it was extending training and support to that effect, it was a complex service to provide and requires high levels of skill and competence. However, the Minister made it clear that new guidance has been issued which puts emphasis on the importance of involving family and friends in decision-making and care plans. For our part, we were persuaded that for the moment the department is doing what it can to carry that through. In so far as it is not, it is back to the same old problem; namely, that we are not seeing practice on the ground reflecting the guidance received. Issuing more guidance does not seem to us to be the right thing to do at this moment.
We strongly supported amendments in Grand Committee to provide a framework for family and friends carers, and we are happy to do so again today. It is time that we gave family and friends carers better support, particularly when they may be taking on more than one child and—as we heard—at very short notice.
I have a couple of points on the more general issue of kinship care. If it is not possible, after every effort has been made, to keep a child with their parents, then kinship care or care from a friend must be the next best thing. Sadly, such care is underused because too many local authorities have a presumption against family members looking after these children. That is a particularly poignant fact at a time when there is an estimated shortage of 10,000 foster carers in the country. In Grand Committee I mentioned Hampshire, which has a wonderful track record of kinship care. Unfortunately, there is no recognition of this valuable service. Given that the Minster has said that this is a vital issue, will he consider making it a key performance indicator?
We sought to address the issue of family group conferences by opening the Grand Committee proceedings with an amendment on early intervention. However, as our amendment was not without its technical deficiencies—no change there—we have not brought it back. We are nevertheless pleased to support this amendment. We have always felt that every effort should be made to keep families together, to prevent children going into care in the first place. Success in early intervention is good not just for the child and family in question but for the care system as a whole, freeing up already limited resources to be used more effectively elsewhere. It really is “invest to save”, both in terms of money and human outcome.
I, too, enthusiastically support the amendment; the case has been put very trenchantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, drawing on their vast experience from different fields. The rigidity of the present arrangements makes it extremely difficult for very worthy and very anxious people who are well placed to assist a child, because, for the reasons articulated, they are unable to give that assistance. Anything that removes such barriers would be of immense importance and significance to the welfare of children.
There is a narrower point as well. I appreciate that this is an amendment to Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and that it therefore deals with children who are looked after rather than children in care. However, it is perfectly obvious that where a local authority is looking around for potential carers in order to avoid making a care order, then the more people that there are in the former category, the better are the chances of avoiding the necessity of making a care order. As far as a child is concerned, the nearer to their natural circumstances they can be given assistance, the better it is for them; the further away, the less advantageous it is.
For those reasons I support everything that has been said—and said so trenchantly—by those who have taken part, and I support the amendment.
I was thinking that we were on Report and that I could not speak to the amendment again, but then I realised that we are in Committee again. I realised that I had not turned over a page, and it is really quite an important page. I was going to go on to say that the Minister said that the legislative framework to which the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred, already exists in the Children Act 1989. Local authorities already have a duty under Section 17 to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. I do not believe in legislation for legislation’s sake. If there is a perfectly good existing power, we should not pass another law. However, I just wonder whether the existing law is not too broad and whether a specific duty might go some way to encouraging what we all agree is a good thing. Family group conferences are important in their own right and an obvious first step, rather than just being an option in a menu of care provision. Specific primary legislation might go some way to ensuring that that occurs.
We fully share the concerns expressed to enable as many children as possible to remain at home with their birth family and to enable more children who cannot live at home to be cared for by family and friends. Similarly, we share a commitment to improve the support available to all those who care for vulnerable children, including relatives and friends, and to enable families to play a key role in decision-making where that is safe and practicable. We are investing significant extra resources in this area to enable local authorities to make a wider range of services available.
I turn to Amendment No. 12. As I said in Grand Committee, Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area through the provision of a range and level of services appropriate to fulfilling those children’s needs. There is also a particular duty under Section 17 of that Act to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just noted.
We debated family group conferences at some length in Grand Committee, and some of that debate was taken up with considering the merits or otherwise of using primary legislation to highlight a particular service or to drive practice on the ground. The purpose of the 1989 Act has never been to prescribe particular services in other than the broadest terms. We are wary of doing so because such prescription could easily appear exclusive to practitioners. However, family group conferences are specifically commended in the revised Children Act 1989 statutory guidance on court orders and are included in the practice flowchart. In all applications for care proceedings, local authorities will be required to show what efforts have been made to enable the child to live with wider family and friends. A family group conference would be an excellent means for a local authority to demonstrate how it has fulfilled this duty. We expect the use of such conferences to increase in future.
On Amendment No. 50, it is right to raise the issue of ensuring that we use the most effective interventions in our work with the most vulnerable children and families.
I wondered why the noble Baroness was in her place but did not speak to her amendment. I thought that she might expect me to give a reply anyway, since it was in this group. However, she has reduced my task significantly because the next few pages of my speaking notes can wait until the noble Baroness brings her amendment back.
I turn to Amendment No. 11. As I said in Grand Committee, the Government are committed to making significant improvements in support for family and friends carers. We hope that this will reduce the numbers going into care, as my noble friend Lady Massey wanted to see. She can tell the meetings that she will address later that it is our intention that local authorities should provide an enhanced range of services precisely to avoid the need for children to go into care when they would not need to if they had appropriate family and friends support.
However, we cannot support the amendment as drafted. It would require local authorities to treat any person who is not a parent but is caring for a child in the circumstances set out in proposed new subsection (2) as if they were a local authority foster parent with whom the child had been placed by the authority under Section 23 of the Children Act 1989. This would be the case even if the local authority had had no prior involvement with the child or his or her family, even if the local authority considered the placement to be unsuitable or had concerns about the carer’s capacity to care for the child.
The carer’s entitlement to financial and other support under this provision would not depend on any assessment either of the carer’s needs or of those of the child. It would not allow the local authority to take into account the means of the carer or the parents and could impose on local authorities a duty to provide financial support for what is, in essence, a private fostering arrangement. The local authority would be obliged to assume financial responsibility for a care arrangement that it would have little power to police, and where it had no particular duty to ensure that the arrangements promoted and safeguarded the child’s welfare and no continuing duty to rehabilitate with parents. The local authority would have no power to interfere in any way with the arrangements that the carer makes for the child, even if it considered that those arrangements were not in the child’s best interests, unless it obtained a court order. The carer could pick and choose the support they wished to accept from the authority—for example, accepting the financial payments but refusing social work support either for themselves or the child.
The law imposes on local authorities specific duties to those whom they have approved as foster carers, because authorities have taken responsibility for the care of the child and they rely on foster carers to perform the practical daily aspects of that care. For similar reasons, foster carers are controlled and regulated and the local authority can impose sanctions if foster carers fail in their trust. These related powers and responsibilities flow from the fact that the local authority has a particular legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child it looks after.
However, family and friends carers are already able to access a range of support under existing legislation, including both special guardianship and residence order allowances. Through the Bill we are amending the Children Act 1989 to add to this. I have already mentioned that we are seeking through Clause 21 of the Bill to amend Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to extend local authorities’ powers to provide financial support to promote the upbringing of children in need by their families. By removing the existing restriction that allows such support to be made only in exceptional circumstances, we will enable local authorities to provide financial assistance on a longer-term basis where they are satisfied that doing so would promote the child’s welfare—including, I stress, services for grandparents. So the Bill makes a significant move in the direction set out by my noble friend and supported by the noble Lords.
Further, family and friends carers have similar entitlements to those of a parent who cares for a child. There is a range of financial support, such as child benefit and child tax credit, both of which are unaffected by any payments made under either the existing Section 17 of the 1989 Act or the extended Section 17 that we propose in our amendments. Carers can qualify for other benefits on broadly the same terms as parents and, if they are bringing up a child on their own and are unable to work, they may claim income support on the same basis as other lone parents.
My noble friend Lady Hollis asked me about the eligibility requirements. As there is no greater expert in the House on these issues than my noble friend, I certainly do not feel equipped to reply precisely, benefit by benefit. However, I undertake to write to her setting out those issues and, in particular, responding to the concern which I know underpins her question, which relates not to formal eligibility but to the arrangements that we are making to promote uptake by carers who may not be the birth parents of the children in question.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for that response and his promise of a letter to me. I simply ask him to take on board that family or kinship carers who take on responsibility are entitled to the same benefits and support as parents, including child benefit and child tax credit. Can he check for us how speedily the child benefit book, and therefore child tax credits, can flow to another adult with responsibility? He is right that in the longer term that can happen but, to my knowledge, it can often be six or eight weeks or more before the money is obtained, by which time the child may be ready to go back again, and each time the grandparents are severely hurt financially. Therefore, will he consider what might be described as a bridging or temporary arrangement to ensure that the financial support is relatively seamless?
I fully take on board the point made by my noble friend. I shall certainly look into the issues that she raised and report back to her and other noble Lords on the current arrangements and on any plans that we have to improve the efficiency of transfers of payments between those who have responsibility for looking after children. I entirely agree that it is vital that those who have the real responsibility should be able to access as speedily as possible the resources to which they are entitled and which they need for that job.
I hope that, as ever, my noble friend thinks that we are going some way towards meeting her concerns. She is always keen for us to go further and I take to heart the points that she made about the promotion of a better and wider range of support services. I believe that we are moving in the direction that she wishes. We may not be moving as fast as she would have wished but we are at least going in the right direction.
Will the amendment to Section 17 promoted by the Government include non-kinship? I gave the example of a friend who takes over the care of a child. Will the deletion of exceptional circumstances, making it possible for maintenance to be given to a family, also apply to friends who take on the care in the circumstances that I outlined?
Supplementary to that, will individual local authorities find themselves making very different decisions so that whether a person receives these benefits through the local authority will be a matter of a postcode lottery? If there is a danger of that happening, will the Minister look at what guidance will be given under the new Section 17?
It will probably be best if I write to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, setting out the precise circumstances rather than committing myself at the Dispatch Box to the range of additional services that the amendments to Section 17 would provide for. We hope that the resources that we are providing will enable all local authorities to enhance their provision in this area. I accept that the precise range of services supported will depend on decisions by local authorities but, as ever, that is subject to guidance by my department, and we try to see that there is as little of a postcode lottery as possible in this area.
Can the Minister comment on my question concerning whether kinship care could become a key performance indicator? Councils such as Hampshire find themselves in the perverse situation of missing out on other targets because not as many children in their area are being adopted or put in long-term foster placements. However, they are doing the very best that they can for those children and that is not being recognised. Can he look seriously at that issue?
I thank the Minister for his response, which I think included a number of good things. I also thank those who have spoken in this debate passionately and with great experience. The number of supplementary questions will indicate that there are still some issues about which I, for one, am not entirely clear. I have two remaining concerns. First, will kinship carers, relative carers, friends carers or grandparents carers, or whatever we call them, understand all this and, secondly, will the professionals understand it? I think that the issue needs to be spelt out almost in words of one syllable.
I should also like to do some sums and find out, perhaps with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, exactly how much we are talking about here. What is the total amount that the kinship carer can receive, including all the benefits—if they exist and if there is no postcode lottery, which I know there is? We need to find out whether it is equivalent to a foster carer’s allowance, although I suspect that it is not.
Bearing all that in mind, will the Minister agree to meet those of us in the Chamber today who are concerned about these issues in order to clarify with a fine-tooth comb exactly what this all means and how it can be expressed so that people understand it?
The noble Lord does not need to move anything because the Question has already been indicated from the Chair. Therefore, subject to his wishes, I would expect him to speak to whether this clause should stand part of the Bill and, as it is grouped, to speak also to Clause 8, for which I will put the Question to the Committee later.
I am very grateful. That makes it clear what I am doing. In essence, I am speaking to the government amendments that will replace Clauses 7 to 10 and 30. These government amendments concern the duties on local authorities in respect of the placement of looked-after children. They follow concerns raised in Grand Committee and by stakeholders about the interrelationship between different duties in the Bill with regard to different types of carers and different considerations, including locality and the proximity to a child’s existing place of education, which are to be taken into account in making residential placements.
I stress to the Committee that the changes involved here are not as great as might be thought from the volume of amendments. However, we thought it right to restate the entirety of the provisions on this issue in the form of a new clause and schedule in the Bill replacing existing Clauses 7 to 10 and 30. The new clause requires a local authority to make arrangements for a child it is looking after to live with its parents or other person with parental responsibility where that is consistent with the child’s welfare. This reflects the principle that state intervention in family life should be kept to the minimum necessary to protect the child from harm. This provision simply restates the existing law as set out in the Children Act 1989. However, where placement with parents is not in the child’s best interests, the local authority should place the child in the most appropriate placement available. The local authority’s determination of the most appropriate placement is subject to a number of considerations.
First and foremost, subsection (7) requires that all the considerations, whether to do with proximity, out-of-area placements or any other consideration, should be taken in accordance with the local authority’s other duties under Part 3 of the 1989 Act, in particular its duties under Section 22 to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare and to ascertain and give due consideration to the child’s wishes and feelings and those of other relevant persons. This brings together into a single test the separate tests set out in existing Clauses 7 to 10. We believe that this is the correct way to ensure that placement decisions are made in the child’s best interests as set out in Care Matters. It also reflects the views expressed by noble Lords when we debated this issue in Grand Committee.
Noble Lords commented in particular on the duty in Clause 8 relating to placing children within a local authority’s own area and to the different test that would apply in that case from the other tests set out in Clauses 7 to 10. The new clause applies a single consistent test; namely, that any decision and consideration of all factors relating to it should lead to the most appropriate placement that safeguards and promotes the welfare of the child in question. I stress that it is not sufficient for a local authority placement simply to be consistent with a child’s welfare. Under the clause as now drafted it must be the most appropriate placement that safeguards and promotes the child’s welfare. We believe that is the right position for the law to take.
However, the placement options under the new clause are unchanged. They include, first, placement with a relative, friend or other person connected with the child. We recognise that placements of this nature may not in every case be in the interests of the child. However, the law should encourage local authorities to consider the use of family and friends placements first. It is important to make clear, as the clause does, that children in this position should continue to be looked after by the local authority. The carer must be approved as a local authority foster carer and must be provided with support, including financial support, in accordance with the criteria that apply to all other foster carers. That meets the point that also caused concern among noble Lords: that where family members are designated as the appropriate foster carer they are not receiving the allowances to which they should be entitled. Beyond family and friends, the clause sets out placement options as a foster carer previously unconnected to the child, placement in a registered children’s home or other arrangements, such as supported lodgings or independent accommodation. All these placement options are the same as those set out in Section 23 of the 1989 Children Act.
The local authority must also ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable and in line with its overall duties that I have described that apply under the 1989 Act, the placement allows the child to live near his home, does not disrupt his education, enables the child to live with a sibling who is also being looked after by the local authority and, if the child is disabled, has accommodation suitable to his needs. An additional requirement is set out in subsections (7)(c) and (9) which the local authority must observe: it must accommodate the child within its area unless that is not reasonably practicable. However, I stress that that is subject to the overriding duty under the 1989 Act to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child.
As we have made clear in previous debates, the Government are committed to reducing the number of inappropriate out-of-authority placements, hence these new provisions. There are concerns about the quality of placement supervision, the co-ordination of services for children placed out of authority and the poorer outcomes for this group, hence the changes we are making under new subsection (9), although we are continuing to look at whether there should be a further explicit provision requiring local authorities effectively to plan to have a range of local accommodation available alongside the new provision, which responds to the concern raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.
Clause 9 introduced a new duty to place a child near to his school, preventing unnecessary school moves, with particular significance attached to school moves in the run-up to GCSE, when the impact on educational attainment is perhaps most significant. In response to concerns raised in Grand Committee about the definition of a school and whether it embraced a further education establishment, in new Section 22C this requirement has been rephrased as a duty to ensure that placements do not disrupt the child’s education. The advantage of this approach is that it is not specifically tied to particular educational establishments. The duty to avoid disrupting the child’s education will apply equally to children studying at FE colleges as to children in schools, which addresses a particular concern raised in Grand Committee.
New Section 22D restates Clause 10, which provided that if the local authority is considering moving a child from a placement with parents, local authority foster care or a children's home, which are all regulated and well supported placements, to another type of accommodation, such as unsupported lodgings or a hostel, it must undertake a full, statutory review of the child’s case, chaired by an independent reviewing officer, before making a decision.
We are convinced that the approach contained in the revised clause will allow local authorities to make effective placement decisions focused on the needs of the individual child. The detail of these requirements on local authorities will be fleshed out in the revised Children Act 1989 guidance and in the regulations, for which further provision is made in new paragraphs 12A to 12F to be inserted in Part 2 of Schedule 2 that will set out the detailed arrangements.
I believe that the arrangements set out in the revised clause meet the will of the House more effectively than the original provisions and get the balance that we are rightly seeking to achieve between taking full consideration of issues to do with proximity, education and locality in placement decisions made with respect to children with the overriding duty of local authorities to see that any placements safeguard and promote their welfare.
This new clause, which draws together the different issues that a local authority must take into account when placing a child, is broadly welcome and responds to a number of our concerns in Grand Committee, not least how to translate strategy into action on the ground. We are very pleased to see the emphasis on a placement allowing a child to live near home with a sibling and that arrangements must not be made if they are not consistent with the child’s welfare or will disrupt his education, although we feel strongly that they should also not disrupt any training being undertaken by a young person. We welcome the provision that accommodation for a disabled child or young person must be suitable for his needs.
While we appreciate the effort to change this part of the Bill to provide clarity and a greater responsibility for the promotion of welfare and safety, we still have some questions about how this will translate into an effective mechanism for deciding on the best placement for a child. Can the Minister explain what happens when a number of issues that affect a placement come into conflict? Disabled care versus location might be answered, but what if location might be a risk to a child's safety for other factors, such as abuse? Will there be a mechanism in place for guidance on these issues? How much will local authorities be allowed to exercise their own judgment in placements under these prescriptions?
New Clause 22C (5) states that:
“If a local authority is unable to make a placement under subsection (2), they must place”—
“in the placement which is, in their opinion, the most appropriate placement available”.
Should not that be the most appropriate in terms of the child's welfare? There seems to be no restriction on what constitutes “appropriate”.
We recognise that the aim of the changes was to bring the welfare of the child to the foreground in decision-making, but should there not be a proviso here as well? Once again, we want to be absolutely certain that what is driving the placement is the welfare of the child and to be sure that there is no loophole to allow local authorities to place a child somewhere for reasons not exclusively concerned with welfare. That is a most important subsection, as it governs what will happen in extreme cases.
New Section 22C(6) defines what is a placement and, in a list of four definitions, as the Minister said, includes, in paragraph (a) relatives and friends, in paragraph (b) a local authority foster parent, in paragraph (c) a children's home, and in paragraph (d) any other placement that conforms to regulations. The issue here is the status of the friends and relatives under the subsection. The amendment states that a placement can mean a
“placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with C and who is also a local authority foster parent”.
When we queried that, the Bill team said that that subsection applies to relatives and friends who are not yet approved as local authority foster parents—that they could have a child placed with them and then be registered as a foster parent—but that is manifestly not reflected in the text of the amendment. As it stands, it makes it compulsory for a relative or friend to be a local authority foster parent before the placement can be made. If that is not the case, the amendment should be altered to reflect that.
I also ask the Minister about the list of preferences. Does the local authority have a duty to place a child with family and friends first? I most sincerely hope that it does, as that goes to the heart of much what we have been discussing. If the list is designed to be in order of preference, the amendment does not make that clear, as it simply defines what a placement could be.
The new clause raises so many questions that I could be here all day. I hope that other noble Lords will cover areas that I have not, or perhaps we could bring forward amendments on Report, after considering the Minister’s comments. However, in one area I seek assurance from the Minister. The Integrated Children's Services Development Group has asked for a clear guarantee—we are happy to ask this for it—that children with acute and complex needs will be able to receive the most appropriate care placement, including an out-of-area specialist setting where that is necessary.
I shall raise something completely different. I have a small but, I think, significant amendment to the set of new clauses. I find myself nodding sympathetically to my friend on the Opposition Benches on many issues, but that is not what I am going to talk about.
I want to talk about Amendments Nos. 62 and 63, which are about placing children with carers who are of the same religion. I want to add, “or of no religion”. I would prefer that there were no reference to religion in the Bill, but here it is. I must declare an interest as patron of the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. When a large number of people in this country profess no religious belief and do not attend any place of worship, they cannot be discounted. I therefore think that the words, “or none”, should be included and should be standard parlance when we talk about religion in any legal document.
When I sat on the Religious Offences Select Committee, we were very careful to respect the rights and feelings of those who professed no religion. We should do so again here. I commend the amendments.
I welcome the Government’s recognition of the particular needs of disabled children and young people in new Section 22C(8)(d) in the amendment. However, I am concerned that without specific measures to promote the development of a range of local provision, disabled young people will continue to be routinely placed far from home in expensive placements.
The provision that states that local authorities should place children and young people in their local area where “reasonably practicable” will mean that disabled children will continue to be placed out-of-authority. That will continue the trend for disabled children to be placed a long way from their families. The further away from home a disabled child is placed, the harder it is for their parents and friends to visit and the more isolated they become. We know that that also increases their vulnerability to abuse. Local and regional commissioners should be required to plan future services to meet that need within the local region wherever possible.
I welcome the Minister's commitments in Committee to encourage a range of suitable quality accommodation within each local authority area, but I am keen that there are practical methods to ensure that that happens.
I am most grateful to the Minister for explaining to us these significant new amendments. I am also grateful to the Bill team for dashing over here on our last sitting day, when the amendments were laid 10 minutes before I left your Lordships' House, to explain it all to me. I am not grateful to them for ruining my half-term holiday. However, if this produces legislation that is better for children, that will have been a sacrifice well worth making.
Many questions occur to me and I am very grateful that we have come back into Committee to give us the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill, with an opportunity to come back at Report with some amendments. That has already been referred to. The Minister wrote to us about the amendment. First, on page 2 of his letter, he went to the heart of what he mentioned a few moments ago, which is that, wherever placement with parents or others with parental responsibility is not possible, the local authority should place the child in the most appropriate placement available. His letter stated:
“i.e. the one that it believes will best promote and safeguard the child's welfare”.
I consider that to be a very significant phrase. Will that be consistent with doing everything possible to get the child back with its family, where that is also consistent with the child's welfare? Will the Government issue anything in guidance to ensure that that is also at the forefront of consideration of what placement is the most appropriate for the child?
On page 3 of the Minister's letter, he listed the criteria that appear in new Section 22C(8): the placement must allow the child to live near the home, must not disrupt the child's education, must allow the child to live with the sibling if possible if that sibling is also in care, that the child's disabled accommodation is suitable for their needs and is within the local authority’s area. That sounds a lot like a hierarchy. I do not believe that it is meant to be a hierarchy; it would be most helpful to all Members of the Committee if the Minister would make it quite clear from the Dispatch Box in reply to this debate that it is not.
Inevitably, there will be tensions where there is a conflict between those various criteria. Can the Minister say something about how social workers will make those decisions about which of the criteria is the most important in terms of the child’s best interests and welfare? In the end, the decision about what is the most appropriate placement will be a professional decision by the social worker, as it should be, but the social worker will have guidance from the Government, of which they will have to take notice. A little more clarification of how the Government envisage that that will work would be helpful.
I go back to the second of those criteria, which the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned, which is that the placement does not disrupt the child's education. The Minister has clearly listened to the debate and concerns expressed in Grand Committee. I am pleased that he has, because now we are not just talking about schools, but the disruption of education. Given that we have the Education and Skills Bill going through another place at the moment, which is trying to keep children in compulsory education until they are 18, I am very surprised that the Minister's amendment just states “education”, not training as well, although the way that it has been phrased allows for education being carried out in a college of further education as well as a school. What about training in the workplace, which I believe is to be covered by the Education and Skills Bill, for 16 to 18 year-olds who will have to stay compulsorily in education? Why only these criteria? Where does health come in the set of competing criteria that must be taken into account? It would be helpful if the Minister could say something about that.
I have another question about not disrupting a child’s education. Will the decision whether to move the child’s educational establishment be holistic? In other words, will there be consideration not only of the academic aspect but of whether the child is happy? A move might be a good idea because a placement at another school might give the child a better academic opportunity, but the child’s existing school might have the most brilliant football training and all the child ever wants is to become a professional footballer. As long as the child is getting an adequate education, there should be that consideration.
Page 4 of the Minister’s letter refers to children who move out of care into what are called “other arrangements”, and to the fact that the local authority,
“must undertake a statutory review of the child’s case”.
Will the Minister confirm that this means independent, or supported independent, living? If it does, will he clarify that that will take a child up to the age of 18? In other words, will there be a review if these “other arrangements”, up to when the child is 18, break down? In addition, I echo the call for the Minister to say how the duty in proposed new Section 22C(5) interacts with the child’s best interests. It would be helpful to know.
Finally, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said about the importance of ensuring that local authorities proactively develop more and sufficiently diverse resources locally for children with special needs. There is a lot of very good practice out there. People are very imaginative in putting together packages of support for children with disabilities that will prevent them having to go miles away from home, making it difficult for their parents to visit them and therefore putting them in a vulnerable position. In some cases, it prevents them going into care at all. This good practice needs to be studied and developed. Local authorities really need a positive duty to be put on them to ensure that there is a range of provision, if not in one local authority then in a group of local authorities, very close to each other, that make arrangements together—some sort of regional arrangement that will ensure that children with disabilities are not the only ones whose parents have to travel miles if they want to see, support and protect them.
I would like to place on record my warm appreciation of the Minister’s response to what was argued in Grand Committee. I think we are all aware that he is a listening Minister, and it is absolutely clear from the amendments and the very full and courteous letters that he has written to us that he has listened very carefully indeed and has tried to respond as positively as possible. This is almost exemplary conduct by a Minister, if I may say so.
However, I urge the Minister, having established so clearly that the Government share the concerns and commitments of all those who work with children and who have submitted so much considered material on the Bill, to take very seriously indeed the outstanding issues and to put on record as firmly as possible his support for the points that have been made in the House on the amendment. Having made that general point, I shall pick out a couple of points.
First, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, has argued strongly and passionately that the driving force must be the welfare of the child. None of us could dissent from that, but it is more than that; it is being absolutely certain that the child is being treated not as an object but as a person in their own right, and that their integrity and wishes are taken fully into account at all times. With all the pressures that operate, that can so easily become theory rather than practice. It is tremendously important to work at ensuring that the child’s own wishes are listened to carefully. This can be illustrated by considering what happens when making special arrangements for accommodation. Of course the security and the well-being of the child are absolutely fundamental, but in a disrupted life it is terribly important to make a priority what the child sees as significant in their relationships so that there is as little disruption as possible in the general context in which those arrangements are made.
I finish by making an observation that cannot be made too often. Yes, we are encouraging local authorities to provide more resources, but there is a bill attached to this. It has been heart-warming to hear the positive attitudes from all parts of the House towards this and related matters. I just hope that, in debates in council chambers up and down the country on expenditure, the level of rates and the rest, that same consensus will hold firm and that there will be the same strong voice from all quarters, saying, “These are priorities, which must be supported”. This is not only about the Government ensuring that the arrangements are there to turn aspirations into practice but about ensuring that the body politic at the local as well as the national level wills the means as well as the ends.
Unlike the proposed new clause before Clause 7 that we discussed earlier, this group of amendments is a form of replacement therapy; it proposes to remove Clauses 7 to 10 altogether and replace them with a single clause. It is also separately proposed to remove Clause 30 and to reinstate it in a schedule to the new clause. We are therefore dealing with quite a substantial change. I favour this approach, but even though we are largely incorporating into the Bill provisions that already exist in Section 23 of the Children Act 1989, it is still important that we as legislators are content with the wording of the proposed new clause, which we intend to become the law of the land, particularly as I am sure that we will be asked why, instead of amending Section 23 of the 1989 Act as the Government proposed, we are now proposing a new provision in substitution of that section.
We know from earlier discussions in Committee and more widely that some noble Lords and others concerned with the well-being and the placement of looked-after children asked a good number of questions as a result of the proposed amendment of the Act—in particular, about the potential for conflict between the provisions and the impact of the new duties on local authority practice. It is said from time to time that, in any event, the interpretation of Section 23 has led to some difficulties. I do not know whether that it is true, but it is said.
The more radical solution of restating the provisions of Section 23 in order to clarify the effect of the new duties and their relation with each other is a good decision. Of course, it is still necessary for us to make sure that the points to which we attached importance earlier in Committee are covered in the proposed new clause to be inserted after Clause 10.
I am very keen that we should do everything we can in legislation to make the placement of looked-after children satisfactory and, if possible, stable. Looking at the elements of the proposed new clause, first, I am content with the placement options in proposed new Section 22C(6), which are taken from the previous legislation. Secondly, I am very keen that the conditions applicable to the placement of a child should reflect the provisions of Section 23 of the 1989 Act and the new duties proposed by the Government in Clauses 8 and 9, now to be removed—in particular, the emphasis on local placement and that the child should, if possible, live near his or her home, and the new wording that the placement should not disturb the child’s education. That would cover further education colleges as well as schools and, possibly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned, some other elements of education. We shall find out about that in due course.
Thirdly, it is right that if a local authority wants to move a child from his or her parents, foster care or a children’s home to “other arrangements”—that rather suspicious phrase—there must be a statutory review of the child’s case before making a decision. This reflects the old Clause 10 of the Bill and, once again, it is a reasonable safeguard. For all those reasons, I support the Government.
I, too, thank the Government for their hard and welcome efforts in major surgery on this Bill. I also thank the Minister and the officials for their hard work in bringing this forward. I was particularly gratified to hear the Minister say that he is looking at whether local authorities should have a duty to plan for a range of diverse provisions. I do not think that those were the Minister’s words, but perhaps I may say that that is what we all wish for; that is, a diverse provision of quality placements in the local area. For instance, my noble friend Lord Rix is concerned that disabled children should have a good quality, stable placement in their local authority area.
If I am correct, an important addition is proposed new Section 22C(11), which states:
“The appropriate national authority may make regulations for, and in connection with, the purposes of this section”.
That may offer the opportunity for, for instance, a duty on local authorities to have a plan, so that we can see the action on the ground to create the new placements required.
Further to what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, and other Members of the Committee have said on training, proposed new Section 22C(8)(b) of the 1989 Act, states that,
“it does not disrupt C’s education”,
and training. I seek reassurance from the Minister that that would be the case. If my memory serves me correctly, quite a few looked-after children go to further education colleges before the age of 16, because it is a more suitable environment—perhaps more vocationally based—for some of them. It should be clear that children attending an FE college or whatever would not be disrupted. That would be very helpful.
Thirdly, it was very welcome to hear the Minister make it clear in his comments that the first priority is the welfare of the child in all these considerations, because that has been a matter for concern. As regards proposed new Section 22C(6)(a) to (d), which includes children’s homes as the third option, we need to be clear that sometimes it is right to place a child in a children’s home before placing them in a foster home. I would be grateful to the Minister for reassurance on that point. I look forward to his response.
Other Members of the Committee have made most of the points I would have made, particularly some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, in detail, which I am sure she will test at the next stage when perhaps we will have a chance to go through them. I therefore want to make very few observations which I hope have not been made before, with the exception of one: I should like to reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about local authorities. We need an element of reality in our debates. We all believe fervently, on the Floor of this House, in the welfare of the child being paramount. We have to remember that in local authorities that may not always be so in terms of policy and the kinds of policies that will have to be put in place when priorities are set across the whole range of services. How the Government enable or encourage local authorities to put children at the top of their list is for them to think again about. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, all the time presses the needs and rights of children.
The second reality is to remember that, ultimately, it is not the social worker who makes the decision about what will happen to a child. He or she may make the professional recommendation. Again, the decision will be made on financial criteria. Time and again, children are not placed in the placement that they want, or that the social worker has decided is in their best interests, for financial criteria. Not only that, we depend on partnerships in local authorities, not least housing. That sinister “other placement” is often something like bed and breakfast, because there is not an appropriate housing option. I know that the Government are doing all that they can to press those partnerships with other parts of the local authority to ensure that there are proper placements. I say that to put us in the real world where those decisions will be made without that kind of thought as regards the child.
For that reason, I am not altogether with my noble friend Lord Rix. It is probably impossible for local authorities to make provision for some of the most disabled children. I declare an interest as chair of Grooms Shaftesbury, which cares for some of the most disabled children with learning and physical disabilities who need extraordinary care. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I think that local authorities can look to regional solutions and work out how they can make sure that those sometimes medical combinations of educational, medical and physical needs can be met.
Local authorities could believe that a good reason for moving a child from a very specialist facility into something less desirable is that it is within their local authority area. Let us remember what happened to many children during the 1990s when they were moved from provision outside their local authority area, often where they were settled, because it was in the financial interest of the local authority to do so under pressure. I make those points simply because we all have idealistic aims. When you get on to the ground as a social worker, “Life ain’t quite what we’d like it to be”.
I should like to make a couple of other points. I may not have understood this, so I look to the Minister to correct me if that is so. Proposed new Section 22C(7)(c) says,
“comply with subsection (9) unless that is not reasonably practicable”,
when determining the most appropriate placement, which should be local. We must add to that the words, “in the interests of the child’s welfare”. I say that in order to repeat something that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, said earlier regarding children and young people. I think particularly, from my work with Stop it Now, of those children who are sexually abused. Those children do not wish to be placed in a particular area because of their experiences. It requires the local authority and the local authority social worker to think about the placement. If the words, “in the interests of the child’s welfare” could be added to proposed new subsection (7)(c), it would make the safeguarding principle absolutely clear. Along with those two technical points, I feel that proposed new Section 22C(8)(d) and (9) may be in conflict in terms of some disabled children.
Lastly, I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that, like her, I accept that it should be possible to say “of no religion”, but I am very keen to retain religion. I remember vividly a social worker of mine placing a Coptic Christian child with a Muslim family as the result of a very poor assessment. The repercussions for that child became significant very quickly. The situation was put right speedily, but we have to make a proper assessment of a child’s religion in terms of its placement. Even if the child has no religion, we should make the decision on that basis.
It is extremely helpful to have all these provisions in one clause because it will be much easier for practitioners to decipher and take forward the guidance. Again, I am grateful to the Minister for his thoughtfulness.
I apologise, but I omitted to put a couple of specific questions to the Minister, and I want to correct something I said earlier. I referred to training in further education colleges. I think that if a child is in a further education college, they would be in education, so that is not a good example. Perhaps the Minister can talk about that.
Will the Minister also comment on the terms of the diverse provision of quality accommodation within a local area? Will proposed new Section 22C(9) make this duty any more explicit? Further, can he provide an assurance that regulations made under proposed new Section 22C(11) would address the need for local authorities to develop provision within their authority as a means of meeting the requirements of proposed new Section 22C(9)?
I have been asked a number of detailed questions about the particular intents of certain aspects of the new clause. Perhaps I may take them one by one before dealing with the wider issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and other noble Lords asked why the duty in the amendment to determine the most appropriate placements, as set out in new Clause 22C(5) and (7) could also be subject to the duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of the child when it is not explicitly stated. I am glad to be able to tell the noble Baroness that it is explicitly stated through the wording, which I shall explain. Following on from the words:
“In determining the most appropriate placement”,
in new Clause 22C(7), are the words,
“the local authority must, subject to the other provisions of this Part (in particular, to their duties under section 22)”.
That refers to Section 22 of the Children Act 1989, the provision being supplemented by this Bill, which is headed:
“General duty of local authority in relation to children looked after by them”,
and goes on to state in subsection (3):
“It shall be the duty of a local authority looking after any child—
(a) to safeguard and promote his welfare”.
Furthermore, referring to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, in respect of the views of children, subsection (4) goes on to state:
“Before making any decision with respect to a child whom they are looking after, or proposing to look after, a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, ascertain the wishes and feelings of—
(a) the child;
(b) his parents;
(c) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him; and
(d) any other person whose wishes and feelings the authority consider to be relevant”.
All of that is encompassed within the duties under Section 22 of the 1989 Act and referred to in subsection (7) of the new clause. So the duty is centrally placed in respect of all of the factors that need to be considered under the Bill.
The noble Baroness also referred to issues to be considered alongside each other, and which are to have preference. She asked me whether, all other factors being equal, the placement with a relative or friend should take priority over other forms of placement. That, too, is made clear in subsection (7)(a) of the new clause. I shall take the noble Baroness through the way this has been constructed. Subsection (7)(a) states:
“In determining the most appropriate placement for C [the looked-after child], the local authority must ...
(a) give preference to a placement falling within paragraph (a) of subsection (6) over placements falling within the other paragraphs of that subsection”.
Subsection (6)(a) states,
“placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with C [the looked-after child] and who is also a local authority foster parent”.
By that means, the “relative, friend or other person” is given priority in the placement options available to a local authority, but it does not set the hierarchy in the other placement options, thus meeting the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. He asked whether we are suggesting that intrinsically foster parents should be preferable to persons registered under Part II of the Care Standards Act 2000 or “other arrangements”—I shall come to those in a moment. The answer is no. Under subsection (6), after the preference local authorities are expected to give to relatives, friends or other people, they should consider all of the options in terms of which would provide the most appropriate placement available to promote and safeguard the welfare and interests of the child. I hope that that is clear so far.
I thought that it was crystal clear. At least putting all these provisions into one clause makes it somewhat clearer than it was before, but I do not pretend that we are going to expect social workers to spend their time poring over the detail of this Bill. It will be made clear in guidance with user-friendly language what this actually means for them. Nevertheless, I thought that my explanation was so clear that simply replicating this section in Hansard would be more than good enough for social workers.
We come now to whether the issues to be taken into consideration—proximity, education and so on—set out in new Clause 22C(8) constitute a hierarchy or should be given equality of consideration. This point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The answer is that they should be given equality of consideration. Although in subsection (8) these issues are set out in paragraphs (a) to (d), they do not comprise a hierarchy, but are the issues which should be given consideration.
Before I come to the other specific questions about how local authorities should make the decision, I shall deal with the definition of the words “other arrangements” in subsection (6)(d). What is meant by these words is anything that is not foster care or a children’s home. That could include hostel provision, foyer provision, supported lodgings, flats and independent living. So the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, are encompassed by the term “other arrangements”.
Moving on to some of the other specific questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked me about the duty to promote rehabilitation with parents. Let me stress that this must always be the local authority’s first priority, subject only to consideration of the child’s welfare, because the authority must of course consider whether it is safe for a child to be rehabilitated. This rehabilitation duty is built into the Children Act 1989 and, as I said in my opening remarks, is included in new Section 22C. I should also state for the record that the Placement of Children With Parents etc Regulations 1991 and their accompanying guidance place great emphasis on the rehabilitation duties of local authorities and what is expected of them.
I was asked how local authorities should decide what is the most appropriate placement. This is precisely what the professional judgment of social workers is intended to achieve: the best possible decision, taking into account all the factors of the case. However, the means by which local authorities seek to make these judgments is set out in the Framework for the assessment of children in need and their families. This framework uses an age-related child development model and is the basis for developing the care plan, which includes details about the placement needed by the child. So, based on best social work practice, we give guidance to social workers as to how they should go about balancing their duties. As we noted in our earlier debates, the independent reviewing officer will review the care plan in the light of the information about the child’s needs to ensure that it remains the most suitable plan, and can engage in a dialogue with the local authority if it believes that the care plan needs to be upgraded.
I should like to take away the issue of training within the definition of education and look at it further before giving a definitive answer. I understand the points made by noble Lords. As the noble Earl said, training which is related specifically to an educational placement—for example, a course at a further education college—would be incorporated. I would like to look further at the position of training more widely.
My noble friend Lady Massey referred to the substance misuse and drugs strategy. We will ensure that the forthcoming drugs strategy reflects the family and friends policy commitment set out in the White Paper and that the new strategy framework reflects the needs of relatives and friends affected by substance misuse. I mentioned in my opening remarks that we are considering further whether we should enhance the requirements in the Bill for local authorities effectively to plan and have a range of local accommodation available and I take fully on board the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and other noble Lords in that regard.
Turning finally to the amendments of my noble friend Lady Massey concerning children of no religious persuasion, we agree that placements must be sensitive to a child’s cultural background. That is why our commissioning strategy set out in the Care Matters White Paper seeks to ensure that local authorities better identify the needs of their looked- after children population and ensure that their population of foster carers is broad enough to meet those needs. In making such arrangements it is our intention that the absence of formal religious belief should be respected as well as religious beliefs. Fostering providers should take this cultural context into account and ensure that where possible it is respected in the choice of foster placement in the same way as the cultural needs of a child whose family hold religious beliefs should be respected and taken into account.
The information that authorities are required to have about prospective foster carers includes information about their religious persuasion and capacity to care for a child. The local authority must be satisfied that the placement with a particular foster carer is the most suitable in the light of all of the circumstances of the case, including the absence of faith as well as the existence of faith. The placement information record which incorporates the placement agreement details a child’s needs, including their religious background, and sets out the arrangements for meeting them. In making any placement decision the local authority must give due consideration to the wishes and feelings of the parents of the child. I hope that gives the reassurance my noble friend was seeking.
I was most impressed by the Minister as he guided us through Section 22. He has missed his calling as a lawyer somewhere along the way. I am loathe to say that he missed something out because it was the most wonderful pulling together of what everyone had said, but I asked him about the status of family carers under proposed new Section 22C(6)(a). The proposed new paragraph refers to,
“placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with C and who is also a local authority foster parent”.
As we understood it from the Bill team, such a person does not have to be a foster parent. But the amendment does not make that clear and perhaps should be changed to reflect that.
The paragraph refers only to children who are in care. Therefore the person with whom they are placed while they are in care should be a local authority foster parent for the purposes of fulfilling that duty. But, of course, it would be open in those circumstances for the relative, friend or other person to become—I am not sure what the word is—validated or approved by the local authority for that purpose. There is also provision for emergency placements for short periods of time that do not require the relative, friend or other person connected with them to have gone through that process. So there can be a short-term placement while the status of the carer is formalised. But the point I want to stress is that many of the arrangements short of children going into care, including in some cases with the active involvement of social services, are predominantly with family and friends.
The Minister did not react to my comment about proposed new Section 22C(7)(c) and about the provisions of subsection (9) also being in the interest of the child’s welfare. I am concerned that in this discussion, which is strongly about placement with parents and friends—which obviously I support hugely—we must not lose the balance with safeguarding. Some families are simply not safe enough to have their children and hence the need for good fostering and residential placements. That is why I am keen that we keep this balance and the interests of the child central at every point.
I am sorry that I failed to respond to the noble Baroness’s point but I can give her the complete reassurance that she seeks. Subsection (7)(c) states that local authorities must comply with subsection (9), which states that the accommodation should be provided within the local authority’s area unless that is not reasonably practicable. That whole provision is also subject to the duties of the local authority under Section 22 of the 1989 Act, which sets out its duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. The new provisions are all subject to the overriding duty of the local authority to safeguard and promote child welfare.
Clause 7 negatived.
Clause 8 negatived.
Clause 9 [Provision of accommodation which is near to looked after child's school]:
[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]
Clause 9 negatived.
Clause 10 negatived.
15: After Clause 10, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of accommodation and maintenance for children who are looked after by a local authority
(1) For section 23 of the 1989 Act substitute—
“22A Provision of accommodation for children in care
When a child is in the care of a local authority, it is their duty to provide the child with accommodation.
22B Maintenance of looked after children
It is the duty of a local authority to maintain a child they are looking after in other respects apart from the provision of accommodation.
22C Ways in which looked after children are to be accommodated and maintained
(1) This section applies where a local authority are looking after a child (“C”).
(2) The local authority must make arrangements for C to live with a person who falls within subsection (3) (but subject to subsection (4)).
(3) A person (“P”) falls within this subsection if—
(a) P is a parent of C;(b) P is not a parent of C but has parental responsibility for C; or(c) in a case where C is in the care of the local authority and there was a residence order in force with respect to C immediately before the care order was made, P was a person in whose favour the residence order was made.(4) Subsection (2) does not require the local authority to make arrangements of the kind mentioned in that subsection if doing so—
(a) would not be consistent with C’s welfare; or(b) would not be reasonably practicable.(5) If the local authority is unable to make arrangements under subsection (2), they must place C in the placement which is, in their opinion, the most appropriate placement available.
(6) In subsection (5) “placement” means—
(a) placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with C and who is also a local authority foster parent;(b) placement with a local authority foster parent who does not fall within paragraph (a);(c) placement in a children’s home in respect of which a person is registered under Part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000; or(d) subject to section 22D, placement in accordance with other arrangements which comply with any regulations made for the purposes of this section.(7) In determining the most appropriate placement for C, the local authority must, subject to the other provisions of this Part (in particular, to their duties under section 22)—
(a) give preference to a placement falling within paragraph (a) of subsection (6) over placements falling within the other paragraphs of that subsection;(b) comply, so far as is reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of C’s case, with the requirements of subsection (8); and(c) comply with subsection (9) unless that is not reasonably practicable. (8) The local authority must ensure that the placement is such that—
(a) it allows C to live near C’s home;(b) it does not disrupt C’s education;(c) if C has a sibling for whom the local authority are also providing accommodation, it enables C and the sibling to live together;(d) if C is disabled, the accommodation provided is suitable to C’s particular needs.(9) The placement must be such that C is provided with accommodation within the local authority’s area.
(10) The local authority may determine—
(a) the terms of any arrangements they make under subsection (2) in relation to C (including terms as to payment); and(b) the terms on which they place C with a local authority foster parent (including terms as to payment but subject to any order made under section 49 of the Children Act 2004).(11) The appropriate national authority may make regulations for, and in connection with, the purposes of this section.
(12) In this Act “local authority foster parent” means a person who is approved as a local authority foster parent in accordance with regulations made by virtue of paragraph 12F of Schedule 2.
22D Review of child’s case before making alternative arrangements for accommodation
(1) Where a local authority are providing accommodation for a child (“C”) other than by arrangements under section 22C(6)(d), they must not make such arrangements for C unless they have decided to do so in consequence of a review of C’s case carried out in accordance with regulations made under section 26.
(2) But subsection (1) does not prevent a local authority making arrangements for C under section 22C(6)(d) if they are satisfied that in order to safeguard C’s welfare it is necessary—
(a) to make such arrangements; and(b) to do so as a matter of urgency.22E Children’s homes provided by appropriate national authority
Where a local authority places a child they are looking after in a children’s home provided, equipped and maintained by an appropriate national authority under section 82(5), they must do so on such terms as that national authority may from time to time determine.
22F Regulations as to children looked after by local authorities
Part 2 of Schedule 2 has effect for the purposes of making further provision as to children looked after by local authorities and in particular as to the regulations which may be made under section 22C(11).”(2) Schedule (Children looked after by local authorities: supplementary and consequential provisions) (which makes amendments supplementary to, and consequential on, the provisions of this section, including a power to make regulations about an independent review mechanism for certain decisions in relation to foster parents) has effect.”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
16: After Clause 10, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of communication aids for looked after children in the review of their care plan
In section 26 of the 1989 Act (review of cases and inquiries into representations), in subsection (2), after paragraph (d) insert—
“(da) requiring the authority, when seeking the views of the child, to make such arrangements as they consider necessary for the provision of alternative and augmentative communication support, communication aids and speech and language support services to a child with a communication impairment;”.”
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 17 which is grouped with Amendment No. 16. Both amendments concern alternative and augmentative communications support. Amendment No. 16 seeks to enable children to make their views known during the review of their care plan if they have a need for such aids and Amendment No. 17 seeks to enable them to make their views known when any significant decision is to be made in relation to their care plan. However, I emphasise that such aids should be available all the time to any child in public care who has a need for them, and not only when there is a statutory duty to take his or her wishes and feelings into account.
These amendments are identical to those that we brought forward in Grand Committee because I want to respond to what the Minister said on that occasion and probe him a little further. On 16 January he laid great weight at the door of the IRO in respect of the provision of augmented and alternative communication aids. That is quite a mouthful so I shall call them “AAC aids”. He said:
“We will ensure through statutory guidance that children with communication difficulties or complex needs are supported either by an IRO with the skills necessary to facilitate care planning and to elicit the views of children with communication difficulties or complex needs, or through an IRO who has access to specialist input from someone who has these skills”.
What is going to be done about training IROs in this specialist area? Another aspect is that things move on in this field all the time. New communication aids are constantly becoming available; someone told me recently that a communication aid user had told her that getting to grips with a new piece of kit was like learning a new language. It takes considerable effort to keep up to speed with these very useful communication aids.
In the same column, the Minister went on to say:
“Where a communication aid is specified in … a statement of special educational needs, the local authority is obliged in law to provide it or to ensure its provision”.—[Official Report, 16/1/08; col. 530.]
My response to that is that there are many cases where such communication aids are provided at school, but the child really needs these pieces of equipment out of school as well. Often, unfortunately, they cannot take them home with them at the end of the day or during holiday time. So we are giving the child a voice during school time but not when it goes home or to whichever place it regards as home. That is a real problem, and I would like some reassurance that something will be done about that. I am pleased that the Minister recognised that provision is not always well managed, but some sort of guidance or directive could say that such communication aids should be provided to the child all the time, not just at these specific points when some statutory obligation or other makes it necessary. That is essential. The child will not have facility with using these aids unless he or she has them available all the time. Just to have them at times when the statute says the child must have them in order to express his or her views will not really be adequate. The child needs to have facility and familiarity with the equipment by having it all the time.
The problem is that there is a relatively low local incidence of any children who can benefit from AAC and an even smaller incidence of looked-after children who can benefit from it. That means there is very little local awareness. Most speech and language therapists have very little training in AAC. They have plenty of training in speech and language therapy, but when a child does not have speech and language the therapists just do not know about such equipment and these difficulties. Teachers, social workers and doctors often have no training at all. That means there is a real problem identifying those children who could benefit in the first place. It would be interesting to know how much training in AAC that, specifically, an IRO would receive, given the Minister’s dependence on the role of the IRO in responding to my amendments in Grand Committee.
There are no specific indicators relating to AAC, which means that spending tends to get directed elsewhere that will meet targets. The level of support available is often dependent on whether the area has a particular champion, someone who really knows, cares and does something about it. That is why we have patchy provision. It could well be that we need regional centres of excellence, because there is no critical mass in any one local authority. The Minister might like to think about that idea.
In order to ensure that the child’s statutory rights to express his or her wishes and feelings in these specific situations can be fulfilled, there is a need to ensure that the child has such a communication aid all the time and that the IROs and the professionals around them have the necessary awareness, and that the IROs have training—ongoing training, at that—because this is a technical field that is moving on very rapidly. I beg to move.
I very warmly support the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in her amendment. I hope my noble friend will be able to respond positively. The noble Baroness has put the case as fully and effectively as possible. If we are serious about the best interests, the welfare and the well-being of the child, it is impossible not to take her argument seriously. Otherwise, we have different categories of children: those whose interests are being fully met because they are articulate and able to communicate in normal ways, and the second-class also-rans who are unable to operate on the same level. That is clearly not satisfactory.
Having said that, although I will not go on making this point over and again, I am sure the noble Baroness would agree with me once more that this obviously has resource implications and that we therefore have to be tough. I happen to belong to the old school that wishes that, on all these issues, we would snap out of the absolute nonsense that there is something reprehensible about taxation and local rates. If you want a service that is worth while—if you want a civilised society—you must be prepared to pay for it. Here is a very good example.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, knows that I have every sympathy with her on these amendments. I am afraid, however, she knows that if she were to call this to a vote I would not be able to support her because it involves those very spending commitments of which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke.
We are talking about children at the most complex end of care. These communication aids are simply their lifeline. It is an area that requires some detailed consideration. I hope my honourable friend John Bercow’s review might be able to shed some light on the problem. In Grand Committee I asked the Minister whether the Government would collate figures so that we can understand the scale of the problem. He was not able to respond to me then. I wonder whether he might be able to do so now.
I wish to express my disappointment at the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. I am sure she is instructed elsewhere to say that she cannot support anything that contains resources implications. This is an area that we should all be seriously supporting. Every child who has a serious communication disability should have the right to the equipment to enable them to communicate. Local authorities have the responsibility to provide aids to people with disabilities to enable them to take part in civil society. Those aids need to be with the child the whole time from the beginning of their communication learning. To say they cannot take them home is to deprive them totally of their social life at home.
Any good educational establishment—I am sure Ofsted would look at this—will ensure that not only the child but the parents are helped to understand how to use the communication aids, otherwise when the child goes home they cannot interact with their parents. How do we look across at other legislation on the provision of aids in local authorities that means that any disabled person who needs such a facility should be provided with it? There must be similar provision within education legislation that enables children to communicate because they cannot do so in class. I watch very disabled children using complex equipment while they are being taught, and who are therefore enabled to speak. Otherwise they can make no communication at all.
I strongly support both amendments. As someone who has had the benefit of an improved hearing facility in your Lordships’ House and who has needed hearing aids for 50 years, I can speak with some knowledge about just how unincluded you can feel if you cannot take part in the full range of communications. That is particularly true for children. I could not agree more with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the need to take home the equipment and to have it with you all the time. That is particularly so with children, who are growing and developing every minute of the day, and making better use of whatever equipment they have. As we have been told, the speed at which the equipment is developing—it is almost day by day—is extraordinary. The equipment is becoming smaller and much easier to transport. I am therefore heartily in support of the amendments. I know that there are resource implications, but if the Government had always had the intention to go for an inclusive agenda—I applaud them and the Minister in particular for doing so now—there could not be an area where such provision could be more clearly applied and the resources made more available. These children are full members of society and should be treated as such.
I was sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, but I spoke on this matter at length in Grand Committee. I would like the Government to look at this problem. There are undoubtedly some special needs children with statements where all that is needed is some discipline and for them to be able to learn to read. If one saved money at that end of the special needs spectrum, one might have more to spend at the more complex end.
A statutory duty is placed on local authorities to ascertain, and give due consideration to, the wishes and feelings of children whom they look after before taking any decision that affects them. It is clearly and necessarily implicit in that duty that where the child has a communication impairment, the local authority should ensure that those tasked with consulting the child have the necessary skills to do so and that a child is provided with the necessary aids to make themselves understood.
The noble Baroness asked me about the training that should therefore be provided for independent reviewing officers in relation to communications issues. We are committed to working with government offices and local authorities to develop a training approach that is appropriate to the needs of the children with whom independent reviewing officers are dealing. This will include specialist communication training. As the noble Baroness identified, there may well be a need for specialisms to be developed to take full account of technical developments in this area. We would wish to see that incorporated in the training available to independent reviewing officers.
The provision needed for a child to express themselves appropriately may involve equipment or a preferred method of communication, or both. Consideration will need to be given to the child’s communication needs when the IRO is first appointed to ensure that, so far as possible, the IRO has the skills necessary to communicate with the child. The new statutory guidance which will follow the enactment of the Bill will build on existing guidance for IROs that states that they should be satisfied that disabled children’s contributions are obtained and effectively presented in any review, even if the child is not able to be present at the review meeting or has impaired communication skills. In the latter case, it will be expected that specific communication aids will be used to ensure that the child’s views are represented at the review meeting. Physical access to a review meeting should not be a barrier to attendance for a child. A venue with appropriate access for a disabled person should be selected for review meetings so that the child has the option of attending if they wish.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we have established a review of the wider issue of communication aids and children with speech, language and communication needs. It will be led by John Bercow and will advise the Government on how best provision can be mirrored in all areas, so that every young person up to 19 years of age gets the support that they need as early as possible. The review will advise on how local services can work closely together to ensure that children get that support. Among the issues that it addresses, it will look at children with communications needs. We may therefore have further proposals to make in this area in due course.
I thank the Minister for his reply and all other noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. The Minister concentrated on providing the IRO with the skills that they need, but I want to concentrate on providing the child with the voice that they need to communicate, not just with the IRO but with the rest of the world.
At the end of our debate in Grand Committee the Minister was kind enough to say that he hoped that John Bercow would read the debate in Hansard and take into account the points that were raised when he comes to his conclusions—to which we all look forward next month. I hope that John Bercow will also read the additional points made today. I further hope that when he makes his recommendations, which I am sure we will all welcome, the Minister will find that he can use his influence in government to make sure that resources are provided for the improvements which I hope Mr Bercow will recommend in his report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 not moved.]
Clause 11 [Independent reviewing officers]:
19: Clause 11, page 8, leave out lines 16 to 21
The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 36, 38, 43, 44, 46, 47, 54, 60 and 64. The amendments have no substantive effect but will change the various references to the exercise of delegated powers by the Secretary of State in Part 3 of the Children Act 1989 to reflect the fact that, in most cases, the exercise of these powers in relation to Wales is now devolved to Welsh Ministers.
Broadly, the effect of the amendments is to substitute “appropriate national authority” for references to the Secretary of State in Part 3 of the 1989 Act. “Appropriate national authority” is defined in new Section 30A of the 1989 Act as the Secretary of State in relation to England and the Welsh Ministers in relation to Wales. Section 104 of the Children Act 1989 is also amended and new Section 104A inserted, which sets out the appropriate procedure for the making of regulations under the Act to make separate provision for England and Wales.
The amendments are consistent with the devolution settlement and make clear where powers are now exercised by Welsh Ministers in relation to Wales. This makes it much easier for any reader of the legislation as they will no longer have to refer back to the Government of Wales Acts. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.