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Legislative Reform (Annual Review of Local Authorities) Order 2012

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Legislative Reform (Annual Review of Local Authorities) Order 2012.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.

My Lords, this draft legislative reform order seeks to remove the unnecessary bureaucratic requirement on the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills annually to review and rate the performance of each top-tier local authority in England in relation to its children’s services functions. The process is simply an amalgamation of other inspection evidence and data, rather than an inspection in its own right. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families announced in December 2010 the Government’s intention to repeal this requirement, imposed under Section 138 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, at the earliest legislative opportunity. The draft order would effect that repeal.

Ofsted’s children’s services assessment is a remnant of a more centralised local government performance management framework and formed part of the previous Government’s comprehensive area assessment regime, which drew together separate assessments from other inspectorates including the Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Probation and Ofsted. Although the annual assessment was intended to provide the general public with an independent judgment of the performance of their local council in respect of children’s services, there is no evidence to suggest that the general public engage with the process. The assessments and the associated bureaucracy are also not valued by local authorities themselves, with the Local Government Association suggesting their termination and directors of children’s services making it clear that they do not find the process helpful.

The repeal of Section 138 and the resulting removal of the requirement to undertake annual children’s services assessments will eliminate an unnecessary regulatory burden on both Ofsted and local authorities. It would bring a cost saving to Ofsted of between £1.3 million and £1.7 million per annum. It would also bring cost and administrative savings to local authorities, which the Association of Directors of Children's Services has said are “unquantifiable but … not insignificant”. The same organisation said of removing the requirement to conduct annual children’s services assessments that the benefit should not be understated. Indeed, it is not only the local authority that would like to see the requirement removed. The NSPCC stated in its response to the consultation on the use of a legislative reform order to repeal Section 138 that it was,

“not aware of any evidence to show that the annual assessment process has had any impact on the protection of children”,

and that it is,

“too superficial to add anything of real value to the inspection regime”.

I should add that the repeal of Section 138 would not affect the wider inspection of local authority children’s services. Ofsted will continue to inspect all services covered by the children’s services assessment, including child protection and safeguarding, looked-after children’s services, fostering and adoption services, schools and early-years provision. Indeed, Ofsted has recently introduced a new universal child-focused inspection regime for local authority services for the protection of children. A similar new inspection regime for local authority fostering, adoption and looked-after children’s services will follow in early to mid-2013.

The new inspection regimes will focus more closely on front-line practice than previous inspection frameworks and, particularly in relation to adoption services, will raise the bar for what constitutes good or outstanding practice, which will more effectively help drive improved services for vulnerable children. Ofsted will also continue to make an annual report to the Secretary of State under Section 121 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Ofsted’s annual reports summarise the overall results of inspections conducted under the various different frameworks that span its remit. Such annual reports must also be laid before Parliament.

To sum up, this repeal is necessary to remove unnecessary and costly bureaucratic burdens from Ofsted and local authorities. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation of the order. She will know that the issue of the quality of services for children and young people provided by local authorities is particularly sensitive, not least because of the ongoing concerns about standards in children’s homes and the need for vulnerable young people to be protected. Therefore, it is crucial that if we are to change the inspection arrangements, we have to be satisfied that the new regime is an improvement on what has gone before.

I am unconvinced by some of the key justifications for these changes, which centre on the need to reduce the regulatory burden and the pressures on Ofsted to operate within a 30% budget cut. It is hard to envisage how a shift in policy from centrally designated and measured standards to local monitoring and accountability can work when dealing with the most vulnerable and powerless children and young people, who do not have a voice to demand quality services at a local level.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded that the inspection regime as it is currently composed and implemented is not achieving the objectives originally set for it. This seems to be the view not only of Ofsted and local authorities but, more importantly, as the noble Baroness said, of children’s charities, which clearly have the interests of children at heart. With this in mind, I will ask the noble Baroness a few questions about the proposed new inspection arrangements.

First, will she clarify what funds are being put in place to ensure a comprehensive inspection service is maintained, and reassure us that the changes are not being finance-driven? Secondly, will she clarify the start date of the new arrangements should the order go through? Ofsted has talked about putting in place the new inspections provision between May 2012 and mid-2013. Can we be sure that there will not be a gap in regulatory coverage in which poor practice could go undetected?

Thirdly, as the noble Baroness said, Ofsted has announced that it is working on a joint framework for multi-agency inspection of services for the protection of young people, including the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the probation service, to be implemented during 2013-14. Is the Minister concerned that this further imminent upheaval in local authority inspection arrangements might cause confusion and further bureaucracy? Can we be assured that the transfer of arrangements will take place seamlessly? Will she also clarify how the strengthening of the role of the Children’s Commissioner, announced by Sarah Teather yesterday, which will include the power to carry out investigations, will fit with the new multi-agency inspection arrangements?

Finally, and most importantly, will the Minister assure the Committee that once the order has been implemented, the replacement provision will be more comprehensive and more stringent, giving vulnerable children and young people the protection they should have a right to demand of modern, caring local authorities? I look forward to hearing her response.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lady, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, for the thought and consideration that she has given to these important issues. The questions that she posed all raise key points. I am pleased to be able to address them and, hopefully, to put reassurances on the record.

I start by stating clearly that the removal of the requirement on Ofsted to undertake annual assessments of local authority children’s services is intended, first and foremost, to reduce bureaucratic burdens on local authorities and Ofsted. In the context of the budget savings that all public sector organisations need to achieve, the repeal of Section 138 will have a secondary benefit of allowing these organisations to free up resources that would otherwise be spent on bureaucratic activity and redirect them to the front line where they will have the greatest impact on helping protect vulnerable children and young people, which is something that we all seek to do. Ofsted’s inspection budget, although reduced, will still run to some £167 million in 2012-13. It is also important to be clear that other inspectorates will also contribute resources to the new child protection and looked-after children inspection frameworks.

The noble Baroness also asked for further clarity on the start dates for the new inspection arrangements. This is another vital point; it should all happen seamlessly. Yesterday, Ofsted published for consultation its proposed arrangements for the inspection of services for looked-after children and care leavers, as well as proposals for the joint inspection of multi-agency arrangements for the protection of children. Ofsted set out scheduled start dates for the new inspections in the consultation documents. The looked-after children and care leavers inspections are due to start in April 2013, and the multi-agency child protection inspections will start in June 2013. Of course, until then, existing fostering, adoption and child protection inspections will continue.

On the noble Baroness’s third question, I can understand her concern to ensure that changes to local authority inspection arrangements will not cause confusion and generate bureaucracy. Obviously, that is something that we would wish to avoid when there are any changes in arrangements, particularly with such a vulnerable group as the one that we are talking about. That is certainly not the Government’s intention and I am sure that Ofsted will work diligently to minimise both these factors. The repeal of Section 138 is intended to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic burdens, and Ofsted has been explicit about its plans to minimise bureaucracy in its multi-agency child protection inspection consultation proposals. The move to unannounced inspections, too, is intended to reduce the bureaucracy that was generated as a result of the previous announced inspections of safeguarding and looked-after children’s services, so we hope that there will be improvements and benefits from what is being proposed on a number of fronts.

I also assure the noble Baroness that the removal of the requirement to conduct annual assessments of local authority children’s services will in no way impact on the protection of vulnerable children and young people. This was another point that she raised. The new inspection frameworks that Ofsted and its partner inspectorates are developing and introducing are intended to focus far more intensively on front-line practice than the frameworks that have gone before. This focus on front-line practice is intended to examine forensically the services being received by vulnerable children and young people to ensure that they are properly protected from harm and receive high-quality services from local authorities. The multi-inspectorate approach to the new frameworks is also intended to ensure that the vital contributions of other agencies, in particular to child protection, are appropriately reflected in inspection judgments.

The noble Baroness asked about the relationship between inspection and the new investigative role of the Children’s Commissioner. The proposed legislation to reform the Office of the Children’s Commissioner would include a requirement on the chief inspector and Ofsted to have regard to any matters raised by the Children’s Commissioner. Placing this requirement on the chief inspector and Ofsted is designed primarily to ensure that the views and interests of children within the Children’s Rights Director’s remit will continue to inform Ofsted’s work when the CRD’s functions transfer from Ofsted to the Children’s Commissioner. As a result of the “have regard” requirement, Ofsted will take account of the matters raised by the Children’s Commissioner when carrying out inspections under its various frameworks. I hope that this provides reassurance about the fit between the Children’s Commissioner’s strengthened role and Ofsted inspections, and that the noble Baroness will see that these things have been thought through thoroughly.

I hope that the noble Baroness will also be reassured that the new inspection frameworks that Ofsted will introduce are intended to be more stringent and to raise the bar in our expectations of local authority services for the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. The repeal of Section 138 is intended to help remove bureaucracy and allow both Ofsted and local authorities to refocus their resources on the front-line services that contribute to helping vulnerable children and young people.

I hope that I have addressed all the noble Baroness’s questions. If any are outstanding, I will write to her. With those assurances, I commend the order.

Motion agreed.