1: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Scrutiny of education provision
(1) The Education and Inspections Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 70C insert—
“70D Scrutiny of education provision
(1) This section applies where more than 10 per cent of schools in a local education authority area are eligible for intervention under section 60B as inserted by section 1 of the Education and Adoption Act 2015 (coasting schools).
(2) The relevant local authority may establish, under section 21(2) of the Local Government Act 2000 (overview and scrutiny committees), a committee of that authority to review and scrutinise matters relating to the provision of education in such schools in the authority’s area, and to make reports and recommendations on such matters in accordance with regulations under this section.
(3) Regulations shall make provision—
(a) as to the matters relating to the provision of education in such schools in the authority’s area which the committee may review and scrutinise;(b) as to matters relating to the provision of education in such schools in the authority’s area on which the committee may make reports and recommendations to local Academy sponsors;(c) as to information which local Academy sponsors must provide to the committee; and(d) requiring Regional Schools Commissioners to attend the committee to answer questions.””
My Lords, I suspect that the movers of the amendment have been rather taken by surprise by the speed with which the European Union Referendum Bill completed its Third Reading, which on past counts was rather unexpected. My congratulations to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on the speedy way in which she dispatched the business. I think it would be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, to allow him to arrive.
This is clearly an amendment about the role of local authorities. Obviously the specific details are contained in the amendment, but I want to take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether he is able to say something more about the role of local authorities in education in the future, because that is very much contingent on the amendment before us. He knows that we have debated whether the Government’s real intention is for all schools in the maintained sector to become academies. The Minister has rather dissembled on that point, but he will know that it was very clear from what his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said only last week in the Autumn Statement that it is essentially the Government’s intention that at least all secondary schools should become academies. Mr Osborne said:
“Five years ago, 200 schools were academies: today, 5,000 schools are. Our goal is to complete this school revolution and help every secondary school become an academy. I can announce that we will let sixth-form colleges become academies, too, so that they no longer have to pay VAT. We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past, which will help us save around £600 million on the education services grant”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/15; col. 713.]
As the amendment talks about local authorities, it is entirely reasonable for me to ask whether that is an enunciation of a new government policy. If it is, and my impression is that when the Chancellor makes a Statement in the other place it is an enunciation of policy, clearly it is the Government’s intention to take local authorities completely out of the schools sector.
The point that I put to the Minister is this: why are we going through the charade of this Bill when it is the clear intention of the Government to phase out maintained schools completely? Why are the Government not prepared to be open and honest about this? Why do they not come forward with the appropriate legislation? I would oppose that legislation, but let us at least have an honest debate. I know that we are on Report and I guess that I am pressing against the boundaries of what is allowed, but it is none the less a very interesting amendment.
My Lords, I apologise for missing the opening part of this discussion on Report. Amendment 1 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Storey has a distinct purpose, which is one that I raised in Committee. Schools are a locally delivered service and that will not change, even with the implementation of the Government’s desire that all schools become academies. Consequently, once school-specific processes have been exhausted, parents tend to seek redress for their concerns about a particular school from a local body. Currently, parents see their local authority as that body. Already, in my experience as a local councillor, parents seeking to take a complaint about their local school to the next level turn to the council only to find, where it is an academy, that this is no longer within the remit of LAs.
The second reason for tabling this amendment is that schools are a major spender of public money. More than 50% of a local authority’s revenue spending is on schools. Where is the local accountability for that expenditure, especially as the number of academies increases and their diversity grows? Sadly, there have been a number of high-profile failures of financial governance in the academy sector, which includes some serious allegations of fraud, some of which have been proven; for instance, in schools in Bradford and County Durham. They are not the only ones. The Education Funding Agency has issued financial notices to improve on several academy chains, including the Academies Enterprise Trust, which was served with a notice only last year. Therefore there are already examples of the failure of local accountability to highlight issues of concern about public expenditure on something as important as education and schools.
Multi-academy trusts, which seem to be the current favoured way forward, are accountable only to the Education Funding Agency and the Secretary of State for their strategic and financial performance. Governance models in multi-academy trusts ensure that the sponsor or sponsoring body controls the trust. The strategic direction and decisions on the school’s budget are, crucially, in the hands of the directors of the trust and the trust members, who are self-appointed and accountable for their actions only via agreements signed with the Department for Education. In this model there is no accountability to the local community, which the academy and the academy trust serves, and no accountability to local parents for the investment in the education of their children. This amendment seeks to address some of those concerns.
In 2006, the Government established local authority health scrutiny committees. The scrutiny committees comprise both elected councillors and co-optees with relevant experience in the health sector. The purpose is to provide a public forum where local NHS bodies—hospital trusts or commissioning groups—can present policy changes which are discussed and are subject to questioning from the perspective of the local community. In other forums they are questioned as regards their financial position or their general direction—as regards trusts—from a clinical commissioning point of view. However, the local community has the opportunity through the scrutiny committee to raise issues of concern, such as access to the services that are going to be provided. In my experience, health scrutiny committees can add value by providing access to strategic leadership across the sector and by enabling generalised complaints and concerns about the service to be given a local and public hearing. I suggest that local education scrutiny committees would fill a vacuum by providing a process, based on this sort of model, to have a forum for discussing issues pertinent to the local community.
One of the keys to success in schools is harnessing the support of the local community they serve. The risk in the multi-academy trust model is that the schools become more remote from the communities they serve. I suggest that a successful multi-academy trust would welcome the opportunity of a public platform where it could demonstrate transparency in its decision-making and respond to questions from local people regarding performance. A scrutiny model would also enable the regional schools commissioner to report back via a local public forum. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively and constructively to this proposal. I beg to move.
My Lords, responding to the original remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I am glad that he used the word “dissembled” over the question of the future of the academy programme and local authorities. I think that it is a better word than “dishonest”, which he used in Committee. I have made it absolutely clear on a number of occasions that the default position for a coasting school is not to become an academy. However, the Prime Minister has been clear that our ambition is that, in time, every school will have the opportunity to become an academy. Given that ambition, it is right that we look at how we might reform the role of local authorities in education, although there is no intention of taking them out of education totally. Obviously their role in school improvement will reduce as regional schools commissioners take more responsibility.
I hear what the Minister says but what did the Chancellor mean by saying:
“We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/15; col. 1370.]?
What does that mean in relation to what the noble Lord has said? He may not like my use of the words “dissembling” or “dishonest” but I come back to the core point. Is it the Government’s intention that, willy-nilly, all schools will be academies, as the Chancellor said last week?
Perhaps the noble Lord will let me finish. In a situation at some stage in the future where all schools were academies, obviously local authorities would not be running schools. However, we certainly anticipate them continuing to have a role in the sufficiency duty, admissions, SEN and safeguarding. Perhaps I may make it absolutely clear that it is not about making every school an academy overnight at the stroke of a pen. That is not what we are after at all; we are about organising schools so that through academies and the multi-academy trust programme many more of them can, by working with each other, take advantage of the benefit of economies of scale efficiencies and deliver career enhancement, better CPD and leadership development. Given that ambition, it is right that we look at how we form the role of local authorities, as we have discussed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to financial irregularities in academies. I think that we have covered this before but I re-emphasise that academies are subject to far greater financial scrutiny than local authority maintained schools. They have to publish annual accounts which are audited by third-party accountants, something local authority maintained schools do not have to do. They are subject to the scrutiny of the EFA and the Charity Commission, and they are also subject to company law. I do not wish to make comparisons—
Perhaps I may finish before the noble Baroness gets on her feet. I do not wish to make comparisons but a couple of years ago the Audit Commission found in, I believe, one year alone nearly 200 cases of financial irregularities in local authority maintained schools.
In response to the proposal that I made in Committee, the Minister said that academies’ accounts undergo greater audits than those of local authority maintained schools, but I suggest that that is probably not the case. I am the governor of a school in the local maintained sector. The school’s accounts are published as part of the local authority’s accounts, which are audited by a senior auditing company—KPMG in this case. Therefore, the internal and external audit of the accounts is carried out by the council’s own internal auditor and by external auditors. I am not suggesting that they are any better than the audited accounts of academies in terms of overall performance, and I think it is erroneous to suggest that one is better than the other.
I am sure that anything the noble Baroness is involved in is very well scrutinised financially but, as a rule, all academies have their accounts audited but not all maintained schools do.
Turning to the subject that we are here today to discuss, I shall speak to Amendment 1 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. This proposed new clause would allow a local authority to establish a committee to review and scrutinise the provision of education in coasting schools where coasting schools make up more than 10% of the schools in the local area.
From our debate on a very similar amendment in Committee, I know that the noble Lords’ concerns are that, where a local authority has a number of coasting schools, the education provision in these schools is monitored and reviewed at a local level, with direct intervention happening where necessary.
I share the noble Lords’ desire to ensure that coasting schools are subject to robust oversight and intervention but, in the past, too many local authorities have made little use of their intervention powers, as we have discussed in earlier debates. The Bill now gives regional schools commissioners working on behalf of the Secretary of State the powers to work with and intervene in any school that is coasting. The Bill provides RSCs with additional intervention powers for maintained schools so that they can tackle schools directly that have been allowed to fail, or indeed coast, under the local authority’s watch. This means that all coasting schools will come under the scrutiny of the RSCs.
The revised Schools Causing Concern guidance, which is currently out for consultation, will set out what steps RSCs will take when schools in their area have been identified as coasting. Initially, the RSC will make contact with coasting schools in their area to identify whether the school has the capacity to improve sufficiently by itself. If the RSC deems that additional support or intervention is needed, there are a variety of intervention options, such as bringing in additional support from a national leader of education, temporary support from a local school or becoming a sponsored academy.
I emphasise that, throughout this process, no coasting school will go unchecked. RSCs will not wait until more than 10% of schools in a local authority have been notified that they are coasting before they start reviewing the education provision in these schools. The work of RSCs in relation to coasting schools will be continuous and thorough, with the aim of intervening swiftly where necessary. It is just not fair on the pupils in a coasting school to have to wait for an extraneous event, such as more than 10% of schools in their LA to be coasting, for support to take place.
RSCs are based in the regions that they serve, which means that they will make decisions on coasting schools based on their knowledge of the local area and with the input from their head teacher board. Head teacher board members are recruited from across the region and so bring local intelligence to RSC decision-making. I welcome the positive comments made today in Ofsted’s annual report about the appointment of RSCs as overseers of school performance.
RSCs are already successfully scrutinising academies in their region when they have concerns, and intervening where necessary. The proposed powers for them to do the same for maintained schools are an extension of this and they will be resourced up to enable them to do so.
RSCs are already working closely with local authorities, meeting them regularly to discuss schools of concern. Since their appointment, RSCs have been proactive in using their intervention powers in relation to academies and encouraging local authorities to do the same for maintained schools. We know that some local authorities have been positive about the introduction of RSCs, and have found that this partnership working can result in a joint understanding of local priorities, a new energy and an effective approach to tackling underperformance in their areas. In some areas we have seen a marked increase in local authorities issuing warning notices to their poorly performing schools.
Noble Lords will be aware that the Chancellor’s spending review speech restated the Government’s position on reforming the role of local authorities, as we have discussed. They will remain responsible for the maintained schools for which they are accountable, but the local authority role will, as I said, have to change in the light of the growing number of schools becoming academies. I therefore do not consider this amendment, which proposes additional responsibilities for local authorities in respect of non-maintained schools in their area, appropriate in that context.
I hope I have been able to reassure noble Lords that RSCs will be actively monitoring and reviewing all coasting schools, not just ones in areas where they are in bad company, and intervening when appropriate. I therefore urge the noble Lords to withdraw their amendment.
My Lords, I believe that we have made our concerns on this matter very clear, but we are happy that there will be robust oversight and scrutiny for all schools. With the assurances from the Minister that all schools will be dealt with fairly on this matter, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 13: Local authority adoption functions: joint arrangements
2: Clause 13, page 8, line 25, after “authorities” insert “and voluntary adoption agencies operating in the area jointly”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 6 and 7, which I thought would be treated as individual amendments but, to my surprise, have been grouped. So here we are.
Amendment 2 has been resubmitted, because we share the concerns of the professionals in the field about what the future might hold for voluntary adoption agencies after the full establishment of the regional adoption agencies. Having said that, I think that moving Amendment 2 should be a formality, because, within the past few days, the Minister has to all intents and purposes already indicated—in writing no less—his tacit acceptance of it.
In moving what was then Amendment 32ZA in Committee, I highlighted the fears of many voluntary adoption agencies that they could be squeezed out with the establishment of the regional agencies and that considerable difficulties remained as far as their involvement was concerned. I went on to say that we owed a duty to them to air those views and seek the Government’s help in prioritising them. Well, we did, and the Government did. In fact, those of us involved with the Bill received letters from Ministers in both Houses, and both responded positively. The Minister of State for Children and Families, Edward Timpson, clearly stated the Government’s commitment to making sure that voluntary adoption agencies are involved in regional adoption agencies. He stated that,
“the excellence in practice of VAAs is at the heart of the regionalised system”,
and that he wanted VAAs to be leading players in the design of that system, which was why,
“I have not approved a proposal to set up a regional adoption agency without a clear commitment to involving voluntary adoption agencies in the design of the service—and I will make sure local authorities keep that commitment”.
That is very welcome—so far, so good—but it leaves the umbrella body for voluntary adoption agencies, the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, with concerns, because it believes that the Minister’s commitments do not go far enough in explaining how the Government will achieve that aim. In the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Nash, the paragraph on the matching process is important—and this refers also to Amendment 7. The Minister states that a regional adoption agency will have one pool of adopters that it will draw on when matching children in its area and that this will minimise sequential decision-making.
However, the issue of concern is that, within that single pool of adopters, those approved by a voluntary adoption agency will have a price attached to them in some way. Voluntary adoption agencies somehow have to cover the cost of recruiting, training and approving those adopters, as well as supporting them after placement. This may be through the current inter-agency fee of £27,000, through “block purchase” arrangements where a regional adoption agency pays for a set number of VAA adopters a year, or through other arrangements. It is not yet known how this will be arranged in the various regions; the point is that individual regional arrangements will decide it, and that is an area of uncertainty for the voluntary agencies.
If that means that voluntary adoption agency-approved adopters will be seen as coming with a cost attached to them in a way that adopters approved by the regional adoption agency will not, that is potentially an issue. Of course, adopters approved by the regional agency also come with a cost, although that is less visible. The evidence also suggests that, despite perceptions of voluntary adoption agency-approved adopters being expensive, the costs of providing an adopter are virtually the same across both the statutory and the voluntary sector. There are further concerns, as it is accepted that the inter-agency fee does not cover this full cost. Indeed, the CVAA, the consortium, estimates a shortfall of at least £10,000 per placement, which suggests that local authorities get excellent value for money from using voluntary adoption agency adopters.
In Committee, I raised the issue of what is known as sequential decision-making. In his letter to noble Lords, the Minister said:
“A regional adoption agency will have one pool of adopters that it will draw on when matching the children in its area. Individual local authorities will therefore no longer have their ‘own’ adopters to match their children with ‘in house’ as they do currently. This will ensure that sequential decision making is minimised”.
Yes, it will be minimised, but not ruled out. That remains an issue for the voluntary adoption agencies.
Part of what drives that behaviour, understandably, is the fact that local authorities often have a preference for adopters they have approved. This, in addition to the perception that voluntary adoption agency-approved adopters involve an additional cost, causes a mindset that leads to sequential decision-making. There is no reason to suppose that this mindset would be any different in a regional adoption agency. Voluntary adoption agency-approved adopters would still have to be paid for by some means, and that would not be approved in-house by the statutory part of the regional agency.
The basic issue is that, within regional agencies, voluntary adoption agency-approved adopters will still be the second preference of those deciding on matches. This is bad for children because it causes delay, and bad for local authorities because delay in placing children incurs huge costs. I was surprised—I wonder if Ministers are aware—that providing local authority-based residential care costs more than £100,000 per child per year. That is why there is a need to reform the matching process to ensure that those making the decisions are focused solely on finding the best match for the child as quickly as possible. This would be better for all parties involved and would help the Government achieve their aims of reducing delay for children and involving voluntary adoption agencies in regional adoption agencies.
Further, there is the issue of voluntary adoption agencies having to divert resources towards administrative and governance processes during the transition. We know that the Department for Education has allocated £4.5 million for this purpose but can the Minister say whether any further funding will be made available? Voluntary adoption agencies are already saying that the funding is beginning to dry up and, with the transition likely to be spread over a number of years, the problem can only intensify.
The final reason why the ministerial letters have not assuaged the concerns of those involved at the front line is that it is unclear how the Department for Education will influence the role for voluntary adoption agencies and a given regional agency. That is where typically smaller specialist voluntary agencies would be contracted to regional agencies. The assumption is that it will be for a regional agency to decide when to contract out and to which agencies. Given such uncertainties, there is clearly an issue about predictability of income for smaller voluntary agencies, some of which have already expressed fears that they will be at risk. Can the Minister offer any encouraging words to the voluntary adoption agencies to meet those worries?
Amendment 6 aims to clarify whether the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to adoption functions could be used in respect of a particular group. The key concern is about accountability and ensuring that the new system results in meaningful improvements for vulnerable children, especially the harder-to-place ones, and specifically those in the categories listed in the amendment.
The overhaul of the adoption system introduced by this amendment to the 2002 Act will have failed in its objective if it does not meet the challenges inherent in the current system. There is universal agreement that where adoption is in the best interests of the child, that child should be placed with a suitable family at the earliest opportunity. That must not mean a wait of more than two years, which it often does.
Overall there is not a shortage of prospective adopters. In March of this year, across England there were 2,810 children waiting to be matched and 3,350 approved adopters. The mismatch between these figures highlights the need for an improved system and the introduction of regional adoption agencies may in time produce that. However, there is an existential shortage of prospective adopters for certain groups of children. These groups contain harder-to-place children and include those over the age of four, those with disabilities, black, Asian and minority ethnic children and sibling groups.
The length of time between the decision being made that adoption is in the child’s best interests and the adoption taking place is, of course, key. According to the Adoption Leadership Board, in June of this year no fewer than 71% of children waiting more than 18 months between the placement order and the placement fell into a harder-to-place category; more than half of children from black, Asian and minority ethnic back- grounds waiting to be placed had been waiting 18 months or more since the placement order was made; and 64% of disabled children had been waiting 18 months or more, as had 47% of sibling groups. These indicate the scale of the problem, the extent of the improvement needed in the adoption system and the need for greater emphasis to be given to harder-to-place children.
For the new regional adoption agencies to be deemed a success, it is essential that the time these children spend waiting to be adopted is reduced, and quickly. Understandably, it will always be more difficult to find prospective adopters willing and able to adopt children in the groups to which I already referred. Part of the rationale offered by the Government for the introduction of the regional agencies is that they will lead to a larger pool of adopters from which it will be easier to find a match for harder-to-place children. There is some justification for that, and I certainly hope it proves correct. There is, however, no automatic link between creating regional adoption agencies and improving outcomes for these groups. In fact, there is a risk that the new agencies might feel under pressure to increase the overall numbers and speed of adoptions, creating an incentive to concentrate on the most straightforward matches which, of course, involve babies.
The Prime Minister’s speech on 2 November mentioned new measures to double the number of children placed with adoptive families sooner, halving the time they spend in care waiting to move into their new home. That was greeted with caution among professionals, who have serious doubts that the necessary resources will be forthcoming to allow that increase to become reality. I hope the Minister might be able to offer some reassurance to them in his reply. Equally, concern has been expressed that what I call this “hell-for-leather approach” might contravene the legal duty of local authorities under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. That legislation states that it is the general duty of every local authority to,
“safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and … so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs”.
Therefore, for the Government to prioritise more and quicker adoption is questionable both morally and legally, unless local authorities are providing a good Section 17 service to families. As a consequence of the cuts that local authorities are required to make—ironically, not least in Oxfordshire, about which the Prime Minister himself has been moved to complain—there is major concern among professionals that this is not so.
Equally, there is real concern that the process of creating new regional adoption agencies will divert existing resources, leading to an undermining of current relationships. The new system will inevitably take some years to become fully effective, and there are concerns among the various agencies as to whether they will have the necessary resources during the transitional period to invest in effective services and support for children and adopters.
The £30 million made available by the Government to assist harder-to-place children is welcome, but it will not last long. It was disappointing that the Autumn Statement seemed to have nothing to say regarding additional resources for these children. Without that, it is not clear how the Government can ensure that the system will improve the waiting time for harder-to-place groups. That brings us back to voluntary adoption agencies, which have particular expertise in working with harder-to-place children; perhaps that is another aspect of their invaluable work that should be recognised.
In Committee, the Minister stated that regional adoption agencies would be,
“incentivised to find the right family for a child as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 17/11/2015; col. GC 47.]
Can he outline what form these incentives might take?
Returning to Amendment 6 specifically, the Government must prioritise and ensure that these groups do not continue to be left on the fringes of the adoption system. One means of achieving that would be to accept the addition to Clause 13 contained in this amendment, to allow them to become a full part of the Secretary of State’s powers under that clause. As I stated at the outset, this seems to be very much in line with the content of the Minister’s letter, so I hope he will not find any reason not to accept this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 4, which is in my name and that of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I think that the noble Earl has withdrawn from that, so I am now—
If it would be helpful to the noble Lord, I think that Amendment 4 is in the next group.
I would like to add my support to what has been said about the amendments relating to establishing regional bodies for adoption. Just to give some local examples, in Yorkshire they have already set up a pilot for regional adoption, involving a hub for the whole of the region and then three spokes: one for the north and east of the country, one for the south and one for the west. Each of those hubs includes all the voluntary agencies currently operating in the Yorkshire and Humber region.
The reports I have had from that pilot are that it is broadly welcomed by everybody concerned, because being in a larger group enables groups of local authorities and groups of providers with a narrow focus—in particular the voluntary groups that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to, which focus on children with specific disabilities or backgrounds who they find hard-to-find families for—to have a larger look across the region, with better support for them to achieve their objectives. All that has been very positive.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, also pointed to one of the elements of this regionalisation of adoption that is drawn into sharp relief: the additional funding that ought to be made available to support voluntary agencies in particular to find the right matches for the children. All of us want to ensure that children who require new families have them found as rapidly but as appropriately as possible.
In my professional life, I have had one or two very sad local incidents. In one, I was teaching a young boy of 11. He was new to the class, so I asked him his name. “James”, he said. I asked, “What’s your second name?”. He replied, “I don’t have a second name”. Why? It was because his family had unadopted him. As your Lordships can tell, that that has stuck with me for a long time.
What is more important than speed for the children concerned is an appropriate family that will stick with them through thick and thin. The children placed in adoption are often not the easiest children to go into a new family. While I welcome the broad approach that the Bill describes, I hope that we will put more emphasis on finding the right family for the right child than on speed. Mistakes will be made if we put the speed of the adoption process first, as happened in the very sad case I came across.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 2, 6 and 7, which aim to ensure that voluntary adoption agencies play an important role in the move to, and the future services provided by, regional adoption agencies. Broadly, the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, and the Government’s intentions are in the same place.
First, I take this opportunity to again set out our commitment to the voluntary adoption agency sector. Its expertise and the services that it provides have already been central to the improvements we have seen in the adoption sector. We absolutely want this to continue. As I have previously told the House, these organisations have a central role to play in regionalisation, as referred to in the letter that my honourable friend the Minister of State for Children and Families recently sent to the chief executives of all VAAs, reiterating our commitment to their involvement.
Voluntary adoption agencies have knowledge and specialist skills that will be crucial in ensuring that the new regional agencies provide the high-quality services we expect to see. That is why all the projects we are funding this year include VAAs. We have also been clear with projects that VAAs should not simply be involved once decisions about the design of the new regional adoption agency are made. We have required all projects to commit to involving voluntary agencies in the early design phase of their work.
Amendment 2 would mean that local authorities and VAAs would jointly decide who should deliver the adoption functions on behalf of the local authorities being directed. I absolutely agree that it is important that VAAs have a role in any conversations about using the power introduced through the Bill, and I assure noble Lords that this will be the case. As I set out in our last debate, where the power is needed, decisions about its use will be made following extensive discussions with all those involved or affected, including VAAs. All relevant agencies will have the chance to comment on the proposal before a final decision is taken. In addition, the Adoption Leadership Board, of which the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies is a key member, will have an important role to play in shaping any decisions about regionalisation.
It would, however, be impractical and unbalanced to give a VAA joint decision-making power with the local authority in relation to the question of which agency should carry out the functions on the authority’s behalf. The local authority has statutory responsibility for delivering its functions. Although it is appropriate for the Secretary of State to make a decision, instead of a local authority, about who should carry out those functions in the limited circumstances where this proves necessary, it is not appropriate to give a VAA the power to make that kind of decision on behalf of a local authority or to veto a local authority’s proposed course of action. Instead, we need to use the mechanisms I outlined above to ensure that the views of VAAs are taken into account when decisions are made about how the power will be used.
Amendment 6 would allow the Bill to be used in relation to particular groups of children. This would enable the legislation to be used to make specific arrangements relating to hard-to-place groups of children. Over the last few years we have made significant strides to improve things for this section of children but there is a lot further to go. I completely agree with the motivation behind this amendment. We know that certain groups of children wait much longer for adoption than others. In 2014-15, hard-to-place children waited, on average, almost seven months longer for adoption than other children.
I am pleased to be able to clarify that subsection (5) of the clause is intended to enable it to be used in exactly this way. Subsection (5) enables a direction to be made in relation to certain categories of children. If, for example, arrangements between a group of local authorities are not working well enough for disabled children, this legislation could be used to direct those authorities to make different arrangements for them. This could, for example, include requiring local authorities to make arrangements for their family-finding functions in relation to those children to be undertaken by a specific, specialist VAA.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 7. When we discussed this issue previously, and again today, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, expressed his concern that VAA adopters would not be used by regional adoption agencies in the future because of financial considerations, and that this would lead to a continuation of the practice of sequential decision-making, which we are all keen to see end. First, I can clarify that VAA adopters do not represent a higher cost than adopters recruited by a local authority. A report by the University of Bristol in 2009 found that interagency fees were perceived as excessive by local authorities, despite the fact that they were found to be lower than what local authorities spend on placing children internally. It is crucial that we address this myth, as it is damaging to VAAs and drives the poor practice of sequential decision-making. I emphasise again that one of the key objectives of the policy is that each regional adoption agency will have a single pool of adopters. This is key to ensuring that swift, non-sequential matching decisions can be made. This is what we all want to see.
The local authorities and VAAs which make up a regional adoption agency will need to come to an agreement about which adopters are part of their central pool, and how the VAAs are remunerated for their investment in recruiting and approving adopters. The department is not prescribing the financial arrangements that will underpin new regional agencies, as we want to be led by what VAAs and local authorities think works. However, we are providing a comprehensive package of support to help local areas work through issues such as these, and come up with models which enable VAAs and local authorities to work together seamlessly and fairly.
Some regional adoption agencies may have the VAA partners doing all the adopter recruitment, given their skill and track record in this area. This would certainly be an interesting model. We will be working with VAAs and local authorities to develop fair and robust financial models which ensure that VAAs are not disadvantaged. However, I note the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about the financial drivers in this. He raised a number of points that we want the sector not to be nervous about. I think that it would be helpful—if the noble Lord is willing to do this—if I organised a meeting with the noble Lord, the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, Minister Timpson and officials, to discuss these issues in greater detail. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding in agreement to that.
Finally, I remind noble Lords that regional adoption agencies will not be, and are not intended to be, entirely self-sufficient. There are, of course, some children for whom even a regional agency’s larger pool of adopters will not suffice, either because the child has particular needs or because the agency does not have an appropriate approved adopter ready at the point the child needs a match. Social workers in regional agencies will be expected to identify these children quickly and act promptly on their behalf by engaging with the national pool of adopters using national matching tools.
In view of my comments, I hope that the noble Lord will feel reassured and will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply, much of which I welcome. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, commented on the Yorkshire pilot and the support for voluntary adoption agencies. Given the very sad episode that she related, I could not agree more that permanence has to be the aim when children are being placed. It is not just a question of finding a place fairly quickly but of finding one that both the child and the family have a good chance of making sustainable and, ultimately, permanent. That is what we are looking for. That is why I raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s comment that we should simply look to double the number. It is not a numbers game in that sense. I will raise this issue again in the next group of amendments, but I point out that Clause 13, on the terms of adoption, concerns only 5% of the children in care.
I was pleased to hear the Minister stress what he called the essential role of voluntary adoption agencies—those agencies will also be pleased to hear that—and that he foresees them having a role at the early design phase. That is what they are looking for. I do not doubt the Government’s will in this regard, and nor do the voluntary adoption agencies, but it is a question of how they intend to make it happen. This is a case of walking the walk and talking the talk, and doubts remain about how they will match the intention with the reality. Of course, it is not me, my colleagues or, indeed, the other opposition parties that the Minister needs to reassure on this point, but the CVAA and its member organisations. The CVAA was obviously centrally involved in the Adoption Leadership Board and those discussions can—and I am sure do—take place, but I simply reiterate that that the voluntary adoption agencies need that reassurance.
The Minister said that he agreed with the motivation behind Amendment 6. It is helpful to have his comments on the record that subsection (5)—if I am quoting him correctly—is designed to enable the measure to be used in the way the amendment suggests. That is useful and will be welcomed by organisations such as Barnardo’s, which has real concerns about harder-to-place children and the fact that the numbers are increasing and the resources to tackle that are at least in doubt, although the hope is that additional resources will be made available. The Minister may be able to reveal that in the near future.
I understand what the Minister is saying on the sequential decision-making issue but am slightly puzzled when he says that there is no difference in cost between voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities in this regard. He referred to the Bristol University study. I had not heard of that but, even more surprisingly, it seems to have eluded the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, which is saying there are situations where local authorities may have—I will put it no more damagingly than this—a back-scratching operation whereby there might be a bit of a trade-off, such as the whole interagency fee not being required to be paid in certain situations or an understanding about some future arrangement between the two. Voluntary adoption agencies are effectively excluded from that. The new arrangements will certainly make that more difficult but they may not rule it out and that needs to be taken into account. I will look at the Bristol University survey and see what it says. I very much hope that that is the case but it may not be. Finally, I thank the Minister for the offer of a meeting and I would certainly be pleased to take that up.
Turning to the three amendments, the Minister has conceded much of what we are looking for, in his letter and the comments he made. I must repeat one comment that I made in Committee: it is not really me he has to convince but the people involved in this on a day-to-day basis, and only time will tell whether he has done so or can do so in future. But on the basis of our discussion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 13, page 8, line 35, at end insert “including but not limited to mental health support for children and adolescents prior to the making of a placement order;
(f) the provision of a mental health assessment prior to the making of a placement order.”
My Lords, we turn now to mental health support, which is very important indeed. Amendment 3 follows on from what was Amendment 33 in Committee, to which I spoke. I emphasised then that the issue of support once a child is placed in adoption can be crucial to whether that adoption becomes permanent—the point we were making a few moments ago in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Often, specialist support is needed to care for a child appropriately.
I also quoted figures supplied by the NSPCC which I think bear repeating because they show that 45% of children in care have a mental health disorder, compared with only 10% of the general child population. The mental health needs of children in care were debated thoroughly in relation to that amendment and those in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The NSPCC has now met with Ministers, yet the organisation still believes that specific measures need to be included in the Bill to provide mental health assessment and support as early as possible during a child’s time in the care system. Amendment 3 sets the placement order as the milestone point by which children should have received that assessment.
What is needed is to prioritise vulnerable children, particularly those who have experienced abuse or neglect, which includes a significant majority of looked-after children. The Government must give a commitment to create the earliest possible provision of automatic assessment and support for those children within the adoption system. I will not repeat the point I made in Committee—that Clause 13 aims to provide for only 5% of children in care. We believe that the Bill is wrongly skewed in favour of adoption to the exclusion of all other forms of care. The vast majority of professionals in the field want nothing more than good provision for all looked-after children, whether their welfare be met by adoption, special guardianship, a child arrangements order—what used to be a residence order—long-term fostering or kinship care.
I say in passing that Sir Martin Narey’s announcement that he will be standing down as chair of the Adoption Leadership Board next year offers the Government an opportunity to demonstrate that they value all forms of care equally. The arrival of a new person to head the board should be used as an opportunity to broaden its remit to include all forms of permanency.
Recent research carried out by the NSPCC highlighted that one-fifth of children referred to local specialist NHS mental health services are rejected for treatment. This was described by the NSPCC as creating,
“a ‘time bomb’ of serious mental health conditions”.
Children in care not being able to access the mental health support they need to rebuild their lives represents a serious gap in provision—one that I highlighted in Committee—but I am afraid the Minister did not provide an answer as to how that gap might be filled. I ask him again: does he grasp the extent of the problem being set out for him by the professionals, the people working daily with children with mental health problems? If so, does he believe that sufficient resources will be made available to meet the needs of children in care who are not currently receiving the support they desperately need? Ultimately, the care that can be provided in mental health and other areas for children in care comes down to resources.
In Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, referred to the £1.25 billion that the Government have made available to improve mental health services for children and young people over the next five years, through the implementation of the report Future in Mind. She also mentioned that clinical commissioning groups were involved in that process, although how that huge sum of money is being spent continues to be something of a mystery. Although Future in Mind makes a number of recommendations, there is real doubt as to where we are in the delivery of those recommendations or detailed plans for spending the promised funds. With the majority of that money being spent through clinical commissioning groups, and given all the layers of devolution that there are in the National Health Service, it remains unclear just how that report’s priorities will be met.
The answer to those questions seemed to become less, rather than more, clear last week with the Autumn Statement, when the Chancellor said that “we build on that”—the £1.25 billion—
“with £600 million of additional funding, meaning that by 2020 significantly more people will have access to talking therapies, perinatal mental health services and crisis care”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/15; col. 707.]
The question is: what might this mean for the mental health needs of children in the care system? The Chancellor did not indicate whether the extra resources were for children, but—let us look on the positive side— he did not rule out children being prioritised within its reach either.
In response to a Question from Luciana Berger in another place as to how that £600 million will be prioritised, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Alistair Burt, confirmed that the sum is to be spread,
“over the next five years … and … is additional to current spending. The levels of funding in individual years and the specific mental health service improvements it will fund will be determined in the new year, once the Mental Health Taskforce has reported”.
We know that there are to be additional resources available, so my question to both Ministers today is: what representations will they and their officials in the DfE be making to ensure that a proportion of that money is earmarked to fund the improvements required in mental health services for children and young people in care over the five-year period that is meant to be covered?
In conclusion, given the spending pressures which councils face and a situation that can only deteriorate still further as a result of the Autumn Statement, surely the Government should now be prepared to acknowledge that all children entering the care system should receive an automatic mental health assessment, in addition to the physical assessment that they currently receive. Why on earth should that not happen? Children in care should then immediately receive the report that the assessment shows is necessary to enable them to deal with their condition. Thereafter, common sense surely dictates that there must be regular monitoring of children’s mental health while in care to ensure that the support they are being given is contributing to their improved state of health. I suggest that these demands are not unrealistic and should become expectations on behalf of children who need support to enable them to develop into adulthood. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 3 and 4. I was taken with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, in Committee when, speaking for the Government, she said:
“I absolutely agree that the mental health of adopted children is a key issue”.—[Official Report, 17/11/15; col. GC 38.]
She went on to say that the £1.25 billion would be available and how the Future in Mind report would be implemented. Of course, we all want to see children who are in adoption find the right parents to adopt them as quickly as possible, but we also want to make sure that that adoption works. It is no good children being adopted if the adoption then breaks down.
One of the reasons that adoption regularly breaks down is that we have not properly assessed the children, particularly in relation to mental health. If we want to make sure that adoption works, we must put this crucial area right. I will not—well, I will—repeat the figures that 45% of children in care have a mental disorder, which is a huge number, while 60% of those who come into care have experienced neglect or abuse.
How do we ensure that we get this right? To me, it is very simple; to use an old expression, it is not rocket science. It is about providing the expertise and the resources but also about making sure it happens, which is why these amendments actually specify how it should happen. Like the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I cannot understand why the Government would not agree to that. It will be to their credit, and to the success of the Bill, that children who are adopted or who go into care are in the right situation and getting the right support.
We have come a long way in terms of mental health issues in the last few years—and it literally is only in the last few years. One of the areas I am concerned about is that we say, “Oh, there’s a strategy; there’s X amount of money available”, but often those resources do not go to the right people. I know from experience and from talking to other teachers that getting CAMHS into schools now is much harder than it was a few years ago. Never mind a few weeks’ wait, it can often be several months before that support is given. So I wonder whether, when the Minister replies, we might hear how mental health support might be given to schools in a more orderly and speedy way.
I repeat that I want it enshrined in the Bill that we do the assessment for children and young people as soon as possible so that we get it right. In replying, perhaps the Minister could say whether, if the mental health strategy comes out and says that, the Government will agree to it and implement it as well.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 3 first, which I think is an excellent amendment. I wish to be very brief at this stage because I found the Minister to be most helpful in addressing my concerns in Committee and since then. Before I speak further about that, I thank noble Lords who have spoken on all sides of the House in support of amendments that I have tabled previously in this area to better address the mental health needs of looked-after children. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Watson, for their support over those concerns.
Since Committee, I have received a letter from the Minister on the mental health needs of young people. I have heard that the office of Edward Timpson MP, the Minister for Children, will be contacting me about a meeting, which will be very helpful in this regard. I also heard him speak yesterday at the Nuffield Foundation at the launch of a report into the educational achievement of looked-after children. I was very much struck by his recognition that the mental health needs of looked-after children had not been properly addressed in the past and heard, in what he said, his real commitment to addressing these issues for them. We have yet to learn the specifics of what he intends to do, but I feel that the direction of travel is just right, and I look forward to meeting him to discuss the specifics of what needs to be done.
I will not speak to my amendments, and nor do I expect the Minister to respond to them. Being as brief as possible may be the most helpful thing I can do at this point, unless the Minister would like me to speak briefly to my amendments—if that would be helpful to him—in which case I would be glad to do so. But my feeling was that the Government have been very helpful and I do not wish to push things any further or take any more of your Lordships’ time at this moment. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly on three points on this group. The first is about the assessment of children, the second is about the monitoring of children and the third is about the local authority spending lottery.
Assessment has been discussed before, so I shall be very brief. It seems to me, supported by the NSPCC, that the mental health assessment should not rely solely on the strengths and difficulties questionnaire, the SDQ screening tool. Children need direct contact—interviews—they need to be accompanied by a carer to assess mental and emotional health needs, and the assessment needs to be carried out by a qualified mental health professional. On monitoring, clearly, if a child is assessed as having a difficulty, they should be monitored the whole time they are in care to inform carers and professionals about what support the child is receiving and how it can and should contribute to their well-being.
Thirdly, I believe that there is a spending lottery between local authorities in terms of both overall spending and what to spend the money on. Will the mental health strategy cover that? For example, some local authorities that I know are very poor at spending anything on CAMHS for children in care. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that. Will the Government and the mental health strategy consider the outcomes of not providing mental health support for children? The risk of poor outcomes is a risk for life. We know that for children with mental health problems who do not have support in care, the outcomes are poor in relation to criminal or anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and very poor academic performance. What is the Minister’s response on how the mental health strategy will address some of those concerns?
My Lords, I apologise that I was unable to speak in Committee on this issue; I had to attend another committee at the same time. I just want to ask for clarity on a very narrow point—which is actually a wide point.
The amendment adds mental health services for children in the adoption process. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, made a very clear statement about the large number of other children in care who face the same needs—children in kinship care, long-term fostering, or hostels for children with special difficulties. Is the thinking clearly about basing the provision of services on the actual needs of the children as they are seen, rather than the bit of the system they are in? My concern is that we see adoption as a better placement than many others when often it is not; kinship care can be a much better solution for a child. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, permanency is what actually matters. I hope that mental health services can be clearly focused on children to ensure permanency, whatever that permanency looks like.
It makes very good economic sense to ensure that money is clearly targeted to children in care—and, sometimes, children in their own families who are showing special needs. Economically, if you can get to those children early, you will improve their life chances. If they are targeted, that can be measured. Those are the things that the Government want to do at the moment: target services to see what works and makes good economic sense, because people will be able to make better sense of their own lives. Will the Minister ensure that there are adequate mental health services—we know that there is a great difficulty at the moment—and that they are targeted at need rather than at category?
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 4. As I have said at all stages of this Bill, with the support of the NSPCC, every single child entering care should receive an automatic mental health assessment in addition to the physical assessment they currently receive. Children in care should then immediately receive the subsequent necessary support to help them to deal with the issues of mental health identified in the assessment. There should be regular monitoring of children’s mental health while in care to inform what support that child receives and ensure that it contributes to their improved well-being. These provisions are essential to strengthen the Bill because they will help towards making significant savings for the NHS, the prison services and society in general.
The NSPCC, myself and many others welcome the Government’s announcement of an additional £600 million for mental health and see it as a great opportunity to make sure that more of the most vulnerable children get access to the mental health support that they need to overcome the trauma they have experienced. As I have said time and again, childhood lasts a lifetime, so let us give all children the best start in life, including children in care and children in the adoption system. They need to be cared for and looked after in every way possible. We owe it to them, so I hope that the Minister will include these provisions in this important Bill.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 3, 4 and 5, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, which focus on improving the mental health needs of children adopted from care. I thank noble Lords for raising these issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, we had a detailed discussion in our previous debate in Committee, when I set out that improving the mental health of both looked-after and adopted children is a key issue for the Government. Following the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools sent a letter to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, describing in more detail the actions that we are taking to improve the assessment and support that these vulnerable children receive.
As the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson, said, I set out that the Government have committed £1.25 billion to improve mental health services for children and young people over the next five years through the implementation of Future in Mind, the report resulting from the Government’s review of child and adolescent mental health services. I can give noble Lords an assurance that we are now working closely with the Department of Health and NHS England on the implementation of Future in Mind. The NHS England guidance on completing local transformation plans stipulates that they should cover the needs of the most vulnerable children, such as looked-after and adopted children. Key to this is that local areas must work together to understand the vulnerabilities of these children and young people and transform their services accordingly. We are absolutely committed to looking at the needs of children and making sure that they are properly addressed. This will include addressing the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about filling in the current gaps in services.
Local NHS clinical commissioning groups, in developing their local transformation plans, have worked closely with their local health and well-being boards and partners in local authorities, youth justice and education. All clinical commissioning groups have now submitted their plans, which are currently being assessed by NHS England. Improving the assessment of and support for looked-after children will be a key priority for our programme of work. I agree with all noble Lords and with the NSPCC, which has been cited a number of times in this debate, that getting the assessment right when children enter and leave care for adoption is important.
All looked-after children already have a health assessment at least once a year which must include an assessment of their emotional and mental health as well as their physical health. That assessment, which informs the development of their health plan, should take account of the information provided from the strength and difficulties questionnaire that is completed by their carer. I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that for some young people with a range of problems, a follow-on referral to a specialist health service is required.
Turning to the provision of a mental health assessment prior to adoption placement, when an agency is considering adoption for a child, it should immediately consult its medical adviser to determine whether the health information obtained through the most recent health assessment is sufficient, up to date and as broad-ranging as it needs to be. Where a new health assessment is needed, this should be organised in time for the medical adviser to complete their part of the child’s permanence report. That is because, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, permanence is key.
I hesitate to break the noble Baroness’s flow. She mentioned that a new health assessment will be undertaken, but she did not specifically mention a mental health assessment. That is the point. The physical assessment is always done, so why should the mental health assessment not always be done at the same time or immediately afterwards to make sure that any problems are spotted at the earliest opportunity?
The broad health assessment will include those elements. It must include a summary by the agency’s medical adviser of the child’s current physical and mental health, so both are included. When an application is made to a court for a placement order, the agency is required to submit the summary as part of the application. Local clinical commissioning groups should use these assessments of looked-after children and adopted children to inform their local transformation plans to ensure that they can meet the needs of their local population.
At the national level, the Department for Education hosted a roundtable event last month bringing together children’s social care and mental health stakeholders to discuss how to improve mental health services for looked-after children and adopted children. As a result, we are considering how centres of excellence, possibly linked to regional adoption agencies, might enable the mental health needs of looked-after children and adopted children to be better met. Following that roundtable event, Edward Timpson, the Minister of State for Children and Families, met Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for Community and Social Care, to discuss how to ensure that mental health services can meet the particular needs of these children and young people in an effective and timely way. I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that the two departments are working closely together.
In addition, we are providing £4.5 million of funding in this financial year to accelerate the development and implementation of regional adoption agencies. Adoption support, including mental health, is a key element of that. We are clear that regional adoption agencies should have a focus on improving the assessment of adopted children’s mental health needs and the provision of appropriate mental health support services. I should also mention the government-funded adoption support fund. More than 2,000 families have already benefited from £7.5 million of therapeutic services provided by the fund for adopted children and their families. We know that getting a high-quality assessment of need is critical, and local authorities are increasingly using the fund to pay for specialist assessments and, where appropriate, specialist therapeutic support.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised concerns about this Government’s focus on adoption. We are engaged in comprehensive reform, but we are also doing a number of other things. For instance, we have established a programme of reform for social work, including the development of new assessment and accreditation systems for three levels of professional practice for children’s social workers in England. We have created the children’s services innovation programme and we have introduced “staying put” to allow children to remain with their former foster carers after the age of 18. We are engaged in reform across children’s services that will benefit all looked-after children.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about getting CAMHS into schools. We heard from head teachers who came to the briefing a few weeks ago that one of the benefits of multi-academy trusts is being able to recruit professionals to work across a number of schools, so we are seeing improvements in that. Alongside this, the Future in Mind report says that there will be mental health training for health professionals and others who work with children and young people, such as staff in schools, to help them to identify problems and ensure that young people get the help that they need. So it is something that is on our agenda and we are continuing to look at how we can improve that.
I hope that the explanations I have given will reassure the noble Lord that we are committed to meeting the objectives of these amendments, and that he will be feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendment.
In welcoming what the Minister said, and in noting that the noble Lord, Lord Prior, is sitting next to her, which is comforting in this current discussion, I ask her whether she has quite recognised the nub of the concern of Peers all around the House. While current practice is that a GP, a generalist, will give a health assessment that will include mental health elements when a child comes into care, many of us believe that that is inadequate, and we have been trying to communicate this to the Government. While there is a strengths and difficulties questionnaire, which is useful, it simply does not meet the need for a mental health professional to undertake an initial assessment of all children coming into care so that their mental health needs can be identified early on and they can then be met with services following. I listened with great care to what the Minister said and it was very helpful, but I hope that she can assure us that the Government recognise that that is the concern that many noble Lords are raising—the need for a specialist mental health professional to do that initial assessment for every child coming into care.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, along with all other noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on this group of amendments on this important area.
I was very pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, had received a letter from the Minister for Children and Families, I think he said, subsequent to our last sitting in Committee. I wonder whether he might be prepared to share that with us because it might have information of general interest to those of us who have been involved with the Bill and are looking to take these issues forward.
My noble friend Lady Massey raised an important point about what the outcomes of not providing this proper mental health care could be. You do not need a very vivid imagination to foresee that there will be many effects, once children reach adulthood, if some of the issues with which they are trying to deal in childhood are not adequately cared for and are allowed to get worse as they approach adulthood, not least at a time when they have to go out into the world and live on their own. That is an important point and it was well made.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, if I noted her point down correctly, talked about the resources being targeted at need rather than category. I very much agree, as she will know. Despite what the Minister said, I do not doubt that the Government are committed to other forms of care but it looks as if this is given a disproportionate amount of attention; it is the only one involved in the Bill, and then there were the remarks—attributed to, I think, the Prime Minister in his speech in November—that further legislation was somewhere in the pipeline,. Those working in the other categories would value something of substance from the Government to say, “We’ve looked to beef up the ability of the adoption sector; now this is what we are doing for the other sectors”. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind and that the Government will come forward with that in due course.
The Minister said that mental health care for children in adoption was a key issue for the Government. I am perfectly willing to accept that, but I come back to the point made on Amendment 2 that there should be an assessment prior to placement. In response to that, the Minister said that assessments were carried out prior to placement but she seemed to say, and I hope that I am quoting her correctly on this, that both types of assessments—that is, physical health assessments as well as mental—were included. That is very welcome, but it is not understood by the organisations involved in adoption, judging by the comments they have made to me and other noble Lords as the Bill has progressed through its various stages. It therefore might be helpful if she could write to me, perhaps to expand a bit about what mental health assessments are given prior to placement, as I think everyone involved sees that as a key issue.
The Minister also mentioned the £4.5 million that the Government have provided to accelerate the establishment of the regional adoption agencies. While that is welcome, I made the point in moving the amendment that that is seen to be if not running dry then already running a bit thin, and I wanted some assurance of what might follow that. She mentioned another sum of £12.5 million. I do not know whether that will be used in the same way. Some of it might be, but certainly the feeling among the adoption agencies is that £4.5 million will get things started but will not take the whole process very much further, and that additional resources will be necessary.
When the Minister assured me that the Department for Education works closely with the Department of Health, I thought, “Well, of course you would say that, wouldn’t you?”. However, a serious point is: how will the progress of implementing the recommendations of Future in Mind be reported? How can they be monitored and made available to organisations in the field that are involved in their delivery to some extent but which also care about being able to trace the effectiveness of those recommendations that are put into place? Some form of reporting would therefore certainly be valuable. Again, I ask either of the Ministers whether they would be prepared to write about that, because £1.25 billion, which is over a five-year period, is a huge sum of money—although I am not sure when the five-year period started. I think I am right in saying that Future in Mind was published in 2012 but I do not know whether that was the start of the five-year period. However, that is one of the questions that may well be answered in the Minister’s response.
We have had a number of helpful comments from the Minister. Those involved will be happy to take some of them forward and, I hope, to build on them, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendments 4 to 7 not moved.
Clause 17: Commencement
8: Clause 17, page 9, line 33, at end insert—
“( ) A statutory instrument under subsection (2) may not be made until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on the funding of the costs of conversions under this Act.”
My Lords, I am a relative newcomer to your Lordships’ House, and just one of the features of the legislative process that has amazed me is that substantial changes can be made without there being any publicly stated budgetary provision. Therefore, here we are again today, legislating for an increase in the number of academy conversions without any stated provision for funding the changes.
Every school that seeks or is forced to become an academy is given a grant of £25,000, so if 1,000 schools are converted into academies, as the Minister stated in Committee, the Government will need to set aside £25 million. I accept that this is small change in the Government’s big budgetary process; nevertheless, £25 million can go a long way in other sectors of the education service.
This is just the upfront, visible funding. A report by the National Audit Office in November 2012, Managing the Expansion of the Academies Programme, stated that the additional cost of the academy programme to the Department for Education was £1 billion. The programme had by this stage involved just over 1,000 schools. Although there have been reductions in the costs of conversions since then, as reported by the NAO, there are undeniably costs in addition to the upfront £25,000 per school grant.
In response to the amendment tabled in Committee, the Minister said:
“I will be delighted to comment more on the DfE’s total settlement on Report”.—[Official Report, 17/11/15; col. GC 51.]
I look forward to hearing the specific details from the Minister. If no budget is identified, I, for one, will have to conclude that the funding is being top-sliced from other areas of the schools budget. If so, I will be very disappointed, because schools’ budgets are already being squeezed and further cuts would put some of them in considerable financial difficulty.
Therefore, the amendment is tabled with a purpose, which is to try to discover how much the Bill is going to cost the education sector and where the money is coming from. If, as I hope, the Minister is able to clarify all those points, I will indeed be very satisfied.
My Lords, I am sure that we will all be interested to hear from the noble Lord the answers to the noble Baroness’s questions, particularly his response to her suggestion that the money for the implementation of the education parts of the Bill will be top-sliced, presumably from money that would have gone through local authorities to maintained schools. I would be very interested to know the answer to that.
I am going to tempt fate by asking the Minister the same question again, referring to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about the education budget in the Autumn Statement and his announcement that all schools in the secondary sector will become academies. He said:
“We will make local authorities running schools a thing of the past, which will help us save around £600 million on the education services grant”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/15; col. 1370.]
I would like to know how on earth that £600 million is going to be saved. Does he think that the £600 million used by local authorities is simply a waste of money? All those central services provided by local authorities are to be destroyed but presumably most maintained schools think they are pretty helpful. I assume that, when they all become academies, the schools will be given some element of the budget to make up for the services they would have received from local authorities.
Understanding education finances these days is a conundrum but I certainly hope that the Minister will clarify what exactly his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant by what he said last week. Perhaps the answer to the noble Baroness’s question is that the finances are going to come directly from the money that would have gone to local authorities, which may be what she meant by top-slicing.
My Lords, Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, requires that the Bill cannot be commenced until a report on funding the costs of the academy conversions resulting from the Bill has been laid before Parliament.
As noble Lords may recall, this amendment was also tabled during Grand Committee, when I agreed to say more on the outcome of the spending review in relation to the Bill. I hope the noble Baroness will be delighted to hear that I can now do so. I am pleased to say that, following the Chancellor’s Statement last week, total spending on education will increase in cash terms in this spending review period from £60 billion in 2015-16 to nearly £65 billion in 2020. The exact budget for the academy programme will be finally determined following our internal business planning process, now that we know the exact spending review settlement. But I would like to reassure the House that the Department for Education’s overall settlement clearly recognises the potential costs of academy conversions as a result of this Bill and has been very much part of the detailed conversations we have had with HMT. I hope that the noble Baroness is pleased to hear that.
The settlement reflects our bold ambitions for education and provides a firm basis from which to deliver our goal of securing educational excellence in every corner of the country. As the noble Baroness mentioned, and as I have outlined during previous debates, we anticipate approximately 1,000 inadequate schools converting to academy status over the course of this Parliament. This represents a continuation of the trend we have seen over the last five years, with over 1,200 sponsored academies opening during the last Parliament. Alongside this, we expect to identify hundreds of coasting schools that can be challenged and supported to improve. It is important to emphasise, however, that, as I said before, not all coasting schools will become academies.
As noble Lords may be aware, details of grant rates for schools converting to academy status are already published and are available on GOV.UK. We have no plans to change this. Overall, in the academic year 2014-15 the department paid nearly £20 million to academy trusts in pre-opening grants. We are committed to ensuring that funding for academy conversion ensures maximum value for money, and funding amounts are regularly reviewed to ensure that grant levels are appropriate. On value for money, we have reduced the cost of a school becoming a sponsored secondary academy by almost two-thirds since 2010.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the £600 million in the ESG. Efficiency savings in 2016-17 have been done on the basis that all local authorities can reduce spend on ESG functions to the level of the median, based on planned expenditure data reported in the Section 251 data. This is the same approach that we use for calculating the new general funding rate for 2015-16. We recognise that the general funding rate currently funds local authorities for some of the statutory duties that they carry out on behalf of maintained schools. We will be consulting on a mechanism for local authorities to recoup the costs of delivering these services from maintained schools. Local authorities should continue to consider how to deliver services as efficiently as possible in preparation for the removal of this funding.
In the light of the assurances I have given about the number of schools we anticipate will become sponsored academies, the existing transparency of conversion costs and the fact that all this has been carefully taken into account in negotiations with HMT on the spending review, I hope the House will agree that a report on the future costs of conversion is not necessary. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister very much for his response. Two things occur to me. He stated that education spending in the Autumn Statement was going to rise over the four-year period from £60 billion to £65 billion, which is an 8% increase over the period or 2% per annum. That will barely cover the cost of inflation in the education area, let alone the increasing numbers of children in the sector. Although any increase is to be welcomed in these times, we should not over-egg the sums involved. The second interesting thing is that the Government intend to recoup costs from the maintained schools for the loss of the ESG at local authority level. That clearly reduces even further the amount of money the maintained sector has to invest in the learning of the children in its care.
Departmental budgets have yet to be determined, so it is understandable that we have not had an answer but could the Minister write to me in response to the questions I have raised once the internal budget has been determined so that there is transparency in the process and we all know how money is to be allocated for this particular part of the Bill? I am delighted that the Minister is nodding to show that he will be able to do that.
With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned.