Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 4: Duty of local authority in relation to previously looked after children
80: Clause 4, page 5, line 39, at end insert—
“( ) The person appointed by the local authority must be trained to have an awareness of speech, language and communication needs.”
My Lords, I will be brief. These amendments require all speech, language and communication needs to be assessed, and those concerned to be trained. Any assessed needs should then be treated—something we discussed earlier in the Bill. I am therefore simply referring them to the designated people who are listed in these clauses. I beg to move.
My Lords, as has already been pointed out, this group is closely related to the group beginning with Amendment 30 on ensuring that the voice of the child or young person is heard and understood. These amendments would ensure that personal advisers have an awareness of speech and language communication difficulties and needs. Personal advisers do not need to be fully trained speech and language therapists, but they need to be aware of any possible lack of communication skills on the part of young care leavers.
I listened with interest to the Minister on Monday when she said that the Government have put £650,000 into speech and language support—this at a time when the proportion of children in the population is increasing. From 2010 to 2014, the birth to 17 year-old population grew by around 550,000, an increase of 4.9%, and the rate of children being looked after has increased from 57 per 10,000 in 2010 to 60 per 10,000 in 2015. The sum of £650,000 appears to be woefully inadequate. Over the same period, local authority budgets have come under intense pressure and as a result some non-statutory preventive services for children have been considerably reduced. Over the spending review period, against the baseline, in 2010-11 local authority spending on children’s centres and early years reduced by 38%, or £538 million, while spending on youth services reduced by 53% or £623 million. Without adequate awareness of the speech and language needs of children and young people, personal advisers will not be able to support them in the way I believe the Government intend. More resources other than the £650,000 already mentioned will be needed for their strategy to be successful. I fully support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 88A and 88B, which are tabled in my name. In doing so I declare an interest in this area because of my role as chair of the Governing Council of Salford University. These amendments are slightly different from those already being considered; none the less, they are concerned with maximising the educational attainment of looked-after children, albeit at the other end of the educational experience—higher education—that we do not hear about too much.
Amendment 88A would require each university to collect and publish data on their recruitment of students from looked-after backgrounds, the demographic characteristics of those students, their educational outcomes and their destinations on leaving university. Amendment 88B would place a duty on universities to assess the needs of students coming in from an experience of care, to provide the support—financial and non-financial—that they need to continue with their studies, to support them in vacations and to give them priority in the allocation of bursaries to cover fees and maintenance. The educational underachievement of children in care is significant, long standing and well known to everybody here.
At every level—through early years, schools, colleges and so on—children from care quickly fall behind their peers and often stay behind them. Recent figures show, for example, that less than 15% of children in care gained five good GCSEs, including maths and English, compared to almost 60% of all children. Over a third of care leavers aged 19 are NEET, compared with about 19% of all 19 to 24 year-olds. In higher education, although it is a considerable improvement on the 1% it was not long ago, still only 7% of care leavers go to university, compared to about 30% of all young people.
We know broadly the reasons why. Children in care have experiences before—and unfortunately very often during—their care experience that make learning much more difficult. I know that all of us here believe passionately that when the state is in loco parentis, the support and targeted interventions to make up for those experiences should be there. We should ensure that children in care come through the care experience having developed and attained everything they are capable of.
Successive Governments have focused on the outcomes, particularly educational, for children in care, and there has been some steady, if not dramatic, improvement in schools, colleges and local authorities. There is some excellent practice, which we can disseminate in those sectors. For example, there is the virtual head teachers scheme, which is extended in the Bill. Local authorities now require an educational plan for every looked-after child, and monitor that at senior levels.
However, there has been much less attention paid to what needs to happen in the HE sector to increase the number of children in care going to university, staying there and succeeding. There is some good practice, and a real focus on looked-after children in some universities. Two significant charities—Buttle UK, with its quality mark, and the Who Cares? Trust—have done a great deal to encourage universities to focus on looked-after children, but the situation is very patchy.
One of the first problems is that we do not even know how patchy it is, because there is very little data. Colleagues in HE have said to me that because the Higher Education Funding Council does not require any statistics on looked-after children, none are collected. OFFA, the fair access body, again encourages universities to include looked-after children in their access agreement, but does not require it. So we do not know how many looked-after children apply to university, how many go to each university or what their characteristics are. We do not know how they fare when they get to university and whether they complete their courses or disproportionately drop out, like some other vulnerable groups. Nor do we know the kind of employment or destination they go to.
Much of this information is collected for students as a whole, and some of it is disaggregated for other groups—for example, students from minority-ethnic groups and disabled students. But it is not disaggregated for students who come in from a care background, as it is in schools, so we cannot see the outcomes for those students and compare them with those for the rest, and we cannot compare the performance of universities.
Requiring universities to collect and publish data for looked-after students would enable us to see how students from care were doing, and which universities were doing well and which were not. It would be a driver, as it has been for schools and colleges, for steadily improving performance overall. Then, of course, there is the question of the additional support looked-after students are likely to need to go to university, to stay there and to be successful. Amendment 88B is not exhaustive, but it outlines the kinds of support likely to be necessary.
It is time to bring to the higher education sector the same obligations we have placed on schools, colleges and local authorities, and to try to make a real difference to the numbers of looked-after children going to university and coming out successfully. I hope these amendments will stimulate that debate and that the Minister will give full consideration to these issues.
My Lords, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, has just said and pay tribute to the work of the Labour Government—their huge investment of funds to improve the education of looked-after children; the change in the law; the introduction of designated teachers; and the reform of the school admissions process, which is so important for these young people.
There has been concern about the success in higher education achieved by young people leaving care. It is also very important to bear in mind that many of these young people mature late. As I have mentioned in the Chamber, Dr Mark Kerr, a care leaver himself, who has done research in this area, found that upwards of a quarter of 25 year-olds in the group he looked at had gone on to higher education. I hope these statistics will provide a means of monitoring how many mature students have been through care, so that we can get a more accurate idea of how successful our efforts are. It has been somewhat demoralising to think that all the effort we have put into the education of looked-after children has not been reflected in higher education attainment, although there has been a significant increase from a very low base. Regarding how we might make best use of our resources, it may be helpful to know how many 25 year-olds who have been in care go on to higher education, for instance.
The noble Baroness referred to the Frank Buttle Trust, which has done such important work in this area, and the Who Cares? Trust. One issue the Frank Buttle Trust has identified is that, where there is someone to champion care leavers at university, one needs to plan carefully for that person’s succession. One can have a very good person in place but when they move on, everything can fall back. Therefore, I hope that can be kept in mind in any guidance arising from this work. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, for tabling these two amendments and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes. When I was chancellor of a former polytechnic, which became a very successful university, we had a worrying number of undergraduates who left at the end of the first year, or sometimes the second year. We did not know whether or not they had been in care. There was a very good support service at the university which could have been used to help them if they had been identified as needing extra help. These two amendments are very helpful.
My Lords, we support all these amendments. In speaking to Amendments 88A and 88B, I simply echo the remarks of my noble friend Lady Hughes of Stretford. This would be a very important addition to the Bill. As regards the other amendments, we welcome the commitment to ensure that academies and maintained schools are held to the same standards of educational achievement for relevant children, and the requirement to consult upon, and publish, a local care offer for care leavers. This would allow best practice to be shared throughout the sector and ensure full accountability and informed choices for children and young people.
The post of designated lead for looked-after children already exists in all schools, so the extension to previously looked-after children is welcome, but in reality these duties in a school are often overlaid on top of existing responsibilities. For instance, the duty regarding looked-after children is often added to the SEN co-ordinator’s role or to that of a senior manager. Therefore, the implications could be significant in terms of time allocation for the member of staff concerned.
We also believe that academy trusts should be required to designate a lead person, and that somebody at a senior level should be involved, such as an executive member within the trust. An individual member of staff may be the designated staff member, but he or she should report to someone at executive level to ensure that the executive member assumes ultimate responsibility for the interests of looked-after and previously looked-after children, and that the designated staff member is allocated the requisite time and resources to do his or her job properly.
In the debate on Monday on Amendment 77, I referred to the need for adequate time and resources to be made available, and the Minister assured me that that would be the case in respect of virtual head teachers. The same arguments apply here, and I hope I will receive the same assurances. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, focused on the importance of ensuring that children receive the speech and language therapy support they require, and we wholeheartedly support that aim. This is particularly important as communication underpins literacy, and good communication skills are essential to academic attainment.
In a wider sense, it is essential that those who take on responsibilities for promoting the educational achievement of looked-after and previously looked-after children and young people are trained in awareness of the various needs those children may have, whether speech, language and communication, autism or physical disabilities. Whatever a child’s needs, it is the duty of the local authority to ensure that those needs are met. Clearly, no single person can cover any more than one of those needs in full, so there must be collaboration with neighbouring schools where necessary to ensure adequate provision. The child’s needs are paramount, and that must always be so.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 80 to 85 and Amendments 88A and 88B.
Amendments 80 to 85 seek to ensure that the virtual school head and the designated teacher for looked-after and previously looked-after children are trained in awareness of speech, language and communication needs. I am grateful to noble Lords for these amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, we discussed the importance of speech, language and communication skills to children’s development in our previous session.
Children who are looked after or who were previously looked after are particularly vulnerable to having poor speech and language as they often will not have had parents who helped maximise their communication skills and development. Early identification is essential so that the right support is in place as soon as possible. Our vision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those with speech, language and communication needs, is the same as it is for all children and young people. We want them to achieve well in their early years, at school and in further education, to find employment, to lead happy and fulfilled lives and to experience choice and control. That is why we introduced a new early years progress check in 2012 for children at the age of two as part of the reformed early years foundation stage. This is helping to pick up potential difficulties early to ensure that support plans are put in place for tackling them.
As I explained when discussing Amendment 30, the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a requirement for local authorities to publish a local offer of services across education, health and social care for children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities. We expect these offers to include details of services to meet speech, language and communication needs, and details of how they can be accessed.
While I fully sympathise with the noble Lord’s intentions, we are not convinced that we need to prescribe in legislation that every virtual school head and designated teacher must have training on this issue. Designated teachers, like all teachers, will have covered identifying and responding to all children’s needs, including speech, language and communication needs, as part of their initial teacher training. The National College for Teaching and Leadership has also produced a series of online training materials for teachers with a focus on the most prevalent forms of SEN. That includes a module on speech, language and communication needs.
As I explained during our previous session, we are also funding the Communication Trust, a consortium of more than 40 voluntary and community-sector organisations working in the field of speech, language and communication to build on existing resources and programmes to ensure that practitioners working with children and young people up to the age of 25 are supported and helped to meet their needs and, as the noble Lord said, to ensure consistency of practice.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned the figure I referred to in the previous session relating to this element. We have increased funding for SEN support as the population has increased. We announced an additional £92.5 million in December 2015 for the high-needs element of the dedicated school grant for SEN provision. The £650,000 that I mentioned was only part of the £130 million that we have allocated between 2014-15 and 2016-17 for SEN implementation.
Most virtual school heads are also former teachers, and will have access to training provided by their local authority to ensure that they can effectively do their job and meet the needs of local children. Their role will not be to work directly with children but to work closely with those who will, such as the school’s designated teacher and SEN co-ordinator. Together, they will identify and support children with special educational needs, including those with speech, language and communication needs. However, in light of the discussions we had on our previous Committee day, we will go further and discuss with the National Association of Virtual School Heads whether we need to do more to make sure that their members and the designated teachers with whom they work have the necessary training in speech, language and communication need to ensure greater consistency of practice. I hope that in light of that, noble Lords are reassured and that the amendments will not be pressed.
On Amendments 88A and 88B, everyone who wants to and who has the ability to go to university, including, of course, care leavers and those who were previously looked-after children, should have the opportunity and be encouraged to do so. The rationale behind the amendments is about making sure that universities support those two groups of young people by publishing a range of data as well as prioritising their applications and supporting them financially and emotionally while they are studying. We know that the figures nationally for the number of care leavers going into higher education are lower than the average. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, pointed out, 7% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are in higher education, compared to around 30% for the same age group as a whole. While we entirely understand the aim of the amendments, we are not convinced that it is the best way to achieve that aim. I shall talk about the steps that we are taking in a number of ways.
Universities are independent and autonomous bodies, and are best placed to make their own decisions about how best to support their students. Many are supporting more vulnerable children to go to university than ever before. The independent Director of Fair Access has agreed 183 access arrangements for 2016-17, which include plans for universities to spend more than £745 million on measures to improve access and support the success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is up significantly from the £404 million in 2009, and care leavers are a specific target group for access arrangements. Support for care leavers in access arrangements has grown considerably over the years, with around 80% of access agreements including specific action to support care leavers. There is a particular focus on supporting care leavers during the admissions process. Access activities referred to by institutions concerning care leavers in their agreements include subject-specific activities, pre-entry visits to institutions, taster sessions, summer schools and pre-entry attainment raising. One-third of institutions refer to undertaking long-term outreach activity with care leavers and looked-after children.
In addition, the Government have funded a National Network for the Education of Care Leavers, which provides HE activities and resources for care leavers, children in care and the people who support them. The Government are absolutely committed to widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the HE sector takes its responsibilities in this area very seriously. That is why the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of the children they look after, which is backed up by a requirement that every local authority must appoint a virtual school head. Statutory guidance on promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children makes it clear that their aspirations to go to university must be encouraged, nurtured and supported. Local authorities as corporate parents must provide financial assistance to the extent that the young person’s educational needs require it, including support for accommodation outside university term time. They must also provide a £2,000 higher education bursary.
Supporting previously looked-after children is important, too. We are extending the role of the personal adviser so that those key people have a role in providing information and advice in relation to previously looked-after children. Of course, the situation is different for young people who were looked after but who leave care through, for example, an adoption or special guardianship order. Those young people have parents and carers who will be there to support and encourage them as they consider and undertake higher education, in much the same way as young people who have never been in care. But we recognise that some of those young people may have ongoing issues stemming from the trauma of their early life experiences. That is why in April of this year we extended the upper age limit for access to therapeutic support funded by the adoption support fund from 18 to 21.
We are in a better place than we were a few years ago. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, mentioned, since Buttle UK developed its quality mark for care leaver-friendly universities, their awareness of the needs of care leavers has increased and the Who Cares? Trust website, as the noble Baroness mentioned, is a hugely valuable resource for care leavers on the help available to them in individual institutions. Care leavers can succeed in university. In Hertfordshire, the virtual school head has confirmed that numbers going to university are growing, with 61 currently at university and a further 24 planning to go in the autumn, each of whom is the first in their families to go to university. She also confirms that four of their care leavers have won first-class honours degrees and expects notification of a fifth.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the importance of data. We have increased the age range of care leavers on whom we collect data from 19 to 20 and 21 year-olds and will be doing this in future for 18 year-olds, so that we know their destinations in relation to education and training. As part of our higher education reforms, the Government also are increasing the amount of data that universities will need to publish as part of the new teaching excellence framework, so that we can better see the progress of students and measure the quality of teaching. We also, of course, have set a challenging ambition to increase the number of disadvantaged young people going to university, which again will need to be monitored by clear data. I do not have the full datasets, but perhaps it would be helpful if I wrote to noble Lords to set out some of the new data that will be published and collected. I do not have the details here. On that basis and given that, hopefully, I have shown the seriousness with which we take this issue, I hope that the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendments.
Before the Minister sits down, I thank her for her response but wonder if I could have some clarification. Given the Minister’s comments about teacher and SEN training including communication skills modules, is the assumption that personal advisers will all be drawn from the ranks of ex-teachers?
No, that is not the assumption.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive response and to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for her comments. I also support the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, which came from a different angle, as it were, from the rest of the group, but nevertheless were very meaningful. As I said in respect of Amendment 30, the importance of having speech, language and communication needs assessed and treated is that unless they are, the children who are the subject of this Bill will not be able to understand or engage in any of the changes the Bill proposes. As I said in that debate, when we in the all-party group conducted our review of the link between speech, language and communication needs and social disadvantage, we discovered tremendous inconsistency all over the country, both in the understanding of what was needed and in the training of the people who were responsible for doing the assessing. We discovered, for example, that in Northern Ireland, the social services and the health visitors worked together very closely, but in other places the two were not connected. As I mentioned, we discovered in Walsall that continuous training was done throughout the secondary school stage, but that was rare elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In talking about children previously in care, we are talking about the needs of people who have slipped through the net much earlier.
Therefore, I am very concerned that the Minister should suggest that these amendments are not necessary; I think they are. She mentioned the Communication Trust, which is a considerable partner in the all-party group that I have with worked very closely. There would be considerable merit in the Communication Trust, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the ministerial Bill team having a discussion before we come to Report, so that hopefully, the Government can decide that they can include such a provision in the Bill, rather than our proposing amendments such as this. Such a provision is very important to the Government’s achieving their aim. I know from talking to both organisations that they would be very happy to do that, and I suspect that a number of noble Lords would like to be involved in that discussion.
Before the noble Lord sits down, yes, we would be very happy to have an early discussion.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 80 withdrawn.
Amendment 80A not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Maintained schools: staff member for previously looked after pupils
Amendments 81 to 82 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Academies: staff member for looked after and previously looked after pupils
Amendments 83 to 84A not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7: Maintained schools: guidance for staff member for looked after pupils
Amendments 85 to 88B not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Care orders: permanence provisions
89: Clause 8, page 8, line 42, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 9 and insert—
“(i) the child to live with any parent of the child’s or a person with parental responsibility for the child;(ii) long-term foster care, with a connected person, existing foster carer or other person;(iii) adoption, with an existing foster carer, foster to adopt or other person;(iv) long-term care not within sub-paragraph (i), (ii) or (iii);”
Clause 8 extends the definition of permanence provisions as it appears in the Children Act 1989 so courts will also be required to consider provisions in the plan that set out the impact on the child concerned of any harm they have suffered or are likely to have suffered, their current and future needs and the ways in which the long-term plan for the child’s upbringing would meet all those current and future needs. This is an important provision and one that we are very glad to see within the Bill.
My Amendment 89 wants to encourage the Government to take this a little further by extending the circumstances under which permanence provisions will operate to embrace long-term foster care. There are two reasons for seeking to do this: first, to ensure that we have legal clarity—I will be interested to hear the noble Lord’s response on that—and secondly, to avoid some options, particularly adoption, being seen as more important than others in the hierarchy of care. This is particularly important in relation to long-term foster care.
My understanding is that a legal framework is already in place to allow this to happen. Since amendments to the permanence provisions were made in the Children and Families Act 2014, a legal definition for long-term foster care has been introduced. The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 have been amended to introduce a new definition of a long-term foster care placement, and set out the conditions that must be met. This step rightly strengthens the importance of foster care as a permanence option for children and young people in care. As the Government have therefore placed long-term foster care on a legal footing, the opportunity should be taken in this legislation to make a link. I remind the Government that The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations Volume 2: care planning, placement and case review of June 2015 includes reference to the range of options for permanence and could be used as a basis on which to amend subsection (3B) of the Children Act to reflect the range of options for permanence that already exist in law, all of which can deliver good outcomes for individual children.
Since three-quarters of looked-after children are fostered, surely any change to improve the outcomes for children in care needs to concentrate on those children as well as children who may be adopted. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have Amendment 90 in this group, which adds,
“the child’s wishes and feelings”,
to the list of matters that must be included in the local authority Section 31A plan. This is the plan that must be in place before a court can consider whether to make a care order.
There are many issues on which the child may have particular wishes and feelings, such as who is to foster them, where they are to live and what contact they are to have with members of their family and others. The inclusion of the child’s wishes and feelings is vital and should be uncontroversial. The court is required under the welfare checklist to have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned, considered in the light of his or her age and understanding. Therefore, placing local authorities under a similar duty will ensure that family judges have access to the information they need to determine what is in the child’s best interests. Local authorities are subject to comparable duties when undertaking child protection inquiries, assessing need and making decisions about a child they are looking after or proposing to look after. Independent reviewing officers are required to ensure that a child who is subject to a care order has been informed—again, in accordance with his or her age or understanding—of the steps he or she can take to challenge the order.
It makes no sense to arrange for children to be assisted in challenging their care order without any parallel requirement that they be encouraged to express their wishes and feelings prior to such an order being made. It is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. That is the basis of my argument for Amendment 90.
My Lords, I would like to support Amendment 89. I am grateful to the Government for clarifying the importance they place on long-term foster placements, but this amendment is also welcome. In the Government’s very important drive to secure more adoption placements, the risk is that it might appear to some that they do not value as much the very important role of foster carers who provide long-term placements for children. I welcome this debate and I encourage the Minister and his colleagues to take every opportunity, whenever they talk about the continuity of care that young people who have been traumatised and enter the care system need, to also speak very highly and positively of foster carers who provide long-term foster placements.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 90A, which would place a duty on local authorities and specialist NHS children and young people’s mental health services in England to provide long-term support for adopted children. I thank Adoption UK and the other adoption agencies for the work they have done on this issue. We believe that it is imperative that the Government change the law to give all adoptive families the right to appropriate adoption support when they need it. I have been calling for this for many years, as have all those colleagues who sat on the Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, whom we heard from earlier.
Our 2013 report stated:
“We are concerned that the provision of post-adoption support is often variable and sometimes inadequate. We believe such support is essential to ensuring the stability of adoptive placements, and to increasing the number of adopters coming forward. We therefore recommend a statutory duty on local authorities and other service commissioning bodies to cooperate to ensure the provision of post-adoption support”.
That, essentially, is what the amendment would do in the areas outlined.
This is a very important issue. Most adopted children have experienced abuse or neglect in their early lives, and they require ongoing support. I usually welcome programmes such as the adoption support fund, which the Minister mentioned earlier, but as we know, it is currently dependent on short-term funding arrangements. Given the extreme difficulties adoptive families can face, they need to be given a right to access programmes such as the adoption support fund.
Further supporting evidence from the research report Beyond the Adoption Order: Challenges, Interventions and Adoption Disruption of April 2014 highlights startling findings. We should bear in mind that this was a government-backed report. It found, for example, that the majority of adoptive parents were,
“dissatisfied with the overall response from support agencies”.
It also stated:
“About a quarter of parents described major challenges with children who had multiple and overlapping difficulties”.
Some of the children’s behaviour, such as aggression,
“self-harm, night terrors, soiling, manipulation and control”,
was literally ruining their lives. The report continued:
“Many were struggling to get the right support in place. Parents reported that they were physically and mentally exhausted”.
In some cases, a lack of support led to a breakdown in adoption. The report also stated:
“Respite care was often used as a last ditch attempt to keep the family together”,
and was almost never used “proactively”. I cite one other finding from the research report which is possibly its most shocking—namely, that adoptive parents were forced to use the police “as a support agency”.
I strongly urge the Government to accept the spirit behind Amendment 90A, which places a duty on local authorities and specialist services. We all know that children adopted from care are the most vulnerable in Britain. The neglect and abuse they experience, even in the womb or after birth, does not disappear just because they are adopted. We clearly must do better for these children.
My Lords, I support Amendment 90 tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Pinnock. In many cases it must be truly terrifying for a child who feels that their future is out of control. It surely is absolutely imperative that they be listened to and given the feeling that their wishes will be respected. Disregarding them will only add to their trauma and the feeling of insecurity they are going through. Surely, any solutions are likely to be less successful if they do not have buy-in from the child.
My Lords, I support Amendments 89 and 90. I say to the Minister that in any legislation you cannot sprinkle too many references to taking account of children’s wishes and feelings. I encourage the Minister to be even more liberal than the measure proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I very much support the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I say that having been on the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, which was so ably chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. We heard a number of pieces of evidence in which concern was expressed about whether the balance between adoption and fostering was getting out of kilter. I have certainly been in the company of social workers—I will not say where or when, but reasonably recently—who have talked about the adoption “hawks” taking over the Department for Education. The prospects of older children who are fostered being adopted are extremely limited. Therefore, we should give stronger encouragement to long-term fostering arrangements and indicate in the Bill an equivalence between adoption and long-term fostering that is currently lacking. Sometimes we get carried away with what can be achieved with adoption, which I support. However, it is not right for everybody and where children have established a good fostering relationship with foster parents, we need to encourage that and not make foster parents feel like second-class citizens.
My Lords, I support all these amendments and pick up what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has just said. I entirely agree with him about supporting long-term fostering as a very important alternative. However, we are living at a time when adoption is not doing very well. One has to recognise that as much support for adoption as possible should be given because, since the publication of the Adoption Post-Legislative Scrutiny report by the Select Committee to which the noble Lord referred, which I chaired, we have had fewer adoptions. We have to bear that in mind. However, I totally support the idea that long-term fostering is an extremely important alternative, particularly for the older child who wants to retain some links with the natural family, and for whom adoption is therefore inappropriate.
I would like to say something about the child’s wishes and feelings. I sat as a family judge, one way or another, for 35 years, and that was of great importance to me. Section 1 of the Children Act talks about the requirement on the judge to take into account the “wishes and feelings” of the child, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred. I have no doubt that most local authorities want to know what children think, but they may not, and they do not actually have any legal requirement to do what judges have to do as a legal requirement. It seems odd that in Part 4 of the Children Act there is no requirement for that, as far as I can remember, although I have such a tiny rendering of it on my iPad that I cannot quite read it, and I forgot to bring a better copy of the Children Act with me. But I do not think that under Section 31, or any of the other sections—those who know better are agreeing with me—there is any requirement on the local authority to take account of the wishes and feelings of children. I can understand that being the case in 1989. Despite my Cleveland report, and despite Lord Denning and the Gillick case, we did not take children’s feelings and wishes all that seriously. But in 2016, we have moved on—and the Children Act in this aspect should move on. I hope the Government take the amendment very seriously.
On the third point that the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, made about the mental health problems of adopted children, in our post-legislative scrutiny committee we got a lot of evidence about the real hardship of parents who have adopted, some of whom had not quite realised the extent of the trauma of the children they had taken on. They were not equipped to deal with it and, at the very worst, some of those children went back into care, which was not just a failure for the adoptive parents—it was the most appalling failure for the child. It was one failure after another.
If it is possible for the adoptive parents to get proper help at an early enough stage to be told how to cope, you can stop that disaster of the child going back into care. We got such a lot of evidence—and I have heard it from elsewhere, as many other noble Lords in this Room have—of how adoptive parents have sought help and not received it, or have not known how to seek it. It is the local authority or adoption agency that has the responsibility to put them in the right place to get the help. So I support what the noble Baroness, Lady King, suggested.
My Lords, I add my support to this group of amendments, which are all extremely important, and I want to make two points. I support what has already been said about adoption. For some children, it works very well indeed, and it is absolutely right that we are supporting prospective adopters and giving all the support and help that children who are being adopted need, but it is not right for everyone. In particular, it is not easy for children over the age of five. We need to understand how it becomes progressively a lot more difficult to adopt children as they become older.
Secondly, I want to add to the wise remarks of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about local authorities being required to take children’s wishes and feelings into account. I say that as the chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, as in my declared interests. Our role, as noble Lords may be aware, is to assist the courts and provide reports to the family courts so that judges know what children’s wishes and feelings are and can make their decisions accordingly. The work that we do there is very important, but it is absolutely vital that all parts of the family justice system—and I include local authorities as a key part of that system—have that first and foremost in their minds, so that children’s wishes and feelings really are what drives the whole process.
My Lords, I, too, want wishes and feelings to be included in the Bill. As noble Lords know, I am not really very keen on having additions to the Bill. I have taken part in a series of legislative debates that involved discussion of the inclusion of wishes and feelings, but I cannot remember exactly where they are and are not omitted. I have been chair of CAFCASS, and I know that judges have to take wishes and feelings into account. If local authorities had to do that before the report stage, it would save time because, often, judges have to send reports back because local authorities have not carried out the proper work on wishes and feelings. The present chair of CAFCASS, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is nodding. If such a provision were in the Bill, that work would be more likely to be undertaken.
My other point is about adoption and fostering. At the moment, there is a groundswell among a group of women who feel that they have had their children prised from them into adoption—I hope that officials have picked that up—and a campaign to look more closely at preventive work, with children being kept in their own homes. However, I have to say that, often, these children should be removed from home. Whether they should then be adopted is the question. I raise that issue because good work with the parents might mean the child could return home. However, they are often very difficult children whose parents are on drugs or have alcohol problems, and who are seeking help for themselves but not making it, and the children are in real difficulties. These are the children whom fostering would help. Fostering would maintain the situation until there is more stability. These are the children who in some situations have been placed for adoption, when we have not given the kind of support the Government previously discussed—ongoing care for adopters, adoption allowances and adoption support through the local authority, to ensure no further breakdown. Where is such a programme? There had been very positive thinking about adoption.
The Government have for a long time resisted proper research on adoption breakdown in order to understand why these children are sometimes being placed several times over. Sometimes adoption does not break down just once; it may break down more than once, and that is a total disaster. I have met young people who have been in that situation. The sooner we gain a greater understanding, either through government research or through gathering the research of others, the sooner we can intervene better by preventing breakdown or not placing these children in such situations in the first instance.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 89, 90 and 90A which seek to amend Clause 8. Before I do so it may be helpful if I take a moment to set out the intention behind Clause 8. It seeks to improve decision-making about child placements and to improve the information that is put before courts in care proceedings. It is about making sure that children’s long term-needs are at the forefront of decision-makers’ minds when significant decisions are made about where the child should live. Under current legislation, when deciding whether to make a care order, courts must consider the local authority’s long-term plan for the upbringing of a child. Clause 8 asks courts, when doing this, to consider the individual needs of the child now and, crucially, in the future, particularly in the light of any abuse or neglect they have experienced, and to consider how well the proposed care placement will meet those needs. The intention is to ensure that children receive placements which will meet their needs throughout their childhood.
I turn to Amendment 89, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson of Invergowrie and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. Every child deserves a loving and stable family. For those children who cannot live with their birth parents, it is vital that we find them permanent new homes as quickly as possible. Often, the best place will be with kinship carers or foster carers, and that is why we remain committed to improving those routes to permanence. The Government are pro adoption because it is a strong, permanent option for many children which provides them with the support and care they need throughout their lives. However, we also support other forms of permanence. Indeed, the Bill includes measures to improve educational support for children who leave care through a special guardianship order or child arrangements order, and the clause we are discussing will improve decision-making for all permanent options, which I think we would all agree is a good thing.
I recognise the intention behind the amendment, which is to ensure that all placement orders are given equal consideration. However, the amendment would duplicate wording that is already set out elsewhere, in the Children Act 1989. Section 22C of the 1989 Act and accompanying statutory guidance sets out clearly how looked-after children are to be accommodated by local authorities. This includes placements with family members, foster placements and placements in children’s homes. We have no evidence that local authorities and courts are not clear about what placement options they need to consider during care proceedings, so the amendment would add nothing to the current legislation.
Amendment 90, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, proposes additional wording for Clause 8 to ensure that courts take into account the wishes and feelings of the child when deciding whether to make a care order. I am sure that no one questions the need for the child’s voice to be heard by the court charged with making important decisions about them. It is absolutely crucial that a child’s wishes and feelings should play a significant role in any decision-making about their upbringing. However, I want to reassure the noble Baroness and others that this principle is already captured in existing legislation.
On the point raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, Section 22F of the 1989 Act states that in making any decision in relation to the child, the local authority should give due consideration to the child’s wishes and feelings, having regard to that child’s age and understanding.
I apologise to the Minister, but that is in Part 3 of the Bill, which deals with the accommodation of children who are not children in care. The point about the amendment is that this provision should be included where the parent is also the local authority. The local authority has parental responsibility under Part 4, which it does not have under Part 3, when it is looking at the care plan. Authorities do not look back at Part 3 when dealing with Part 4. I suggest to the Minister that he is not being entirely legally accurate about this.
In view of that suggestion, I will not attempt even to get to that ball, let alone try to hit it back over the net. I will have the appropriate conversations and write to the noble and learned Baroness. We will certainly get our minds clear on this point.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for Amendment 90A, which seeks to place a specific duty on local authorities and NHS mental health services to support the needs identified in children’s care plans. Where children are in the care of a local authority, as the corporate parent it is under a specific duty to both assess and meet all their support needs. The Department for Education and the Department of Health have issued joint statutory guidance on the planning, commissioning and delivery of health services for looked-after children. It aims to ensure that these children have access to any physical or mental healthcare they may need. Statutory guidance is issued by law so both local authorities and health authorities must follow it unless there is a good reason not to do so.
We are also working with the Department of Health and NHS England to develop a mental health care pathway for looked-after and formerly looked-after children. The expert working group on the mental health of looked-after and adopted children will look at the needs of parents and what interventions can be applied to improve outcomes for the whole family. This would include adopted children. All clinical commissioning groups have had to set out how they will implement the CAMHS review, Future in Mind, and improve support for adoptive children. Given the reassurances and the undertaking to discuss some of the points further, and given that the intentions behind these amendments are already largely captured in legislation, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will withdraw his amendment and the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady King, will not press theirs.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her legal advice. I wonder whether we can sort this matter out. Perhaps the Minister can review the issue we have just discussed, and if he is still convinced that we do not need this amendment he can give us chapter and verse about exactly why that is. As far as I can tell, it is needed to make sure that we do not waste the court’s time. If the court gets the information from the local authority about the child’s wishes and feelings, it does not have to get it itself. We all want to save the court time. Perhaps the Minister could undertake to do that.
That was a very helpful intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the intention of this clause which—I am sure I speak for all noble Lords—we very much support. The noble Lord clearly believes that current legislation covers the substance of the points raised, though that is subject to further clarification. Clearly we will have time between now and Report to consider this further.
There are also issues relating to practice. I understand what the Minister said about him, his department and Ministers being pro-adoption, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, equally made the point that it is right to encourage adoption. However, as my noble friend Lord Warner said, there is a risk of a hierarchy of options in which long-term foster care cannot always be supported in the way it should be. I worry that when this gets down to the level of children’s services there is a risk of perverse behaviour because of a belief that adoption is always to be preferred to foster care. I would particularly welcome further clarification and reassurance on that area.
On the issue of the child’s wishes and feelings, again, I am sure we will sort out the legal position. What has come from the debate is that in the experience of some of the courts, local authorities do not always seem to have found out the child’s feelings or wishes or to have taken proper account of them. Even if the legal position is okay—and obviously there are some concerns about that—some practice within children’s services needs to be improved.
Finally, my noble friend Lady King raised NHS mental health services. We will have further debate on this because we will be debating an amendment that looks at the problem of children covered by this legislation being sent for out-of-area placements. This is a horrendous problem, particularly for adolescents with mental health issues. Sometimes those young people can find themselves being sent to places 100 or 150 miles away. The NHS has some strong responsibilities here, which at the moment it is not discharging. I listened with great interest to what the Minister said about the work between his department and the Department of Health on care pathways. It is to be welcomed, but it is in the context of long-term consistent failure within the NHS in relation to mental health services for young people. Again, I hope we will have a further opportunity to debate that. This has been an excellent debate, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 89 withdrawn.
Amendment 90 not moved.
90A: Clause 8, page 9, line 9, at end insert—
( ) In section 31 of the Children Act 1989 (care and supervision orders), after subsection (3C) insert— “(3D) Local authorities and specialist NHS children and young people’s mental health services in England have a duty to support the current and future needs of the child, as identified in the long-term plan under section (3B)(a).”
From what the noble Lord says, current legislation provides a duty to meet children’s needs. This is not the understanding I have from Adoption UK and other agencies, nor indeed from the many social workers I have spoken to who are involved with providing support. I will reflect on what the Minister has said, particularly in relation to NHS mental health services, but for the moment I will not move this amendment.
Amendment 90A not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
91: After Clause 8, insert the following new Clause—
“Sibling contact for looked after children
(1) In section 34(1) of the Children Act 1989, after paragraph (d) insert—“(e) his siblings (whether of the whole or half blood).”(2) In paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989, after paragraph (c) insert—“(d) his siblings (whether of the whole or half blood).””
My Lords, like Amendment 90, moved by my noble friend Lord Hunt, Amendments 91, 94, 96, 97 and 98, which are in my name and that of my noble friend, seek to strengthen the permanence provisions of care orders.
Amendment 91 aims to require local authorities to allow children in care reasonable contact with their siblings. The law currently requires local authorities to allow a looked-after child reasonable contact with their parents, and this amendment would extend that duty to siblings, a step that would reflect the important role of sibling relationships in the lives of children in care. The amendment would also provide a sound foundation for ensuring the recognition of the importance of sibling relationships for young people who have left care. For those young people leaving care who are also expectant parents, siblings can often prove an important source of emotional and practical support.
In January 2015, the Family Rights Group published its report into the current experience of siblings in the care system, looking at whether some placement types are more likely than others to enable siblings to be raised together when it is assessed as being in their interests. The report revealed that children in unrelated foster and residential care are overrepresented among those separated from their siblings, compared to the overall numbers in the care population. Only 1% of sibling groups who were all placed together were living in residential care. By contrast, children in kindship foster care were less likely to be separated from their siblings.
The report highlighted research showing the benefits that siblings can gain from being raised together. For many, it is the closest relationship they ever experience. They are able to share information and feelings and develop a shared sense of identity. Last year, a report by the Centre for Social Justice said:
“One of our greatest concerns is that the bonds between siblings in care, which can lead to greatly valued lifelong relationships, are being broken”.
Other studies have shown that young people overwhelmingly say they want siblings to be kept together. On average, 86% of all children in care thought it important to keep all siblings together in care, while more than three-quarters thought that councils should help children and young people to keep in touch with their brothers and sisters.
As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said in the debate on the previous group of amendments, and as noble Lords have said on numerous occasions during our deliberations on the Bill, we should listen to what children in care are saying. They know better than anyone what life in care is like and speak from experience—much of it, perhaps, not particularly pleasant. Government guidance recognises that maintaining contact with siblings is reported by children to be one of their highest priorities. It acknowledges the value of sibling contact for continuity, stability and promoting self-esteem and a sense of identity at a time of change or unfamiliarity. Further guidance emphasises the importance of sibling contact, where children can be placed together.
I shall not speak to Amendments 94, 96, 97 and 98 in such detail. Amendment 94 deals with pre-proceedings work with families and would ensure that effective work is undertaken with the family, so that all safe family options are explored if a child needs to become looked-after. The importance of family in this situation cannot be overstated. Amendment 96 would insert a new clause entitled, “Promoting the educational achievement of children who are living permanently away from their parents”. It would apply the provisions set out in Clauses 4, 5 and 6 for promoting the educational achievement of previously looked-after children to children who are living permanently away from their parents, including those being cared for by a relative or a wider family member, those under a special guardianship order or those who have been adopted.
Amendment 97 inserts a new clause entitled, “Support for family and friends carers where children are not looked after children”. It would ensure provision through local authorities appointing,
“a designated lead for family and friends care”,
carrying out assessments of,
“needs for family and friends care support services”,
and making arrangements for “counselling, advice and information”.
Amendment 98 states that a local authority must report,
“must report to the Secretary of State each year on outcomes for children in need; children subject to child protection plans; children who are the subject of care proceedings; looked after children; and care leavers”.
The amendment covers the headings contained in the local offer in Clause 2. It is important that the Secretary of State not only reports on these areas but lays a copy of the report before Parliament each year so that both Houses can measure progress and comment on it. The Minister may say in reply that that is an administrative burden or a burden in some other way, but it would be appropriate for the Government to accept this amendment. It would underline their commitment to children and young people in care by allowing access to reports to the Secretary of State for the Secretary of State and Members of both Houses to comment on. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and shall speak specifically to my Amendment 92. Grandparents play among the most important roles in a child life. The Children Act 2004 removed the right of grandparents to have access to their grandchildren. While this may be necessary in some cases, I believe that it was a retrograde step. In recent weeks, we saw the tragic case of Ellie Butler who, after five happy years with her grandparents, was returned to the care of her parents, with disastrous results. Her loving grandparents had been in the process of adopting Ellie legally. All was going well with the support of the local council, when the adoption was blocked by a social worker. As we all know, the decision to disregard the grandparents led to Ellie’s early death. We have already debated the need to listen to the views of the child and for communication with the child. It is essential that children’s wishes, including staying with supportive grandparents, while still having some access to their parents, are adhered to wherever possible. I am firmly of the opinion that now is the time to reinstate the importance of grandparents in a child’s life and would like to see this amendment in the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I support Amendments 91 and 92. I declare my interest as a grandparent several times over. On siblings, we now know a lot more about the importance of siblings to children taken into care than we did when the 1989 Act was passed. It is too often forgotten that siblings have often gone through the bad experiences that the children taken into care have experienced. There is a bond over some of the bad things which have happened to them which is important for their survivability in future. We too often underestimate the importance of siblings, and I therefore very strongly support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson.
I was seriously shocked by the Ellie Butler case. I thought it was the most appalling outcome for that child, and I will return to this issue on a later amendment. We have rather lost the plot on grandparents, who are a major resource for caring. We seem to forget that people can become grandparents very much younger than in previous eras; they can be grandparents in their late 40s and early 50s. In addition, grandparents are living longer and many of them are living fitter lives; they are quite capable of dealing with children. We are missing a trick in not recognising grandparents as a serious care resource. We should try to establish that very firmly in the Bill and recognise that we are in a very different position with grandparents from that which pertained several decades ago.
My Lords, I support Amendment 91, to which my name is attached. In doing so, as in the previous group I want once again to draw on my experience as the chair of CAFCASS. From our work at CAFCASS, we have found that children in care who have regular contact with their siblings tend to do better in terms of outcomes. It is absolutely the case that relationships with siblings are often the most enduring that those children have. Indeed, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, they can be as important to children as the relationship with their parents, particularly if they have supported each other through difficult times.
The reason why I most wanted to add my name to the amendment was that I attended a meeting last October of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Looked After Children and Care Leavers. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was there as well. It was a very moving meeting; we heard from a large number of children in care and who had recently left care about their experiences, in particular about the barriers that they had encountered in terms of having sibling contact. Perhaps I may mention some examples. A young person said that he had asked for contact with his siblings, but the local social services said no, because the siblings were in the care of a different local authority. That young person had not seen his siblings for 10 years. Another young person told us that he was the oldest of 13 siblings and had been allowed to see only two of them. He said that his adoptive parents were actively preventing him from seeing his brothers and sisters. We heard about other barriers, such as the issue not being high on the agenda for the local authority; we heard of young people who could not even get together the travel costs to see their siblings. We heard about a lot of things like that—but we also heard, more encouragingly, about some good practice, including young people being able to use Skype to make contact, and memory boxes for their siblings being put together.
I came away from that meeting feeling profoundly shocked and moved by those issues. It would seem so easy to do something about them, so why were we not? Along with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in November last year I signed a letter to Edward Timpson, the Minister responsible, setting out what had happened at the meeting and asking him what could be done to make it the norm for sibling contact to happen.
This Bill provides the ideal opportunity to add a provision like that set out in Amendment 91, which would make it much easier for young people like the ones I met to maintain sibling contact. I think that the impact on the rest of their lives could be really profound.
My Lords, I would like to support what the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, has just said. The Select Committee responsible for the post-adoption legislative inquiry came to the conclusion that I and one or two other Peers who served on the committee ought to meet children. We met a group of around a dozen adopted children to ask about their experiences. We then thought that it would only be fair to meet children who are in care, and again we spoke to about a dozen of those children. Everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, has just said we experienced, and it was very moving. I was the only Peer actually to talk to those children and their enablers. They told me frankly how they felt, and nearly everything they talked about was in relation to their brothers and sisters. One young person who was just about to leave care had been the father figure to three or four younger children. They were taken away and all divided up between different families. He said, “I was responsible for them. No one will even tell me how they are getting on. I think of them every night”. It was really terrible. The idea that siblings are taken into account should not be part of the actual law of the land seems utterly wrong.
We know that local authorities are in difficulties, and I am not suggesting that every sibling, perhaps particularly the eldest of 13, should be able to see every one of their brothers and sisters once a week; that would be silly. The use of Skype, Facebook and so on provides an opportunity to be in touch but, unless it is a requirement, it is extremely easy to overlook. That is why it needs to be in primary legislation.
I am a grandmother, six times over I am glad to say, but I am also a not-particularly effective president of the Grandparents’ Association and, on its behalf, I would like to say how important grandparents are—and the stories I have heard of how grandparents are taken for granted. If they are able to look after the children, that is great, but when they come in asking to take over the care of children, who basically they have been looking after for years and years, they are utterly disregarded. In the best of local authorities and, I have to say, the best of CAFCASS, they are taken into account, but many times they are not. It is about time that also was on the face of primary legislation. I should add, of course, that not every grandparent is a good one—one has to recognise this. The fact they are on primary legislation does not mean the local authority has to deal with thoroughly obstructive, unhelpful grandparents, who are trying to destroy whatever the situation is. Speaking now as a former judge, I had that sort of grandparent too, so one has to be realistic. But the majority of grandparents love their grandchildren and work incredibly hard for them, and they really should be recognised.
My Lords, I also support very strongly the amendments tabled by my noble friends and other noble Baronesses and noble Lords in this group. I will speak briefly but very particularly in relation to the points about siblings and grandparents. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have spoken very movingly about the importance to children of contact with their siblings. The new and rising role of grandparents also means that we have to look at that in terms of policy, as well.
I want to reflect on something that I find quite depressing. Most people in this room now were also participants when we debated the Children and Families Bill, not too long ago. We had extensive debates then about the importance of contact with siblings and the importance of considering kinship care before alternatives were gone towards too quickly, yet it seems to be the default position of the Department for Education not to recognise this in primary legislation. When he replies, I hope the Minister will speak to that, because I thought we had convinced him and his officials then, when we debated that Bill—but here we are again, with other legislation presented to us, that completely disregards siblings and other important family members. As the evidence my noble friend cited from the Family Rights Group and others shows, there is still very poor practice. Unless we put these issues in legislation to demonstrate their importance when the decisions about individual children and families are being made, we will still keep going around in circles. We will come back with another Bill and they will still not be there, and we will still have children separated from their brothers and sisters. Now is the time really to put this right.
My lords, I believe that the latest Ofsted findings show that siblings are being kept together and placed without undue delay in most circumstances, which is extremely good news. I wonder if the Minister could verify that. Certainly, it was what was said at the presentation of the latest Ofsted report and I greeted the news with some joy. However, it does not mean that I do not support this amendment, because the very fact that Ofsted has to report on this and say how much better it is getting shows that we have had to reach a point of changing practice to make sure that children are able to talk to their brothers and sisters. I am delighted that it seems to be getting better, if that is so, but it does emphasise the need for this proposal. I am the very unlikely founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Grandparents—they could not find anybody else—but, as people know, I have brought up children and still find myself with my great-nieces and great-nephews for care, and for all the things that grandparents do.
What I have learned from working in the north of England, where all my family are, is that grandparents up there are mostly caring informally for their grandchildren. It is only when things go seriously wrong that they suddenly find that they are not adequate to care for those grandchildren, because the assessment says that they have to be moved somewhere else. That is where the two parts of this Bill meet, because we are looking for good assessment by a social worker. Of course, the child’s needs must be paramount; you do not leave a child with a grandparent who does not have the ability to care for that child—but surely it is better, if they have made that relationship and the grandparent is fit to care, that they continue. The recent death of Ellie Butler is an example of that.
My Lords, I welcome this group of amendments, and particularly welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said. It is so important to the young people who come to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, young people in care, care leavers, and their foster carers and social workers, that they are heard by parliamentarians. They often express their regret that not more MPs and parliamentarians are there. I am so very grateful to the noble Baroness for taking such great pains to listen, record and share with the Grand Committee her experience of visiting that meeting. I agree of course with everything that she said.
I flag up one more time the important role that Delma Hughes has played over the past 10 or 15 years in terms of advocacy for sibling contact. As I mentioned before to your Lordships, she entered care and lost contact with her five siblings; she went on to become an art therapist and practised for many years. On recognising about 10 years ago the lack of facilities for facilitating sibling contact, she set up her own charity, Siblings Together, and has organised workshops over many summers and Easters where groups of siblings who would otherwise be separated have come together to enjoy performing in plays and camping together. She has made a big mark in this area. She met with Ed Balls, the former Secretary of State, to advocate on their behalf, and has been a member of the SCIE consultation group on this area. She has really made a big difference, and I pay tribute to her.
It is encouraging to hear what my noble friend Lady Howarth said about the recent Ofsted findings. To enable siblings to stay together, one obviously has to have foster carers with the capacity to offer the larger placements—so congratulations are due all round that some progress is being made.
I can summarise the last two or three amendments by saying that they are about better supporting special guardians, kinship carers and others. The problem is that local authorities are very stretched for resources. If they have no legal obligation to support such families, who are standing in, those families may get very little if any support. Yet those families save the Exchequer huge sums of money each year by caring for many thousands of children. They often do so at their own expense, not being able to do the job that they might otherwise be able to do. They may have to live in a very cramped housing environment because of the extra child they take in. Anything that the Bill can do to make central government more aware of the duty that we owe those families and of the support, or lack of it, is very welcome.
We recently discussed a housing Bill and a welfare reform Bill in which concerns about the helpful role that these special guardians and kinship carers offer was raised. To some degree, their concerns were answered, but we need always to keep our minds on those people. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, argued in earlier amendments for making Secretaries of State bear much more in mind of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, so that we can look, across all departments, at the impact of Bills on children, whether they are welfare or housing Bills. So often those Bills have other priorities, and there is a risk that different departments will not work together to improve the outcomes of children but work against such outcomes. I welcome this group of amendments and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will respond to Amendments 91 and to Amendments 92, 94 and 96 to 98, which are grouped with it. These clauses address a number of topics, relating to maintaining a child’s relationship with the birth family or keeping them within that family, promoting the educational achievement of children living away from their birth parents, providing support to family and friends carers, reporting on the outcomes for vulnerable children and applying Clause 9 to cover Wales. I thank all noble Lords for raising several important points and for the moving and high-quality contributions that have been made.
Amendments 91, 92 and 94 all seek to maintain a child’s links with their birth family where they are unable to live with their birth parents. The Government absolutely agree that a child maintaining contact with their birth family wherever possible can provide continuity and stability at a time when other aspects of their life can be subject to uncertainty. Guidance under the Children Act 1989 and the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 is clear that,
“wherever it is in the best interests of the child, siblings should be placed together”,
and that if siblings have not been placed together, arrangements must be made to promote contact between them if that is consistent with welfare considerations. On top of that, it is also set out in the regulations that arrangements must be made to promote contact with siblings unless it is not in the child’s best interests to do so.
No one could help but be moved by the contributions, particularly of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. However, we believe that the issue is not about what the law says. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, said, it is about poor practice on the ground. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, highlighted the findings of the Family Rights Group which further emphasise the issue. We have asked officials to meet representatives of the Family Rights Group to discuss its findings, and if necessary we will look to strengthen the statutory guidance in this area.
As for ensuring that grandparents are considered as possible carers at the point when adoption decisions are made, the law already provides for this in the Children Act 1989. Where courts and adoption agencies feel that there is a significant relationship between a child and their grandparents, they have the authority to consider a grandparent to be a “relevant person” and take that relationship into account. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, rightly raised the deeply tragic case of Ellie Butler. We welcome the fact that a serious case review has been carried out. It is absolutely vital that lessons are learned. That is why we are establishing the new Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, which we will be discussing later, to identify and undertake reviews of the most serious incidents that raise issues of national importance, so that learning from them can be properly understood and shared.
However, noble Lords will of course recognise that, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, unfortunately not every child will have an existing, positive relationship with their grandparents. That is why we do not believe that it would be the most effective use of courts’ and adoption agencies’ time to legislate that grandparents must be considered in every case. Rather, we believe that courts and agencies should retain the freedom to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a child’s relationship with their grandparents may be relevant, depending on the facts of the case.
Amendment 94 seeks to place a duty on local authorities, at the point when they feel that a child needs to enter care, to consider family and friends as potential carers for that child. Again, I wish to reassure noble Lords that the requirement for authorities to demonstrate that they have considered family members and friends as potential carers at each stage of the decision-making process already exists in the legislation framework. Section 22C of the Children Act 1989 makes clear that local authorities must give priority to parents, persons with parental responsibility and placements with local authority foster carers who are relatives or friends of persons otherwise connected with the child. We feel that this amendment would largely, if not completely, replicate the existing duty and practice that local authorities should already follow.
While on the topic of family and friends carers, I will address Amendment 97, which seeks to place a duty on local authorities to provide support services for family and friends carers of children who are not looked after. I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that the Government fully recognise the invaluable contribution made by many family members and friends up and down the country who are caring for children. The Children Act 1989 sets out the duties and responsibilities of local authorities to support the needs of all children living with family and friends carers. Statutory guidance published during the previous Parliament strengthens these requirements on local authorities.
As noble Lords will be aware, because we have discussed this previously, family and friends care, or kinship care, covers a wide range of arrangements, both formal and informal. How kinship carers are able to access financial support depends on the individual circumstances of the carer and the child. Local authorities have the power to provide financial and other support to those looking after children in informal relationships following an assessment of needs. Statutory guidance on family and friends makes clear that children and young people who are living with relatives or friends should receive the support they and their carers need.
We do not believe that adding to the legislative framework will be effective in driving improved practice in this area. Rather, it is through ensuring that we have a highly skilled and expert children’s social care workforce that we can ensure that those in kinship care arrangements have access to the support they need. That is what we are trying to achieve through our social work reform programme. My noble friend the Minister has agreed to meet with the Kinship Care Alliance to discuss how we can support kinship carers and to discuss the range of issues that noble Lords have brought up during our discussions so far. That meeting will happen next week, and I am sure that this issue will be one of those that we discuss.
Amendments 96 and 98 seek to protect the educational and wider outcomes of vulnerable children. Amendment 96 seeks to place a duty on local authorities and schools to provide a virtual school head and designated teacher to all children living permanently away from their parents who are cared for by a family under a special guardianship order, a child arrangement order or an adoption order, where the child has not been in care.
Our intention with Clauses 4, 5 and 6 is to place a duty on local authorities to extend the duties of virtual school heads and designated teachers to support looked-after children who have left the care system under a permanent order. The aim is to ensure that children do not lose the support they received while in care when they move to their permanent family. This amendment would extend that support to a new group of children who have not previously been in care.
I was rather concerned about the wording of Clause 4 in extending the virtual head teacher role as it refers only to “advice and information”, so we made inquiries of the Bill team, who said that they envisage that the role of the virtual head teacher as applied by the Bill in relation to these new groups of children will be very light touch. In other words, it will be limited to advice and information on request. It will not consist of monitoring and targeting the progress of those children. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case? I do not think that that is clear, either in the Explanatory Notes or in the wording of the Bill. If that is the case, it does envisage a rather different—and, as I say, much lighter-touch—role for these groups of children. I am not sure that would be effective.
For children who have left care and are now with a family, the noble Baroness is right, because obviously those children will have that family playing a role in a way that children in care would not. The virtual head and the designated teacher will be liaising with the family, but the family will obviously be playing a role, and a child in care will not have that family. This was covered in a group of amendments that we discussed in the previous session in Committee, so perhaps the noble Baroness would like to have a look at what I said then. If she has any further questions, I would be very happy to answer them.
Amendment 98 seeks to introduce a new clause that would place a requirement on local authorities to report on various outcomes for vulnerable children, such as those in need, looked-after children and others. It also asks the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on these outcomes. I hope noble Lords will be reassured to hear that the importance of reporting on outcomes is recognised by the Government. We have already placed a duty on local authorities to report information about children in need and looked-after children and their outcomes. Annual reports and statistical tables are produced and published by the Department for Education. These show a range of information about the outcomes of looked-after children and care leavers. Last year, for the first time, the national children in need census data also published factors identified by social workers in assessments of children. These included parental and child risk factors such as drug and alcohol misuse, mental health and domestic violence, among others. However, I am happy to inform the Committee that we will be reviewing our national data collections across government to make sure they are joined up and consistent and to make use of technological advances to ensure that we collect more timely data. I hope that these explanations and reassurances will allow the noble Lord to feel able to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this has been a stimulating debate with a number of excellent contributions. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we are very much in agreement with her comments in speaking to her amendment, and also with those of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. We would be more than happy to accept Amendment 92. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, quoting from her vast experience, made the case for Amendment 91 more effectively than I was able to do, and I am grateful to her for that. She spoke eloquently about the need to put siblings in the Bill. I think the remarks of the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, were helpful in that regard and may have drawn some of the sting from some of the contributions. I do not doubt the Government’s intentions here, but there has to be something more than exists at the moment because, while I am delighted to hear that meetings are to take place with both the organisations she mentioned, the Family Rights Group and the Kinship Care Alliance, they are dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis and so would not be as concerned if the issue of siblings was not a problem. We will be looking to see what comes out from what the Minister said about strengthening the statutory guidance. We will want to see that. I doubt that will be coming out before Report but, given that Report may be some time away, there may be some option. We perhaps could discuss it again on Report because it is an important issue, as the number of contributions suggested.
It is the same concerning grandparents. The Minister said that grandparents should not be considered in every case. I suppose that is right, but at the same time it may or may not be appropriate for them to be considered. Questions at least should be asked about whether there are grandparents, what the situation is and whether they can make a contribution to situations when the children are in need of care from a family member. This is just one of the groups that would be included in terms of the Bill, and it may be appropriate to return to this as well on Report, because the number of comments by noble Lords suggests that it is an issue that is seen as important.
On the other issues, briefly, I hear what the Minister says. We think they are important. She pointed to some areas where these issues are being covered to some extent but, in terms of the annual report, local authorities make annual reports to the Secretary of State. Maybe they are published, maybe they are just there, we cannot find them or we do not look for them, but it would be helpful to have that information made available. It would be helpful, if not every year, at least from time to time, to get a debate in either the House of Lords or in another place so that the figures could be placed year by year, side by side to see what progress is being made. That was the thinking behind the amendment; it was no more than that. We want to have the ability to see what is there, to question and to debate it. This has been a very good debate on a number of issues, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91 withdrawn.
91A: After Clause 8, insert the following new Clause—
“Legal aid for parents whose children are in voluntary accommodation and are to be placed in foster for adoption placement
After regulation 5(1)(e) of the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013, insert—“(ea) family help (lower) in any matter described in paragraph 1(1)(b) (care, supervision and protection of children) or paragraph 1(1)(i) (placement orders, recovery orders or adoption orders) of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Act to the extent that the matter concerns a placement to be made or contemplated to be made under section 22C(9B)(c) of the Children Act 1989 (placement with a local authority foster parent who has been approved as a prospective adopter), where the child is being accommodated under section 20 of that Act, and the individual to whom the family help (lower) may be provided is—(i) the parent of a child, or the person with parental responsibility for a child within the meaning of the Children Act 1989 in respect of whom a local authority has given notice of a placement or contemplated placement under section 22C(9B)(c) of that Act; or(ii) in the case of an unborn child in respect of whom a local authority has given notice of a placement or contemplated placement under section 22C(9B)(c) of the Children Act 1989, the person who, following the birth of the child—(aa) will be the parent of the child; and(bb) will have parental responsibility for the child within the meaning of the Children Act 1989;”.”
My Lords, this amendment was previously in the name of my noble friend Lady Armstrong. Understandably, she is very much engaged in giving responses to the Chilcot commission today, so I move this on her behalf.
My understanding is that Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 provides the machinery by which a child can be received into the care of a local authority with the consent of a parent. However, parents do not have the right to free legal advice and representation prior to agreeing to the voluntary accommodation of their child unless the local authority has initiated or is planning care proceedings. It has been put to my noble friend that, without such independent legal advice, there is concern as to whether parents actually are giving informed consent. Obviously, this is particularly worrying in respect of younger parents who have lost their children to the care system and may lack other established sources of support, including advice. Our debate on Monday, particularly about children who have been in care and are themselves young parents, is particularly apposite to that issue.
Provisions in the Children and Families Act 2014 mean that children who are looked after either under a care order or under Section 20 with the voluntary agreement of their parents can be placed with potential adopters who are proven foster carers. This is known as foster for adoption. Children who are looked after under Section 20 may be placed in a foster for adoption placement without the parents or their family network having had a right to independent legal advice. If there have been no proceedings, there will have been no court oversight of the process, nor any court decision that the child should be permanently removed from their parents. Once the child is living with the potential adopter, it is much harder for the parents or the wider family to get the child into their care because of the status quo argument, which, understandably, aims to minimise disruption for the child.
A freedom of information survey of English local authorities in summer 2015 found at that stage that at least 58 voluntarily accommodated children had been placed with a potential adopter in a foster for adoption placement. In that situation parents who, on any definition, will be vulnerable, may not be receiving legal advice because they are not eligible for legal aid provision and often would need legal aid to be able to obtain legal advice. I hope the Minister will see the strength of this argument and can respond in a positive way. I beg to move.
My Lords, I recall having some briefings about this issue in relation to a previous Bill in your Lordships’ House—I am afraid the name escapes me. It clearly is a real issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, many of these parents are quite young and may not really understand the significance of what is happening when they agree to the voluntary placement, or the power of the status quo argument. Once the child is settled and there are no other reasons why the foster parent should not become the adoptive parent, it is unlikely that the court is not going to agree to the final adoption order. Particularly given the poor availability of legal aid for so many things these days, it is important that such parents are able to get advice, at the very least to make them aware of what they are agreeing to. If they then feel unwilling to agree, they need advice as to how to make their case to keep their child at home.
Amendment 91A seeks to amend the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 2013 to provide parents with free legal advice when their children are voluntarily accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and the local authority wishes to put them in a foster for adoption placement. I understand the concern that parents need to have access to information and advice before they agree to their child being accommodated. The law is clear that a local authority cannot accommodate a child under Section 20 without the consent of a parent. The local authority must provide advice and information to parents to ensure that they fully understand the arrangements and give their informed consent. In addition, any parent can remove the child from the care of the local authority at any time. If individuals satisfy a means and merits test, they may be eligible for some funding for civil legal services, including initial advice about the nature of voluntary agreements. If the local authority later decides that a child should not return home and the best option would be to pursue adoption, the usual court process must be followed. It remains the case that a child cannot be placed for adoption unless the birth parents give their consent, or the court has made a placement order. That means that the court must consider the birth parent’s view before deciding that the adoption placement order is necessary. When a local authority informs a parent of the intention to initiate an application for an adoption placement order, they will become eligible for civil legal services, free of any means test, in the usual way.
I hope this explanation means that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response and to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for her support. I thought the Minister was pretty encouraging, but clearly this depends on the local authority doing the right thing in ensuring that informed consent truly means informed consent, that the parents in the situations that she described have access to independent advice, and that that advice actually is independent. Clearly, there seems to be a gap between the legal guidance given to local authorities and the reality. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Armstrong will wish to consider that issue in due course, but I thank the Minister for her response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91A withdrawn.
Amendment 92 not moved.
Amendment 92ZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 9 agreed.
92A: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Profit-making and children’s social services functions
(1) Social services functions conferred on or exercisable by a local authority so far as those functions relate to children shall not be discharged by a body corporate that is carried on for profit.(2) “Social services functions” has the meaning given by section 1A of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.”
My Lords, first, let me correct an omission from my contribution at Second Reading—namely, that I did not publicly thank Thomas Brown for his typically helpful Library note, from which I quoted Dr Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, who said that government reforms,
“need to be driven by social worker knowledge and skills”.
Noble Lords may question the words “be driven” and prefer something like “take account of”, but the sentiment is the same. Partnerships imply co-operation, and co-operation includes consultation.
I acknowledge that an amendment that seeks to give extra force to an existing ban on profit-making in children’s services by regulation by enshrining it in primary legislation does not sit easily in the group of clauses headed, “Care and adoption proceedings in England and Wales”, but neither does any fear that the Government might use Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 in this regard, which enables the social care functions of a local authority to be discharged by a body corporate. That would not sit easily with partners such as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and many other organisations, which rejected any profit motive in the provision of children’s services in the consultation that the Government held in 2014 on draft regulations concerning a significant extension to the children’s service functions that could be outsourced. In its response, the association said:
“Decisions taken about a child’s life should only ever be based on what is in the best interests of the child as assessed by skilled and qualified social workers and the courts system. These decisions cannot, and must not, be subordinate to the pursuit of financial profit”.
In their response, the Government said:
“The proposals were concerned with improving the quality of children’s services rather than savings, ‘privatisation’ or profit-making”.
They inserted a prohibition on profit-making into the final regulations, which extended the children’s services functions that could be outsourced.
Local authorities are living in hard financial times that are likely to get harder rather than easier, as many noble Lords have pointed out. I do not believe that a single penny of what is allocated to protecting children and young people and keeping them safe should be diverted from that purpose. In ideal circumstances, of course, such services should be funded adequately to ensure that they are effective and timely, but what is absolutely clear is that no one should profit out of that allocation other than children.
The Minister said at Second Reading that the Government had no intention of removing the ban on profit in child protection. However, the 2014 regulations and Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 allow the outsourcing of many other children’s services functions. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified exactly what the Government’s position is regarding a profit ban on children’s services. Regulations are easier to circumvent than primary legislation, which is where I believe any ban should be. I beg to move.
My Lords, children’s social care services are some of the most important functions of local authorities and, of course, councils should be able to work with local partners to secure some elements of children’s well-being while retaining overall leadership and accountability for commissioning and delivery. But because of the mandatory duties, the majority of the experience and expertise in undertaking safeguarding work remains with councils. The complex and difficult tasks in child protection do not readily attract commercial or not-for-profit providers, and it is crucial that we do not create a situation where the easy or profitable aspects of children’s services are cherry-picked, leaving councils with an unmanageable portfolio of the really difficult services.
We had a briefing from the LGA, which believes that the introduction of a perceived profit motive into decisions about our most vulnerable children and young people risks undermining public confidence in this hugely challenging work. I agree with the association. It is significant that it has briefed us, because this work is difficult and costly, so it would have been easy for the LGA to leave things as they are and not encourage us to support an amendment that seeks to put this in the Bill. It is an indication of how seriously the LGA is taking this matter.
As we have heard, in 2014 the Government consulted on draft regulations which significantly extended the children’s services functions that could be outsourced. The responses at the time overwhelmingly disagreed with the regulations. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services pointed out that a local authority’s duty of care is not delegable, although of course its functions are. It felt that services designed to keep children safe should not be predicated on a profit motive. There is far too much temptation to cut corners where there is a profit motive, especially when budgets are tight and the funding of the contract is very challenging, which often happens. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has just said, such decisions should only ever be based on the best interests of the child.
The Minister told us in the meeting we had before the Committee began that the Government are not minded to remove the current ban on for-profit organisations but, unfortunately, that ban is only in regulations, which we all know are not difficult to remove by negative resolution. That is why I support this amendment to put the matter into primary legislation, because it is far too important to put it at risk.
My Lords, I was pleased to add my name to this amendment and I support the arguments that have been put by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I want to add that this is about the best interests of the child, and children are the only ones who should profit from anything here. However, I add another concern. When we come to debate Clause 15, and the possibility of exemptions, I am slightly concerned that, if this measure is not in the Bill, such exemptions might be used as a way of circumventing the issue around profit and not for profit. I lend my support to this amendment.
My Lords, clearly there are other organisations that undertake work on behalf of the local authority in some of these areas. They are usually not-for-profit organisations, such as Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and others. They will wish to continue to work with local authorities in these areas. However, it is interesting that Article 39, an organisation which looks at the legal position of children, stated:
“Research on the first five social work practice pilots (one of which was run for profit) … found mixed views on whether looked after children and care leavers received a better service”.
But the telling point was that:
“Three of the five local authorities involved said the practices had cost more than equivalent in-house services and evaluators noted, ‘Interviews held with local authority commissioners in 2011 made it clear that SWPs were not judged to have been financially advantageous’”.
So if the Government are looking for a way of delivering services that offers value for money, clearly “for profit” services are not necessarily the best way forward.
My Lords, I think it is fair to say that this is the most contentious issue to have arisen in our consideration of the Bill so far. We will discuss Clause 15 next week. In passing, I have to say that I am not quite sure why this measure is being discussed at this point. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has stated his views on that, but I wondered why the Clerks did not direct it elsewhere. However, as I say, we will discuss Clause 15 next week. That clause will allow local authorities to opt out of providing some children’s social services. Many people fear that that could pave the way for the privatisation of those and—perhaps, later—other services, in ways outlined by noble Lords in this group of amendments.
The Bill refers to “different ways of working”, which I think most of us understand is code for exempting local authorities from requirements hitherto imposed by children’s social care legislation. Certainly, Labour holds strongly to the view that child protection and wider social care should not be run by an organisation seeking to make a profit. That is why we have joined with Lib Dem and Cross-Bench Peers, as well as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, demonstrating the breadth of support for that requirement to appear on the face of the Bill.
We do not object per se to outside organisations working with, or for, local authorities in delivering children’s social services functions, but do so where a company or organisation designed to make a profit, as opposed to a surplus, takes on such functions that would expose the local authority—and, by definition, the children under its care—to the danger that the company might for whatever reason fail, and fall into receivership. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples of such occurrences since local authorities began to outsource various services.
Equally, if profit were the motive, the company or organisation may conclude after a period of time that the margins were insufficient in delivering those services and other avenues offered better prospects, and as a result end the contract. In either case, the local authority, which would have handed over the role of providing those services, would be faced with having to find another partner to deliver them or to bring them back in-house. Meanwhile, the quality of services provided for social care or child protection would be, at best, jeopardised. That is not a situation that any of us would wish to see. It is, therefore, a situation that should be ruled out.
At Second Reading, the Minister relied on the fact that in 2014 the Government had introduced legislation that prevented profit-making where local authorities delegate child protection functions. However, there remains the possibility of profit-making companies setting up their own non-profit subsidiaries to take over the critical and sensitive function of deciding how best to protect vulnerable children There is a serious risk that the likes of Serco and G4S could create these subsidiaries as part of their wider businesses and, in that manner, these companies could indeed profit from the care of vulnerable children and their families, even if only indirectly.
There will be an obvious conflict of interest because some of these companies will also run children’s homes. That will make it difficult to know how funds might flow between the profit-making and non-profit-making arms. That is why the changes outlined in Clause 15 have caused such concern in the sector, and they could undermine public confidence in the services provided to children and young people. It cannot be stressed too much that effective child protection relies on public trust. The public need to be able to trust local child protection teams so that they feel sufficiently confident to report concerns they may have about a child and to have faith that if they raise a concern the service will act in the best interests of that child.
I invite the Minister to provide answers on two aspects of this crucial matter. First, the provisions of the 2014 legislation notwithstanding, can he guarantee that funds will not be transferred between profit and non-profit arms of a company where the latter is delivering services? Secondly, will the purpose and culture of companies or organisations bidding for the right to deliver child protection and social care services be taken into consideration when decisions are made about delivery partners? When an organisation’s primary aim and main business has nothing to do with children, would it be considered a suitable partner for a local authority?
Nothing can be more important than the safeguarding and protection of children, especially those who are at greatest risk or are the most vulnerable. Organisations prominent in the social care and child protection sectors have registered their anxiety over the exemption proposals in the Bill. At Second Reading, I asked the Minister whether the Government had made any assessment of the risk to children in allowing local authorities exemption from some key duties for keeping children safe. I hope he will now be in a position to let me have his response.
Will the Minister clarify the position of social enterprise companies which often have to make a surplus or a profit, depending on where you come from? The Minister and I have been having a flourishing series of exchanges through Written Questions and Answers on what happens when Ofsted regards children’s services as inadequate. The outgoing Prime Minister seems to think that two strikes and you are out is a good idea. I have been asking the Minister for a lot of information about the cost of setting up these trusts, which are quite considerable, and what the Government’s policy on this is. The Government’s policy, most recently exemplified in relation to Birmingham, seems to be that where there are two inadequate reports from Ofsted the local authority could well be required to put its services into what is sometimes called a voluntary trust. On further, closer inspection, a voluntary trust can also be a social enterprise company, and social enterprise companies need to generate surpluses or profits in order to invest in continuing improvements in the services they are running. Since Ofsted has said that one-quarter of children’s social care services are inadequate, will the Minister clarify where this agenda is going? Does it mean that in five or six years’ time we will see a very large number of local authorities’ children’s social care services placed under contract with a number of bodies separate from the local authority, with the local authority still held accountable? Those separate entities, I understand from the Answers I have been receiving, could include all social care services, including child protection. Where are the Government taking this agenda? Have they thought through their position on surpluses or profits from the kinds of organisations that would be under contract with local authorities in which Ofsted determined that social services were inadequate?
My Lords, I spoke to this issue at Second Reading. It is an important question to clarify, and I am very grateful to noble Lords for the chance to return to it so that I can be crystal clear. We are not seeking in this Bill to revisit the established position on profit-making. That is not our intention. There has, of course, been a mixed market in children’s social care for many years, and local authority children’s services regularly work with private and third sector organisations—for example in the provision of foster care and residential care. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 allowed local authorities to take this relationship further by contracting with these partners for the full discharge of their functions relating to looked-after children and young people.
Noble Lords will remember debating regulations in 2014 to widen the range of functions that a local authority could delegate in this manner to cover other children’s social care functions, notably child protection. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (Relevant Care Functions) (England) Regulations 2014 explicitly ruled out profit-making from this wider set of functions. Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of children, and we are committed to supporting professionals in finding new and more effective approaches to improving outcomes for the vulnerable young people in their care. In recent years that has involved promoting new models of delivery, but we have absolutely no intention of revisiting the position on profit-making settled by Parliament two years ago. I reassure noble Lords that any change to the 2014 regulations would need to be by the affirmative route.
As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, we will revisit the innovation clauses next week, but I will say again now that we have no intention of using Clause 15 to allow the existing position to be circumvented. In our conversations with local authorities, there has been no discussion of using Clause 15 to allow profit-making. This is not what we are seeking to do with that clause. I think noble Lords were reassured when we showed them the examples of innovations and they understood a bit more what this was all about. I hope that further examples will help clarify the position.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, referred to the depressing situation in Birmingham. He slightly lost me on the concept of profit, because obviously organisations such as charities or local authorities are often trying to generate a surplus in order to reinvest. I do not think it is very helpful in this debate to wander into that, but I hope that when we give further examples of how the clause on innovation will be used, noble Lords will be reassured.
Can I challenge the Minister on this? I would agree that there is a world of difference when it comes to a private company, which is perhaps going to make profits to distribute to its shareholders. That is one set of circumstances, but we then start to move down a series of alternatives. I cited the example of a social enterprise company, which is a body corporate and is entitled to make surpluses. They are not called profits, but it is taking income out of the local authority and building a surplus in an organisation which is not a public body. That must have some effect on the extent to which the resources devoted by the local authority to that social enterprise are available for services in any one given year. How big can those surpluses get before they have an impact on the volume of services that can be delivered? The Minister is trying to brush this away. I am not trying to score points, but the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has raised an important issue. You cannot just say that these are not distributed-profit companies—these companies can build up surpluses which could have an impact on the revenue that is available in any one financial year for the provision of services.
I will reflect further on what the noble Lord has said. What we are trying to do in these situations is make sure that where services have been provided badly—in the case we are talking about, they clearly were—they are provided better by alternative suppliers. I will reflect further on the point he makes and come back to him on it, but in view of the reassurance I have given to noble Lords that we have no intention of revisiting our position on this, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that and to all those noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. I must admit that, on this issue, I am something of a cynic, because I watched what happened when the probation service was taken over by the profit-making sector, including the pernicious system of payment by results. We have no indication that that is the way in which this is moving, but I think that it should be put in primary legislation and not merely left to reassurances—although I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity in giving that reassurance—or to regulations. This is a matter to which we ought to return on Report, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 92A withdrawn.
93: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Information sharing and notification for looked after children placed out of area
(1) The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 are amended as follows.
(2) In regulation 11 (placement decision)—
(a) in paragraph (2)(d)(i) after “authority” insert “, clinical commissioning group (or local health board in Wales) and police force”;
(b) in paragraph (2)(d)(ii) after “plan” insert “and the area clinical commissioning group (or local health board in Wales) and police force have been notified”.
(3) In regulation 13 (notification of placement)—
(a) after paragraph 2(i) insert—
“(j) the area police force for the area in which C is living and, if different, for the area in which C is to be placed.”;
(b) after paragraph 4(b)(ii) insert—
“(iii) the child’s name and date of birth,
(iv) whether the child is—
(a) provided with accommodation under section 20 or 21 of the Children Act 1989, or
(b) subject to a care or supervision order under section 31 of the Children Act 1989,
(v) the contact details for—
(a) the child’s placing authority, and
(b) the independent reviewing officer appointed for the child’s case under section 25A(1) of the Children Act 1989,
(vi) whether the child has a statement of special educational needs and, if so, details of the local authority that maintains the statement,
(vii) a risk assessment, with specific information about the risk of them going missing from the placement.””
My Lords, the amendment would ensure that information is shared and that notifications are made to relevant authorities when a looked-after child is placed out of area. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, referred to the amendment earlier. It concerns the fact that health services, in particular, are losing track of these vulnerable young people when they are placed out of authority.
Currently, there are a variety of different procedures for placing children out of area, which are dependent on distance, the type of placement and the home nation in which a child is placed. There are also different information-sharing requirements, which means that in some areas crucial safeguarding partners are not always aware of vulnerable looked-after children living in their area and any risks that they may face.
As of March 2015, 37% of looked-after children were placed outside their local authority, with 14% being placed more than 20 miles away from their home authority. Sometimes, an out-of-area placement is important in keeping a child or young person safe—for example, where a child is targeted for exploitation in their home area.
Currently, a distant placement—an out-of-area placement that is not in an adjoining local authority—must be approved by the responsible authority’s director of children’s services and all other out-of-area placements must be approved by a nominated officer. I am grateful to the coalition Government for introducing this change, which means that the director of children’s services has to be involved in the process of sending children out of their local authority. Local authorities across England adopt their own notification processes, but a different approach has been taken in Wales, where a national out-of-area notification protocol is in place to ensure consistency.
Children living outside of their local area are more likely to be reported missing or absent: 50% of all looked-after children reported missing or absent are placed out of area. The Children’s Society sees in its practice many examples of the criminal exploitation of young people thus placed. It sees particular difficulties in ensuring an appropriate multi-agency response because of a lack of information sharing and confusion about responsibilities with these children. It is estimated that 60% of suspected child victims of trafficking in local authority care go missing and almost two-thirds of trafficked children are never found. Most victims go missing within one week of being in care, many within 48 hours and often before being fully registered with social services.
Given these significant risks, if information is not shared with partners before the placement is made there may be significant delays in responding to the child if they go missing or are targeted, while the police and other partners try to gather all the information about a child that they need to keep that young person safe. Does the Minister agree that the police and health services are as important as local authorities in making sure that looked-after children placed out of area are appropriately safeguarded? I beg to move.
My Lords, I added my name to this amendment, and entirely agree with what my noble friend has said so far. I endorse his proposal that the Wales protocol should be adopted in England as well. The number of people they put on the informed list under that protocol is interesting, as it means that most people who are likely to need to know, such as the police, health services and the director of social services, are included.
This reminded me of something that happened when I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, when the chief inspectors of constabulary, the courts services, education, probation and social services were collectively worried about the lack of information flowing around the system. We published a thematic review of what each of our particular responsibilities needed of the others, what was readily available, what was obtainable only with difficulty and what was not obtainable. We presented this to our respective Ministers, who were interested, but the tragedy was that it fell on stony ground because no one Minister was responsible for cross-governmental working to ensure that all this information was shared by those who needed it.
To the categories mentioned by my noble friend, I would just add that of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who are frequently moved from their port or airport of entry to local authorities all over the country in order to share the burden. We need to know where they are and what is happening to them, so the information mentioned in this amendment needs to be shared by many others—not just the directors of social services but immigration authorities and others covered in the Wales protocol. I recommend that, which is why I support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I am very glad to wind up for the Opposition and speak in this short debate. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, there are sound reasons why out-of-area placements may occur, but they present real challenges, not least the inconsistency of approach between different local authorities and this particular problem about a multiagency response.
The noble Earl raised the issue of vulnerability to trafficking, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, brought unaccompanied asylum seekers into consideration. I have already referred to my own concerns about the role of the National Health Service. We know that mental health services, especially child and adolescent mental health services, are inadequate and that many disturbed young people are being sent a long way from home.
The Minister in a previous debate referred to an agreement, or work, between his department and the Department of Health in establishing the care pathway. That is to be welcomed, but I would like to hear more about how he is going to make it grip when it comes to children who are being placed out of area and a long way from their homes. Has the Minister’s department had an opportunity to see how the Welsh protocol is working in Wales and whether there would be an opportunity to build on the good practice that has been developed there?
I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for this amendment and for raising the very important issue of children being placed at a distance from their home authority.
I recognise that the amendment seeks to improve safeguards and access to services for children placed outside their home authority. I reassure your Lordships that there are already significant safeguards in place that ensure children are placed out of area only when it is in their best interests and, importantly, that appropriate agencies are notified. Most crucially in relation to this amendment, local authorities are already required to notify the host local authority and health services when making out-of-area placements under Regulation 13 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. This also requires the host local authority to be given a copy of their assessment of needs and care plan. Much of the information this amendment seeks to have included in out-of-area placement notifications is already legislated for, because the care plan already contains it or it is in statutory guidance. We have issued guidance that contains a model notification for out-of-area placements to help guide authorities, which includes the key information about the child. Personal education plans should identify any statement of educational needs or any education, health and care plan. Placement plans must include details of how welfare will be promoted and safeguarded.
I note noble Lords’ desire to ensure the police are made aware of children placed in their area and given their care plans so that they can help support these vulnerable children. We have already amended the regulations so the police can access the addresses of children’s homes in their area, enabling them to form positive relationships with children’s homes and to be more aware of children placed from other areas. I again sympathise with the intent behind providing the police with children’s care plans, but these plans contain deeply personal information, and children in care have, as part of previous government consultations, expressed concern about police access to less sensitive information. Children absolutely need to be protected, but this must be balanced with protecting their privacy.
We shall consider the Wales protocol and how it could be helpful to local authorities in England. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raised the point of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being placed out of area. They will be looked-after children under the Children Act, and so will be subject to the existing duties placed on local authorities in that Act and under the care planning regulations. The local authority must therefore give notification when a child is placed out of area. In view of the strong safeguards and notification requirements already in place regarding out-of-area placements, I hope that the noble Earl will feel reassured enough to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham for adding his name to this amendment and to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his support. I am also grateful to the Minister for his careful reply, which I will examine with care but to a large extent find reassuring. It is good to be reminded of the important steps the Government have taken in recent years to protect children placed out of their local authority area better. He refers to the fact that there is now a duty for police forces to be told of the whereabouts of children’s homes in their area, which is an important step forward.
However, as I think the Minister appreciates, there is still considerable concern about the numbers of children being placed outside their own local authority’s care. In March 2015, 37% were placed outside their local authority. Clearly, these are more vulnerable children, and it might be helpful to look at some examples of good practice to reinforce the improvements the Government have made so far. For instance, the Children’s Society has an example from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which the Government might wish to look at, and I will send the Minister information on that. I am grateful to him for agreeing to look at the Wales protocol and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 93 withdrawn.
Amendments 94 not moved.
Amendment 95 had been retabled as Amendment 92A.
Amendments 96 to 98B not moved.
Amendment 98C had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
98D: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Adopted children: exemptions in relation to child benefits
(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulation made by statutory instrument, make provision for child related benefits to be payable in respect of all adopted children, whether or not they are adopted in sibling groups, and regardless of any limit on the number of children in respect of whom those benefits are usually payable.(2) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”
My Lords, this amendment seeks to prevent the introduction of financial disincentives for adoptive parents. I strongly commend the Government’s stated desire to increase adoption rates where adoption is an appropriate outcome for the child concerned. However, recently passed legislation will have the opposite effect, which is why I have tabled this amendment. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, first brought this to my attention, and the Committee reminded itself this afternoon that if she thinks something is a problem, it is a problem.
At present, if you have one child and you adopt a sibling group of two or more children, you will receive child benefit for all three children, despite the Government’s new legislation that restricts child benefit to two children in all other cases. However, if you adopt your two children separately—that is, they are not in a sibling group, like my three adopted children who are not siblings—the exemption does not apply, so lower-income families which would get child benefit and who already have a child will get child benefit for the first adopted child but not for any subsequent adopted children who take them over the two-child limit, unless the adopted child is adopted with a sibling. This simply makes no sense. The exemption the Government have introduced is linked to genetics, not adoption, yet the whole point of adoption is to circumvent genetics. As my children are mine through both adoption and genetics, I feel very strongly that there should not be a difference, and certainly not one that is put into law.
I will raise one other very important issue relevant to this debate. It is also based on my experience of adopting three children in three separate adoption processes. I now have three amazing foster families who gave my kids a home before they came to me. I am linked into all their foster carer networks, through which I have met dozens of foster families. Added to those foster families, I have many others through the work I do with adoption agencies, so in total I have met upwards of 100 foster families. In the vast majority of cases, these amazing families are moved entirely by their desire to help the children they love and foster, so much so that when, inevitably, children with complex needs are not adopted, foster families often step in to adopt. In the case of my daughter’s foster family, the next child placed with them was attacked by her parents while a baby and left deaf, blind and severely brain-damaged. She requires 24-hour care. No family came forward to adopt her. She was going to spend her life being shunted around the care system. Her amazing foster carers therefore said that they would adopt her, even though they had no intention of doing that when they first fostered her. By adopting her, they dramatically restricted their quality of life. They did it because they are truly amazing.
What is amazing is that they had so little to start with. That is when I realised a strange thing: despite meeting so many foster families, I have never met, not even once, a middle-class foster family because on the whole, more well-off families do not foster children, they adopt children. Do professional women like me give up their careers to bring society’s most needy children under their own roof? The harsh but honest truth, which I wish was not true, but it is, is that on the whole, we do not. I would love to see more data on the economic background of foster families which adopt, but from my experience, and I have quite a bit of it, Britain relies on low-income families to bring up our most vulnerable kids, those with complex needs who too often are unfortunately—we do not do it on purpose—left to rot in the care system. It is quite shocking when you think about it, but what is even more shocking is that we are going to make it harder for low-income families to adopt. Taking away child benefit from low-income families who adopt children is literally shameful.
I grant that the Government have not done this on purpose—well, they have done it on purpose but I do not think they set out to do it. I hope the Minister will tell me I am right when I say that I am sure they did not set out to do something so diametrically opposed to their objective of increasing adoption. It is all about that law which we always seem to pass around here without meaning to: the law of unintended consequences.
A failure to exempt all adopted children from the child benefit two-child limit will be particularly perverse for this reason: it will not stop babies without complex needs being adopted by better-off families like mine. If I was going to lose £60 a month for my adopted daughter, it would not actually stop me adopting her. But for kids with complex needs who cannot easily be adopted and who often fall back on low-income foster families, that £60 absolutely will make the difference between whether they are adopted or not, particularly when set against the experience on the ground of the failure of post-adoption support, notwithstanding the Minister’s earlier comments.
It is always the exception that proves the rule. I know of one foster family that is not on a low income. Happily, that family belongs to the Minister of State for Children and Families at the Department for Education, Edward Timpson, whose family has fostered more than 80 children. I therefore have one question for the Minister. I think very highly of him, which is unfortunate because I will be devastated if he cannot help me out with this fairly simple request. I know that he must have enough power to do what I am asking—no pressure—which is this. Please will he meet with his colleague, the Minister for Children and Families, and work out a plan to bring into force this simple exemption in child benefit for all adopted children? I cannot believe that the Government want to increase disincentives for adoptive parents, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment because I argued for it during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. When the Minister turned it down then, he did agree to a whole range of other benefits such as kinship carers’ allowance and so on. Frankly, I think he reached the point where he could give no more. The illogicality of saying that benefits could be paid for two sibling children but not for two children who have been adopted separately must have been for the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who is an intelligent man, something to do with the politics of it all. I say that because it was clear at the time that this exception would make sense.
We trying to increase the rate of adoption. We know that the children who are now being placed for adoption are not easy. There are very few if any white middle-class babies being placed for adoption. Most of these children have special needs or they are older and therefore it is much more difficult to find a placement.
I recognise that the Minister here may not have the power to agree to the amendment, but he can go back and talk to his colleagues. We have discussed silos in government at length and how people need to talk across government departments. This is an area in which we could make a real difference to a group of people who wish to look after children and, more importantly, it would offer a better standard of living to the children being adopted. It would be easy and I am sure that it would not be vastly expensive, although I have not yet done the maths.
My Lords, there are moments in Committee when we can listen to people with a lifetime of experience in law and the military, but we ignore at our peril someone with experience of adoption who speaks from the heart and makes such an emotional plea. Certainly our side thinks that this is an important issue.
It is not just an emotional issue, of course; it is also fulfils that awful phrase we use constantly—it would be value for money. This obviously makes sense. I had not appreciated how many low-income families adopt children. We should support them and thereby, we hope, increase the number of children who are adopted.
The last time I heard such an emotional plea was when my noble friend Lady Benjamin made a similar presentation and, I believe, stalked the Minister on a few occasions outside his office. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady King, could do the same, but I hope the Minister will take note of this issue.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I will not offer flattery, as the Minister probably knows, but I take him back to the post-legislative scrutiny report of the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. It is a shame that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is not in her place, but some of us met a lot of adoptive parents, some of whom were on quite low incomes. They made two points to us very strongly. One was the issue we have already discussed, about the levels of support for adoptive parents, but the second came from people who had been foster parents. They pointed out brutally—but in an amiable sort of way—that the financial disincentive in moving from being a foster parent to an adoptive parent was very high. This seemed to me and other members of that Select Committee pretty bizarre, given that the Government were at that point going hell for leather to promote adoption as the gold standard for permanence.
There is something not quite right here about what we might call the intragovernmental strategy—this applies not just in the Minister’s department—on how we align the financial incentives with the policy objectives. Therefore, the Minister should start to raise some of those issues not just within his own department but across Whitehall.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. The noble Baroness speaks so eloquently from her experience and makes a strong case. She takes me back to research that was discussed at the Thomas Coram Research Unit about eight years ago. That unit has carried out comparative research into residential care and foster care in France, Denmark and Germany. It is a long time ago but what stood out for me was that in those continental countries, many more teachers and social workers were recruited into foster care.
Professor Jackson, one of the leading academics on the educational attainment of looked-after children, has raised concerns that many foster carers have themselves had difficult experiences at school. That is another reason why we need to support them very well. The issue of professionalisation comes into this debate. Do we want professional foster carers? My recollection suggests that they are better paid on the continent. That may be why one can recruit from the middle classes there. There is an argument on the other side that we should not pay foster carers a lot of money, as they should be doing this out of love. I have sympathy with that argument as well. However, the very least we can do is to pay them child benefit. I hope that helps the noble Baroness’s argument. I look forward to the Minister’s response, which I am sure will be sympathetic. I hope that we will see some action.
My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady King. Noble Lords recognise when they hear an outstanding contribution. My experience is that such a contribution tends to have three elements. First, it must have a strong and convincing narrative. Secondly, it must be delivered with emotion—but controlled emotion—often based on personal experience. Thirdly, it must be powerfully delivered in a way that carries other noble Lords with it. All those elements were contained in my noble friend’s notable contribution. We are happy to support the amendment. This is indeed an issue to which we will come back on Report if the Minister, as I suspect, is unable to give the answers that are sought today. This is an important issue and it has to be put right.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for raising the issue of adopters being exempt from the policy that child tax credit and the child element of universal credit will be limited to two children from April next year, and for her moving speech. I assure her that, in relation to her expectation of me, the feeling is entirely mutual. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Warner, for their comments.
I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady King, mentioned the experience of my colleague, Minister Timpson. I put on record the achievements of his mother, who sadly died relatively recently, in fostering over 80 children. I am very happy to be stalked by her; I think that I would probably prefer that than to be stalked by the noble Lord, Lord Warner—no offence. I am very interested in the point that she makes about the income background of people who foster and adopt. I would be delighted to meet, discuss and understand the issues further. I know that Minister Timpson has been having discussions with the DWP—it is that department’s responsibility. But, of course, I would be happy to discuss this further and take it up with the DWP. I hope that against that background the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendment.
I am sincerely moved by all my colleagues who came in behind me. It means so much to me, and I thank them. I am very grateful to the Minister for his sympathetic response. I feel a duty to explain to some of my colleagues that in October I shall be taking leave of absence from this House. I would not for a second want anyone to say, “Where the hell did she disappear to?” after this discussion. Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be brought back again; I shall table it again at Report. I hope that my friends—all of you are my friends at this moment—will be able to maintain the argument, as I feel so passionately that it is important. The argument is about the illogicality of it, which I am sure that the Government do not intend. The important point made by so many is about the cost; it is so much more expensive for us to have the state taking the role that those low-income foster families are willing to take when they adopt. On the basis that the Minister has been very responsive, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 98D withdrawn.
Clause 10 agreed.
99: Before Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
The Secretary of State shall examine, and within 6 months of the passing of this Act, report to Parliament on the options for implementing the World Health Organisation’s recommendation in the European Report on Preventing Child Maltreatment (2013) regarding the collection of reliable and valid data on socioeconomic factors underlying child maltreatment.”
My Lords, in moving this amendment I should explain that I speak on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who has done the bulk of the work on this amendment. She is unable to be present today and sends her apologies.
Amendment 99 would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament within six months of Royal Assent on ways of implementing the World Health Organization’s recommendation in the European Report on Preventing Child Maltreatment regarding improved data collection for monitoring and evaluation. The recommendation points to the,
“urgent need for reliable and valid data”,
on, among other things, “socioeconomic factors”, reflecting the earlier statement in the report that:
“Child maltreatment is linked to variations in socioeconomic means”.
The aim of the noble Baroness and me in tabling this amendment is to encourage the Minister to set out the Government’s position on the relationship between socioeconomic inequalities and child neglect and abuse, and then to commit to exploring how the Government might collect the data called for by the WHO—and more recently, in 2015, in a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly report to the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, which recommended that member states,
“collect anonymised data on the care population in member States”,
which is disaggregated by a number of factors, including socioeconomic background. The amendment deliberately allows plenty of time, because we know that working out the best way in which to collect such data is not a straightforward matter. Here we would both like to thank Professors Paul Bywaters and Brid Featherstone for their help with the amendment.
At Second Reading, the noble Baroness quoted from a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Nuffield Foundation evidence review on the relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect, by Professor Bywaters and colleagues. One of the points it made was that,
“poverty often slides out of focus in policy and practice”.
I am afraid it slid out of focus in the Minister’s response to the debate at Second Reading, so we want to bring it back into focus now. The noble Baroness urged the Minister then to undertake to look into the failure of the official statistics to tell us anything about the socioeconomic circumstances of looked-after children’s parents. He did not respond at the time, so we are giving him the opportunity to do so today.
The JRF evidence review is the best source of evidence currently available. Drawing on the data sources available, it found a “strong association”, forming a clear gradient, between families’ socioeconomic circumstances and child abuse and neglect:
“The greater the economic hardship, the greater the likelihood and severity of CAN”.
The report stresses that this is not a question of individual blame, but rather a question of public policy and of socioeconomic inequality. Parents living in poverty all too often already feel judged and shamed, and this simply adds to the pressures they face. Over the decades, study after study has shown how poverty can undermine parental capacity so that the very survival strategies parents, especially mothers, adopt to get by can so deplete their mental and physical resources that they are unable to be the parents that they want to be.
The context of the WHO’s recommendation is a strong emphasis on prevention, a theme that runs through many of the contributions to Second Reading and indeed our debates in Committee. It argues that:
“In view of the emerging evidence on the scale of maltreatment, its recurrent and chronic nature and the fact that there is good evidence to support preventive approaches, there is a need to focus on prevention … Maltreatment of children instils a sense of moral outrage, but it is important to go beyond this reaction to address the problem through a public health, science-informed approach”.
It suggests that “prevention programmes”, such as parenting support, which focus on the social, economic, cultural and biological determinants of child maltreatment are “cost-effective” and that more “‘upstream’ activities” that focus on, among other things,
“deprivation, social and gender inequalities … are worthwhile investments in the long term”.
But to target such programmes effectively, we need reliable scientific evidence about the socioeconomic conditions in which at-risk children are being raised—data about their parents’ circumstances. At present, official data tell us nothing about their parents’ circumstances, as if children grow up as isolated units.
On reading the JRF/Nuffield evidence review, I was struck by the fact that the authors had to rely on area-based analysis, smaller-scale studies and professional experience, together with data from other countries. They were confident of their broad conclusions about the relationship between socioeconomic circumstances and poverty, and child abuse and neglect,
“despite the major limitations in the evidence from the UK”.
But because the relationship,
“has been almost entirely unresearched in the recent past in the UK”,
they were unable to draw,
“detailed conclusions about the extent to which poverty is a factor in the occurrence and prevalence of CAN in the UK”.
This is not good enough, and the first step must be to see what can be done to collect and publish, on a regular basis, official data that will facilitate informed evidence-based policy-making. Furthermore, it appears to me that this amendment is entirely in line with the intentions of the Government’s life chances strategy, in which there is an intentional recognition that there are key factors which affect the life chances of a child. This research into the linkage between maltreatment and socioeconomic factors surely fits squarely into that intention. Hence the aim of this amendment is to further enhance the base on which the life chances strategy is built.
The amendment does not require the production of any particular set of statistics, because of the complex question of how this can best be done. It simply requires the Secretary of State to look into the question and report back to Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and I cannot see how the Minister could possibly object to that. I hope therefore he is willing to accept this amendment or to make a commitment that embodies the spirit of it. I beg to move.
I shall add a couple of words to the excellent introduction by the right reverend Prelate. His argument about the need to collect statistics to look at the relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect is very persuasive. The Minister will know that local authorities have now been given responsibility for public health. Each local authority employs a director of public health and the practice—I think it may be a requirement—is for the director of public health to produce an annual report on, essentially, the health statistics of the people living in the local authority area identifying the problem areas and weak spots to drive the public health policy of the local authority. It strikes me that to poverty, child abuse and neglect, you can add health and well-being. One practical way through might be to add to the responsibilities of the director of public heath a duty to produce consistent, uniform statistics throughout the country. It would also mean that the local authority response would not be in relation to just one sector but would be a more general response. I suspect that if one were to look at the statistics in relation to health outcomes, one would find that many of the families to which the right reverend Prelate referred would also be affected by those health issues. A holistic response is probably required here.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for raising this important issue. High-quality data are crucial at both national and local level. They can inform the development of government policy, help us to understand how the system is working, help us to support and challenge local areas and facilitate local learning. At local level, high-quality data can ensure that children’s needs are identified early, resources are targeted appropriately, services are commissioned effectively, risk is managed well and the right support is put in place for children and their families. I assure noble Lords that we are looking at ways in which we can improve the quality of the data we collect.
Noble Lords may be aware that following Professor Eileen Munro’s 2011 review of child protection in England, the Government produced a children’s safeguarding performance information framework to help professionals get the most out of the range of data available nationally and locally. We are also taking steps to improve the national children in need census data collection. For example, last year, for the first time, we published factors identified by social workers in assessments of children, exactly the sort of issue raised by the World Health Organization’s report. Indeed, the World Health Organization suggested that a cost-effective way of implementing its recommendations would be to include key questions in existing or planned surveys. The Department for Education will shortly be running its first children’s services omnibus survey. This biannual survey will allow us to gather a range of useful information from local authorities. The questionnaire is still in development, but we intend to ask local areas about how they analyse demands for services locally, which should include using socioeconomic factors. We know that many local areas are making great strides in their data analytic capabilities. Noble Lords may be interested to look at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ Pillars & Foundations report.
We continue to work across government to align collections, better join up different collections and make use of technological advances to collect data in real time. However, we do not believe that requiring the Secretary of State to produce a report on ways to implement the World Health Organization’s recommendation in the European report on preventing child maltreatment is necessary. We have lots of work planned in this area and already in train. I hope that noble Lords are assured that the Government recognise the importance of effective data collection and are striving to make improvements in this area. I will pass on to colleagues in the Department of Health the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about a more holistic approach, but in the light of what I have said, I hope the right reverend Prelate will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, and I have no doubt that my colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, will examine minutely what he has said; I shall certainly look at it as well. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his comments and for the Minister’s agreement to take the issue away and report it elsewhere. At this point, I am content to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 99 withdrawn.
99A: Before Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Post-removal counselling for parents and legal guardians
After section 19 of the Children Act 1989 insert—“19A Post-removal counselling for parents and legal guardiansWhere a child is permanently removed from the care of a birth parent or a child’s guardian further to the powers under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 (care and supervision orders), a local authority must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide a counselling service and commission therapeutic support for the parent or guardian of the child, in order to help them to keep any future children.””
My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, I shall move Amendment 99A, which is tabled in her name, on her behalf. The amendment has been drafted because there are concerns about the impact of the removal a child on the parents. Clearly the interests of the child must come first, but the removal of a child, whatever the challenges facing the parents and whatever the circumstances, is a momentous event, so it is right to consider what support should be given to the parents. It also makes sense because the parents may well go on to become parents again, and indeed sometimes again and again. Surely to give those children any chance at all, it makes sense to see whether an intervention being made post a child being taken into care might help any future children.
I know that, in the light of her experience, my noble friend feels that this is an important issue, and I hope that the Minister may be able to be sympathetic to looking at whether we can find a way of encouraging local authorities to do the right thing in this regard. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an important amendment that is worthy of serious consideration. There must be something worryingly and seriously wrong when mothers constantly have their babies removed from them. We have seen social services almost having to get care orders in place as the child is born, and it can happen three, four, five or six times. Obviously in all circumstances the interests of the child must be put first, but there also must be a realisation that something must be done to support the mother. Are there mental health or emotional issues at play? This constant removal of children safeguards those children, but it does not safeguard the mother. We need to try where possible to look at why this is happening.
This is an issue of which I do not have any experience and, indeed, I have not considered it. The amendment asks in a sensible and supportive way for us to look at therapeutic support and so on. There is also the cost aspect. If a child is taken away from its natural family and we as a society have not considered effective treatments that could reasonably be made available to keep the parent and child together, then surely as a society we are failing.
My Lords, I simply want to mention the organisation Pause, which has found a way of intervening with these families. I know that the Government hope to set up a unit looking at what works and that there are programmes that work in this field. I do not think this is a legislative issue. I think it is again an issue of spreading good practice through all local authorities. Sometimes the voluntary sector develops the best ways forward, and I hope the Government will do all they can to promulgate these programmes. I have removed children at birth from their mothers. It is a traumatic and appalling process to have to be involved in when working in social services. The follow up has always been poor for the mothers. We now have an opportunity to do something about it. We know how to do it.
My Lords, I very much support this amendment. We have already heard in previous debates about the danger of the repeat performance—women who have been in care becoming mothers and having a problem with children being taken away. It is a vitally important matter. My noble friend Lady Howarth mentioned Pause as one of the organisations offering practical help in this respect. It certainly could be called on. I hope that in this instance we will be able to get support from the Minister so that this can be looked at rather more seriously than, perhaps, in the past.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for moving the noble Baroness’s amendment. This is an important issue, and I am pleased that she has raised it. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Howe, for their comments. The Government believe that children are best looked after within their families, with their parents playing a full part in their lives, unless intervention in that family’s life is truly necessary and in the child’s best interests. Legislation reflects this, and local authorities have statutory functions to provide services that support children in need and their families. They also have a duty to return a looked-after child to their family unless this is against their best interests.
The noble Baroness is right to emphasise how important it is to support parents who have had children taken into care. They need the right support to allow them to be effective parents to any other children in their care and to any children they may have in the future. We share this commitment. Our statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children is clear that every assessment of need must be child-centred. The statutory guidance acknowledges that many of the services provided as part of the child in need or child protection plan need to support the parents to make sustained change. The plan that arises from this assessment should set out the expectations required of parents, detailing clear measurable actions and indicating the services they should engage with in order for their child to remain at home. If a child is removed, their parents should continue to receive help and support. If the parents go on to have further children Working Together to Safeguard Children is clear that the level and nature of any risk to the child needs to be identified at a prebirth assessment and appropriate help and support should be given to these parents to help them make a sustained change.
I am sure noble Lords will be interested in the Department for Education’s innovation programme’s support to the tune of £3 million for Pause’s project to support women who have experienced or are at risk of repeat removals of children from their care. The project aims to break this cycle and give women the opportunity to develop new skills and responses to help them create a more positive future. Changing practice like this provides a more effective means of ensuring that we attempt to break the cycle. We want to extend approaches such as Pause’s into new areas to break this intergenerational cycle of care. This is of particular importance to care leavers who go on to have children in their late teens that are at risk of being taken into care. Mandating local authorities to provide counselling or therapy may help some, but it will not be the answer to all the complex problems in this context. Given what I have said, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate for their support. Clearly, this is an issue in relation to mothers, in particular, who have a number of children after one of their children has been taken into care. I was glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raised the work of Pause. The Minister referred to the money that his department it giving to it. That is very good to hear. The Minister said he does not think mandation is the right avenue down which to go. Some noble Lords who have spoken agree with the Minister. I am sure my noble friend will wish to consider that between now and Report. The principles here are well recognised. We have the great work of Pause. We clearly have good practice in a number of local authority areas, and the question is how best to ensure that there is more consistency and uniformity throughout the country. Whether it is through mandation or just through spreading good practice is a matter for another debate. I thank the Minister for the tone in which he responded to this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 99A withdrawn.
99B: Before Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
A local authority must put in place early intervention strategies to prevent children and young people in their area who are on the Troubled Families Programme going into care, which may include providing those children with specific support.”
My Lords, on both previous Committee days and at Second Reading, there has been a reference to the importance of early intervention and prevention strategies. Amendment 99B adds a clause that draws attention to the fact that early intervention and prevention is a better outcome for the child and may be as cost-effective as well.
The thrust of this whole Bill is to improve outcomes for care leavers because, currently, however good the foster or residential care, these children do not, on average, do nearly as well as they might otherwise. The Government’s troubled families programme has demonstrated that a collaborative approach from government and local authorities in a well-defined, focused way, can turn lives around, and prevent children from going into care. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the programme is now being expanded to work with up to a further 400,000 families in the years ahead, targeting a wider range of families with a wider range of problems—including debt, drug and alcohol addiction, mental and physical health problems—and children under the age of five.
Unfortunately, the Government have halved the cost benefit to local authorities in this phase of the programme. For example, in Leeds, the city council’s families first programme—a much more positive way of naming it—focuses particularly on families with youngsters classed as children in need by social services. Many of the 1,300 families identified so far have come via reports of domestic violence. Police already refer any household where they find children are resident, when they are called to an alleged incident, to social work teams. These families typify those in which children are often taken into the care system. We know that once children are taken into the care system, the outcomes for them are not particularly promising. There is also a significant cost to the public purse. While there is a huge range, the National Audit Office figures from 2014 for the average cost of maintaining a child in foster care is about £500 a week. In residential care—again with a very wide range—the average cost is about £2,500 per week.
This month, the Government published the document, Putting Children First—Delivering our Vision for Excellent Children’s Social Care. Paragraph 139 states:
“The Troubled Families Programme is undoubtedly one programme already adding to our understanding of what works to support complex families to secure better life chances for themselves and for their children, to avoid the need for children’s social care to get involved, and to break the cycle of disadvantage, in particular through getting parents into work. The Programme continues to be a key plank of the government’s life chances agenda, and will increase its focus on improving parenting, family stability and ensuring pre-school children within the Troubled Families cohort are meeting child development milestones.
All that we have heard so far, and indeed what is set out in the Government’s own strategy, suggests that what we ought to be doing is putting much more emphasis on early intervention and prevention. It would be helpful to have in the Bill a reference to that in order to ensure that the focus of those who have to put it into effect look first at early intervention and prevention strategies rather than focusing on improving the lives of children who have been taken into the care system. That would be in line with what the Government’s intentions seem to be, according to the document from which I have just quoted. From what I have read in government sources, focusing on intervention and prevention can result in a much better future for a child and represents a cost saving for the local authority, hence the purpose of this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 99B seeks to place a duty on local authorities to,
“put in place early intervention strategies to prevent children and young people in their area who are on the Troubled Families Programme going into care, which may include providing those children with specific support”.
We expect local authorities to have early intervention strategies to prevent children and young people going into care irrespective of whether those children are part of the troubled families programme. Our statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015, is clear that providing early help is more effective in promoting the welfare of children than reacting later in their lives, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, has said.
The existing legislation in Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 imposes a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area, and so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of children by their families. This is achieved by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs. Services are provided to children and their families and should help families to make sustained change in their lives so that children are safe and can remain living with their parents. Such services can include accommodation, assistance in kind or cash.
The working together guidance provides that local authorities and their partners should develop and publish local protocols for their assessment of children’s needs and how any social care assessment should be informed by other specialist assessments. The purpose of an assessment is to provide support for children and families to address their specific needs. Our troubled families programme, which has been very effective, is one such intervention that can support families to work together and with other agencies, including children’s social care, to help improve outcomes for children. Where levels of risk of harm remain high for children and their needs cannot be met from within their families, it is right that steps are taken for children to be taken into care. In other cases, intensive support combined with challenge may allow children to remain safely with their families. The recently published document, Putting Children First: Delivering our Vision for Excellent Children’s Social Care, highlights how the Government will work to effectively reduce the needs and risks for a specific group of,
“children right on the edge or just within social care”.
We will use our innovation programme to test and develop national understanding, and over time use the new What Works centre to bring together learning and spread best practice. In view of the existing duty in primary legislation to provide services and support for children who are in need, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel reassured enough to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that response and for quoting the subsequent paragraph to the one I quoted. The current troubled families programme does not necessarily focus on children who, as it states, are,
“right on the edge or just within children’s social care”.
What the role of children’s social care should be for those children is what needs to be focused on. That is the purpose of the amendment that I put before your Lordships’ Committee. Focusing on the troubled families programme does not necessarily meet the needs of those children right on the edge of going into care. The more we can do through interventions to ensure that those children do not go into care, the better it will be for them and, indeed, for the public purse. With those comments, I thank the Minister for his response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 99B withdrawn.
Clause 11: Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel
100: Clause 11, page 10, line 20, leave out “after section 16” and insert “before section 17”
My Lords, Amendments 100, 106 and 112 are technical amendments regarding the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. A separate amendment proposes the repeal of Sections 13 to 16 of the Children Act 2004 relating to local safeguarding children boards, and Amendment 100 will enable the new provisions relating to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to be sited correctly in the 2004 Act. Amendments 106 and 112 will ensure that the language in the clauses which cover the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel is consistent throughout the clauses. I beg to move.
Amendment 100 agreed.
101: Clause 11, page 10, leave out lines 25 to 27 and insert—
“(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument make arrangements for the establishment of the Panel in accordance with this section.A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, Amendments 101 and 102 are in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Hunt. The Bill establishes a national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Concerns have been raised about a potential diminution of local accountability and about the panel being rather too closely linked to the Secretary of State, which could undermine the independence of the reviews undertaken and limit the ability to suggest meaningful change at national level.
We hope that these issues can be appropriately dealt with, but in general we welcome the introduction of the panel and the Government’s decision to adopt some of the recommendations in the Wood review on local safeguarding children boards and serious case reviews. At their best, serious case reviews offer an opportunity to review current practice, alter systems that are ineffective and provide insight into some of the problems that face the wide range of professionals responsible for the safety of vulnerable children. A system that adds weight to the process and encourages the development of expertise in this area is therefore welcome.
Part of our concern with the Bill as a whole relates to the large extent to which it relies on secondary legislation. The establishment of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel does not even have that fig-leaf, because the Bill allows the Secretary of State to make any arrangements she thinks fit when establishing the panel. We believe that is not good enough. The panel will consider serious child safeguarding cases and form an important part of the landscape in the months and years ahead. It is an important part of the Bill, and therefore requires oversight. The arrangements for establishing the panel should be for affirmative regulations, offering your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider the draft regulations and express its opinion.
As for Amendment 102, the appointment of the chair of the panel will be important, particularly in the first instance. There is no reason why the Secretary of State should not have enough confidence in the person whom she decides to appoint to that position for him or her to face a pre-appointment hearing with the Education Select Committee. The committee contains considerable experience, and a public hearing will provide the wider sector the opportunity to get an understanding of the potential strengths of the Secretary of State’s candidate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has said. I totally agree with him that the proposals in the Bill are so important that they ought to be subject to the statutory instrument procedure that he defined. In particular, the chair of this safeguarding review panel should be appointed after a public hearing with the Education Select Committee has taken place. The noble Lord has our support.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which is particularly concerned that the national panel is too closely controlled by the Secretary of State. The association believes that that risks politicising the serious case review process. If reviewers are to identify the root cause of safeguarding failings, the association believes that they must be fully independent of government control to ensure that they are able to consider without undue influence whether changes are required at both the national and the local level. The association also believes that to ensure that reviews of national significance are able to pass comment on the impact of national policies without undue influence, they must be able to identify these root causes, again without undue political interference. I therefore support Amendments 101 and 102.
It is important to recognise that the Local Government Association, which wants to work with this process and take some of it forward, has these concerns. We are in this position as a result of having so little time to look at these amendments. The basic principles are probably ones with which we would all agree but there are some fundamental flaws in the way the process is being put together.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, for their amendments relating to the arrangements for the new child safeguarding practice review panel set out in Clause 11, and for the observations of the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Howarth.
Amendment 101 raises an important issue, which is that both Houses should have an opportunity to scrutinise regulations in secondary legislation where it is appropriate to do so. Noble Lords will be aware that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has issued its report on the clauses within the Bill. I hope that noble Lords can be reassured that while the DPRRC commented on other clauses, it raised no concerns about this one. The arrangements that will be made in respect of the establishment of the panel set out high-level matters that relate to the processes, arrangements and administration of the panel rather than matters of substance that the Houses would need to debate. This clause covers processes and arrangements. I will turn to the question of regulations in a later discussion on the functions of the panel. This clause provides for the making of arrangements that are necessary to enable the functioning of the panel which may include clarity around such matters as reporting and its day-to-day operation.
Amendment 102 seeks to involve the Education Select Committee in the appointment of the chair. I would expect the appointment of the chair to be subject to a full and open Cabinet Office public appointments process involving advertisements for the position, applications and formal interviewing. Panel members could also be subject to this process if that were deemed necessary. I would expect the number of panel members to be sufficient to enable the effective operation of the panel and for the chair to be able to draw on the expertise that he or she considers necessary for the right decisions to be made about individual cases. We would of course welcome any views that the Education Select Committee may have, but we do not believe that we should prescribe a pre-appointment hearing. In view of this, I hope that the noble Lord will feel sufficiently reassured to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for that response, predictable though it was. I take his point about someone who is appointed being subject to the full appointments process; that is understood. However, I feel that there is room for the affirmative resolution procedure that I mentioned earlier, but clearly that is not going to happen. I think also that it would have been appropriate to involve the Education Select Committee at least in the initial appointment of the first chair of the panel. However, no other Members of the Committee have insisted on this, so on that basis I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 101 withdrawn.
Amendment 102 not moved.
103: Clause 11, page 10, line 39, after “proceedings” insert “, including its powers to secure the submission of material subject to legal or medical privilege”
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 103 and 104. Amendment 103 seeks clarification from the Minister on the powers of the new child safeguarding practice review panel to require information in relation to its functions. In Clause 14 a,
“person or body to whom a request … is made must comply with the request”,
without, apparently, any exemption.
The report of this House’s Constitution Committee published on 13 June pointed out that:
“This is a broad obligation … and could possibly include information of an incriminatory nature”.
As far as I can see, there is no explicit exemption for material that would ordinarily be the subject of either legal or medical privilege. I can see that a broad exemption of that kind could hamstring the panel in its difficult work. and I will say a bit more about that in relation to a particular case. However, I do not think that we should wait until a case of this kind arises and then find that we are not sure what the rules really are. That is why I support the Constitution Committee’s request for greater clarification.
To illustrate my concerns, let me cite a recent case that could be said to raise this issue if the new review panel were in existence. We have already mentioned today the recent case where Mrs Justice Hogg was criticised by a case review for her decision to take Ellie Butler away from her grandparents and return her to her parents where her father beat her to death 11 months later. My understanding—the Minister may be able to correct me if I have this wrong—is that the judiciary does not consider that the judge can be required to explain her actions to a review panel. In particular, this would make it difficult to consider the system implications of whether a judge should have been able to set aside the judgment of the local authority social workers who had been protecting Ellie and appoint new private social workers to make a different assessment of the protection she required, which sadly resulted in her being returned to her parents with catastrophic results.
This is a systems issue about how the judiciary works. I can see that that could involve incriminatory evidence. Let me reassure the Minister that I am not trying to discuss this case but I am using it to indicate that there may be confusion in the wording regarding the panel’s ability to request information when people may or may not conform for reasons of incrimination. I hope that the Minister can help us with this because we need greater clarity about whether there are any exemptions to a request for information by the panel and the nature of those exemptions.
Amendment 104 is an attempt to introduce time limits into the production of review panel reports. This panel will be considering serious systems matters which are referred to it. It is important that we complete these reviews quickly so that people can learn from mistakes. We do not want very long and drawn-out reviews that hold up learning. We need some kind of time limit here. I am not particularly wedded to the six-month time limit that I put in just to probe the issue, but it would be worth the department and the Minister considering the insertion of time limits for the work of these review panels. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for Amendment 103. It raises important issues which I welcome the opportunity to address.
My Lords, I think there was some confusion over which of us was going to speak. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who gave notice of her intention to oppose the Question that Clause 11 should stand part, is not present, so with the Minister’s permission I will speak to that element in the group.
There is a fundamental concern about the proposal in Clause 11. It does not have anything to do with the establishment of a national safeguarding review panel, which is appropriate, but what it contains and the way it is defined in the Bill are of concern because apparently it will remove local responsibility and accountability for the most serious of child abuse and harm incidents. The current situation is that local safeguarding children boards follow statutory guidance for conducting a serious case review. The LSCB itself is chaired by an independent expert and includes representatives from local NHS organisations, the local authority, probation, housing, the voluntary sector and so on.
Following a serious case of harm to a child, the LSCB must notify the national panel of independent experts and Ofsted. It will then appoint one or more reviewers to lead the serious case review. The lead reviewer must be independent of the LSCB and any other organisations which are involved in the case. The LSCB should also submit the names of the reviewers to the national panel of independent experts. The key factors in the existing process are that the chair is independent and formally agreed to by a national panel of independent experts and that, crucially, representations can be made in the same geographical area by individuals who were involved with the child and the family and thus have an understanding of the local context.
None of this is to deny the positive contribution that potentially can be made by establishing a national panel to improve national learning from these serious case reviews. What is unfortunate is that local knowledge and understanding may be lost and, worse still, that a national panel would take away local responsibility from those who are charged with safeguarding children. A national hearing can seem remote. It will lose the local context and therefore the nuances of understanding in these most complex of situations. It would be most helpful if the Minister would be willing to set up a meeting for those of us who are concerned about the implications of these proposals so that we can discuss these matters. It is not because we oppose them, but because we are concerned about how they will be implemented.
I shall refer again to the review document which I think was published yesterday. Paragraph 118 on page 55 refers to Alan Wood on the role and functions of the local safeguarding children boards. He wants to set up a stronger statutory framework that will introduce greater accountability for the three key agencies involved in safeguarding children; namely local authorities, local police and the local health service. That is why I was willing to oppose the question that Clause 11 should stand part so that these issues can be explored further before we make a decision to move to a national safeguarding review panel for the most important and serious cases, thus eliminating local involvement, responsibility and accountability. I think that that is very important if we are to make progress in preventing, if possible, some of these serious incidents. But certainly we should get national learning from the local example.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, has raised some important points and the name of my noble friend Lord Hunt is also on the clause stand part debate. We do not propose to do that just now; we think the broad principles can be transferred to the debate that we shall have on Monday on the next section or group. We shall say no more at this stage.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for Amendment 103. This raises important issues, which I welcome the opportunity to discuss. My exchanges with my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, at Second Reading followed the helpful report of the Select Committee on the Constitution. This report cogently raised the question of how the panel will handle information subject to legal or medical privilege. I explained at that time that the Bill does not prevent those whom the panel asks for information asserting legal or medical privilege, where applicable. The panel would need to consider any such assertion against the need for the information. This amendment would add a specific provision for the Secretary of State to include, in her arrangements for the panel, information about the panel’s powers to secure the submission of material, subject to legal or medical privilege. I agree that it will be important for the Secretary of State to specify clearly to the panel the considerations which it should bring to bear in respect of the information which it requests. I agree that this should include specific reference not only to the question of legal and medical privilege but also to the way in which it handles this information, once requested and received. This is particularly important in respect of the information which is included in final published reports. The panel will be expected to handle all the information it receives with due care. Much of the information which it gathers will be highly sensitive, including information which is privileged in the way the noble Lord has set out.
As far as the issues arising from the very sad case of Ellie Butler are concerned, the independence of the judiciary is a constitutional matter and enforcement provisions will not apply, although there is scope to appeal judges’ decisions. I do not believe, however, that it is essential to say anything more in the Bill. It will not add anything to the powers of the panel to request this information, which are clearly set out in Clause 14. In view of this, I hope the noble Lord will feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendment.
Clause 11 requires the Secretary of State to establish a child safeguarding practice review panel and is central to this discussion. I will speak at a little length on this topic and in doing so, I hope to address some of the concerns expressed by noble Lords during the Second Reading of the Bill. The Government first announced their intention to decentralise the serious case review process in December last year. The background to the decision to seek to legislate to introduce the panel was set out in response to Alan Woods’s review of local safeguarding children boards. Alan Woods suggested that the body which supports the centralised review process should be one that is independent of government and the key agencies and operates in a transparent and objective fashion. The intention is to establish the panel as an expert committee, defined by the Cabinet Office as a committee of independent specialists who are politically and operationally independent. The panel is clearly set up to make its own decisions. We have just discussed arrangements for the appointment of panel members.
The Secretary of State will also be responsible for removing members, if satisfied they are no longer able to fulfil their duties—for example, due to ill-health, or if they are adjudged to have behaved in a way incompatible with their role. The clause also makes provision for the Secretary of State to provide whatever assistance is required to enable the panel to carry out its functions, including staff, facilities or other assistance. The Secretary of State may also pay remuneration of expenses to the chair and members of the panel. This will be commensurate with the level of time and commitment required. The clause further provides that the Secretary of State may make further arrangements to support the functioning of the panel, including, for example, the production of an annual report. This will serve to enhance the transparency of proceedings and in addition—although this is not specified in the Bill—I am able to say that the panel will be free to offer advice to the Secretary of State on such matters as it sees fit, and to make any such advice public.
The establishment of a strong, independently-operating national panel is an essential component, along with the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, in taking forward the Government’s plans to develop a better understanding of the factors which give rise to serious cases, in order to inform policy and practice nationally, and to support local agencies in improving the quality of the services that they provide to vulnerable children and families.
Moving on to Clause 12, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, raised an important issue in his Amendment 104 concerning the time it takes for national reviews into serious safeguarding cases involving children to be produced and the reports to be made public. I recognise that the amendment seeks to speed up the process by formally setting a statutory time limit in which a report must be produced, and I welcome his thoughtful comments about the need for this. Statutory guidance states that local safeguarding children boards should aim for completion of serious case reviews within six months. Currently the average time is 15 months to publication. In most cases this is far too long and recommendations made after the event tend to have little impact on practice improvement. It is important to note, however, that in some cases there might be potential prejudice to related court proceedings, so some delay may be unavoidable.
We think that six months to report would be adequate in many cases, but what is important is that the reviews are proportionate, timely and not driven by arbitrary timescales. Indeed, while some will tend to take less than six months to produce, others will necessarily take longer for reasons such as the one I have already stated. An important aspect of the panel’s work is to help to resolve long-term issues of quality, and importantly, timeliness of reviews and reports. As Clause 12 states:
“Where the Panel arrange for a case to be reviewed under their supervision,”
it will be the panel’s responsibility to ensure that the reviewer provides,
“a report on the outcome of the review”,
and makes “satisfactory progress”. The panel will be able to intervene if it believes that the reviewer is not making satisfactory progress.
The national panel should have autonomy to use its judgment about what constitutes a reasonable length of time for a review to be produced, although we intend to provide guidance that will aid it in making its decision in this regard. I have already made comments about our thoughts on the time that it is taking currently. I can assure the noble Lord that we will take particular care to reflect on the points raised in this debate. However, as I have explained, there are risks in placing a specific limitation in the Bill, and in view of that I hope that he will feel able not to press his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I certainly do not wish to pursue Amendment 104 and I am grateful for what he said about giving friendly guidance on timetables. I am still a bit puzzled about the issue of exemption from a request for information. If he is saying that there are no exceptions although there is an expectation that the panel would use its good judgment, I am reasonably comfortable with that. However, I am still fretting a little about the position of the judiciary. I understand the constitutional arguments, but there are some important issues here where, particularly in the Ellie Butler case, if it had been a social worker who had behaved like that, they would have been publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. I would welcome a meeting with the Minister and some of the lawyers about this. I understand that this is a tricky issue, but in the light of that particular case, I would like to get to the root of where the judiciary is in the review process. I do not think that we can just leave it up in the air and say that it is just a constitutional matter.
I accept that this is probably not something for the Bill, but it is worth having a discussion about it. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 103 withdrawn.
Clause 11, as amended, agreed.
Clause 12: Functions of the Panel
Amendment 104 not moved.
Committee adjourned at 7.33 pm.