HC Deb 03 April 2001 vol 366 cc172-3
28. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

If she will make a statement on the Lord Chancellor's proposals for reforming the funding of the courts' guardians ad litem. [155198]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

We plan to increase the funding for self-employed guardians' fees by 3.8 per cent. this year. We have proposed new contracts incorporating graduated fees to distribute this increased funding in a way that preserves self-employed status for those guardians who want it.

Dr. Cable

The profession of guardian is a very important one and it is crucial for some of the most vulnerable people in society—the 10,000 children who appear in court during care and adoption proceedings. Is the Minister aware that the profession is incensed at the way in which the Department's accountants, prompted by the Inland Revenue, have introduced a fixed-fee system that is completely insensitive to the necessity that guardians adapt their work to the needs of the individual case? Will she agree to retract the proposal and consult the profession, whose members have not yet been consulted? Will she introduce a more effective scheme to protect both children and members of the profession?

Jane Kennedy

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's description of the current circumstances. The new Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has offered a six-week delay to allow for further consultation. It has offered enhanced graduated fees in the most difficult cases, as well as an independent review both of the banding criteria and of the quality of service delivered to children after six and 12 months under the new system.

I do not accept that the only way, in the interests of children, to remunerate guardians is according to an hourly rate, which is the case advanced by the guardians. I do not accept either that the quality of services delivered necessarily increases with the number of hours worked. Time spent and quality delivered are not the same thing. Fair graduated fees will co-exist with quality standards. I am confident that, when they have had time to consider the proposals further, the guardians will see that they are fair.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

One hazard with what my hon. Friend has just said is that the guardians are absolutely essential, and are self-employed. They are very worried about the proposed scheme, which was supposed to have been introduced at the beginning of this month. Does my hon. Friend accept that it is essential that the Department reconsider the proposals carefully, as it would be bizarre to lose the services of a great many skilled people who are desperately needed just because of a rather absurd decision that cannot be defended by reference to any consultation?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend is mistaken. In fact, 111 of the guardians are not self-employed, but are employed directly by the panel. We inherited 57 different rates and allowances applicable to self-employed guardians, and that was one of the key problems identified by the Inland Revenue. The ways in which those rates and allowances apply in the guardian service are incompatible with self-employed tax status. The Department brought forward the proposals for a graduated fee structure to ensure the continued availability of self-employment as an employment status. It is a fair structure, and there is no diminution of the funding available for these services. I am confident that once the guardians have seen the details of the proposals they will accept what is on offer.