HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc48-62

  1. (1) In section 17 of the 1989 Act (provision of services for children in need, their families and others), in subsection (6) (services that may be provided in exercise of the functions under that section) after "include" there is inserted "providing accommodation and ".
  2. (2) In section 22 of that Act (general duty of local authority in relation to children looked after by them), in subsection (1) (looked after children include those provided with accommodation, with exceptions) before "23B" there is inserted "17".
  3. (3) In section 24A of that Act (advice and assistance for certain children and young persons aged 16 or over), in subsection (5), for "or, in exceptional circumstances, cash" there is substituted "and, in exceptional circumstances, assistance may be given—
    1. (a) by providing accommodation, if in the circumstances assistance may not be given in respect of the accommodation under section 24B, or
    2. (b) in cash.".'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Jacqui Smith

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 15—Review of cases of looked after children.

New clause 12—Advice and assistance for certain children in need'In section 24(2) of the 1989 Act, there is inserted— (f) provided with accommodation under section 17 in circumstances where he was unaccompanied by an adult.".'.

Amendment No. 132, in clause 112, page 63, line 5, at end insert— (1B) Regulations may be made by the Secretary of State requiring the local authority to arrange for the appointment of an independent advocate on receiving representations under subsection (1).'.

Amendment No. 133, in page 63, line 27, at end insert— (3C) Regulations may be made by the Secretary of State requiring the local authority to provide independent advocacy to looked after children who make a complaint under the Children Act 1989.'.

Jacqui Smith

We welcome the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) to our proceedings this afternoon—at last.

The new clauses and amendments apply to powers under the Children Act 1989. In particular, they deal with the provision of accommodation, putting care plans on a statutory basis and ensuring their review. During the Special Standing Committee, concerns were raised about a problem that had arisen as a result of a recent judgment of the Court of Appeal—A v. London borough of Lambeth. The judgment meant that local authorities no longer had the power to provide accommodation to children in need and their families under section 17 of the Act, when accommodation was not available from any other source.

I said that I would review the situation and table a suitable amendment to deal with the problem, with the ultimate aim of safeguarding vulnerable children and their families without placing unacceptable burdens on the system. Since then, there has been a further Court of Appeal judgment in the case of W v. London borough of Lambeth, which appears to overturn the earlier judgment. The original case may still go to the other place, and their Lordships might uphold the original judgment. In the light of the continuing litigation and continuing uncertainty, Government new clauses 7 and 15 seem all the more important to provide clarity and certainty about the state of the law on such issues.

Historically, section 17 of the Children Act has been considered by the Government and local authorities to empower councils with social services responsibilities to assist children in need and their families by providing them with accommodation or, more often, help with the costs of accommodation, such as payment of a rent deposit or the first month's rent, where help was not available from other sources. That was considered to be an important safety net support mechanism for particularly vulnerable groups, including those families considered to be intentionally homeless, those needing emergency accommodation or older children who, while needing accommodation, do not need the more intensive support provided by foster care or institutions.

Under the new clause, we therefore aim to clarify the position and to confirm that local authorities have the power, which was thought to exist before the Lambeth judgment, to provide accommodation under section 17 of the 1989 Act. The new clause will do so by amending section 17(6) to make it clear that local authorities can provide assistance in kind, accommodation or, in exceptional circumstances, cash. As a consequence of amending section 17, section 22 of the 1989 Act, which deals with the general duties of local authorities to look after children, also requires amendment.

Subsection (1)(b) of section 22 defines a looked-after child as one who is provided with accommodation by a local authority. Should the new clause be accepted, section 17 will contain a power specifically for the provision of accommodation. It will be used to provide accommodation for children with their families who, while needing accommodation, do not need to be taken into care. It will also be used to provide accommodation for older children when their needs assessment has shown that they need accommodation, but not to be taken into care. The new clause ensures that section 22 does not apply to children accommodated under section 17, either with their families or alone, and they will therefore not become looked-after children.

Section 24 of the 1989 Act, which addresses the after care of former looked-after children, is also amended because it mirrors the wording of section 17. The new clause makes specific reference to the provision of accommodation for that group and serves to make the local authority's powers entirely clear. The local authority will have the power to provide accommodation, although not necessarily a duty to do so. That power provides a safety net for all care leavers who have been looked after at the age of 16 or 17—both those who qualify for the support introduced by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and those who do not. Amendment No. 238, which will be debated shortly, will enable the new clause to come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. So new clause 7 enables us to remove the uncertainty caused by recent court cases and to ensure that local authorities are clear that they have the ability to provide accommodation in the cases that I have outlined.

New clause 15 makes provision in respect of care plans and the review of cases of looked-after children. Care plans are written evidence that the local authority has considered what must be done to ensure that a child's period in care properly addresses the needs of that child. After the assessment, care plans are put together and agreed with a range of agencies and services—most often education and health services—setting out how the needs of the child should be met.

Clause 113 sets out the requirement that a court may not make a care order until a care plan has been prepared by the local authority and considered by the court. We have developed that in the new clause and the amendments on care plans, which are contained in the next group of amendments, to establish a robust system that includes the process for reviewing care plans and how recourse to court may be sought if the care plan is not properly implemented. The provisions apply both to children who are subject to care orders and to those who are accommodated by the local authority. In both cases, the care plan has to be written and reviewed at appropriate intervals, and modified where necessary. We need to be sure that, once prepared, care plans are implemented so that they are worth the paper they are printed on. The mechanisms to review the care plan therefore need to be suitably robust.

Subsection (1) of new clause 15 amends section 26 of the 1989 Act. It enables the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring local authorities to keep care plans for all children under review, whether they be section 31A care plans required in court proceedings, or care plans agreed in the case of children voluntarily looked after under section 20 of the 1989 Act. In addition, the regulations will require the appointment of a person to be a reviewing officer. Subsection (2) of new clause 15 enables regulations to be made setting out who should be appointed and the way in which the person will carry out their role. We have in mind a person who has the seniority required to have sufficient status to ensure that they can effect the implementation of the care plan in the interests of the child. In our view, that person needs to have professional expertise in children's services, and to be independent of the case and its management.

Reviewing officers will be required to chair the review meetings and assure themselves of the implementation of the care plan by speaking to the child before the review takes place. The intention is to ensure that quality control is built into the system. Through their activity, reviewing officers will monitor the performance of the authority in each case. However, despite the best efforts and influencing skills of the reviewing officer, the local authority might fail to carry out key parts of the care plan in some cases. The amendment is being introduced because of concern that sometimes care plans are not implemented. We therefore need to ensure that there is a remedy when there is still a failure. Subsection (2)(c) of new clause 15 will enable the reviewing officer to refer a case to CAFCASS when the situation demands it. It allows the Lord Chancellor to make regulations to extend the functions of CAFCASS officers in respect of family proceedings.

5.15 pm

When a child has no family or carer to act on their behalf, or is unable to challenge the local authority's handling of the care plan, CAFCASS will be able to take proceedings on behalf of the child. CAFCASS will be able to use existing remedies under the Children Act—for example, it can apply for the discharge of the care order or for contact between the child and another person. Under the Human Rights Act 1998, it can seek to injunct the local authotity from taking a particular step—for example, removing the child from an established placement. It can also seek a declaration that the local authority's plans are contrary to the child's human rights, which would require those plans to be rethought.

The amendments respond effectively to the issues raised in the case known as Re S & Re W, on which judgment was recently given in the House of Lords. The judgment identified that, currently, a young child in respect of whom a care plan has been made, but with no parent or guardian to act for them, has no effective means of bringing before the court any breach of their convention rights as a result of a local authority's inaction in implementing the care plan. By putting care plans on a statutory footing, establishing a review process that allows for that to happen and providing for the reviewing officer to refer cases to CAFCASS, we are ensuring that this gap in the law is properly filled and that children's needs will be met as effectively as possible through the systems provided under the Children Act.

Sandra Gidley

First, I welcome the increased protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. Frequently, there is a gap in provision when someone hits that age, and it is unclear where that provision will come from. I welcome the extension to other areas. I have a small number of questions, however, about the group of amendments in relation to care plans.

I welcome the Minister's statement. She said that the Government needed to be sure that the care plans were worth the paper on which they were printed. She will recall that, on the first day on Report, we examined the issue of whether the funding would be available. I am still slightly concerned about whether a lack of funding would be accepted as a good enough reason for not fulfilling the care plan. Will the Minister confirm whether any provision in the Bill would, in effect, prevent a local authority or an education authority from cutting a care plan according to the cloth? Will that role be fulfilled by CAFCASS? Does it have the powers to say, "This must be done. Therefore, it must be funded"? How will that work out in practice?

Mr. Dawson

We have been agreeing like billy-oh already this afternoon, so let us try to make further progress with regard to new clause 12 and amendments Nos. 132 and 133.

I tabled new clause 12 a while ago in response to huge concerns expressed to the all-party group on children and young people in care about possible loopholes in the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. A great deal of concern has been expressed about young people who in other circumstances might be accommodated or looked after by local authorities. Instead of being taken into the care system, with all the implications that that has for the services provided under the 2000 Act, children of up to 21 or even 24 are denied that opportunity. Only their most basic needs for accommodation and food are met under section 17 of the 1989 Act, but they are not looked after by the local authority. They are encouraged to go into bedand-breakfast accommodation rather than into foster or residential care. Essentially, they are offered a low-quality, low-cost half solution to their tremendous needs. Concern has been expressed that the Government's good intentions for younrpeople in care or leaving care, as expressed in the 2000 Act, which amends the fundamentally important 1989 Act, could be thwarted by the action of adults using—and, frankly, abusing—section 17 for people for whom it should not be used. That would deny such people their rights.

Much concern has been expressed about people in that position, but particular reference has been made to unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people being placed in such circumstances.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I think I heard the hon. Gentleman say that keeping a child in care was a low-cost scenario.

Mr. Dawson

indicated dissent.

Mr. Djanogly

That might not be the case, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that compared with the alternatives such as adoption, which has an immediate cost, the long-term costs of keeping a child in care are dramatically higher.

Mr. Dawson

I may not have expressed myself very well, but the hon. Gentleman has entirely missed my point. I was talking not about adoption but about the needs of teenagers. For example, because of circumstances such as family breakdown, one could argue that some 15 and 16-year-olds should be looked after by the care system. Instead, they run the risk of being fobbed off with a low-cost, poor-quality alternative. I was not talking about adoption for those young people.

As I said, reference has been made, in particular, to the young people who come to these shores as unaccompanied asylum seekers. The children who arrive in this country without adult support and in distressing circumstances often do not have the basic requisites of life. A few months ago, I met a couple of young people who arrived in this country without shoes; such young people require the most thorough assessment of their needs so that their best interests can be promoted.

Children are children are children wherever they come from. It is highly inappropriate that section 17 should be used to place young people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or poor-quality accommodation without their receiving the thorough assessment and support that they need in circumstances that many adults—let alone young people—would find difficult to face. I support the Government's proposal significantly to strengthen section 17, and I hope that we can move on and ensure that young people on their own who are offered accommodation under that section can have access to the excellent support that the Government introduced in the Children (Leaving Care) Act.

Similarly, I support the Government's proposal to place care plans on a statutory footing and the measures concerning the intervention of an independent person in the review process. That is the most important juncture at which one can intervene in the care system to affect the lives of children and young people, all of whom are entitled to a statutory review of their circumstances on at least a six-monthly basis.

Tremendous work has been done by advocacy organisations such as Voice for the Child in Care and the National Youth Advocacy Service, and by children's rights officers and their association. They have been able to deal with the circumstances of many children and young people in care. Organisations such as National Voice and the Care Leavers Association have been able to respond to children and young people who contact them, but if there can be statutory intervention with an independent element when care plans are being made or reviewed, which is a crucial point in the process, that will be of fundamental importance.

Amendments Nos. 132 and 133 refer to the need to provide independent advocacy to support children in making representations and complaints, which is another important juncture at which young people should be supported by independent organisations. The 1989 Act contains a provision for independent visitors. That is another example of how excellent intentions have not, with one or two exceptions, been fulfilled. It is tremendously important that young people in care have access to independent support.

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important point. Will he clarify whether he is suggesting that independent visitors could provide the independent advocacy proposed in the new clause? Many Conservative Members would welcome that.

Mr. Dawson

Yes, indeed. We need to build on the Children Act to ensure that children have more access to independent visitors. It is not enough to say that we will try to ensure such access. Independent visitors often need the backing of advocacy organisations, good examples of which I have mentioned, and we need to strengthen the access of children and young people in care to independent advocacy, particularly when complaints and representations are made. I do not want to digress too much, but I point out that the Select Committee on Home Affairs is currently investigating the alleged mistreatment of people who have worked in the residential care system in years past and been subject to allegations. One of the main concerns relates to adults who make complaints many years on about their treatment in care.

If we are to ensure that young people's complaints and concerns about their treatment in care are represented properly and in a timely fashion, we should ensure that they have good access to independent advocacy and support in making representations and complaints.

5.30 pm
Mr. Bellingham

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made a thoughtful and constructive contribution. I agree with the Minister that the Government should take note of the so-called Lambeth judgment. The need for clarity and certainty was obvious.

I seek further clarification on one or two issues. The Minister spoke about the provision that would be made in relation to section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which deals with accommodation. Presumably, such provision would not relate to local authority homes, but would deal with help for children in private accommodation, whether in bed-and-breakfast establishments, with foster parents or elsewhere.

I take on board the Minister's point about assistance in kind or cash. In what circumstances would that additional assistance be made available? I would have thought it was important for direct help to be available as a matter of course and that it should not be difficult to apply for. The Minister also mentioned rent and expenses. Will she further clarify that point? Furthermore, the provision deals with a power for local authorities, but should not it introduce a duty? The new clauses give extra power and commitment to CAFCASS, but will it receive any extra funding? In the light of the Government new clauses and our short debate on the previous group of amendments, there appears to be a need to ensure that CAFCASS has some additional funding to enable it to take care of those additional matters.

On new clause 15 and care orders, I should like clarification on one specific point. Clause 113(2)(5), which refers to section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989, deals with interim care orders. Do care plans always arise from care orders? I am not clear about that; will the Minister give a few more details? Otherwise, I support the Minister. She is right to introduce the new clauses, which are a very constructive response to the House of Lords judgment.

Mr. Llwyd

I, too, support the amendments, bearing in mind the decisions in A v. London borough of Lambeth and W v. London borough of Lambeth, which were different. There was a clear need to plug the gap and I am pleased that the Government have moved quickly to do so.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) tabled new clause 12, to which I was pleased to sign up. The proposal appears to be yet another triumph for him, as the purport of Government new clause 7 is the same as that of his new clause, although it is extended and more broadly drafted. I congratulate him once more on the assiduity with which he has pursued the Bill and the interests that underlie it.

I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who mentioned the issue of obligations as opposed to powers, that the Minister was careful to say that the new clause was intended to re-empower local government. She used the word "empower" several times. I would have preferred the word "obliged", but we will not go into the semantics now. In fact, this is about more than semantics. We had lengthy discussions about this in Committee, but there is no time to do the same today. I was mindful of the fact that the Minister was careful to use the word "empower" each time.

On amendments Nos. 132 and 133, I fully support what has been said by the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for North-West Norfolk about the need for independent advocacy. These are very helpful amendments, and I hope that, even if they are not accepted, the spirit of them will be, and that we shall see greater recognition of the importance of arm's-length, independent advocacy for youngsters in need. With those few words, I am pleased to support new clause 7.

Tim Loughton

I shall make just a few comments on the new clauses tabled by the Government, but first, I want to refer to the well-considered, well-put comments from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). He certainly need not cover his modesty, as the Minister exhorted earlier. The principles behind what he is saying are absolutely right, and his amendments would make useful, practical additions to the process. The suggestion of independent visitors—particularly unpaid outsiders—providing an advocacy service has some interesting merits, and the Minister could consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestions in more detail. I would certainly like to speak to the noble Lords in the upper House when the Bill moves on for their scrutiny, to see whether they might be able to fashion these principles into amendments to improve the Bill, if the Minister is not minded to accept them. We do not know whether that is the case; she may well allow the hon. Gentleman to make another hit for which he could claim responsibility. He has certainly raised some interesting points.

We welcome much of what the Minister has outlined regarding new clauses 7 and 15. She has responded to some of the fruitful debates that we had in Committee by putting the care plans into a statutory process and making sure that that process is constantly reviewed. Obviously, there is uncertainty at the moment following the case of W v. London borough of Lambeth, and the Minister has had to be mindful of that. It is good that care plans should be given a statutory basis, providing written evidence that a local authority has considered the needs of the children involved, and that they should be reviewed.

Care plans are organic things. A local authority cannot simply draw up a care plan for a child at a particular time, lock it in a drawer and forget about it. Children going through the adoption process, including damaged children with special educational needs, behavioural difficulties and all sorts of other things that particularly affect adopted children, will react differently to new scenarios. What may be appropriate at the time of the adoption may turn out not to be appropriate some months or years later. It is not good enough for a local authority to say, "We drew up a care plan." It must be able to say that it has drawn up a care plan and made sure that it continued to be the appropriate care plan, with the appropriate mix of care and support services that the child needed after all the legal adoption processes have been completed. This is an organic process.

We also welcome the appointment of the new reviewing officers, and I look forward to seeing exactly how they will carry out their role. My understanding is that although they will be independent of the child's case and its management, they will not be independent of the local authority. Indeed, they will be appointed by it. I would like the Minister to tell us how they will maintain their independence, and to assure us that there will be no problem over vested interests from the authority that has appointed them.

I think that I read in the Minister's explanation in an earlier note that certain local authorities already operate the independent reviewing officer system. Although it has no basis in this legislation, it might be interesting to know where it operates and with what success. The principle certainly seems right, so if it has worked it would be appropriate to take a more uniform approach across local authorities which are obviously dealing with the same problem.

The Minister also said that the reviewing officer would have the power to refer a case to CAFCASS if that were merited. The point was raised in Committee, particularly by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Liwyd), that CAFCASS has had problems and that there has been a haemorrhaging of its officers. One would need to be reassured again that, if a case is serious enough to merit referral to CAFCASS, the service will be in a position properly to deal with it, and that there will be sufficient officer-resource time to ensure that a suitable response is made and that suitable remedies are found.

In explanations that the Minister has given in correspondence on care plans, she has talked in terms of the need to protect children's human rights, which will be also a function of the reviewing officer. Of course that must be right, but such terms are very broad. One presumes that she is referring to something like article 8 of the convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, which states:

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. Those are fine but lofty ideals, and one would hope that legislation is predicated rather closer to home on more basic deficiencies in the care plan, such as the fact that it is not very good, has not been reviewed regularly and is clearly inappropriate. We need more domestic and earthy definitions instead of relying on a vaguer definition concerning breaches of the child's human rights, which are always difficult to pin down and become a case for the lawyers.

I do not want to be churlish; the new clauses reflect the Minister's work in response to concerns raised in Committee. Some serious, practical and new mechanisms are to be implemented. Subject to the relatively minor concerns that I have raised, we welcome the changes. At the same time, we ask the Minister to look charitably on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre on the advocacy service.

Jacqui Smith

New clause 12, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) suggested, would have the effect of introducing an entitlement to after-care for a young person who is provided with accommodation under section 7 of the Children Act 1989, where that young person is not accompanied by an adult. My hon. Friend's speech rightly emphasised the importance of assessments for young people aged 16 and 17. I agree that proper assessment of young people is key.

5.45 pm

All children in need who present to local authorities should receive a proper needs assessment along the lines set out in "The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families". That guidance, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, was jointly issued to local authorities in March 2000 by the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. It is therefore statutory guidance, and local authorities must follow it unless there are exceptional circumstances that justify a variation.

The guidance specifically mentions the special needs that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children may have and which the framework is structured to address. Local authorities have been reminded from time to time that the framework applies to those children as to all others, most recently in the practice guidance produced by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering in consultation with the Department of Health and published last November as "Food, Shelter and Half a Chance", to which I contributed the foreword. That assessment, in the context of the Children Act 1989 itself, determines whether a young person needs the full range of support provided in the looked-after system or whether they need the less intensive help offered under section 17.

The guidance emphasises the importance of taking a child-centred approach throughout the process. Section 20(6) of the Children Act also obliges the local authority first to ascertain the child's wishes regarding the provision of accommodation and then to give due consideration to those wishes. It is not helpful to blur the line between the two forms of help available through the looked-after system and section 17, which is what the amendment would do.

However, I am as concerned as my hon. Friend that children seeking help without the support of an adult carer should receive first a proper needs assessment and then appropriate assistance from local authorities. I know that he and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), have taken a close interest in the welfare of unaccompanied asylum seekers in particular. I welcomed the opportunity to meet my hon. Friends the other day to discuss that issue. As I said then, I shall continue to remind local authorities about their obligations to those young people under the Children Act.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre has read, if not contributed to, the recent Save the Children report, "Cold Comfort—Young Separated Refugees in England", which, among other things, highlights the fact that practice varies from authority to authority. The report found good practice as well as less good, which is why the Department of Health and the Home Office are jointly sponsoring a project on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That will give us much better information on current practice that we shall use to help to improve and standardise the care offered to the young people in the cases that he outlined.

I am not unsympathetic to the call to achieve the standard of care necessary to ensure that young people in those circumstances receive the proper assessment and the care that is necessary, but I disagree with my hon. Friend on whether conflating the needs dealt with by sections 17 and 20 is a satisfactory way to proceed. On the basis of those points, I hope that he feels able to withdraw his amendment.

My hon. Friend raised issues relating to amendments Nos. 132 and 133 and the use of independent advocacy in social services complaints procedures. Clause 112, which the amendments relate to, already amends sections 24 and 26 of the Children Act, which makes provision in respect of the Act's complaints procedure to respond to views expressed through the "Listening to People" consultation exercise.

On several occasions in Committee, we went through the improvements that that clause will make to the Children Act in correcting the anomaly in the complaints procedures for grievances involving children and ensuring that complaints about the discharge of local authority functions, including care supervision and child protection, are dealt with under the child-focused Children Act complaints procedure rather than the adult complaints procedure established under the 1970 Act. Clause 112 will enable regulations to be made to impose time limits and to introduce an informal resolution stage. All those provisions offer the potential to improve the complaints procedure in relation to children and young people.

Amendments Nos. 132 and 133 would make specific provision in respect of independent advocacy. As I said in Committee, the Government are very sympathetic to the issues that they raise. That is why we are engaging in consultation with providers, commissioners and users of advocacy services about the matters that we will need to deal with to make the provision of independent advocacy far more widely available—for example, funding, standards and training. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that children and young people can be especially vulnerable when they want to raise problems or concerns and that they need support at such times. However, it is important to introduce the changes when we have done the work that is necessary to be sure about what we mean by independent advocacy services and about how best to provide them.

Mr. Dawson

My hon. Friend has drawn a clear distinction between sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989 and has acknowledged that practice differs around the country. Is not the point at which young people refer themselves to a local authority, which then decides what sort of service to offer them, the crucial point at which they need some independent advocacy?

Jacqui Smith

Given what I said about being sympathetic to the principle of independent advocacy, I agree with my hon. Friend that that may well be the time at which someone would need support and advocacy. My argument concerns whether my hon. Friend's amendments—at this time, in relation to this Bill, and in this precise form—are premature and insufficiently flexible to deliver what we need to deliver throughout the whole system. I do not wish to be overly critical of the amendments, but during the debate interesting points were raised about what is actually meant by independent advocacy and about the range of people who can provide that service. For example, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) wondered whether independent visitors would be included.

Using the term "independent advocacy" in primary legislation might be too restrictive, given that we have not yet determined precisely what it means or the range of people who might be involved in it. For example, we would not necessarily want to limit advocacy to a legally or professionally qualified person. Officials in the Department have carried out extensive consultation, including, importantly, with young people's organisations, and feedback from those groups has told us repeatedly that flexibility is important and that young people want the choice of who provides advocacy. It could be a relative or a friend from the local community. Peer advocacy and mentoring is popular among many young people. More work is needed to define what sort of service would best meet young people's needs and to clarify the roles of the different professionals involved in complaints procedures. At the moment, a range of people can be involved, including independent persons, complaints officers, independent reviewing officers, independent visitors and "listening to children" officers. We must be careful that those roles are not confused, especially during the early stage of the procedure when we want complaints or concerns to be resolved informally, because confusion is all too prevalent for many young people.

The Government's determination to get all these issues right is shown by the work that has already started to consult advocacy providers, commissioners of services, and children and young people's organisations. A consultation is under way to consider the funding of advocacy services, definitions of the different professionals who provide advocacy and the introduction of national standards and training for advocates. Those are all key issues. Until that consultation is completed, we will not be in a position to define what we want local authorities to deliver and how we want them to deliver it. Before that is done, we will not be sure that the amendments would provide what is needed.

We need to promote the use of national advocacy standards. We are consulting on the standards that have been developed by the Department, the National Youth Advocacy Service and the advocacy consortium. That will help councils and children's organisations to arrive at a definition of independent advocacy and to set clear models of practice.

Mr. Bellingham

Has the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), liaised with the Law Society, which could certainly help in laying down guidelines or even in providing training and assistance?

Jacqui Smith

I do not close my doors to anybody who might be able to help us to develop our work on advocacy. Lawyers may often have an important role to play in the system of advocacy for young people, but perhaps not always as advocates. That is why we need to listen to what young people say is most effective for them. We have carried out several regional roadshows, which we are using to consult with advocacy organisations, young people's organisations and councils about how best further to strengthen advocacy for looked-after children. The consultation closes in July and we intend to publish the standards over the summer. Our work on advocacy services also links into the quality protects programme, through which we have made considerable progress in involving children in decision making. However, the provision and quality of advocacy services is still inconsistent, and that remains a development area for many councils.

Although we recognise the importance of the issues raised by the amendments, they are not necessarily the right way forward, especially in terms of timing. Work is already under way, but there is still more to be done before we can consider making the provision of independent advocacy services a statutory requirement. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

I want to deal with a few points that hon. Members made about the new clauses. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) asked about the nature of care plans and whether they always related to court orders. I can tell him that the provisions on care plans come from section 31 of the Children Act 1989 where they relate to court orders and from section 20 of the Act where children are voluntarily accommodated. The new clause ensures that the Bill and reviews of care plans cover both those forms of care plan.

Hon. Members asked for more guidance about how the system will work in practice. Production of a care plan would be necessary in respect of a care order before the court considered what order, if any, to make. The court would consider the care plan and would be under a duty to do so before making that decision. Subsequently, the role of the reviewing officer would be to review the extent to which the care plan was being implemented. We believe that strengthening the independent reviewing function is important to ensure accountability and the achievement of the important milestones in the care plan.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) asked about the position on independent reviewing officers. In guidance, we shall make it clear that the local authority can employ reviewing officers, or that other organisations with expertise or other local authorities can provide them. That will enable local authorities that have invested time and training in staff and already have independent reviewing structures up and running to maintain their arrangements. However, that does not prevent other organisations from offering their expertise when appropriate. I envisage several organisations offering such expertise. I am keen to avoid over-prescription, which will dislocate good practice and mean a move backwards.

When a local authority builds on existing arrangements, the guidance will clearly set out that the reviewing officers' independence must be established. They must be independent of the child's case, but not necessarily of the local authority.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

In the light of the serious historic overspending of so many social services departments in local authorities, is the Minister confident that they can implement the care plans?

Jacqui Smith

I was about to deal with that point. First, let me finish the points on the guidance. The independent reviewing officer must be independent of the case management, the line management of the social workers who are conducting the assessment and perhaps social services departments. We have a precedent in the registration and inspection units being accountable to the chief executive. Under the new arrangements, that could be a part of the council's scrutiny function.

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Tim Loughton

In the letter that the Minister sent us on 10 May, she said that the reviewing officer would be appointed by the local authority either from its staff or under an arrangement with another local authority or body. She also said that some local authorities already do that. I asked for some examples of the way in which that works, especially with regard to independence. Although the independent reviewing officers have to be independent of the case, they may work for the same local authority and he shy of criticising their employers' care plans.

Jacqui Smith

I am sorry that I have not been able to provide specific examples of the way in which the arrangements are working. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman. I was outlining the nature of the regulations and guidance if the new clause is accepted. He makes a fair point when he says that we must ensure the independence of the reviewing officer. It is not impossible to set up a structure in a local authority whereby employees can maintain their independence. It is vital that reviewing officers are independent of the case management and perhaps the social services department in the authority. We will make that clear in the regulations.

The hon. Members for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) asked about resources. Dare I say it, the Government have recognised the historic—pre-1997—underfunding of social services departments through considerable real-terms increases. Future increases may be even larger; they may reach 6 per cent. in real terms in the next three years. I am confident that although we need to do more to ensure that the money is spent as wisely as possible, the Government are ensuring the necessary resources to safeguard children through the care plans and procedures that the Bill establishes.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked specific questions about the use of section 17 of the 1989 Act. To be honest, it depends on the circumstances of the case. It may be used to obtain accommodation from private sources or registered social landlords. It could take any relevant form that would help children to be brought up in their own families and avoid the need to come into care. As I suggested earlier, its use will differ.

Some hon. Members have suggested that we should place a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation. Although I am pleased that the new clause makes it clear that local authorities have the power to provide accommodation, I do not believe that it is appropriate to impose a duty on them. We do not intend to supersede the responsibilities of housing departments, provide a method of jumping housing queues or place the provision of accommodation above all the other services that may be provided for children in need and their families.

I believe that we have struck the right balance in ensuring that local authorities are clear about their powers under section 17. I hope that we have reassured local authorities and, more important, ensured that vulnerable families have access to the safety net provision of section 17. That and our changes to the provisions on care planning mean that we shall ensure better planning for our children, better independent review processes and more opportunity for considering the rare cases when care plans are not implemented in the way that we all support. I hope that hon. Members will support the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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